10 Tips for Starting Independent Reading Strong

So you’ve decided to implement independent reading this year…or revitalize it after lackluster or failed attempts. You’re prepared to give your students time to read in class, your classroom library is stocked with good books, and you can’t wait to see which titles your readers fall in love with. But now what?! How do you start the year? What does it take to make the magic happen?

You probably know by now that successfully launching independent reading requires a lot of commitment, time, and patience. Maybe that’s why your past attempts have floundered or why you’re here preparing to launch a reading program for the first time. If so, you’re in the right place, because I’m here to tell you that starting independent reading strong also requires a STRATEGY. The more prepared you are and the more clear your game plan is, the more success you will see – and the quicker you’ll see it. If you are ready to help your readers settle down with a good book in record time, here are my top 10 tips.


Think of this as your blueprint for starting the year strong. Grab a notebook and a cup of coffee and get ready to plan out your first few days of independent reading!

Make sure your classroom library is accessible, organized, and appealing so students have “fingertip access” to books.

Studies have shown that proximity to books is key and classroom libraries make a difference in how much students read and grow. Before you launch independent reading, take some time to “optimize” your classroom library for the readers it will serve. Consider organizing your classroom library by genre and adding topic- and format-based bins/sections. Make sure you have some books front-facing so curious readers can see the covers. Try putting some tried-and-true titles on prominent display. Make it easy for readers to pick up books they love. 

There’s a lot more you can do to make your classroom library an inviting, healthy, and lively place, so if you’re hungry for tips, head to this blog series: Creating a Strong Classroom Library. For now, just focus on making small tweaks to your space so that it is as accessible and attractive as possible for your new group of readers. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just try to structure it with students in mind. You can also change this up in response to their needs as the year goes on.

Get to know your students by giving them a reading inventory.

As soon as you can, give your students a digital or print reading inventory. This is a specific type of survey designed to gather information on students’ reading habits, attitudes, identities, preferences, and interests. When designed right, a reading inventory will help you understand your readers and adjust your instruction/independent reading program to respond to their needs. It will give you the information you need to start building relationships and recommend books your students will love. 

If you give your students a reading inventory, I highly recommend carving out time for them to talk about their responses and their feelings/experiences surrounding reading in general. Take the time to listen to your students and validate their feelings. Remember, if they “hate” reading, there’s a reason. With a reading inventory and an honest conversation, you can usually start to figure out why.

I prefer giving a reading inventory via Google forms so I have a digital record of everything (and so I can copy/paste any pertinent info over to my independent reading master spreadsheet). You can check out my print and digital reading inventory for middle and high school HERE.

Host a book tasting during the first few days of school.

To start independent reading strong, students need books in their hands ASAP! They need the time and space to explore different high-interest books and a book tasting is the perfect way to do just that. If you’ve never heard of a book tasting, it’s a fun name for a simple concept: You round up great books and give students a chance to “taste,” or sample, different ones. You can go all out with the “tasting” metaphor, keep it simple, add in more structure, do it digitally, call it book “speed dating”…the possibilities are endless. For ideas, check out this blog post about hosting book speed dating, which is essentially a book tasting with a twist. For student-ready print/digital book tastings, check out my collection for middle and high school readers HERE).

For your first book tasting of the year, I recommend gathering all of your tried-and-true student favs, books you KNOW kids will love, no matter what. Graphic novels, novels in verse, and other all-time favorites. This is not the time to “experiment” with book recommendations…you can do that later in the year.

If this is your first year and you have no idea what kids like, let me help you! Here are a few starting points:

  • Join our Facebook group for book recs. We recently finished up a “Favorites of the Year” series where teachers shared the books their students loved last year, genre by genre. It’s a gold mine of great book recs.
  • Check out my book rec posters and book rec brochures. These best-selling resources feature the “best of the best” books, so they do the hard work for you. 🙂 They’re also a great way for you to familiarize yourself with relevant titles and learn what to recommend to readers. Check out the middle school brochures HERE and the high school collection HERE. Click HERE to see the middle school posters and HERE to find the high school version.
  • Ask your school and/or local librarian for book recommendations. They have access to circulation data and can probably pull a list of most checked-out titles.

Start conferring with your readers the second you have the time.

Once you give students a reading inventory and get some books in their hands, I highly recommend starting “reading conferences.” Just like any other conference, this is a one-on-one discussion with a student where you can get to know them as a reader, help them grow, and track their progress. At the beginning of the year, and for the first conference especially, focus your attention on getting to know the student’s reading habits, experiences, and preferences. Build on the informal data you gather through the reading inventory and start asking Why? You’ll learn so much about your readers just from quick conversations.

To learn more about why you should make conferring part of your independent reading routine, click HERE. For tips and tricks for managing reading conferences, click HERE. Finally, for my master spreadsheet that I use to keep track of my students while we confer, click HERE.

Find ways for your readers to interact with books and the classroom library.

So your classroom library is stocked, you’ve started connecting with your readers, and you’re ready for the magic to happen…now what?! You’ll probably notice that students don’t always fall in love with the first book they pick. In fact, they need lots of exposure to books and varied opportunities to interact with your classroom library. Even if you have the best classroom library ever, you still have to find ways to bring the books TO the students. 

Here are a few ideas for getting books in front of students:

  • Introduce students to your classroom library through a “Classroom Library Scavenger Hunt.” I will never drone through a regular “introduction” to my classroom library and its features and procedures again. This student-centered, inquiry-based alternative is the BEST way to do it. Better yet, a classroom library scavenger hunt gets students exploring every nook and cranny of your library, adding books to their to-read lists, and interacting with other readers.
  • Bring books into your lessons. Books are the best co-teachers! Find ways to weave them into your lessons, especially as mentor texts. One way I bring my classroom library into my lessons is through “What do you notice?” style lessons. For example, before we read a novel in verse as a whole class, students explore the format and structure of various novels in verse on their own. You can check out this specific activity HERE.
  • Continue to host frequent book tastings. Whether you do one every month, every quarter, or just when you notice students in need of fresh titles, keep book tastings in your rotation! I have book tastings for everything from Banned Books to Dystopia! You can find them all in one spot HERE.

Create opportunities for your readers to interact with each other.

Independent reading doesn’t have to be – and really shouldn’t be – too “independent” or isolating. In fact, students need a community of readers in order to grow. They need opportunities to share about books, bond with other readers, and make reading plans and goals with fellow students. It’s important to make time for these kinds of conversations from the start so you can build community and help students form bonds with each other. So many kids who might not otherwise chitchat in class will connect over a shared love of books, if only you give them the chance. 

Here are a few ways you can get students interacting with each other and talking about books:

  • Try speed discussion. Speed discussion is a student-centered discussion strategy that engages every single student at the same time, which makes it perfect for building a reading community. During this activity, students are paired up with their classmates for rounds of “speed discussion.” Each round, students rotate to a different peer and discuss a different question or prompt. I have a few variations of this: Reading Identity/Habits/Interests Speed Discussion, which is perfect to do after a reading inventory/at the beginning of the year, and Independent Reading Speed Discussion, which works best when students are in the middle of their choice books.
  • Host a round of independent reading book bingo. Once students have had some time to start reading, encourage more connections with “book bingo.” Fill the BINGO board with fun prompts that get students searching for peers and books. For a student-ready, editable book bingo board, click HERE.

Make sure you have a (sustainable) system for recommending books to students.

Nothing kills new reading momentum like having absolutely no idea what to read next. So make sure you are stocked with strategic book recommendations for students before they finish their first book of the year. Not only should you have titles on hand, but you should really have a system for book recommendations–one that students know how to navigate. After all, you can’t possibly supply a student with personalized book recommendations every time they finish a book, nor should you. You want students to become independent, lifelong readers who can self-select books. But even the most voracious readers need some help with this. 

Here’s what this looks like in my classroom:

  • Book Recommendation Brochures: These book brochures are designed to help students answer the question of “What should I read next?” Through interactive reader personality quizzes, these brochures automatically suggest personalized book recommendations to your students. It’s a magical, self-sustaining system that will get good books into the hands of your readers! Click HERE to learn about the brochures and HERE for ideas on using them. You can check out the middle school bundle HERE and the high school collection HERE.
  • Book Recommendation Posters: Help your middle school readers find their next favorite book with visual book recommendation posters. Organized by topics like sports, survival stories, mental health, what to read if you don’t like to read, and MORE, these posters make it easy for your readers to find the perfect book. You can check out the middle school version HERE and the high school poster set HERE.
  • Book Displays: I am constantly creating new book displays, whether it’s on my whiteboard, classroom library bookshelves, or my Bookflix board. 

Implement routines that strengthen your independent reading program.

As students settle into books, you’ll want to implement routines that keep up the reading momentum, support students, and celebrate progress. A few of my favorite ways to do just that are Book Trailer Tuesday, First Chapter Friday, and our “Book Buzzer” routine.

Book Trailer Tuesday and First Chapter Friday are exactly what they sound like: Every Tuesday, show a high-interest book trailer to hook students on new books. (Don’t underestimate the power of a 60-second trailer). Every Friday, read aloud an intriguing chapter of a different book. Both strategies are fabulous ways to expose students to more books, help them add to their to-read lists, and build a community of readers. I do both, but if you’re short on time and want to start small, try Book Trailer Tuesday. (I have free resources for the year HERE). If you want more bookish fun, you’ll be back for First Chapter Friday in no time. 😉

Our “Book Buzzer” routine goes like this: Every day after our 10 minutes of independent reading, if a student has just finished a book, they get to press this ridiculous buzzer (that makes a DJ airhorn noise) and quickly share their book, rating, and thoughts. It’s so fun and it’s a great way to stay on top of what students are reading and loving.

For more information on all of my favorite independent reading routines, check out the following:

Model your own reading life and what you expect from your students.

One of your best assets as a reading teacher is your own reading life. When you can model what it looks like to read, enjoy books, connect with other readers, and participate in a community, your students will be able to rise to your expectations.

This may sound harsh, but you really can’t expect your students to read if you’re not reading yourself. But if you’ve fallen out of your reading habits…or never really had them to begin with, you’re actually in a perfect position to start your own journey alongside your students and model what it looks like. This is exactly where I found myself 3 years ago when I decided I wanted to finally implement independent reading. I worked on my own reading identity and habits first, and then I brought everything I learned to my students. I am a better ELA teacher because of it, and I promise you will be, too!

I hope these tips have helped!

I hope these tips have helped! I could chat about independent reading forever, but that’s all I’ve got for now. Please let me know if any of these tips resonated with you by leaving a comment, and keep scrolling for a few extra resources, links, and posts that might help!

Want a shortcut to save you time and energy with launching independent reading?

Check out these bundles of just about every resource I’ve mentioned here (and more): 

Middle School Independent Reading Mega Bundle

High School Independent Reading Mega Bundle

Need more ideas for teaching reading? You’re in the right place!

Independent reading is my jam, and this blog is a gold mine if you’re looking to level up your independent reading game! Whether you’re looking for book recs, engaging activities, or practical advice, I’ve got you covered. Here are some blog posts you might love:

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