from Chapter Five of The Read-Aloud Handbook by
Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2006, 6th edition).
For a list of all topics covered here and in the print
edition see Chapter
Five question list.
Chapter 5: SSR—sustained
reading aloud's silent partner
Since school time is limited, isn't SSR
a waste of valuable instructional time?
Among the many purposes of reading aloud, a primary one is to motivate the child to read independently for pleasure. In academic terms, such reading is called SSR—Sustained Silent Reading. Take a book, a newspaper, a magazine, and enjoy it! No interruptions for questions, assessments, or reports; just read for pleasure. The concept operates under a variety of pseudonyms, including DEAR time (Drop Everything And Read); DIRT time (Daily Individual Reading Time); SQUIRT time (Sustained Quiet Un-Interrupted Reading Time); and FVR (Free Voluntary Reading).
This chapter will be devoted to SSR in school as well as at home. I’ll also examine a variety of topics associated with silent reading: reading incentive programs (like “Accelerated Reader” and “Reading Counts”); teachers’ reading habits; junk reading; and “summer setback."
Because we adults have done this thing called reading for so much of our lives, we take many of its facets for granted. Children do not, as evidenced by the story told to me by Lee Sullivan Hill, of Clarendon Hills, Illinois. One day her young son Colin came upon her reading silently to herself, and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Reading,” she answered.
“Then why aren’t you making any noise?”
So she explained how people read to themselves as well as to others, like when she reads to him. Hearing that, the light dawned for Colin. “So that’s what Daddy does!” recalling when he had seen his father reading silently to himself—in fact, practicing SSR. Until it is explained, silent reading is sometimes a mystery to young children. Apparently, it's also a mystery to some school administrators. Here is the exact wording from an evaluation done by the principal on an eighth-grade language arts teacher who had included a 40-minute SSR period into her students' weekly schedule (as prescribed by the school improvement plan).
"I see a great deal of free reading taking place in your classroom. I realize the students are working on assigned reading, however I feel that much of the reading taking place in the classroom could take place out of the class. This would allow you more time to interact wit the students. Decisions as to how class time is used must be sound if our students are going to be successful later on."
Here's how would I respond to that principal:
- SSR works as well as any other method and the research
proves it (see below);
- It's almost impossible to interact with students
about literature they haven't read—so they're reading it;
- The students who are the least likely to read outside school are the
ones who either hate reading and/or come from homes where there is the least
space and quiet for solitary reading; my classroom is a clinic where such
reading ills can be cured;
- There is a natural fall-off in recreational reading during adolescence
due to the hormonal and social conflict inflicted on their 24-hour schedule
and this is most often reflected in how badly they use their out-of-school
time; so I'm providing structured time for reading;
- My classroom may be the only place some of them ever see other people
reading silently to themselves, and it might be the only place they ever
see an adult reading for pleasure and not just for work. My classroom is
a laboratory for positive role modeling.
But didn't the National Reading Panel condemn SSR or independent reading?
"Condemn" is a little harsh in its phrasing but the panel didn't exactly give an unqualified endorsement to it and that bumped the practice from some districts afraid of losing federal funds. In a nutshell, here's the scoop on the NRP vs. SSR.
The National Reading Panel's 2000 report noted there wasn't sufficient scientific evidence to support it's use in school, especially if it is being used as the only method of instruction.1 Now I know of no one in their right mind who is advocating that SSR be the only way to teach reading, any more than I would advocate that the only way to learn a foreign language is by doing workbook exercises and taking tests. There needs to be some instruction but you also need to get out and speak the language with others—which is the equivalent of what SSR does for the reader. How can anyone imagine students could get better at reading without reading and reading a lot?
The NRP study subgroup deemed only 14 short-term studies worthy of their disputed2 "medical-scientific" standards and found insufficient evidence among them to support SSR, even though SSR students performed the same as ten of the control groups and surpassed the control groups in the four remaining studies. Not a negative SSR performance in their fourteen "scientific" studies, but not convincing enough for the NRP.
the good folks at Merck will tell you these days, short-term studies are far
less reliable than long-term studies, especially when dealing with things "medical-scientific." And
that brings us to Stephen
Krashen, the leading proponent for inclusion of independent
reading in the classroom schedule. This professor emeritus from the University
of Southern California has thoroughly refuted the NRP's claims, as have a
host of other qualified reading authorities.3 Krashen
examined not 14 short-term SSR studies, as the NRP did, but a total of 53
studies, long ones and short ones. The chart to the right shows the results
when broken down by study-duration, and overwhelmingly the results favor
SSR, most especially for year-long studies. As you can see, the only three
negative results for SSR were in short duration studies compared to twenty-five
positive results. If that were a baseball or football score (25-3), could
it be more decisive? (More on Krashen, SSR, and the NRP at FINDINGS.)
Where do these negative SSR feelings come from? Perhaps from the wonderful folks who make all those workbooks, textbooks, and score sheets that wouldn't be used in class during the time students were lounging around reading books, magazines, and newspapers and getting so good at reading they might need even fewer of those sheets next year.
SSR is based upon a single simple principle: 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.4
In 2002, the OECD, an international organization that for decades has assisted
its 32 governments monitor school achievement world-wide, issued a report called Reading
For Change5, in which it examined the reading literacy
of 250,000 15-year-olds in the 32 countries. In every country, those who read
the most, read the best, regardless of income level (see chart Reading
A decade earlier, a similar study by 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:6
- Who were read to by their teachers daily;
- Who read the most pages for pleasure
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 35 years NAEP has been testing hundreds of thousands of U.S. students.7 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.
During several years at the end of the 1990s, I surveyed 2,887 teachers from approximately thirty states, in every region of the country. These teachers averaged fourteen years’ experience, and 95 percent taught elementary grades—the most critical years for reading. Among the questions I asked: Does their school have any form of SSR in place as a matter of school policy? The response was 60 percent no, 40 percent yes. Considering the overwhelming evidence in favor of SSR for 10-15 minutes a day, how can two-thirds of educators ignore it and still expect scores to rise?
The single most interesting and comprehensive study ever done on SSR is Stephen Krashen’s The
Power of Reading.8 It is inconceivable that anyone could read this book and not resolve to incorporate SSR into the school day. If I could require one professional book to be read by all teachers and librarians, The
Power of Reading would be my choice.