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"Sustained Silent Reading" Helps Develop Independent Readers (and Writers)

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) -- or DEAR (Drop Everything And Read), as some people call it -- can be one more tool for developing lifelong readers.

Some people call it Sustained Silent Reading, or SSR for short. Others call it recreational reading or independent reading. Some have clever acronyms for it, such as DIRT (daily independent reading time) or DEAR (drop everything and read). Whatever it's called, many teachers set aside a block of time each day -- usually anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, depending on the grade level and the ability of the students -- for quiet reading.

Sustained silent reading can serve many purposes:

  • Most school reading is assigned reading. SSR offers students an opportunity to read material of their own choice.
  • During SSR time, many students learn that they can use their word attack skills to figure out new words -- on their own!
  • SSR can build students' confidence in their abilities to work through reading trouble spots.
  • Many studies of whole-class groups and of select groups of unmotivated readers show that SSR can result in students wanting to reading more.
  • The amount of time that students spend reading independently outside of school often increases as a result of SSR, parents report. Often children ask for books to read at home.
  • SSR can be one more element in a reading program aimed at demonstrating the joy that reading can bring and developing lifelong readers and learners.

"Research has shown that reading ability is positively correlated with the extent to which students read recreationally," according to the "Reading and Writing Habits of Students" section of The Condition of Education 1997, published by the National Center for Education Statistics. "Educators are increasingly encouraging their students to read and write on their own"

That report points to some optimistic statistics that support the need to develop students' independent reading skills, including:

In 1994, 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students who reported reading for fun at least once a week had higher average reading proficiency scores than students who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun.

Even Jim Trelease, nationally-recognized expert in the area of reading aloud to children and author of The New Read-Aloud Handbook, devotes a full chapter to Sustained Silent Reading, read-aloud's natural partner.


In some schools, individual teachers include sustained silent reading as part of their programs. In other schools, SSR has been adopted schoolwide. In many schools a special time is set aside each day when every student (and every teacher and staff person, including the principal and the custodian!) is expected to "drop everything" and read silently. Indeed, the main thrust behind most SSR programs is to demonstrate to students that pleasure-reading is something to be valued by all.

In some classrooms, students select from a predetermined reading list. Or they select from a bin of books color-coded to indicate reading level. But most teachers give students the freedom to choose a book that they think they'll enjoy. Often teachers encourage students to select books that aren't too difficult. Many teachers train students in the "five-finger test" as a method of determining readability.

In the five-finger test, students are asked to select a page from the book to read to themselves. They hold up all five fingers on one hand as they begin to read. Each time the student encounters a word that is hard to read, her or she puts down one finger. If all five fingers are in the down position before a student finishes reading the page, the book is probably too difficult. The student probably should put the book back on the shelf and look for one that won't be so hard.


For some teachers, SSR is "private reading" time for students. Students can read anything and they don't have to report on what they've read.

Many other teachers provide follow-up activities for sustained silent reading time. Some teachers have students keep logs of their silent reading. Others bring together the class once a week to talk about what they've been reading. (These discussions can motivate other students; others might choose their next book based on the recommendation of one of their peers.)

Some teachers divide their classes into small groups, so students can share their thoughts about the books they're reading. Sometimes teachers provide a question that will serve as the focus of the group discussion. The discussion question might support the curriculum, focusing attention on the climax, or the author's point of view, or some other element of literature that the teacher has introduced in class.

In some classes, teachers invite students to work in pairs during SSR time. A pair of "reading friends" might select a book to read together and talk about. Kids can even take turns reading pages (but then it's not sustained silent reading anymore!). As the students read, they talk about their expectations, their surprises, the things they like and dislike. "Reading friends sometimes look back through a book together, retelling poignant, funny, or important parts," said Lucy Calkins in an article in Instructor magazine. They read with their friends in mind, marking places to share, she adds.

Some teachers combine SSR with dialogue journals. Students share things in their journals about the books they're reading. (Some teachers call this SSW -- sustained silent writing.) Or the teacher might sometimes provide a question for everybody to respond to in their journals. Then the teacher responds to each student's journal entry. Teacher responses often include another question that will prompt deeper understanding of the material.

Some people think dialogue journals and SSR are a bad mix. SSR should be independent reading uncluttered by follow-up, they say. But supporters say that dialogue journals can help students see the value of writing as a form of back-and-forth communication. Journals provide good handwriting practice too; since teachers will be reading and responding to journal entries, students know they must write legibly! And SSR and journals together show students that reading and writing are part of everyday life, supporters add.


Whatever the case, whether SSR is a private time activity or a discussion or writing motivator, most experts agree that one thing is essential to its success. It is crucial that teachers participate in the process as role models.

SSR time is not a time for teachers to correct papers or plan the next day's lessons. Teachers should be right there on the floor (or in another comfortable spot) -- modeling a lifelong love of reading. If students are expected to fill out a reading log after reading, teachers should do the same. If a weekly "share time" is part of the SSR routine, the teacher can serve as a model by talking about the book he or she is reading. Teachers can model the thought processes that accompany reading by talking about how the main character changes through the course of the book, about the author's use of language, and about surprises and disappointments they encounter as they read.

As much as students need to learn to be good independent readers, they also need to learn how to respond to books and how to share their feelings about books with others. Modeling prepares students to carry on good book conversations. It enables students to carry on good independent book talks when they come together in pairs or small groups for that purpose.

If the teacher models, the students will follow!

For some teachers, SSR is a time to model good writing habits too.

If teachers ask students to write about their SSR activities in a dialogue journal, those journals can provide an opportunity to model writing skills. (Few teachers correct journals; most use journals as private, uncorrected communication. They use the journals as an opportunity to learn more about their students and as an informal measure of growth.) In dialogue journals, teachers can model by spelling words correctly in their responses to students that the students had misspelled in their entries. Teachers might even ask a question that requires a response that will include the misspelled word -- a tricky way to see if modeling really works! Modeling can also be used to point out students' errors of usage and capitalization and grammar.

If the teacher models, the students will follow!

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 1997 Education World

Originally published 11/19/1997
Updated 10/15/2007