Wide Reading

Wide Reading

By Doug Buehl

To achieve a year’s growth in reading, a student needs to be engaged in two hours of reading each day.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to attend a presentation by International Reading Association President Richard Allington are familiar with the emphatic prescription offered above. Allington’s mantra is unequivocal: if students are to continue to develop as readers, they need to be readers

What constitutes two hours of reading? Allington argues that the research supports extended time in actual reading, as opposed to activities that often subsume much of what is called “reading,” such as completing worksheets or answering questions. The two-hour daily guideline includes time spent in reading outside of school, as well as during the school day, and may include leisure reading in magazines, newspapers, or on Internet sites as well as the reading mandated for homework. Finally, Allington argues that the bulk of a day’s reading must be within a student’s comfort zone; time struggling with texts beyond a student’s current reading ability does not translate to effective practice for reading achievement.

Clearly, these two hours will need to be disseminated throughout a school day, as well as integrated into students’ home routines. Language arts period will not likely be sufficient for satisfying the school-day segment of daily reading. Some of these minutes will need to occur during social studies, science, math, and other subjects. As students move through the grades, they will need increasing practice with reading texts from a variety of academic disciplines if they are to become effective readers of materials from across the curriculum.

Allington’s message is an urgent one. Students who read less than two hours a day lose ground each year and fall farther behind in achieving their potential as readers.

The Strategy

Last month’s Reading Room (April 2006) discussed the critical importance of academic background in classroom learning. Those students who learn the most when studying a subject are those students who already bring a baseline of academic knowledge to their schooling. Robert Marzano (2004) suggests “wide reading” as a major strategy for building academic background knowledge for students who arrive at school lacking experiences that introduce them to topics emphasized in the curriculum.

According to Marzano, wide reading needs to be facilitated by concerted school efforts. Sustained silent reading (SSR) can be an especially effective way to organize a school’s commitment to inculcate wide reading. SSR time can be integrated into a school structure in a variety of ways, both within classes or subject areas, as well as across the curriculum.

Step 1: Marzano cautions that initiatives designed to foster wide reading should adhere to eight key principles that characterize successful programs: access, appeal, conducive environment, encouragement, staff training, nonaccountability, follow-up activities, and distributed time to read (p. 42).

  • Access means that a wealth of reading materials is readily available to students, in classroom libraries, the library media center, and other school sources. Successful programs connect materials to students rather than rely on students to locate them on their own time.
  • Appeal means that students are encouraged to read materials that are of high personal interest and are at an appropriate level of difficulty.
  • Conducive Environment means creating a positive and comfortable space free of noise and interruptions for students to become immersed into their reading.
  • Encouragement means not only showing enthusiasm for conversing with students about their reading, but also demonstrating excitement for one’s own personal reading.
  • Staff training means providing teachers with the rationale and support for their essential role in fostering wide reading among their students.
  • Nonaccountability means that students are reading to satisfy personal interests and not to demonstrate proficiency or knowledge gained by their reading.
  • Follow-up activities are particularly important to deepen the wide reading experience. Students may be asked to interact with the material they are reading (“what is one thing you read today that you found especially interesting”) or interact with their peers about their reading. Follow-up activities are designed to further comprehension and spark conversation, rather than to hold students “accountable” for doing certain tasks.
  • Distributed time to read refers to the frequency with which “wide reading” time is allocated within a school week. At a minimum, wide reading time needs to be provided twice a week, for at least 20 minutes a session.

Step 2: Because wide reading is intended not only to strengthen reading abilities, but also to enhance academic background knowledge, Marzano recommends the I-Search process as an initial phase for fostering wide reading. The I-Search process helps students target topics of personal interest and identify possible materials for their reading based on their investigations. Thus wide reading becomes more than selecting from materials that might be available in a classroom library, for example. Instead, students are engaged in locating books, articles, magazines, Web sites, and other sources that contain interesting information related to topics about which they would like to become more knowledgeable. In addition, of course, they gain valuable research skills.

As a result of the I-Search, wide reading becomes a more focused activity that goes beyond the expectation that all students will be spending time reading something. Wide reading comes to approximate what real readers do – they have an intention behind their reading that is interest-based. Very few adult readers, for example, pick up a newspaper to do “their daily reading practice.” Instead, they read to grow – to inform and entertain themselves.

In contrast to many SSR programs which predominately encourage students to read fiction – children’s literature, for example – a wide reading emphasis invites students to read a wealth of expository, information-based materials. Although students may select fictional works, the emphasis in a wide reading program is extending learning about topics of interest.

Step 3: Students are encouraged in a multitude of ways to process what they are learning. Students may be asked to interact with their texts by commenting in their journals or notebooks. Prompts which ask students to talk about what they find particularly important or interesting allow them to begin to think though their learning in relatively non-threatening ways. Marzano emphasizes nonlinguistic responses as equally beneficial; asking students to use graphic organizers, pictorial representations, or even dramatic responses are significant ways to encourage students to use their imaginations to organize and synthesize their learning.

Step 4: Finally, successful wide reading programs feature student-to-student sharing of their interests and new knowledge. Partner and small group dialogue about the topics being investigated are especially valuable. Again, prompts such as “What is one thing you discovered today that you think others should know about your topic?” or “How has your thinking about your topic changed in some way?” can provide the basis for rich conversation about wide reading topics. This dynamic asks students to reformulate their learning into personal understandings as they explain to others, thus moving their new learning into permanent memory.


Regular daily reading is necessary if students are to continue to mature as readers. But wide reading is particularly important in building the academic background knowledge that is a prerequisite for learning within the various content disciplines.

  • Students receive guidance in how to identify meaningful topics and locate materials of high personal interest.
  • Students become conditioned to an ongoing routine that immerses them in using wide reading to deepen their understanding in topic areas that build useful background for learning in across the curriculum.
  • Wide reading enables people with limited resources to become knowledgeable in areas where they lack direct experiences or personal connections.

Further Resources:

Marzano, R. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Doug Buehl, teacher, Madison East High School
Wisconsin State Reading Association.

Reading Room archives

Posted May 4, 2006