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by Steve Gardiner
Table of Contents
Sustained silent reading is a time during which a class, or in some cases an entire school, reads quietly together. Students are allowed to choose their own reading materials and read independently during class time. Most programs encourage students to continue reading outside of class and permit students to change books if they lose interest. Most important, SSR allows an adult to model the habits, choices, comments, and attitudes good readers develop. Although most programs do not require traditional book reports, some do offer opportunities for students to talk or write about their readings. Although SSR programs share certain characteristics, teachers have adjusted the general concept to fit the specific needs of their students and schools.
Sustained silent reading is referred to by a number of different names across the country. In its purest form, FVR (free voluntary reading) allows students to read any materials they choose, including books, newspapers, magazines, and comic books. Programs include DEAR (drop everything and read), DIRT (daily independent reading time), LTR (love to read), USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading), POWER (providing opportunities with everyday reading), FUR (free uninterrupted reading), IRT (independent reading time), SQUIRT (sustained quiet uninterrupted reading time), WART (writing and reading time), SSRW (sustained silent reading and writing), and a host of other catchy acronyms and abbreviations.
First described by Lyman Hunt of the University of Vermont in the 1960s, SSR gained popularity in the 1970s. In the 1980s, many schools across the nation experienced rooms of quiet readers, although SSR was often criticized for the general lack of student accountability inherent in the programs. By the 1990s, SSR received strong competition from technology-based reading programs like Accelerated Reader software, which brought computer quizzes on selected books into the classroom. In the new millennium, the National Reading Panel reported that SSR programs were not an effective means of teaching reading, renewing a debate that has followed SSR throughout its history.
In spite of that report, interest in silent reading remains high, perhaps fueled by an increasing number of district- and state-required assessments and by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind). These high-stakes assessments have left many teachers and administrators looking for successful, cost-effective ways to improve student reading. Worried about the “teach-to-the-test” mentality these assessments foster, some educators are concerned that students may become successful at taking tests but cease to enjoy reading. Because SSR is inexpensive and focuses strongly on reading for enjoyment, it may be the perfect answer. A significant number of research studies have examined sustained silent reading programs, evaluating their effectiveness with students from primary grades to graduate school (see Chapter 6), and most of these studies show that SSR is successful in promoting and improving student literacy.
The theory behind sustained silent reading is that if students read more and enjoy it more, they will become better readers, the same theory that drives the basketball player to stand at the free-throw line after practice each day and shoot 100 free throws. By the end of the season, he will be a better shooter, whether he has direct instruction or not. While practicing shooting, he will apply what he learns each day to the next day's practice. Readers are the same. As they read each day, they encounter new words, usage, sentence structures, and ideas. Each day adds to their total experience and makes the next day better. With increased practice, reading becomes easier and—this is important—more enjoyable. Like the basketball player and his team, readers in SSR classrooms share the reading experience with their classmates and teacher. They talk about their books, trade recommendations, and see fellow students and at least one adult engaged in the reading process.
Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, in his excellent book The Power of Reading (1993, p. x), describes free voluntary reading as “reading because you want to. For school-age children, FVR means no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter, and no looking up every vocabulary word. FVR means putting down a book you don't like and choosing another one instead. It is the kind of reading highly literate people do obsessively all the time.”
Turning students into “highly literate people” is exactly what silent reading programs are designed to do. “Free Voluntary Reading is one of the most powerful tools we have in language education,” Krashen says (1993, p. 1). He continues, “It will not, by itself, produce the highest levels of competence; rather, it provides a foundation so that higher levels of proficiency may be reached. When FVR is missing, these advanced levels are extremely difficult to attain.”
Krashen believes silent reading programs are the most effective way to teach not only reading proficiency, but also all the skills related to reading. Success through FVR is based on what he calls “the complexity argument.” Language, he says, “is too complex to be deliberately and consciously learned one rule or one item at a time” (1993, p. 14). This argument applies to grammar as well as vocabulary. “Not only are there many words to acquire, there are also subtle and complex properties of words that competent language users have acquired” (p. 14). Minor differences in usage may cause words to have very different meanings, presenting a challenge that students will not be able to meet by studying words from vocabulary lists alone.
To add to this complexity, “when we acquire a word we acquire considerable knowledge about its grammatical properties. With verbs, for example, this includes knowing whether they are transitive or intransitive, what kinds of complements they can be used with, and so on. Very little of this knowledge is deliberately taught” (Krashen, 1993, p. 14). He points out that
vocabulary teaching methods typically focus on teaching simple synonyms, and thus give only part of the meaning of the word, and none of its social meanings or grammatical properties. Intensive methods that aim to give students a thorough knowledge of words are not nearly as efficient as reading in terms of words gained per minute. In fact, Nagy, Herman, and Anderson (1985) argue that picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction. Their suggestion is not to do both instruction and reading—the time is better spent in reading alone.
Jim Trelease, author of the national bestseller The Read-Aloud Handbook (2001), makes a strong case for parents and teachers to encourage and participate in reading aloud with students. His research is thorough and convincing. One of the most compelling chapters is “Sustained Silent Reading: Reading-Aloud's Natural Partner.” “SSR is based upon a single simple principle,” Trelease (2001, p. 107) says. “Reading is a skill—and the more you use it, the better you get at it. Conversely, the less you use it, the more difficult it is.” Does SSR work? According to Trelease, it does:
When the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) compared the reading skills of 210,000 students from thirty-two different countries, it found the highest scores (regardless of income level) among children:
Who were read to by their teachers daily
Who read the most pages for pleasure daily. (p. 107)
Moreover, the frequency of SSR had a marked impact on scores: Children who had it daily scored much higher than those who had it only once a week. American NAEP assessments found the identical pattern for the nearly twenty-five years NAEP has been testing hundreds of thousands of U.S. students. The evidence for reading aloud to children and SSR is overwhelming—yet most children are neither read to nor experience SSR in the course of a school day. (p. 107)
While recognizing that the research is important, any teacher who has been in a successful silent reading program knows the magic that happens when students are engaged and reading. I've experienced it for years, and it is always exciting to see another teacher discover that joy. A teacher who observed those good results in her classroom produced one of the finest books ever written on the subject. Nancie Atwell, author of In the Middle (1987), changed the way thousands of teachers approach reading and writing instruction. She realized that teachers model behavior and attitudes, whether they intend to or not. She lists the negative things teachers model (and students learn) about reading:
When I read and hear about ways teachers have adapted SSR to fit their needs, I'm amazed at what a democratic process it is. Used successfully throughout the United States and in many other countries, with students of every age group and every reading ability, it's not a one-size-fits-all garment, but with a little stretching here and a little tucking there, it can be made to fit any situation.
What provides this utility? The major premise behind any sustained silent reading program—that reading should be enjoyable. Students still need assigned readings from the core curriculum. They need discussions and quizzes, but not on everything they read. SSR offers students a chance to make choices and to take control of part of their education, a very powerful concept for them. Teachers work with students in a different way, as a mentor would: assisting in book selections, helping students past difficult parts in their books, acting as a sounding board for student reactions to their reading.
We all love to do things we enjoy. No one has to teach us to enjoy an afternoon at the beach splashing in the waves. No one has to instruct students that “hanging out with friends” is fun. We seek out things we enjoy and avoid things we don't enjoy. Students who learned about reading based on Atwell's list of negative modeling probably don't enjoy reading and don't seek it out. However, I suspect a high percentage of students who sat in her reading workshops in the 1980s are avid readers today.
If sustained silent reading has an ultimate goal, it would be to create lifelong readers. SSR gives students the choices to explore authors, genres, and topics worth their reading time. I often refer to a character, the Good Adult Reader, when we talk about making choices and learning to become better readers. The Good Adult Reader becomes a generic model of what I want them to become. I use the Good Adult Reader as an example and ask questions like “What do you think a Good Adult Reader does when he needs to find a new book?” “What do you think a Good Adult Reader does when he doesn't understand a passage he has just read?”
As coach of the cross-country team each fall, I recognize similarities between “coaching” sustained silent reading and coaching distance running. At the beginning of the season, runners are out of shape and still in a summer frame of mind. As they become fit, feel the success of improving their times at races, and share the “runner talk” on the bus and in team meetings, their motivation for running becomes less external—me giving them the workout for the day—and more an intrinsic sense of wanting to feel the motion as they float over the hills in the park on a beautiful October afternoon. Perhaps the most satisfying part of my coaching comes on those days when I am driving home from school and see a runner who graduated four, five, or six years ago jogging down the street. I honk. The runner waves, and we both smile. SSR is the “lifetime sport” of the academic world, and I wish I could drive past the houses of former students, see them reading, and honk.
If SSR is such an enjoyable activity, what makes it so? The best theory I've seen is the work of University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi (1991) interviewed hundreds of people from around the world and asked them to describe how they felt when they were involved in an activity they enjoyed. He talked with chess players, musicians, rock climbers, tennis players, surgeons, and many others, and based on their accounts
of what it felt like to do what they were doing, I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Flow occurs when a person challenges herself and meets success in the challenge. (p. 4)
Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. Playing a close game of tennis that stretches one's ability is enjoyable, as is reading a book that reveals things in a new light, as is having a conversation that leads us to express ideas we didn't know we had. Closing a contested business deal, or any piece of work well done, is enjoyable. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “That really was fun,” and wish they would happen again. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it. (1991, p. 46)
When students participate in sustained silent reading and enjoy books they have chosen, reading becomes a flow activity. Watching students during SSR time reveals that most, if not all, have become so involved in their reading that they are no longer aware of others. They laugh, they frown, they shake their heads; occasionally, they blurt out in amazement or anger because of something a character has said or done. It may seem humorous, but it clearly shows they have become involved in their reading and have found the balance Csikszentmihalyi describes as forward movement.
My colleague Judy Barnes told me, “The most remarkable of these experiences for me was watching a girl read last year. As she sat silently in her chair, tears were running down her cheeks. She continued to read, completely absorbed, and not self-conscious about the tears.”
Csikszentmihalyi's analysis of flow experience includes two other aspects directly related to SSR. The first, he says, is concentration:
In normal everyday existence, we are the prey of thoughts and worries intruding unwanted in consciousness. Because most jobs, and home life in general, lack the pressing demands of flow experiences, concentration is rarely so intense that preoccupations and anxieties can be automatically ruled out. Consequently, the ordinary state of mind involves unexpected and frequent episodes of entropy interfering with the smooth run of psychic energy. This is one reason why flow improves the quality of experience: the clearly structured demands of the activity impose order, and exclude the interference of disorder in consciousness. (p. 58)
Reading and writing impose this order. Students often say, “Oh, I was really getting into my book” when SSR time ends. They like the feeling of getting that involved, and after they experience it a few times, it becomes easier and easier to return to that level of concentration with each reading session. For some, that level of involvement defines a good book.
Csikszentmihalyi called the other aspect of flow experience “the transformation of time.” In his studies, he discovered that
one of the most common descriptions of optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does. The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events like night and day, or the orderly progression of clocks, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity. (1991, p. 66)
Students in SSR classes often report feeling like this. Any reader who has glanced up, surprised to see that it is 1:00 in the morning, knows exactly the feeling. The nature of sustained silent reading is such that it not only fosters the kind of challenge that leads to forward movement, but also sets the stage for concentration and the transformation of time explained by flow theory. While it is easier for researchers to measure student progress in vocabulary, grammar, or fluency, greater reading enjoyment is what will lead a student to lifelong reading. SSR creates the flow activity that supports enjoyment. Any teacher who has shared SSR time with students has seen it happen, often as quickly as the second week of the program.
The flow experience is very real, but it can pose one danger for teachers. As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his research, flow is universal. It crosses cultural and economic boundaries with ease. It doesn't discriminate based on age. I long ago lost track of the number of times a student cleared his or her throat or tapped on a table to bring me out of the depths of a book, only to discover that our 12 minutes or 15 minutes of reading time had suddenly turned into 26 minutes or 30 minutes. Although it may be embarrassing for a moment and may lead to some scurrying to catch up with the planned lesson, it provides a different sort of modeling for students to see. Adults get engrossed in their reading, and students need to see that.
Research shows that SSR works in teaching second-language students. Two experiences had taught me this even before my impressions were confirmed by Krashen, who wrote, “FVR is also, I am convinced, the way to achieve advanced second language proficiency” (1993, p. x).
I had experienced this myself in 1981, teaching at the American School of Lima, Peru. As soon as I stepped off the plane at Jorge Chavez International Airport, I realized I was in trouble. My one year of high school Spanish (far too many years in the past) wasn't going to help me, so I quickly did what I thought was the right thing. I hired a tutor. Rosanna was an excellent teacher, and we went through pages in her textbook and wrote sentences and vocabulary words in a notebook. I studied hard, but still found myself hoping that when I was out in the city, the waiter or store clerk who helped me would be the one who spoke at least a few words of English. That was seldom the case, and I ended up pointing at pictures on the menu or writing prices on a piece of paper.
Then one day I picked up a copy of El Commercio, the largest daily newspaper in the country. The first day, it took an hour, with frequent references to my dictionary, to read the banner story. Within two weeks, I could read the front page in an hour, and within two months, I could read the newspaper much as I would at home. The biggest benefit, however, was in the vocabulary and sentences I learned. The banner news was the Falkland Islands war, so I learned about rockets, tanks, ships, and other military terms. Suddenly, I could understand conversations on the street—real people talking, not just words from the vocabulary lists in Rosanna's grammar book. I learned to follow World Cup soccer scores, the progress of the Peruvian national women's volleyball team, local authors' book signings, and a host of other events and issues that were the topics of daily conversations. By then, every person I met was my language teacher. I talked with taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and people on the street. My time in Lima was immediately more enjoyable.
The second experience occurred on a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. My wife, Peggy, and I were walking near the central plaza when we met Oleg. He asked if he could walk with us and practice his English. He explained that he was a language student and could speak eight languages, but English was the hardest for him to practice. Because this was during the time of the Soviet Union, most tourists in Kiev were from Eastern bloc nations. He had plenty of chances to practice his Slavic languages, but few chances to speak English. We spent the afternoon walking through Kiev, talking with him. When we parted, he asked if we would like to walk again with him and his wife in the evening. We agreed and set a time to meet. Before he left, he asked, “Do you have any American novels with you?” We did. “Would it be possible for you to give me some? I can't buy them here. I have English textbooks, but I want to read novels, so I can understand the juice of the language.”
I went back to the hotel and opened my suitcase. I took out all the books we had, even removing my bookmark from the one I was reading at the time. I could always get others; it was clear these books were more valuable to him.
When we met near the statue of Lenin, I handed him the stack of books. His eyes brightened. The books would supply hours of work and pleasure for him.
Although he gave me a beautiful cross-stitched Ukrainian shirt, the look on his face when he saw the books was a gift, one that became more important to me through the years. When I give students sustained silent reading time in my class, I am passing on that gift. If they are going to become lifelong readers, they need to “understand the juice of the language.”
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