Want Independent Readers? Use Habits and the 5-Finger Rule

The modern world is increasingly visual. (IKEA assembly directions, I’m looking at you.) Nevertheless, reading remains a fundamental part of education, work, and culture, and it’s essential for our students to become independent readers.

If you have little ones, you probably know that reading is one of the best ways to build vocabulary. In fact, research suggests a daily read-aloud habit gives some kindergartners a million word advantage over kids who were never read to at home. And reading as an adult continues to provide benefits, from tension relief and improved focus to better sleep and brighter days.

So how students do reach that lofty goal? Here are two easy steps to put into practice.

Make Daily Reading a Habit

When I taught in public school, every teacher my department participated in what we called Outside Reading. Students read books of their own choosing and discussed them in one-on-one conversations with their teacher.

We let students gorge on one author or genre if they wished. They could stop reading a book if it was too boring. And to help students reach the goal of 100 pages per week to earn an “A” in Outside Reading, we spent dedicated time to silent reading in each period.

Pages turned. Plots thickened. Peace reigned. It was pure bliss.

That bliss is available to homeschool parents, too. When silent reading is part of the schedule, benefits abound, and “fifteen minutes a day will bring better results than half an hour once a week or so,” according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

So tell everyone to grab a book, find a comfy spot, and travel to “lands away.” Not only will there be some lovely quiet time, there will also be fodder for great lunchtime conversations.

5-finger rule for independent readers
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Follow the 5-Finger Rule

Parents probably wonder if the cascade of benefits will fall out of just any old book?

The answer is, “Pretty much.”

The goal for independent readers is fluency, which leads to increased comprehension. And, fortunately, when students enjoy what they’re reading, it puts them on the fast track to fluency. (More ways to reach fluency here.)

Of course, positive results will increase with carefully chosen books. If students only read books below their proficiency level, they’re less likely to get all the vocabulary and horizon broadening benefits that come from reading. If students only read books above their proficiency level, they’re more likely to be confused, frustrated, and unhappy.

The sweet spot seems to be a book where each page has 3-5 unfamiliar words whose meaning can be determined through context. A well-written sentence (and an understanding of the book’s plot) can help students figure out what new words mean without having to search the dictionary.

In fact, I prefer that my students learn new words in context rather than from isolated lists. Without context, students miss the nuances inherent in English usage. Context prevents students from misusing prepositions and choosing improper adjectives in their writing.

So pull an interesting book off the shelf and have your student start reading. For each unfamiliar word, lift one finger. If you’ve lifted five fingers by the end of the page, it’s likely that the book will provide an appropriate challenge while still being an enjoyable read. If you’ve lifted more than five fingers, save it for another day because it will likely be too confusing. And if you’ve only lifted one or two fingers, it’s fine to read but less likely to improve vocabulary.

You Can’t Go Wrong

You can start a daily habit at any time. Morning. Evening. Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer. (For great reasons to read this summer, start here.)

The beauty of reading is that you can’t go wrong. Pick a book. Set a time. Reap the rewards.