By Amber Rain Chandler
I have this theory. One day I’ll write a dissertation about it, but for now, humor me. I think there’s a direct relationship between making middle school students write about their independent reading and the sudden onset of groans when they are then given time to read books of their choice.
Think about it. Early elementary students all seem to love reading, even as they struggle with it. Then, around 3rd or 4th grade, students are required to fill out reading logs, double entry journals, and the like.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about accountability – but over the years I’ve heard all types of students express their dread when asked to “read for enjoyment” because they’ve always been required to write something while they’re supposedly falling in love with reading (that’s the point, right?).
My own daughter read the entire Harry Potter series over the course of a school term. Guess who was crying for hours as she went back and tried to catch up on her reading log entries for all those times she just didn’t want to “stop and say something”?
So, am I somehow committing malpractice?
Given this background, you might understand my mixed feelings as I continue to weigh the pros and cons of implementing Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) this year with my 8th graders. How can I justify giving valuable instruction time to reading without assigning writing with it? How can I not justify it?
This question has been eating away at me since I made the decision the first week of school to gift my students 30 minutes of no-strings-attached reading every Friday.
Theoretically, I can rationalize this uninterrupted time, but in practice, I guess I’m like the other naysayers of SSR, like Mark Pennington, a Massachusetts reading specialist, whose article “Why Sustained Silent Reading Doesn’t Work” is spot on in most ways.
Then, to top off my “icky” feeling of academic sloppiness, when I had the first Friday 30-minute SSR, my principal walked by. He looked in, saw my students reading, then he smiled and walked away. Why did I feel my heart drop like I wasn’t doing my job? He was smiling after all. Why did I want to chase him down and explain myself?
As my principal disappeared down the hallway, likely forgetting about my room of readers immediately, I spent a minute or two wondering whether I should have posted some sort of reading strategy on the SmartBoard for students to use while reading. Something my principal (or other inquiring minds) might think justified this use of time.
Then I remembered my resolution: Reading is the thing. I’m willing to let the activity of reading help me assess a student’s reading prowess. Much can be learned from “teacher observation” of student’s reading choices, pace, and stamina. Reading is so important that it should be the activity, not the medium for another activity to take place. I’m not saying I won’t teach reading strategies, because I will, but I do not want to interfere with my students as they become engrossed in a story.
Yet, still, something isn’t ringing quite true for me. I know that the purists who are the biggest proponents of unadulterated SSR – the DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or Free Voluntary Reading folks – will think I’m missing the point. But I know in my teaching heart I am not going to be able to have zero connection to any activity that is happening in my class. If it is simply reading time, well, it’s just too isolated from everything else that happens.
So, I listened to what others are saying
As I wrestle with these still unresolved feelings, I’ve found myself returning to the internet in search of more professional voices on the subject. The more “teacher stories” I read online, the more it seems that many teachers are conflicted about “pure” SSR and have developed their own versions of it.
Take, for instance, reading specialist Ann Gavazzi’s blog post, “Silent Sustained Reading: Why It Works.” She interviews her students individually during SSR time, preventing students from faking their reading or not comprehending what they’ve read because the book was not a good fit. Gavazzi, who has been both a middle level ELA teacher and a private reading consultant, writes:
The only way Independent Reading, or SSR, or DEAR can actually work is if you make sure students are reading at their independent reading levels and include interactive activities that encourage students to use the text to complete the activities.
Is it that teachers just can’t leave SSR alone to do its magic? Or, are we reacting to our best practices instincts?
And then there’s the 21st century thing . . .
I’ve also been having a hard time reconciling the solitary nature of SSR when I believe that one of the true innovations of the Digital Age is the rise of “social reading.” How can I have students read without helping them incorporate their experience into their ever-connected world?
Recently I wrote an article for The Edvocate about why I believe social reading is so important. I literally re-read it to help me figure out what I should be doing with SSR. Here’s some of what I said in the Edvocate post:
My goal is for students to experience the joy of reading unencumbered by the expectation of an analytical essay or the pressure to “close read”—both activities that I teach at other points in the year, guiltlessly, as they are important skills and can be taught in inventive and interesting ways. However, I think that students must also be given a creative outlet for their responses to literature and that we’d all be better served if the link between reading and writing is severed on occasion.
As I read my own words, I thought, “Now what? You can’t ditch SSR after one week!”
Then it hit me. The reason I like SSR is that it is uninterrupted reading. The reason I don’t like it is because it is so solitary and disconnected from everything else I do. Might there be a way to bridge these muddied waters?
So, here’s my next step…
I’ve decided that the way I’m going to honor both of my inclinations – reading for reading’s sake AND the idea that reading should be connected to my class (and other students) – is to have students do SSR every Friday for a half hour and then encourage them to continue reading throughout the following week. Toward the end of the each quarter, they will choose one of the books they’ve read and do a project to share with the class – a sort of enticement for others to read the book and perhaps a chance to connect with fellow students who’ve already read it.
Their project choices will be choices I already use for multiple purposes, so they won’t require a new set of skills or directions to complete. And I’m going to encourage students to read the same books, to pass around the ones they think are good, and even to borrow multiple copies and consider agreeing to “be on the same page” by each Friday.
Truth be told, my experimenting with sustained reading is a work in progress. In our increasingly connected world, I think ELA teachers today face some unprecedented circumstances that complicate reading and reading instruction, with the added hurdle that most of us aren’t trained reading specialists.
I’d love to know if you practice a purist SSR/DEAR form of reading for reading’s sake, or if you add your own twist? Are you feeling this dilemma between the desire to provide unencumbered reading time and your knowledge of the research questioning its value? And, inevitably: in this climate of high stakes testing, which is ultimately about testing reading ability, should we be spending our time on something else, or is SSR a path to fluency?
Amber Rain Chandler (@msamberchandler) is a National Board Certified ELA teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. She is also a certified School Building Leader, teaches Methods in English Teaching at Medaille College, and leads staff development on Differentiation for the Southtown Teachers Center. She writes frequently for MiddleWeb and other publications, including AFT’s Voices from the Classroom. Visit her website.