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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

How to Create Readers with Sustained Silent Reading

One way that motivation and engagement are instilled and maintained is to provide students with opportunities to select for themselves the materials they read and topics they research. One of the easiest ways to build some choice into the students’ school day is to incorporate independent reading time in which they can read whatever they choose. Yet this piece of the curriculum is often dropped after the primary grades. 
~Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy

Do you want your students to love reading? Allow them to read more.

We over-complicate this. We ask students to read, but then we ply them with onerous reading logs or written responses that transform reading into a detested chore.

For over twenty years, I taught my students how to read well, but I'm ashamed to admit that I only occasionally inspired a lasting love of reading. Too few students went on to become voracious readers for me to claim success in this regard.

But that changed last year when I began to include sustained silent reading (SSR) in my classroom. For many years I followed the edict that independent reading was meant for home, and that it should be recorded in a draconian manner in a reading log. But after experiencing the headaches of these logs with my own daughters, I vowed to find a better way.

In prior years, the irony never escaped me that many times during transitional periods, I was forced to admonish students to put away their self-selected books because we were moving on to the next part of a lesson. In other words, "How dare you read in Reading class?"

If you’re a fan of the television drama Law and Order, you know that suspects are identified by determining motive and opportunity. We can grow readers by providing these two variables! In my classroom, SSR time is called SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Reading Time). This fifteen minutes, which occurs at the start of each 90 minute block of ELA, is held sacred by providing everyone, including the teacher, the opportunity to read quietly.

Just a few benefits of SQUIRT observed since its inception:
  1. Students see their teacher, and their peers, as models for reading.
  2. Students have immediate access to a wide variety of reading materials. 
  3. Reading takes on a social aspect when students read together (even quietly) or when students are allowed to discuss selections or recommend books to classmates. 
  4. The reading session acts as a "palate cleanser," allowing students to set aside the drama of the previous class periods and prime their minds for language instruction. 
  5. Students wrestle with content taught in the classroom using books of appropriate challenge and personal interest. According to the Educational Leadership report titled Synthesis of Research/ Reading Comprehension: What Works, a prime benefit of independent reading time “is the sheer opportunity to orchestrate the skills and strategies that are important to proficient reading—including comprehension. As in sports and music, practice makes perfect in reading, too.” 
  6. Students build a vast store of vocabulary and subject area knowledge. That same Synthesis states: "Reading results in the acquisition of new knowledge, which, in turn, fuels the comprehension process. Research of the late 1970s and early '80s consistently revealed a strong reciprocal relationship between prior knowledge and reading comprehension ability. The more one already knows, the more one comprehends; and the more one comprehends, the more one learns new knowledge to enable comprehension of an even greater and broader array of topics and texts."
  7. The teacher can observe student reading behaviors firsthand.
That last benefit is especially powerful. Many teachers use self-assessments to gather initial impressions of students' reading habits and preferences. Steven L. Layne provides an excellent self-assessment in Igniting a Passion for Reading, an invaluable resource for those teachers seeking to grow avid readers. But ongoing observation yields equally valuable results.

On a daily basis I note what genres and topics interest individual students, and I also note who can persist with longer texts over time. I observe how students' book choices are influenced by those of their peers or by the book they’ve just completed. I can confidently recommend “next-reads” for individual students based upon what I've seen them enjoy. For example, the student who just finished the nonfiction baseball book Why is the Foul Pole Fair? might be interested in reading a DiMaggio biography or some short fiction by Kinsella.

Realize that Sustained Silent Reading is NOT a reading program. SSR is not intended to take the place of direct instruction or student-centered inquiry approaches to language arts. In an article at, Joan Sedita, founding partner of Keys to Literacy, additionally warns that
“Educators must be careful to not consider SSR as an intervention for struggling readers or as an activity that can take the place of direct, systematic instruction to address weaknesses in reading skills. For example, for students who need to develop fluency skills, research has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement and fluency … because struggling readers are not likely to make effective use of silent independent reading.”
So how can teachers make the most productive use of SSR in the classroom? 

Below I've listed potential problems which teachers often share, along with some suggestion solutions.

Students will use this time for activities other than reading. 

Only if you let them. From the beginning, establish strict guidelines for SSR and enforce those guidelines with vigilance, especially when first initiating the program. Modeling cannot be overemphasized.

Some students will come to class without anything to read.

Create a “recommended reads” section of your classroom library stocked with popular titles, short stories, magazines, etc. This also serves as an excellent resource for early finishers to find a quick read.

How will I know that students are “really reading” during quiet reading time?

Institute occasional opportunities for students to share what they’re reading with others. Check out this fun assessment suggested by educator Catlin Tucker. Other check-ins are available, such as those suggested in No More Independent Reading Without Support. The authors explain that “when we set children loose day after day with no focus or support, it can lead to fake reading and disengagement… It’s our job to equip children with the tools they need when we’re not there.”

My administrator doesn’t see the value in this activity.

Share some of the quotes on this page, as well as research from the links collected on my original roundtable hand-out.

I can't see myself reading with them; it simply isn’t a good use of my time.

Students need to see their teacher enjoying literature. Plus, you need time to read widely in many genres and authors in order to confidently recommend texts to your students.

We teach according to the standards. Quiet reading doesn’t have a place in our curriculum.

Concepts discussed in class can be extended to discussions about students’ independent reading. If the class is studying similes and metaphors, for example, students can be asked to look for these in their own reading. Students can also be encouraged to bookmark examples of writing which they feel to be exemplary in any way.

We like the idea of independent reading, and we feel that time spent reading is necessary. But we need help teaching students to read mindfully.

For this, I would recommend Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered and a method he calls Accountable Independent Reading (AIR).

In a chapter titled Approaches to Reading; Reading More, Reading Better, Lemov writes, "Accountable Independent Reading involves students in reading texts independently... and allows teachers to assess whether effective reading is actually happening. Much of the reading students do in school fails to meet these criteria. And, unfortunately, the students reading the least are often the ones who need to read the most." Multiple experiences with AIR (in its various forms described in the book) help students to read more purposefully when reading on their own. See my complete write-up on this invaluable resource.

We can’t allow choice reading, but we want to use SSR for assigned reading. How can we ensure that students are engaging with the text?

Choice reading is really the point of SSR, but having students read an engaging assigned text is a step in the right direction. Accountability can be ensured through a guiding question, post-its, or a written reflection that allows students to focus on those aspects of the text which appeal to them or challenge them at their independent level. And again, refer to the AIR methods described in Lemov's Reading Reconsidered.

What excuse is keeping you from taking the plunge? I would love to hear your experiences in the comment section below.

Recommended Reading:

In No More Independent Reading Without Support, authors Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss ask, "What if there was a time when things slowed down? No rotations, activities, or worksheets—just you, your kids, and books. Would you take it?"

From the publisher: "We know children learn to read by reading. Is independent reading valuable enough to use precious classroom minutes on? Yes, writes Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss, but only if that time is purposeful. DEAR and SSR aren’t enough. Research shows that independent reading must be accompanied by intentional instruction and conferring. Debbie and Barbara clear a path for you to take informed action that makes a big difference,"

For additional online resources, access the original roundtable document presented at the "Hot Topics by Top Teachers" session at the 2016 New Jersey Educational Association Conference.

This post originally appeared as Reading for Real: The Benefits of Silent Reading in the Classroom at my How to Teach a Novel blog.