September 19, 2014 by

Four Ways to Foster Independent Readers and Writers

Literacy in education

By Nicole Zuerblis

As an elementary reading specialist, my passion and my goal is always to give students the confidence to see themselves as readers and writers. It seems to be a universal goal that teachers want students to become more independent. But how do we help them get there? independent readers and writers

1. Be explicit. It’s hard to be explicit when we can’t “un-know” something. I try to see things through the eyes of my students as much as possible, and I often need to remind myself of their point of view. Reading is more difficult than other more concrete concepts because readers have to demonstrate a grasp of several components at once. What so many students do implicitly when reading strategically, many others do not. We need to more explicitly explain the reading process and use prompts that encourage students to self-monitor, reflect, and make decisions:

  • “Does part of that word look like another word that you know?”
  • “That word makes sense, but does it look right?”
  • “What can you try to figure this out?”

2. Promote learning transfer. Use language that shows that transfer is the ultimate goal. Show students that the same strategies may be used in many contexts:

  • “How is this similar to what we’ve solved before? Let’s try a strategy that could work.”
  • “Why did this strategy work?
  • “What did you learn that you could use again?”

3. Use empowering language. In a writing workshop, our typical talk may be to say, “Your job is to work on . . .” But, by changing what we say, students are in charge of their own learning. Try asking a question like this instead: “Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?”

Which comments that we make as teachers would encourage students to reflect and empower them to set their own goals?

  • “Nice voice. Great details.”                vs.        “I’m thinking…, I’m noticing…”
  • “That was a great share today.”        vs.         “If this strategy works for you, make a plan so that you know how                                                                               you’ll start tomorrow.”

4. Help students connect. Strategic thinkers use what they learn as resources in their independent reading and writing. In the book Choice Words, Peter Johnston talks about a sense of agency: “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.”

Do you have a classroom word wall? Do you have strategies posted throughout your classroom? We should not only show students how to use these resources, but how to decide when to use them. Teach students to say things like this to themselves:

  • “That didn’t make sense. I’m going to go back and reread it.”
  • “I think that word is on the word wall. Let me check.”
  • “I don’t know that word. Let me break it into parts.”

To be independent, strategic readers and writers, students need to reflect:

  • “How did this strategy work for me?”
  • “How did I decide where to try this strategy?”
  • “When would I try this strategy again?”

These are the questions we want students to ask themselves in the classroom, at home, and when they’re reading and writing on their own.


Nicole Zuerblis is a National Board–certified teacher in Literacy: Reading–Language Arts and a fellow for the National Writing Project. She is a member of ASCD’s 2011 Emerging Leaders class and is currently a K–6 reading specialist in the Central Bucks School District in Doylestown, PA.