A: I can't. Nor can I be sure that every single student listens closely to each word as we read Julius Caesar aloud in class or that every student completely understands each variable for punctuating dialogue when I demonstrate it on the white board. It's not realistic to expect that. Students are human beings with myriad concerns that may or may not be part of my classroom. I can encourage and direct attention, but I can't guarantee they will be with me every step of the way. I can monitor the room, however, and I frequently wander through the aisles, checking to see who is reading. Often, I quietly visit with a student about a book. As I read, I glance around the room. After two minutes of reading time, anyone who makes eye contact with me is not engaged. I may motion to them, or get up and visit with them if it is a lingering problem. To be honest, I never see the faces of the majority of my students during reading time. They get involved immediately and stay involved until it's time to stop.
During reading time, one of my jobs is to model an adult reader. Sometimes students laugh at me when someone quietly stands at the door waiting for me, and I don't have a clue the person is there. Yes, students also laugh at me when I get involved in my book, and we go 5 or 10 minutes over the normal time. So every day, I have to balance my duty as a room monitor with my role as a reading model and my own personal love of reading. Over the years, I've learned to read deeply, yet keep an ear out for sounds in the room. Anyone whispering or shuffling papers is not engaged in silent reading, nor, unfortunately, are those sitting nearby. I firmly believe in the “silent” part of silent reading.
Q: If you don't have students write book reports, how are they accountable for SSR books?
A: First of all, I don't think students need to be accountable for everything they read. As an adult reader, I don't want to take quizzes on every magazine article or novel I read. I just want to take from them what I want and need. Second, I hold students accountable for other reading, and SSR needs to be purely for enjoyment. From our core curriculum materials, students write character sketches; analyze theme, conflict, and setting; summarize plot; and discuss style. Core assignments provide sufficient practice in literary analysis. I want SSR to be used for reading, not writing reports, and I want SSR books selected by personal choice, not for book reports.
Having said that, some creative ways of doing book reports don't take much time and fit the general attitude of SSR programs. For example, we created a program at Billings Senior High School called Read It Forward. Reading teacher Terra Beth Jochems was inspired by the main character in the movie Pay It Forward, who believed that if he did three good deeds for other people and those people did three good deeds, a wave of happiness and goodness would spread throughout the world. Jochems translated the concept into reading: When students found a good book, she asked that they pass the book on to others. They enjoyed the program, which she called Read It Forward. Eventually, she wanted to expand beyond her classroom, so computer teacher Vince Long created a Web site (http://senior.billings.k12.mt.us/readitforward) that allowed students to write a short commentary on a book, rate the book, and submit the review for others to read. The site has become popular, and hundreds of students have taken the time to Read It Forward.
Q: Do you give students a reading list?
A: I never have. I want them to learn to choose and reject their own books. Our core curriculum lists required books, so I want SSR to balance that equation with student-centered reading. No reading list would meet the personal needs of the varied students who walk into my classroom. It always fascinates me to see what students choose when completely free to select reading materials. More than once, I've borrowed a book from a student after he's finished it. I think the freedom to choose is a vital aspect of SSR.
Q: Have you ever censored a student's book choice?
A: Never. There have been times when I've thought, “That's not the book I'd prefer that student read,” but generally, if the book is the right connection for the student, she will read it and quickly move on, often to what I might term a “better” book. If the student has chosen a book just for shock value, she likely won't enjoy the reading and will drop it in a day or two. Through 27 years of SSR and thousands of student-chosen books, I'm very pleased with what students read and how enthusiastic they are about their choices.
Q: What if a student reads one Stephen King book after another?
A: I'd write a compliment in the margin of his Reading Record. Many of those books are 700, 800, or 1,000 pages long, a major achievement for a student reader. Once, a boy read three or four Stephen King books in a row. His mother came in to talk with me. “When are you going to make him read something besides Stephen King?” she asked.
“For the silent reading program, students are free to choose their own books,” I replied.
“But since he's been in this reading program of yours, Stephen King is all he'll look at.”
“What did he read last year before this program?”
“Well, he didn't read at all, but I'm concerned that he won't look at anything but these Stephen King books.”
“If he wouldn't read at all last year and he's on his fourth book this year, aren't we winning?” I asked. Eventually he will read all of Stephen King's books, or he will get tired of Stephen King and move on to other authors the way all good readers do.
Q: But why don't you require them to read the classics?
A: There are three answers to this question. First, we require them to read the classics through a core curriculum full of selections that would meet the “classics” category. Any student who graduates from our district has read plenty of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Whitman, Frost, Dickinson, and Shakespeare, to name a few. To require books from that same list for SSR eliminates the change of pace the program offers. It would also change the SSR program from student-centered to teacher-directed, thus removing the vital choice so important to helping students become good readers. Trelease expresses a similar idea:
An interesting thing happened to the classics: About the only people in this country who read them are teenagers—and only because they have to. Don't misunderstand me: I am awed by the great minds and great writing. I read and revere the classics, but everything I've seen in the last thirty-five years indicates we are misusing them in schools, to the point that we are undoing much of the good they were created to accomplish. We've got ninth-graders reading books like The Great Gatsby before they're old enough to bring a frame of reference to them. And to make things worse, the books are dissected until every trace of appeal has been lost. (2001, p. 140)
Second, one thing that has always amazed me is the number of students who, given freedom of choice, pick the classics. At any time in a class, I generally find students with classics they heard about from friends in other classes or books that have been on a family bookshelf for years. SSR doesn't eliminate or discourage reading classics, it just lets students choose them at the right time.
Third, in certain situations, requiring more core curriculum material would guarantee failure. Some students have spent years struggling with the classics and have had no success. Perhaps they have found other styles of writing that lead to success and keep them interested. What if a student wants to read about how to repair auto body damage or how to build a Web page or how to cook a Pakistani meal? Aren't those topics worth reading and learning about? Leaving SSR book selection open to choice creates balance for all students. Those who want more classics get them; those who want other types of literature can get them too. Through this process, students provide the work of choosing and rejecting books. I provide the time, the space, the encouragement. I treat them like adults capable of making decisions about their own education. The focus is on them; it's student-centered learning at its best. If only it were this easy to solve other educational problems.
Q: If students read their books outside of class, does that count as part of the SSR program?
A. They get full credit. That is the essence of SSR. If students are interested enough to read in study hall, on the school bus, in bed, or elsewhere, they are well on their way to becoming lifelong readers. There is no more important skill or habit that we, as educators and parents, could hope to encourage.
Q: Where do students get their books?
A: I did a survey of students this year, because I had never formally asked this question. Fifty-eight students completed the survey, and responses indicated that 537 total books had been read, an average of 9.2 books per student (Figure 4.1). I was not surprised that most of the books came from the library. It is convenient, and our librarians are very helpful. What did surprise me was that nearly one in five books was purchased, indicating how much students (and parents) value the silent reading program.
Figure 4.1. Survey of Students in an SSR Program
Source of Book
Number/Percentage of Books Acquired This Way
1. Student bought the book.
97, or 18% of books read in program
2. Student borrowed the book.
100, or 19% of books read in program
3. Student brought the book from home.
117, or 22% of books read in program
4. Student got the book at a library.
223, or 41% of books read in program
Note: Survey completed by 58 students; 537 total books read.
Q: Do you allow students to sit on couches, beanbag chairs, or the floor when they read?
A: I think the idea of a couch or beanbag chair is a nice gesture, but in my mind, it creates another level of monitoring for a teacher. If students leave their regular seats, they will usually arrange to sit next to a friend and the temptation to visit, pass notes, copy homework assignments, or hit each other is greater than most can overcome. Some teachers successfully use couches and beanbag chairs with SSR, but they have to keep a close watch on students. One year, my students wanted to spread out on the nice, carpeted floor during SSR. That worked out well because they were still separated and could read with no problem. My classroom floor now is concrete, so no one asks to lie on the floor to read. Occasionally, students ask to move into a corner or otherwise away from other students to help them concentrate, and I allow that. My experience with high school students is that most of them are fine in their regular seats. I prefer that as well, because SSR seems more like part of the regular class rather than a separate activity with a different seating arrangement. This decision, like most regarding SSR, should be made by each teacher based on what works best in the individual classroom and what keeps the silent reading program moving smoothly and efficiently. In my mind, keeping the rules and format of the program as simple as possible is usually the best plan.
Q: Should students be rewarded with prizes for their reading?
A: I know we give prizes for all sorts of things in education, but I don't support prizes for SSR. Individual teachers may find that younger students or classes of struggling readers need some external reinforcement to get them started in reading, but if students are reading because of the reward, my guess is they will quit reading as soon as the reward is withdrawn.
I use two forms of reinforcement in SSR. The first is the grade, which is based on the Reading Records. Anyone who participates gets a good grade, and this is usually a sufficient reward for most students. The second reward is my comments and other students' reactions when we discuss their books one-on-one or in group book talks. Teens love to share ideas and hear one another's reactions to books, so this feedback reinforces reading. When students return to my class years later, I almost always hear a comment like, “I always appreciated it that you gave us the time to silent read in your class. That was one of my favorite things in all of high school.” I've heard a variation of that remark hundreds of times over the years, stated with conviction. I truly believe that for most students, the freedom to read and the enjoyment of it are reward enough.
Q: Do you recommend using Accelerated Reader software or other computer-based programs to foster reading?
A: I'm in favor of anything that helps students improve their reading. However, I'm also in favor of keeping the SSR program as simple as possible. Adding computer-based quizzes requires access to both computers and software as well as time. I'd rather use the time for reading. Another concern is the point system used by the Accelerated Reader program. It assigns a value to each book; when students pass the quiz on that book, they receive a certain number of points. As I explain to my students every semester, I believe there is one true reason for reading a book: It is the right book for them at that time. The point system steers some students to books that will score more points, rather than books they truly want to read. In addition, a pretest assigns a range of books for each student. Some teachers and parents dislike this approach because students are not given credit for reading books that are above or below their assigned reading level. As an adult reader, I sometimes want to rack my brains over a book on theoretical physics, and at other times I want to get lost in an easy adventure novel. I want the freedom to choose, and students should have that freedom as well.
The point system also lends itself to formal and informal competition. Who can score the most points this quarter? In one incident, a school set up teams of readers who tallied points for their team. One team, which valued winning above reading for enjoyment, soon discovered that one team member could read a book and take the quiz for himself and all his teammates by using their passwords. Thus, each book the team read was credited four times, once for each member of the team. It was a way to advance in the competition, but did very little to foster lifelong reading in the participants. When the goal is reading for enjoyment, competition doesn't fit.
The cost of computer-based programs is a significant deterrent. I have yet to meet a school librarian who complained of a budget that was too large. Accelerated Reader programs or other software used in a school often comes out of the librarian's budget. Comprehensive computer programs often cost hundreds or thousands of dollars—money that could buy many new books for the library.
My final and biggest concern with computer-based reading programs is limitations on book choices. Even though Accelerated Reader software boasts 75,000 titles in its collection, it will not contain every book that students want to read, especially in the genres of biography and nonfiction. If my student wants to read about how to throw farther in shot put, I want him to read that book, because it could contain the information he needs to win and earn a scholarship for college. While 75,000 titles is an impressive number, it is far too small for my concept of sustained silent reading.
Q: If SSR is so good, why isn't it used in every classroom?
A: I firmly believe that the single most important element in the success of an SSR program is the attitude of the teacher. If a teacher believes SSR is a great program and conveys that attitude to the students, my bet is the program will be successful. On the other hand, if a teacher doesn't believe it works, she probably doesn't use it in her class. And she shouldn't. If silence is not enforced, students aren't monitored for participation, and teachers don't model good reading habits, the program is bound to fail.
Some teachers might not like SSR. They may believe it gives too much control to students or uses needed lecture time for reading time. They may fear having to justify SSR activities against curricular requirements. Or perhaps they believe that students should write book reports on everything they read. These reservations could create doubts about SSR and the class time it requires. Yet teachers who give SSR an honest chance see the amazing results it produces and often quickly change their opinion. It is wonderful to sit in a room with 25 teenagers deeply engaged in reading. For many teachers, that scene confirms the power of silent reading. You can see a glow in the eyes of teachers who believe in sustained silent reading.
Q: Instead of 10 minutes per day, couldn't I just save the time up and give 50 minutes of SSR every Friday?
A: You could. If this were math class, things would balance. After all, 50 minutes is 50 minutes. But SSR is not an equation, and in the world of SSR, 5 times 10 minutes does not equal 1 times 50 minutes. I have seen teachers try SSR this way; nearly all stopped the program in the first semester. While reading a full hour on Friday is better than no student-selected reading at all, too often, I believe, students translate reading only one day per week into “Friday free day.” If SSR just happens on Friday, students quickly see it as the thing we do after we finish our “real” work. They see it as the thing we do at the end of the week when we are all tired and are just hanging on until the weekend. They see it as the least important activity instead of the most important activity. If the books they really want to read come at the end of the week, these books must be less important than the teacher-selected materials.
If SSR is one day per week, students invariably forget their books. Instead of missing a 10-minute session, the student and teacher scramble to fill 50 minutes. By reading only one day per week, students do not get used to having reading books with them, carrying them from class to class and home in the evening, and they don't develop the habit of sustained reading every day, one of the most important results of SSR. Because of the gift of class time, my students read five days per week; however, I know from conversations and surveys that many, even most, of them read six or seven days per week and often continue the habit on through the summer and after graduation.
No running coach would ask his runners to save up their mileage and run it all on one day. Regular training leads to fitness, and regular SSR leads to “reading fitness.” Trelease said reading is a skill, and the study (cited in Chapter 1) by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement amply supports providing daily silent reading.
Q: What do you do if a student repeatedly forgets to bring a book to class?
A: From the first day that students are required to have reading books, I address this. I walk around the room to see that each student has a book. If a student doesn't have one, I ask, “Will it be here tomorrow?” or “Where is it?” The first day or two, I'll offer a gentle reminder, but after that I become more stern. The program is based on every student reading every day. Usually, one or two reminders are plenty, but occasionally a student can't or won't remember to bring a book. Because the program is so simple—bring a book, read, get a good grade—I crack down hard on those who don't participate. It is easy to get an A, but it is also easy to get an F if you don't become part of the program. Using my point system, a student who forgets a book twice would lose a letter grade on the SSR score for the six-week term. I know this harshness seems at odds with the “reading for enjoyment” concept, but I stress repeatedly how important SSR is and how easy it is to get a good grade. I give out few penalties during a school year, because the program quickly becomes a cornerstone of the classroom.
Q: How do you help a student who says, “I hate to read”?
A: To me, this statement really means, “I haven't found the book I want to read yet.” As soon as I hear or read that comment, I meet privately with the student. We sit after class or in the hallway and talk about personal interests. I can usually suggest a book or two. If I can't, I arrange for the student to talk with our librarians. Often, that attention is all it takes to get a student headed in the right direction. Sometimes it takes more.
For example, a senior boy wrote the following negative comment in an SSR survey: “I'm not a big fan of reading. I just get bored with it and it doesn't keep me interested so I find myself day after day staring around the room.” By the time he wrote that comment, I had already talked with him on two occasions. I hadn't reached him. The students had written their comments on Wednesday, but I didn't get a chance to read them until Friday. After class on Monday, he stayed. Our conversation went something like this:
“I see on your SSR survey that things still aren't going well for you with the reading. I want to talk about that again.”
“Oh, don't worry, Mr. Gardiner. That was last week. Over the weekend I found a book about a musician, the rapper DMX. I'm already 240 pages into the book, and I love it.”
End of that conversation, but not the end of the story. A week later, I attended a hockey game. Just after I walked in the door, I saw this same boy. As soon as he saw me, he came over.
“I finished the DMX book. It was almost 500 pages. That's the longest book I've ever read, and I read it in less than two weeks.”
“Nice job. I'm glad you found the book and enjoyed it so much.”
“I wanted to ask you if I could borrow that Lance Armstrong biography you told us about?”
“Sure. It's on my file cabinet at school. Get it from me tomorrow in class.”
Not all progress with students in SSR programs will be that dramatic, but it does happen often enough. Anyone who has taught SSR has similar stories, moments that make months of teaching worthwhile.
For years I had known that “it only takes one book to change a student's life.” Lately, I've heard the phrase “home run book” to describe the phenomenon. Whatever the term, it is an amazing thing to see in your classroom. Your relationship with that student is forever changed and that student's attitude changes too. For proof, ask any Good Adult Reader you meet to describe her own home-run book. She can do it easily, and she can add details about where she was when she read the book, who gave her the book, why she read it, and how it directly led to other books or ideas in her life. A home-run book is a huge gift to a student. Although lifelong reading might happen without SSR in the classroom, the chances of seeing this dramatic change in a student increase exponentially with SSR because student-centered book selection sets the stage so nicely. Remember, “It only takes one book.” Giving students the chance to read several books may lead to the one that changes a life.
Q: Aren't high school students too old for SSR?
A: In his book, The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease tackles a related question: “Aren't high school students too old to read aloud to?” Trelease maintains that they aren't too old, and I agree. On more than one occasion, I've started class by simply reading aloud. I didn't explain what I was doing or why, I just started reading. They may be 15 or 17 years old, but they quickly get quiet and listen, trying to understand what is going to happen next, just like youngsters in story hour. They aren't too old for reading aloud, and they aren't too old for SSR. Most students are grateful for the time. When I look at changes in modern society, I understand why. Students are often forced to choose one sport and participate in it year-round. If not playing a sport, they often work long hours at jobs, sometimes full time around school hours. In addition, family obligations and pressures from friends and a hundred other things seem more important than reading the next 20 pages in a book. High school students aren't too old for SSR; if anything, they are the ones who most need time to read.
Q: Why don't you allow newspapers and magazines during SSR?
A: It may seem a contradiction that half my school day is spent teaching journalism, yet I won't allow SSR students to read newspapers or magazines. The main reason is the idea of sustained reading. Many read the newspaper at home or at work, and I want to give them a place to read something longer and more involved. Having said that, I have, in recent years, received the local newspaper through the Newspapers in Education program. I initially signed up so my journalism students would have models of professional journalism in the classroom. I receive a class set of the local newspaper every Wednesday. We use it to look at leads, headlines, captions, and news writing style. The past two years, I've also allowed my regular English classes to read newspapers on some Wednesdays. It makes a nice break and sometimes helps me find students who have a natural interest in journalism and recruit them for work on our school newspaper. The basis of SSR remains reading a book, but the newspaper serves as a special treat several Wednesdays during the year.
Q: Do you try to connect SSR with your regular curriculum work?
A: Yes. In my opinion, SSR is regular curriculum work. One of the best uses reinforces reading strategies we discuss in class or illustrates the elements of literature. The essence of SSR is enjoyment, so I don't apply much analysis. One interesting connection that I don't design is that students often use SSR to follow up on readings from the curriculum. For example, in the spring we read a book called Until They Bring the Streetcars Back by Stanley Gordon West, a Montana author. Our department speaker coordinator, Kris Keup, arranges annually for West to visit with our students in the school auditorium. After meeting West personally, more than a dozen of my students read Finding Laura Buggs and Growing an Inch, sequels to Until They Bring the Streetcars Back. All three books take place in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1950 during West's senior year in high school. His issues touch high school students, making his books very popular. His novels circulate freely from one student to the next and are often written up on the Read It Forward Web site. Thus, students use SSR time to stay involved with an author they know and admire from their curriculum work.
Q: Will SSR work with classes that are affected by mainstreaming?
A: It works very well. It is an excellent activity for classes with a variety of reading abilities, because each student is given the same assignment and is allowed to interpret it individually. Group assignments from the textbook might leave some students struggling and falling behind, but SSR allows everyone in the room to work and progress independently.