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About five years ago, I was pointed toward a professional practice that has literally revolutionized my teaching. Like many of the best ideas, its beauty is in its simplicity.
That professional practice is simply this: I start each class period with 15 minutes of silent, independent choice reading.
That’s it. That’s the whole idea.
This might sound like an old-school throwback to what has been variously called SSR (sustained silent reading), DEAR (drop everything and read) or DIRT (daily independent reading), but trust me – this isn’t your mother’s silent reading program.
Silent reading went out of vogue for a while after a 2000 study called Teaching Children to Read by the National Reading Panel. This meta-analysis examined 14 studies about the efficacy of silent reading programs and concluded that “the gains were so small as to be of questionable educational value.” To be clear, the report did not conclude that silent reading has no benefits, but rather that evidence does not exist to causally link silent reading to improved fluency in emerging readers.
However, later research has contradicted these findings, including Steve Gardiner’s book Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading (2005) and Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers (2010). Entire books have been written about how to build a reading culture in the classroom (see Penny Kittle’s Book Love, for example).
As it turns out, the effectiveness of silent reading hinges on the implementation of deliberate, carefully constructed expectations. I’ve spent a number of years fine-tuning the way I implement daily independent reading in my classroom, but I can tell you I’ve come to believe that it’s the single most important part of my instruction. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Here’s how I do it:
1. I front load expectations
First, I spend a lot of time going over my expectations before we dive into silent reading. Silent reading is not negotiable. It is part of the grade. Students are taught to come into class, find a book, sit down, and when the bell rings, start reading. It takes a couple weeks to get this routine down, but once it happens, you’ll be amazed at how seamlessly it happens.
2. I prioritize silent reading – always
Is it a work day? A movie day? A test day? A day when half the class is absent because there’s a big basketball game? Doesn’t matter. I never skip silent reading, and I’m explicit about it. My students hear me say “this is the most important part of my lesson so why would I ever skip it?” over and over again.
3. I model silent reading
I read with my students and after I read, I spend a few minutes talking through reading strategies I use. This might include what I do when I encounter an unknown vocabulary word or what I do when I don’t like or understand a book I’ve selected. I use this time for book talks, too, where I give a quick plot summary of the book I’m reading and read an enticing passage. Kids regularly ask to read a book when I’m finished with it.
4. What students read is completely their choice
Students have to read a book, that’s my only rule. They can listen to an audiobook or read an e-book. They can do the history reading. They can dive into the DMV manual to read up before their written test that afternoon. If they don’t like a book, they don’t have to finish it. The complete freedom encourages students to explore new titles and build their identities as readers.
5. I have a well-stocked classroom library
This has taken time, work, and money, but being able to listen to a student’s interests and pull books from my shelves for them to peruse is helpful. Alternatively, you could build in regular library visits for them to check out books. Either way, they are allowed to browse books during silent reading time if they need a new book.
6. There is accountability
I pass around a clipboard during independent reading time. Students simply write down the page number they are on and pass it along. This allows me to see whether they are stuck or struggling, which brings me to the next tip.
7. I hold reading conferences
Students check in with me weekly for a quick reading conference. This is a one-on-one conversation with me about their reading. I can troubleshoot all sorts of problems quickly, and students who are fake reading are sussed out immediately.
8. I do not reward reading
There is no contest to see who can read the most pages or the most books. There are no reading logs sent home for parents to sign. Every student is in a unique place on their reading journey and I honor that. I know whether a student is reading based on reading conferences, and if they aren’t, I keep pulling titles for them to try. Persistence pays off.
After years of fine-tuning my independent reading program, I can tell you it’s classroom magic. My students come into class with a book ready to read. The bell rings, we have a quick chat, and then I settle into my book. This is my students’ cue to do the same. A hush falls over the classroom, and for fifteen minutes we all sit in silence that is almost meditative. I periodically remind students to focus on the task at hand, but these are quiet, quick corrections. When my timer dings, a groan of “Wait! Not yet! I’m at such a good part!” choruses through the room.
And then – and this is a beautiful thing to behold – I can transition seamlessly into my lesson. The class is already silent, already in work mode, and the move into direct instruction is effortless.
Most importantly, the independent reading time along with the supports mentioned above has built a classroom culture of reading. I regularly have freshmen tell me they haven’t read a book on their own in years. At the beginning of each year, when I announce that reading is not optional in my room, there is always a student or two who snorts “wanna bet?” I gladly take them up on this, and often my upperclassmen student aides pipe in with “she’ll do it, just wait and see.”
By the end of the year, my skeptical readers have discovered new authors, new titles, and a renewed joy in reading for the sake of reading.
In the words of the late Beverly Cleary, “Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”