George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sustained Silent Reading in High School

Sustained Silent Reading in High School

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The concept of having students read silently for a predetermined amount of time has been very popular within early childhood education. This same concept of sustained silent reading is almost laughable within secondary education for many reasons:

  • Who has time for this? 
  • Students need to be moving on to complex text.
  • Students should primarily be writing in order to prepare for college.
  • How can the educator allow students to read all class period long? They aren’t doing anything!
  • High stakes testing is priority! Reading for enjoyment is out of the question.

I believe students, especially high school students, need to have silent sustained reading in their English class in order for them to improve academically in a variety of ways.

It is easy to make the assumption that reading for enjoyment has only an entertainment factor, but there are more benefits than entertainment when students are reading what they like on a weekly basis. Students who are exposed to more literature throughout the school year grow to have better writing. As Acts of Teaching by Joyce Armstrong Carroll and Edward E. Wilson points out in the preface of their book, “daily reading and writing, daily mini-teaches on various story elements, daily speaking, listening, examining, predicting in a joyfully literate classroom paid off.” Carroll discuss the value of having a “print-rich” classroom by using her observations of Sharron Chamberlin’s class structure, “[she] begins school with fifteen minutes of uninterrupted sustained silent writing followed by fifteen minutes of uninterrupted sustained silent reading.”

Chamberlin allowed her students to engage in the meaningful tasks of reading and writing without prescription or direction. She then directed them to listen for specific vocabulary while she read a story to them. The students would listen, be intrigued, ask questions, and demonstrate their involvement. She would then send them back to their desks with a special assignment correlated with the story. By doing this daily, she was “allowing them to learn through exposure and discovery to reading and writing […] she is giving these students ample time to be actively creative, inventive and discovers.”

Upon further examination of her daily classroom instruction and student samples, Carroll witnessed student growth in writing. One student “had internalized a sense of narrative and descriptive detail, at least partly due to the print-rich environment Sharon had created” while another student “[had] delightfully, eloquently, and clearly demonstrated that she knows the elements of a story” in her own writing. Chamberlin allowed students to creatively take risk and “because [Chamberlin] integrated reading and writing with listening, speaking, viewing, thinking, and skills, learning was a cognitively appropriate and natural.” Chamberlin’s classroom may be younger than secondary education but the demonstration of reading and writing going hand-in-hand couldn’t have been better.

With this in mind, I believe students in secondary education should have the same environment. Students need to be reading daily and writing daily in a way that connects to them. Because secondary students lack the opportunity of reading for enjoyment, as Gallagher said they “rarely get below the surface to the richer, deeper meaning of the text. They think one reading is sufficient; they don’t have the skills to uncover the craft, the complexities and the nuances of the text.” Students rarely even have the endurance to read difficult text because they have grown to hate reading due to the prescriptive nature students often have to endure. Therefore, secondary educators need to take a second look at what sustained silent reading can offer students especially if our goal is to have “our students graduate with the ability to dig below the surface of text.”

Reading allows students to experience things they may never be able to do, but through the lens of novels students can go anywhere at any time. Reading also allows students to see how writing works in the real world; it is not formulaic. Students can discover what voice sounds like through reading a variety of genres. Students can rediscover the joys of reading, but for some it may be a first discovery.

In addition, free writing can offer students a way to discover the sound of their voice on paper. It can offer the experience of turning endless thoughts into a wonderfully written prose just by pure candidness. It can offer a new outlet for emotions, and last but not least, it can offer students a new level of pride in their own writing.

Reading and writing in the classroom are not two separate beings. These two experiences combined in a classroom allow students to learn in a way that is not superficial or insignificant. With these two experiences combined, students will learn “writing as thinking and thinking as the fundamental skill for the twenty-first century.” Students will find the joy of being a confident writer based on practice and exposure. It’s what students need!


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I completely agree, Stacey! I teach middle school English, and pleasure reading followed by my read-aloud is on our agenda every day. The kids need it for all the reasons you list. And so many of my students tell me that when they get to high school, they stop reading for pleasure because they don't have time -- and none of their teachers give them that time in class. Another great argument to convince reluctant teachers to give SSR a try is that it creates such a positive, book-loving environment in our classrooms. The benefits are many!

Ellen Greenfield Levy's picture

I also agree, Stacey and Laura. We need to give middle and high school students time to read and write pieces of their choice. By doing S.S.R. and S.S.W., we are empowering kids and encouraging them to develop and enjoy those skills. One must read and write to become better readers and authors.

ClaudiaSwisher's picture

For the last 10 years of my career, I taught an elective called, "Reading for Pleasure." We combined all the ELA strands: reading, writing, speaking, listening, creating into our work.

Kids quickly saw the value of reading and writing...and the practice of sitting still for a longer period of time and concentrating led to stronger test-taking skills, stamina, and higher scores.

My class was much more powerful than any test prep, and yet, as an elective, it is being pushed out for more aggressively-focused classes. That's a shame.

If we trust readers and writers, we could change the world.

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