An Argument for Sustained Silent Reading

English 12 students collaborated to create a library display with their book recommendations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sustained Silent Reading after reading Amber Chandler’s brilliant, reflective post for Middle Web on the subject. I’ve been struggling with the question of “should I give up class time for independent reading?” for the past three years. I started out as a “reading should be homework — look how fun it is to fill out reading logs!” person who thought I was having high standards when I “held students accountable” for their independent reading. I then shifted to “students hate book logs and don’t fill them out, so let’s do book talks/other projects” instructor. Now, I’m one of those “pick your own books, talk about them informally, do a more general project that promotes literacy” teachers.

I’m also an advocate of data-driven instruction, so I’m still uncomfortable giving up precious, precious class time when I struggle to find a direct causal relationship between reading and success in English, and when research like the much cited (and contested) National Reading Panel study has cast doubt on the usefulness of SSR.

I decided to contact a few former students to ask about their experiences with reading in class, because I always wonder if they got something out of it. Or am I just kidding myself?

Here are a few quotes from former students who have since graduated (quotes used with their permission):

  • “I think the in class reading was a good warm up to get your mind focused on what was on task for the day. I learned that some of the words read and new words acquired make it easier in the real world.”
  • “I love reading and I loved having time in class… I lead a busy life outside of school! And with kids that work, I think that it was very helpful!
  • “I’m dyslexic, so reading was never my strongest point. I always found it more irritating to read because I could never get [through a] sentence without having to go back and re-read it back, I would mis-read a couple words and the story made no sense. I would have to read out loud numerous times to finally understand a section of a book. So reading in class scared me, but I didn’t want to admit that so in past classes, I rebelled. I do indeed feel as though [in class reading] helped me. I really enjoyed reading in class. I never had a lot of time at home to read and just could not focus while outside of school. In class reading was hard at first but with time became better.

These quotes (and notes from students who were appreciate of the opportunity to discover books, and my own observations from a limited data set) are far from conclusive, I know. As a teacher and human, though, it’s pretty darn hard for me to prioritize a National Reading Panel study over these voices. It’s also difficult for me to discount my own observations, particularly when I know that the NRP study had its flaws.

In her Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy article “Becoming the Reading Mentors Our Adolescents Deserve: Developing a Successful Sustained Silent Reading Program,” Valarie Lee points out a few limits of the study:

For instance, research studies not used by the NRP indicate that reading gains due to voluntary reading programs are more likely when gains are measured after more than seven months. Some studies in the national report include those with duration of as little as one month of voluntary reading. Furthermore, the NRP did not choose motivation and engagement as an area of focus for the meta-analysis. Several reports, including Reading Next — A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006), advocate for voluntary reading time because of the link to student motivation (210).

A few observations on the benefits of SSR

Here are a few things that I’ve noticed about Sustained Silent Reading in my own classroom:

  • It contributes to a positive atmosphere because students find it relaxing to start class reading a book that they enjoy. This can be a selling point if you have students with stressful home (or school) lives.
  • It allows students to direct (part of) the curriculum. Students get really excited when they find a great book, and then get to spend a few minutes talking about that book. I don’t need to “hold them accountable” for reading, because they tend to love doing it.
  • It seems to be the best bet for turning non-readers into bibliophiles. If you’ve met non-readers (as in “I hate reading” + angry face) who began to love books because of the homework or project that you assigned, then please share. I hate giving up class time, too, and would love a solution for those future book lovers who currently see no point reading that doesn’t require me to use class time.
  • It ensures that all students are reading. A problem that I’ve encountered when assigning reading as homework: The students who already love reading do their homework and enjoy it. However, most students have TONS of other homework (and paid work), and tend to not prioritize reading. It becomes a burden and a task for many students.

A Possible Solution to the Not-Enough-Time Problem

The problem of not having enough time in the school day is a real one. We’re setting up a false dichotomy, though, if we limit ourselves to the following: Include SSR and not have enough time for instruction or not include SSR and deny students reading time. Student literacy isn’t just an English issue or responsibility, and thus it doesn’t make sense to assume that SSR should occur in English classes only. What would happen if all teachers bought into a reading program and divided up SSR days? That is, what if English offered 15 minutes on Mondays, Social Studies took Tuesdays, Science on Wednesdays, and so on… What would happen if students saw all of their teachers reading, and were in the habit of having informal discussions about books with these instructors? What impact on literacy would this have on our schools?

Ideas for making SSR Data-Driven

  • Use reading assessments like the Scholastic Reading Inventory to consistently monitor student progress throughout the year. Teachers can compare data and work collaboratively to overcome challenges.
  • Teacher reflections: What do teachers see as potential challenges or areas for improvement? What successes have they seen in the classroom? What obstacles in implementation have they faced?
  • Student reflections: Ask students to write about their own reading habits at the start of the school year. Collect these writing samples, and then repeat at the end of the year. Allow students to compare these reflections, then ask students to decide for themselves if they’ve grown as readers.

A Few Remaining Questions

  • What is the impact of SSR on long-term reading habits and attitudes toward reading? I wonder if there will be any long-term effects on their families and communities.
  • What is the relationship between SSR and attitude towards school?

A disclaimer: I don’t believe that SSR would work for all students. I’d argue that SSR isn’t necessary if…

  • Students enjoy a supportive reading environment at home with model readers.
  • Students already enjoy reading or have some intrinsic motivation to read.
  • Students prefer reading at home, and aren’t so burdened with work, sports, and extracurriculars that they have enough time to read at home.

I have some students who don’t enjoy the above criteria, and I’m not ready to take away their opportunities to read. For me then, the question isn’t “to SSR or not SSR?” but rather “how can we get smarter about implementing a Sustained Silent Reading program?”

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2 Responses to An Argument for Sustained Silent Reading

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    I’m with you on so many of these points, Amy. My only challenge is to try to change your thinking about “giving up” class time for SSR. In family and consumer science, they use the sewing machine or the stove. In IT, they use computers. Why should they not, in ELA class, READ? It should be celebrated, not thought of as “giving up” class time. 🙂 Thank you for your post – I, too, loved the thinking Amber Chandler’s post provided! Enjoy the journey that is 2015-2016!

    • That’s such a good point. Yes, I’m still thinking of it as “giving up” time, even though by reading (and modeling reading) we’re instilling habits that we want our students to carry with them into adulthood.

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