Silent Reading vs. Independent Reading: What’s the Difference? (plus digital tools to assess IR)

During a past professional development workshop, the consultant informed us at one point to end independent reading in our classrooms. “It doesn’t work.” (discrete sideway glances at each other) “Really. Have students read with a partner or facilitate choral reading. Students reading by themselves does not increase reading achievement.”

I think I know what the consultant was trying to convey: having students select books and then read silently without any guidance from the teacher is not an effective practice. Some students will utilize this time effectively, but in my experience as a classroom teacher and principal, it is the students that need our guidance the least that do well with silent reading. For students who have not developed a reading habit, or lack the skills to effectively engage in reading independently for an extended period of time, this may be a waste of time.

The problem with stating that students should not be reading independently in school is people confuse silent reading with independent reading (IR). I could see some principals globbing onto this misconception as fodder for restricting teachers from using IR and keep them following the canned program religiously. The fact is, these two practices are very different. In their excellent resource No More Independent Reading Without Support (Heinemann, 2013), Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss provide a helpful comparison:

Silent Reading

  • Lack of a clear focus – kids grab a book and read (pg. 2)
  • Teachers read silently along with the students (pg. 3)
  • No accountability regarding what students read (pg. 8)

Independent Reading (pg. 16)

  • Classroom time to read
  • Students choose what to read
  • Explicit instruction about what, why, and how readers read
  • Reading a large number of books and variety of texts through the year
  • Access to texts
  • Teacher monitoring, assessing, and support during IR
  • Students talk about what they read

You could really make the case that independent reading is not independent at all: it is silent reading with scaffolds, and independence is the goal. The rest of the book goes into all of the research that supports independent reading, along with ideas and examples for implementing it in classrooms. The authors also cite the Common Core Anchor Standard that addresses independent reading:

Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
Maybe this information will be helpful, in case you ever have a principal or consultant question your practice. 🙂

Assessing Independent Reading

The challenge then is: how do I assess independent reading? Many teachers use a paper-based conferring notebook. If that works for them, that’s great. My opinion is, this is an opportunity to leverage technology to effectively identify trends and patterns in students’ independent reading habits and skills, which can inform future instruction. Next is a list of tools that I have observed teachers using for assessing independent reading.

This is an iPad application that allows the user to draw, type, and add images to a single document. The teacher can use a stylus (I recommend the Apple Pencil) to handwrite their notes. Each student can be assigned their own folder within Notability. In addition, a teacher can record audio and add it to a note, such as a student reading aloud a page from their book. This information can be backed up to Google Drive, Evernote, and other cloud storage options.

In my last school, one of the teachers swore by this tool. “If you don’t pay for it,” she stated one day, “I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket.” Enough said! Teachers who use the Daily 5 workshop approach would find CC Pensieve familiar. It uses the same tenets of reading and writing to document student conferences and set literacy goals. Students can also be grouped in the software based on specific strategies and needs.

Teachers can set up a digital form to capture any type of information. The information goes to a spreadsheet. This allows the teacher to sort columns in order to drive instruction regarding students’ reading habits and skills. Also, the quantitative results are automatically graphed to look for classroom trends and patterns. We set up a Google Form in one grade level in our school:

I’ve written a lot about using Evernote as a teaching tool in the past. It is probably the tool I would use to document classroom formative assessment. Each note can house images, text, audio, and links, similar to Notability. These notes can be shared out as a URL with parents via email so they can see how their child is progressing as a reader. Check out this article I wrote for Middleweb on how a speech teacher used Evernote.

The previous digital tools for assessing independent reading are largely teacher-directed. The next three are more student-led. One of my favorite educational technologies is Kidblog. Classrooms can connect with other classrooms to comment on each other’s posts. Teachers can have students post book reviews, book trailers, and creative multimedia projects from other applications.

Whereas Kidblog is pretty wide open in how it can be used, Biblionasium is a more focused tool. It can serve as an online book club for students. Students can make to-read lists, write reviews and rate books, and recommend titles to friends. Like Kidblog, Biblionaisum is a smart way to connect reading with writing in an authentic way.

This social media site is for book lovers. Although 13 is the minimum age to join, parents need to provide consent if a child is under 18. Besides rating and reviewing books, Goodreads allows readers to create book groups with discussion boards around specific topics – an option for teachers to promote discussion and digital citizenship. Students can also post their original creative writing on Goodreads by genre. Check out this post I wrote about how to get students started.

What is your current understanding of independent reading? What tools do you find effective in assessing students during this time? Please share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

6 thoughts on “Silent Reading vs. Independent Reading: What’s the Difference? (plus digital tools to assess IR)”

  1. My colleague and I experimented with a method to help scaffold his students’ ability to sustain attention for independent silent reading by building PowerPoints that helped guide them through the texts. After our research found significant gains for the readers in a rigorous study, we realized the method was useless because teachers don’t have time to create these .ppts like we were doing. I couldn’t let it go because we had helped improve reading comprehension and motivation for students. So over time we developed a tool to make the process automatic for teachers. All of this to say, the additional benefit of the tool is that it creates s form of assessment that students can engage in while reading. This tool is free, a labor of literacy love, and I would love to see what you think of it. Please check it out:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate the distinction of silent reading and independent reading. It’s important to show how independent reading is a very supported, active component of workshop teaching. It can be really enlightening and exciting to see how much instruction can happen in that independent reading time.

    I find conferring and small group work the most interesting part of my day… working closely with students in the moments that they work through the “….messy, tentative act of drafting meaning.” (Atwell)

    For me, that notebook of conferring notes is not just a way to assess, but often contains decisions I am making on what to teach. While I’ve found some tech tools helpful, and they help kids share their thinking in new ways, I found that sometimes certain assessment or response activities became a priority with little return. And that cut into actual reading time. Or time that I could be having conversations about reading with students.

    I found notecards to be effective for my organization style. And I think that taking notes as I work with readers or writers allows me to show students that I’m interested in what they are doing, ready to follow them along each time we meet. I think that sends a stronger message than we realize.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Matt,
    Like you, I distinguish silent reading and independent reading. I find the biggest difference is purpose. When students are reading during our workshops they have a purpose in their work. They might be practicing a new strategy, digging deeper into a concept, or connecting their reading to the larger community conversation. There is intentional decision making in this time that the reader understands is pushing them forward. The texts they are reading support this learning.

    The role of the teacher is different in independent reading as well. It seems silent reading is often about compliance. Teachers spend time making sure everyone is reading, but in independent reading the teachers is helping students to dig deeper. The teacher will often be found beside individuals conferring or with a small group helping students to use their reading to take on next steps. The teacher sets up the work the community will be doing at the beginning of a workshop, and weaves conversations across the workshop.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s