How to Run a Successful Independent Reading Program in the Middle Grades

Hey! It's Erin from Lovin' Lit. I often receive questions about how I handle independent reading in addition to teaching reading content. I did a guest post several months ago on this topic for a blog that has apparently disappeared - along with my post! - so here's the updated version.

When I moved from technology director to middle school literature teacher a few years ago, my first and most important goal was to get my students reading more. So many of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students were strong, capable readers, but independent reading was not something that ever occupied their time. Why not? Here is precisely why. No one had ever told them that they should be reading in their spare time, no one had ever handed them a book that they loved, no one had ever inundated them constantly with a stream of high-interest book choices, and/or no one had ever held them accountable and rewarded them for their reading. Without these 4 things mentioned above, a capable yet reluctant reader will not read.

Why should you encourage independent reading in your classroom? Well, if you’re looking for research or need to convince your principal to support your program, you can certainly cite this research by the American Library Association: What it all boils down to is this: The more you read, the smarter you are. The more you read, the higher your test scores are across the board.

During the last school year, my roughly 130 middle school students in grades 6, 7, and 8 earned just over 22,000 AR points. For those of you who may not “speak” AR points, this translates to an average of sixteen 300-page novels per student. Of course, some read more and some read less, but WOW, what an average, right!?

So, what do you need to do to have a successful independent reading program in your classroom?

1. Read yourself! Read the books that your students are reading and model good reading habits.
2. Be a book pusher!
3. Provide time for independent reading and enforce it.
4. Expect that students carry a book at all times.
5. Never assign work or attach a grade to independent reading.
6. Set individual goals and reward students for reading often. Make sure it's a reward they will work for!
7. Maintain a classroom library. Quality is much more important than quantity.

1. Read yourself! I have a reserved section of my board that reads at all times "Mrs. Cobb is currently reading ______." Sometimes I also write in comments such as "sooo good!" or "bored so far" or even "what should I read next?" My students love making recommendations for me and it's a big deal to them when I read the books they have recommended. How do I keep up with all that reading? Audiobooks! I love listening when I'm in the car, doing housework, getting ready for school in the morning, and even while in the bathtub. I subscribe to Audible and also check out digital audiobooks through my local library with the Overdrive Media app.

2. Be a book pusher! I find that the majority of my students are willing to read and enjoy it when they do but don't seek it out themselves. My 13-year-old son, Tyler, is one of my 7th grade students this year and is the perfect example. He has a specific type of book that he enjoys and is very picky. Now that I've figured out what that is (edgy or funny realistic fiction), I'm able to keep recommending books to him that fit his interests, making it easy for him to read. It's also crucial here that I follow Tip #1 above so that I know enough about the books in my arsenal to make wise recommendations. My students know when they ask me for a book to reference another one. "I just finished The Hunger Games. What should I read next?" or "Do you have something like Diary of a Wimpy Kid?" I spend a good deal of time each week helping students choose books. This is also where having an awesome school librarian comes in handy. We visit every 2-3 weeks and she also helps me push books! Another important part of book pushing is constantly talking about the books I’m reading and encouraging my students to talk informally (but during class) about what they are reading. I can push books all day long, but sometimes the most reliable recommendations come from other students. The #1 way to get me off topic during my class is to mention a book or ask something about a book I’ve read.

3. Provide time for independent reading and enforce it. Each Monday, we have Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) for a minimum of 30 minutes. Ideally, this should be done daily, but with my 50 minute reading classes this isn't possible. I do squeeze in extra SSR time each week as it is available. We don't waste a single minute! Even if a week starts on a Tuesday or is a short week, the students know that the first day of the week is always SSR.

4. Expect that students carry a book at all times. Anytime something unexpected comes up that requires my attention, the students have to be prepared to whip that book out at my command and read. Anytime they finish a test or assignment early, they know that their only option is to read their books when they have finished. I have also explained this to the other middle school teachers and several of them are supportive enough to require independent reading as the early finisher task in their classes as well.

5. Never assign work or attach a grade to independent reading. Summarizing what you've read or doing any paperwork related to independent reading is a major fun-buster! Having to write something for each book read can definitely be a deterrent to reading more books for many students. Find a better way to hold them accountable for what they have read. I'm lucky enough to have Accelerated Reader (AR) at my school and any similar program will work. Assigning a minimum number of books or points per grading period in order to earn a certain grade is also a fun-buster and a great way to get students to only do the minimum reading required!

6. Set individual goals and reward students often. Find rewards they will work for! At the beginning of each new grading period (9 weeks at my school), I work with students to set individual point goals. We look at what they read last year or last 9 weeks and agree on a goal that is challenging but doesn't stress them out. I usually have a minimum (10-20, depending on the grade) but don't announce what it is and sometimes make exceptions for kids who need it. I try to make each goal attainable. Also, I make sure to check in on them regularly during the 9 weeks and ask them about their progress. At the end of the 9 weeks, we have an AR Popcorn Party. I schedule it on an SSR day and it's really just that day's class. All students attend the "party" of course, but only students who have met their AR goal get to eat popcorn. We have one of those absolutely wonderful movie theatre-style popcorn machines in our concession stand. I get to school early and start popping, so the aroma fills the hallway. Students are drooling over the smell by the time they get to my class. This has proven to be the most powerful motivator I have found! Most of my students make SURE they are getting popcorn that day. Additionally, the top 5 students for each grade each 9 weeks receive a Lunch Line Fast Pass. This is also a big deal for them since they get to go to the front of the lunch line (or microwave line!) every day for the following 9 weeks. I find this to be especially motivating for middle school boys!

7. Maintain a classroom library. Quality is much more important than quantity! Make sure you have multiple copies of the super-popular titles (think Wimpy Kid new releases, etc.) and order new books constantly. I do the Scholastic Book Clubs (now Scholastic Reading Club) monthly and end up getting most of my books free that way. I also order copies from Amazon, eBay, and my favorite,, where you can get almost any title used for $3.95 or cheaper with free shipping and quantity discounts! I also volunteered to organize the Used Uniform Sale every May and August at my school and my principal lets me use the proceeds (usually $300-400) to refresh my classroom library over the summer so that I'm ready for the new school year.

The absolute best compliments I get as a teacher are from parents who tell me that their kids are finally interested in reading for the first time because of my class! The truth is that most of these kids WOULD read IF someone would tell them they should and give them a book they'll love.

For more information on how I organize my classroom library and other topics related to middle grades reading, be sure to check out the Teaching Tips section of my blog at


  1. It looks like you have read "The Book Whisperer." It is great to get kids reading and your summary of her ideas is great.

  2. All good stuff! Much of it works in my classroom. Couldn't find a pinnable image, so I couldn't share this on Pinterest!