Can We Talk About Sustained Silent Reading?

Amber-Chandler-Headshot-120By 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.

complete-potterDon’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.

principal-door-144Then, 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.

Boy reading book with crescent moon and starsYet, 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 . . .

Shakespeare-social-mediaI’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?

Reading Concept Illustration

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.

A child has fun reading a book.

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.

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51 Responses

  1. Suesis says:

    How about some comments from someone who loves to read for enjoyment and is, as a sideline, a math teacher. What about book clubs? I like talking about the books I’ve read with others who’ve also read it. Maybe set some talking points before the book–things to keep in mind before reading. Or instead of a talking book club, use Google docs to share?

    SSR is great, except when it isn’t. I’d have died to have it when I was in middle school, but only if I didn’t have to write afterwards. I hate writing and am so glad that others do it and do it well so that I have wonderful choices for reading.

    Good luck! BTW–I’m jealous that ELA teachers can have a period a week to let students do work silently that’s good for them–wish I could :)

    • I love the idea of a book club. I let them read the same books, so maybe I could set up a class blog for them to write about it. If anyone does this, let me know!

  2. Heidi says:

    We do DEAR everyday for
    30 solid minutes. In that time I rotate through students to discuss their current independent reading and monitor their progress with it. No logs, no writing. (AR Test at the end, however.)

    • I would love to have AR tests available, but my district stopped using them in the middle school. How do you count the AR test (as a test or quiz or participation)? I would like the comprehension data, but purist would grapple with scoring of any kind!

  3. Courtney K. says:

    I incorporate a lot of silent reading time in my reading intervention class for 7th and 8th graders. A big part of my theory is that we just need to get them to love reading. We talk about selecting books at their reading level, and they know their reading level from assessment data.

    As a school, we have DEAR once a week for 30-40 minutes during our Advisory period. ALL of us (teachers included) drop everything and read for that time period. It’s great!

    • Wow would I love DEAR time for teachers! How do your teachers feel about it? That would be a great opportunity to model what good readers do (abandon books they dislike, copy down quotes they like, etc).

  4. Lisa says:

    I think it’s still possible to retain the importance of SSR and get kids to talk about their reading – we live in a digital age and I’m certain that kids will enjoy blogging about reading, creating a voice memo about their thoughts, creating a digital drawing/notebook about a set topic or theme…students can still engage in their reading without the feeling of always ‘writing’ about it….great blog, I enjoyed reading it!

  5. Catherine Hanes says:

    I teach 8-10 year olds in Australia and have ‘Secret Reading Santas’ where each student is given a brown paper bag with another students name on it. They choose a book for that person and secretly hand it over. This gets them excited about books and gives the students power. We have 20 mins silent reading a day with no written follow up. They read for PLEASURE! I am convinced this is far better than having to write about it. We still have reading group activities at other times and I also read to the class. Through this approach we have connected with authors through a variety of digital media. My students want to know more about their books and the people behind them and love their books. Hope this helps.

  6. MrsFitz says:

    Hello! Every week, except during testing weeks, every student at my high school gets 30 minutes of pure SSR. From 11 until 11:30 on Wednesdays, we read as a whole school, students, faculty, and staff.
    In addition, in English classrooms, we do SSR. Some do it a few days a week, while others every day. We tie it to journaling or 9 weeks projects. This year, my students are giving book reviews on Destiny Quest, which is similar to Goodreads. They also have to make comments about what their peers are reading. In my classroom, I also have a bulletin board that allows students to write about a book they’ve read that they think others should, too. It is optional, but I have found success.

    • Your 9 weeks project sounds like what I am planning to do with their end of quarter project. I think I’m going to have to “steal” your idea of the book bulletin board. It might help them to select future books. Cool idea.

  7. Mary Jo Brown says:

    I adore SSR . And I want my students to cultivate a love of reading for reading! We have a daily 15 SSR session( following a five to ten minute purely social talk time). After the 15 minutes, I allow them to turn and talk to someone near them about what they read, or they can continue to read for another two minutes. Then I let one or two students share with the class what was shared with them, encouraging good listening. This worked well last year with my fifth graders, and I’m trying it with my fourth graders this year.

    • I love your “purely social talk time.” I really think that making reading social is crucial. I wrote about it pretty extensively in the article I mentioned because it was a real discovery to me how much they really need and appreciate social time within a structured school day.

  8. lararonalds says:

    I love what you write! I feel the same! For me, it is about recognising each child and how they engage with reading and books…however you get there, or however they each get there the love is crucial. The options for those are endless! There are some fabulous research articles from the early years that support yur pedagogy. Grade 8 is like the early years of high school….they are growing changing and at the beginning of the adolescent journey. I think much of the pedagogy (with consideration of brain development possibly) coud be applicable in supporting your ideas and observations. Thank you for sharing!

  9. sara says:

    Have you read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller?

    • Yes, I have, based on a recommendation from a fellow teacher. A number of people have mentioned it, so I’m going to pull out my copy to think about again. I remember being inspired, but I also felt that middle school is so vastly different than elementary school (at least 8th grade seems to be). Maybe it is time to reconsider. Thanks!

    • Read Donalyn’s sequel! It addresses many concerns like this. I have also had a love/ hate with SSR and all the logging and writing! We want accountability (I have to get a %), but it kills the joy.

  10. Kelly says:

    I am not a middle school teacher (I’m an SLP), but I am commenting to share my experience as a student who did SSR as an 8th grader everyday for our entire school year. I don’t know if it is helpful, but I really enjoyed it (this was 20 years ago, so I know things have changed…). We had notebooks that we used to correspond with our peers and teacher about what we were reading. I don’t remember specifics for how often, but we wrote letters in our notebook describing what was happening in our book and asking about the book our peer was reading, then exchanged notebooks. We also wrote to our teacher every so often.

  11. Melinda says:

    Have you read Nancie Atwell’s The Reasong Zone or Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer? They are both great reads, especially for a MS teacher. If we want to grow readers, we must give them time to READ- real books, at their level! Keep up the good work! You will find the balance!

  12. Jacqui King says:

    I teach 4th grade. I try to provide 15 – 20 min/day for SSR. Kiddos need to read books in their independent range. I’ve scheduled “Hot Cocoa Chats” 3-4 times/year. During the chat, I have kids grouped by independent reading level, parents serve hot chocolate and students discuss the books they’ve read. They are encouraged to record the titles of books others have spotlighted that they might want to read. I post a list of things for students to prepare regarding the books they read during that time almost as soon as one chat is finished so they can record the information as they read. The kids put their information on index cards. They use the cards to keep them on task during the chat, and I collect and give points just for having prepared the information. Some of the requirements include identifying the setting or plot, to which character do they relate best/why, Would this make a great movie why/why not, etc.

    • I love the Hot Cocoa Chats idea! This hits directly on what I’ve been considering–reading as a social endeavor. Plus, I know parents must love it too. Winter in Buffalo can be brutal, so perhaps Hot Cocoa motivation will be nice.

  13. I like how you are struggling through this – it shows the type of effective teacher you are. One question – what’s wrong with solitary? What’s wrong with students having something, and that thing is their own? What’s wrong with us allowing students to be by themselves, and feel that? We are connected all the time these days, and more information is coming out about the need for reflection – for self reflection – for understanding who we are when we are alone. Maybe that’s the work, the gift, the life-long skill you are developing in your children.

    • You made my day. I feel very much this struggle happens everywhere in life, and I am glad you focused my attention on it. You’ve given me something to think about.

  14. Anne says:

    I am a 9th grade high school English teacher and I work with struggling learners who are below grade level in reading comprehension and just about everything else, too. We are using SSR with a book chat in groups every few weeks. For the chats, they bring food and read a little passage out loud. They rate the book and explain why they did or did not like the book. They draw a little picture to go with it. They do this in groups with people who are at about the same reading lexile level as they are. That way, if they really “sell” a book, it is a book that is appropriate for the rest of the group. We (I work in a team) try to steer them toward choosing books in their ZPD (appropriate lexile level) but emphasize choosing a book they want to read is more important than its level. I like it. We are taking the SRI three times a year and hope to see more improvement than we did before we implemented SSR.

    • I love the idea of reading a passage. It would be a perfect way for the other students to get a feel for the book while the reader develops fluency. Sometimes hearing something out loud has a huge impact–something that I think teachers of middle and high school might forget. My own kids love the read aloud times in elementary school.

  15. Anyone interested in promoting a reading culture in their classroom should follow this blog written by three teachers in my English department at Trumbull High School. They will be presenting on this subject at the Connecticut Reading Association conference on October 1 and at NCTE in November. They’ve modeled their work after the rigorous independent reading movement at Mamaroneck High School.

    https://3lonenuts.wordpress.com/

  16. Dawn says:

    I don’t feel one bit guilty ever about giving my 7th graders time to read what they choose. We engage in reader’s workshop 2 times per week and students are held accountable by setting four goals per quarter based on a rubric I designed. After reading Donalyn Miller’s book The Book Whisperer it confirmed for me that we MUST carve out time for students to read during the school day. And as a long time fan of Nancie Atwell, I know that teaching strategies only works if students are engaged in consistent reading where they can practice those strategies independently. Honestly, we can’t afford NOT to give our students time to read. To me, it is one of the most valuable learning experiences they have during their school day. Sad to me to think teachers are fearful that they aren’t doing their jobs when they’re reading beside their students modeling what a reader looks like when engaging with texts. Common core is all about acquiring complex skills and independence to gain critical thinking skills. It concerns me that one of the most valuable learning tasks might be viewed as a waste of valuable teaching time.

    • I like how you link this to Common Core, and I agree with you. The types of skills CC requires are fostered through SSR. I’d never thought of that, so thanks for bringing that in to the conversation.

  17. alywren@juno.com says:

    For my 4th/5th graders I have a Read For 20 time each morning. We spread out, sitting or laying anywhere in the room as long each student has an “alone” space. I turn on music and the light is dimmed. Every year my kids groan and complain but by the end of the first quarter it becomes the favorite part of the day. It feels very peaceful and magical. There is also a bonding element with everyone focused on a common purpose. Originally it was simply independent reading based on my personal belief that reading for the sake of a good story is an inherently valuable activity. Sigh… but I did find that I needed to find a way to motivate or follow up on some readers. I ended up with what we call our Book Wrap. Each day We start with a prompt such as “What is a decision the main character makes and how does it affect the storyline?” Or “Give three adjectives to describe the setting.” The kids read for 20 and then we come back together and answer the prompt based on what was read that day. As each student is reading their own self chosen book, the answers vary. The Book Wrap discussion is a very quick check activity. It might be a one minute pair share, it could be a random draw of three names or perhaps a note on sticky notes. My kids really enjoy this activity and I feel it “justifies” my use of time yet it allows the reading activity to remain fluid and open with the kids making the active choices. Oh, the kids also complete a simple lap folder book report after each book.

  18. Thanks for sharing your opinions. I teach grades 8-12 English and start every single lesson with 15 minutes of quiet reading. Sometimes I ask the students to write a review for a class blog post and sometimes I just let them read for fun. I have found that when I tell them we don’t have time to read they get very upset and ask for ‘just five minutes’!

    If you still feel unsure about it you might find this this article from ‘The Guardian’ reassuring. It refers to a study showing that reading for pleasure improves not just literacy, but maths ability too! http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/sep/16/reading-improves-childrens-brains

    Best wishes,
    Natasha
    http://educatorinoz.blogspot.com.au/

  19. Toni Clymer says:

    Have you heard of learn2earn.org? I am trying it this year. So far the students love it! It’s like a social media for sharing about the book you are reading. They also respond in writing to questions that are randomly posed to them about their book. Students can like and comment about what other students have read. That can’t wait to sign in everyday and log their reading.

  20. Keryn King says:

    I’m a learning advisor in New Zealand working across a cluster of schools and see many great reading practices. My favourite recent experience was observing in an open plan (modern leaning environment) with two junior classes during their literacy time. When they started, these 5 year olds could only sustain 2 minutes of silent individual reading time, but built up over 4 or so months to 20 minutes. The teachers actually had to pull it back to fit in the writing sessions and other reading options in the programme. At the start of the day, students “shop” for books, collecting books from their instructional reading boxes, books from the class library, magazines etc and put them in their personal baskets. They can ready anywhere on the class, on an armchair, reading tent, under a table or on an armchair. Reading bliss! This proves that students need opportunities to practice sustained reading and be given the space and time to do that.

    • How interesting! A few years ago, there was much discussion about building stamina, and I can see how that easily applies here. 20 minutes is amazing, especially for little ones. Thanks for the information.

  21. To make it less “solitary” though I think there is value in that, you can have students share with each other about the book they are reading. You also should be reading sometimes during this time and sharing what you are reading. When kids (and you) share what you are reading, this gets other kids wanting to read that book. I kept my own reading log on chart paper in the classroom to show that I was reading, just like I expected them to, and I would talk about the books I read- almost all YA- and that would get students interested and wanting to read those same books.

  22. Juli says:

    I always thought a hybrid approach was helpful. I teach 6th grade ELA and we use a workshop approach for reading and writing as I believe most here do. I provide 30 minutes of reading daily, but I ask my students to write think-marks (TMs) on post it notes(!= surprise, ?=misunderstanding, W=wondering something, etc.) When they finish a book, they take an inventory of the TMs and tally on a sheet for their journals.

    I also have them answer a question about the current reading unit as a way to integrate language understanding with their reading time. I do this almost daily, but then on Friday, I just let them read without the think marks and enjoy the story. Keeping the book reading social is best through book clubs in my experience.

    The TMs influence students to think about their reading as they read. Kids who are solid readers find TMs annoying. Those who do not think about their reading find TMs a revelation (at best) and cumbersome (at worst). Either way I think it’s good way to show readers their thinking with minimal disruption.

  23. I will share the article with my math friends. I like how it said that independent reading may help student become more self-sufficient in general, which rings true. Thanks for sharing.

  24. JennyE says:

    I use a reader’s workshop model that is a form of ssr. It is called SEM-R out of university of connecticut. I do book hooks or mini lessons on strategies of concepts at the beginning of the period and then kids read independent books of choice for about 30 minutes with a closure. Kids have book marks with deep thinking questions about the focus area such as character, theme, setting etc. each week they choose one of the questions to answer in written form for hw. They must use text evidence to support thier ideas. We also meet in weekly small book groups to talk about one of these questions and think about patterns and generalizations that emerge across our differnt, yet somehow connected books.

  25. Dawn Martelli says:

    My 8th graders read every day in class for 20 min or more. They selected their own novels. On any given day you would find me reading along with them or having short whispering conversations with each individual about what they were reading…a great way to exchange ideas if I read the book or learn about new ones. I would also recommend books. I booktalked every Friday. Reading became naturally social in my classes as my students would run to me in the hall to share where what part of the book they stopped at last night, discus what they were reading with their friends in the hall, and when students wanted to do a booktalk to share a favorite. This all came from Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle – a must read! I also implemented her writing workshop. I have to say that it made my students see themselves as readers and authors.

  26. Linda says:

    When I taught brick and mortar high school English (been teaching online for 10) the whole entire school including all faculty and staff read for 20 minutes at the same time, first thing in the morning. The readers could bring their own books as long as the content wasn’t against school rules, or select from SSR books provided in the classroom. (I purchased Dove books (classics) for a $1, plus also bought them from book fairs ($1 a bag), garage sales, all different reading levels because we also had a fair amount of 2nd language students.)

    Guess which book was always fought over?

    All we did was read. No assignments were connected with the SSR.

  27. I loved silent reading best when we did it schoolwide and took no phone calls from parents during that time because the principal, custodian, cafeteria workers, etc. were all reading. This sends a powerful message.

  28. Bill Ivey says:

    I’m a deep believer in free choice reading, based on a firm belief that research that focuses on the big picture and not on specific skills such as sounding out words suggests that there is no better way to build interest in reading, overall reading fluency, and for that matter pre-conscious grammar and spelling ability than free choice reading. We do weekly checks, which my current class decided would be in the form of a reading circle where they all take turns talking about their books, and that anyone who would rather quietly talk one-on-one with me is welcome to do so instead. My Humanities 7 class has 1’45” four times a week, and generally the last 20-60 minutes are “Choice Time” when they can do any work for the class they choose – including curling up with their independent reading books. I tell them, “That you read matters deeply to me. What you read, and when you read it, is completely up to you.” In the rare event that a kid seems to be stuck in a book for ages, I’ll talk to her one-on-one during Choice Time and we’ll come to some sort of joint agreement about what’s going on and what we can do about it. They love it, telling me it makes them feel respected and trusted.

  29. J says:

    I have a compensatory reading class that i teach, and one of the hallmarks is that my students get beaucoup time to read. There are times when we will spend the entire block reading a book. I will ask students outside of that time what’s going on in the book, and what they think about it so they can share. I use this primarily to build endurance for state tests, where students will have to sit, read, and answer questions on five 1000 word passages for over 3 hours.

    I also incorporate AR quizzes as an accountability measure instead of reading logs. The quizzes are simple if the book has been read, and illustrate whether or not the student is recalling information. I do not require anything to be tied to class as other than completing AR goals. Students choose their own books, with an emphasis on building chapter book reading skills.

    As of the last state test, my grade level showed the highest passing moving from a 54 % pass rate entering to a 72 % pass rate exiting, as well as a 36% growth rate among test levels. I credit this reading as one of the factors that helped this happen, as I am the only grade level that has given so much time to the effort of having students read and build their chapter book skills.

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