How To Help Students Become Lifelong Readers


Key Takeways

  1. Find students’ reading levels. Find students’ ‘comfort zone’ so you’re not asking them to read for too long in their ‘frustration zone’
  2. Model reading strategies. Expert readers do a lot with their brains when they read. Naming and modelling these strategies for your students is really important.
  3. Use ‘choice reading’ to improve students’ reading stamina. Get students reading something they like for 30 minutes a day and use this to practice the strategies you modeled.
  4. Use ‘shared reading’ to teach and reinforce reading strategies. Find a good text for your whole class teaching, to further develop reading skills.
  5. Use ‘guided reading’ to stretch students’ skills. Use the principles of deliberate practice to guide your students before and during reading, to work independently with a text and then reflect on what they’ve read.



In 2005 KIPP Infinity began its first year as a Middle School (Grades 5-8) in Harlem, New York City greeting students from the low socioeconomic neighbourhoods of West Harlem and Washington Heights. 93% of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch and less than a quarter of the inaugural fifth-grade cohort had passed the State’s standardised literacy testing before starting with KIPP.

A year after opening its doors, 81% of students passed the state’s fifth-grade literacy test, and 99% passed the state’s numeracy testing. Within two years all students were at or above grade level as measured in the State’s standardised testing, and by its third year of operation, KIPP Infinity was the highest-ranked Manhattan school NY State testing.

This success was due to many things, but the Literacy results had a lot to do with the school’s reading program. Maddie Witter (co-founded KIPP Infinity) and taught reading while serving as the school’s Director of Instruction. While at KIPP, she developed a rigorous and effective framework for teaching reading – something she has since used in Australia to teach young people incarcerated in youth detention to love reading.  

Witter’s book Reading Without Limits: Teaching Strategies to Build Independent Reading for Life provides a great summary of the framework in a practical, ready-to-use guide alongside a heap of strategies. Reading and comprehension are hard – let’s have a look at how you can help students build a lifelong habit of independent reading.

Find students’ reading levels



Many students struggle with reading. Often this is because teachers ask students to read things that are beyond their reading ability. Lots of students struggle because they are given work that is in their “frustration zone”, not their “comfort zone”. The first step in a good reading program is to find out where your students can comfortably read – this tells you what sort of texts students need for their reading practice.


From Reading Without Limits:

“We need to assess reading levels in order to make sure kids are working in a zone where they can learn. Thus the first step in developing a strong reading program… is to find students’ levels. This step applies to all teachers, whether you are teaching struggling readers in high school or students ranging from emergent to fluent in elementary school. It is extremely relevant if you aren’t a reading teacher.”


The best way to quickly assess students’ reading level is to assess their fluency using a ‘running record’. First, you ask students to read the first 100 words of a short passage aloud while you assess how often they struggle to maintain fluency and correct pronunciation. Students then read the second half of the passage in their heads and answer some comprehension questions. Repeat this process with students using a range of texts organised along a continuum of difficulty to find where students’ comfort level ends.  

This sort of levelled approach to reading is contested – some don’t think it’s such a good idea. Others argue that we need to be careful of assuming that decoding knowledge = comprehension, Willingham talks about that here.

Once you know the range of students’ comfort levels in reading, you know the levels of reading they need to work with to thrive. Good resources on how to conduct Running Records can be found here, and here, Witter provides a video of one in action here.

To do this well, you’re going to need texts organised on a levelled continuum. This seems hard, but there are some ready-made examples like this, or you can use this trick in Microsoft Word to find out the grade-level of any piece of writing to create your own suite of levelled reading resources (the reading grade-level of this post, if you’re wondering, is 10.6 – too high for a general audience, lucky you’re smart). This is by no means a perfect measure of reading level, but it’s a start.

Once you know students’ levels, you can match their reading practice with their reading ability, rather than forcing students to struggle in their frustration zone for every reading session.

Model reading strategies



When we looked at How To Teach Writing, we spoke about the fact that simply assigning lots of writing practice to your students is not the same as actually teaching them how to write. The same is true of reading (and probably true of anything else you want students to learn).

Schools should teach students how to read strategically. This means that students read to deeply understand a text by applying a specific set of strategies to their reading practice. We looked at strategy instruction like this a little in our post on comprehension

You’re probably using these strategies right now. It’s easy for experienced, independent readers to overlook the fact that when you read, your brain is busy. If you read something that contains a lot of technical language, like the abstract of this article, you’ll notice that your brain draws on a specific set of strategies to understand it properly.

You’ll re-read passages, use the parts you do understand to work out the meaning of the parts you don’t and connect the text to things you already know. Students need to learn how to read strategically to access the tools that will move them from being dependent readers to lifelong independent readers. Naming these strategies is an extremely important, but often overlooked step in building the reading skills of your students.

From Reading Without Limits:

“Dependent readers… aren’t aware of their reading, often rely heavily on teachers, fake read, “hate” to read or don’t remember what they read. Many dependent readers work at decoding words rather than making sense of the text. When confronted with a text a little bit outside their comfort zone, they don’t try to figure it out because they don’t have an arsenal of strategies to use. So we need to give them an arsenal.


The best way to improve student reading ability is to model the thinking routines that successful readers use. Witter suggests using a strategy called read aloud/think aloud to let students in on the secrets of effective reading.

From Reading Without Limits:

In a read aloud/think aloud, read a small portion of text to students and stop three times to demonstrate the thinking going on in your head. If you want to, you can also stop to ask students questions along the way. The thinking is the strategy that you want students to be able to do.


An example is to demonstrate the strategy of paraphrasing. Read a short excerpt to students, stopping three times while you do,  in order to show them how your brain is summarising and paraphrasing information from the text as you go.

Here’s a great lesson plan showing how this technique can teach students to visualise. Witter provides a suite of reading strategies in the book for before, during and after reading that help students become great readers – there’s also a good summary of similar strategies here.

Once you’ve begun to teach students the practices of great reading, you need to give them lots of time to practice reading. Witter suggests three types of practice help students become great readers: Choice Reading, Shared Reading and Guided Reading. Let’s quickly unpack each one.

Use ‘choice reading’ to improve reading stamina



Before they can be lifelong readers, students need to build stamina. They need to get into the habit of reading independently for long periods of time. This skill is going to help them succeed at school, in post-secondary education and in their lives.

Witter suggests building students reading stamina through ‘Choice Reading’. This practice sees students read texts of their choice for at least 30 minutes a day. Let students read whatever interests them but encourage them to read books within their comfort zone.

Start this practice small – begin with an 8-minute block and a break halfway through. For this to work well, you need to teach your students the practices that support reading stamina. Witter suggests developing a ‘stamina checklist’ of the practices that independent readers show when they engage in reading for long uninterrupted periods of time.

Share this checklist with your students, and when you break halfway through a reading block, have them self-assess against it. Using reminding and reinforcing language can act as “stamina strategies” to hold students to account as you incrementally increase the time they spend reading.

Importantly, the explicit strategies of effective reading that you taught students during think aloud/think aloud lessons need to be practised during choice reading. Choice reading serves as ‘deliberate practice’ for strategies you want students to be learning. An ‘I do, We do, You do’ model can be used to gradually releasing responsibility to students.


From Reading Without Limits:

“Use a short passage and model one strategy using a thank aloud/read aloud… then move to guided practice. Give students the opportunity to try the strategy on their own or in their partnerships, along with a ton of checks for understanding. At this point you are still heavily guiding. Finally, launch students off to their choice book. They apply the strategy as they read. During this time you check their notes (more on this later) to ensure they are justifying their thinking with details from the text. What’s important is that they are independently reading for a long time, trying out the strategy on their own.”



Use ‘shared reading’ to teach and reinforce reading strategies



Choice reading gets students reading a lot, but they’re still reading within their comfort zone. How do you push students’ reading abilities up to the next level? Witter suggests engaging students in ‘shared reading’.


From Reading Without Limits:

“Close reading, one of the foundations of shared reading, is when the teacher chooses excerpts from the text and leads the class through questioning in order to analyse the text’s meaning. It is extremely important for preparing our students for rigorous high school and college work… The point of close reading is not to pick the text apart piece by piece and to examine every word, but to find the important elements that contribute to meaning and help students find evidence for the interpretations they are forming”


Shared reading sees the whole class working through the same text at the same time, with the teacher playing the role of coach, giving real-time feedback and a suite of strategies to help students get better at reading.

You want to select a text that is difficult for all your readers – usually, this is one that is on grade level and has the potential for deep interpretation. This will challenge kids below grade-level straight away, and you can push your higher achieving students to deeper analysis, so they’re also improving their reading skills. During Shared Reading, the teacher should guide students through the text using ‘close reading’ to help students move from literal interpretations of the text to deeper implied interpretations that support inferential thinking.

Use ‘guided reading’ to stretch students’ skills



Shared reading is great at stretching your students in a whole-class context, but the Reading Without Limits model suggests taking deliberate practice even deeper with ‘guided reading’. We spoke about deliberate practice when we looked at How To Teach Writing where we saw that it should involve a series of activities that specifically practice the skills students are yet to master, supported by a clear step-by-step process and direct feedback that helps them monitor progress and learn from mistakes.

From Reading Without Limits:

“Guided reading is the final component of a well-rounded reading program. Guided reading is a set of training wheels for your readers… It’s the opportunity to your readers practice with texts that are a little bit difficult as you provide support so students can achieve what they weren’t able to independently do before.”


Guided reading sees students work in groups of less than 8 students with a text that is one level above their comfort zone. Guided reading blocks should last between 25 and 45 minutes and include four distinct blocks:

  1. Before reading
  2. Direct instruction
  3. Independent work
  4. After-reading.


In each block, students work closely with the teacher receiving small group or individualised support.

  • Before reading activities focus on making predictions of the text and engaging with prior knowledge.
  • Direct instruction sees the teacher either review a previously taught strategy or introduce a new one. This shouldn’t take more than five minutes and should use the read aloud/think-aloud technique to (re)introduce the strategy.
  • During independent work, students should read the text aloud. Reading aloud might seem weird – you’re going to have six to eight students all reading the same text aloud to themselves. It sounds like cult members repeating mantras, but it allows students to master oral fluency and gives you an opportunity to hear them making decoding errors as they read.
  • In the after-reading section, the lesson ends with a reflection that links back to the purpose of the lesson.


Key Takeways


  1. Find students’ reading levels. Find students’ ‘comfort zone’ so you’re not asking them to read for too long in their ‘frustration zone’
  2. Model reading strategies. Expert readers do a lot with their brains when they read. Naming and modelling these strategies for your students is really important.
  3. Use ‘choice reading’ to improve students’ reading stamina. Get students reading something they like for 30 minutes a day and use this to practice the strategies you modeled.
  4. Use ‘shared reading’ to teach and reinforce reading strategies. Find a good text for your whole class teaching, to further develop reading skills.
  5. Use ‘guided reading’ to stretch students’ skills. Use the principles of deliberate practice to guide your students before and during reading, to work independently with a text and then reflect on what they’ve read.