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Sustained Silent Reading in the Classroom

Independent silent reading has been viewed as a time-honored educational tool. Yet today, many teachers sacrifice it for direct instruction, arguing that there are more effective ways to spend the time. What do the experts say?

Let's begin with the National Reading Panel's 2000 report. That report stated that "independent silent reading is not effective when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills." I agree; purpose, design, and integration are critical.

At the same time, the panel admits that it "does not negate the positive influence independent silent reading time may have, nor the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension." They simply call for more well-designed studies.

Respected researchers Stephen Krashen and Michael Pressley agreed with the need for those studies and cited significant SSR research that the NRP did not consider. (See The Case of Phonemic Awareness and Effective Beginning Reading Instruction.)

High school English teacher Steve Gardiner adds other strong arguments in his new book, Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading. A 28-year classroom veteran, Gardiner asserts, "Giving them time to read is clearly the most important thing I do with my students. It

  • builds vocabulary;
  • connects to writing;
  • develops an understanding of the qualities of great readers;
  • meets needs the teacher might not know about (What an empowering statement!); and
  • gives students a chance to connect with reading in an unstructured situation."

Obviously, I can't cover all SSR best practices in this article; use it as a springboard. Make SSR a focal point for your next in-house staff development. Assign readings from our resource list beforehand and then solicit comments from experienced teachers to help you determine whether SSR can work in your school. Look at your goals and objectives and don't forget a discussion of teacher enthusiasm. Without it, no instructional technique or strategy is worthwhile.

From the Real Classroom:

Steve Gardiner practices SSR every day. Adaptable to any age, his guidelines below can help you use SSR as a vital part of a balanced literacy approach:

Establish SSR time at the beginning of class periods and never sacrifice it. That sets the tone, establishing the time as essential and worthy of protection.

Believe in your students. "It's a mistake to remove choice by giving them teacher-selected grade-level texts they must read," Gardiner says. "We have to trust them." Part of a reader's development is allowing them to explore reading and learn self-regulation and self-monitoring. Let students make mistakes. Gardiner adds, "Not allowing students to make those decisions deprives them of one of the most significant parts of a modern education." It takes them from a "direct instruction mindset" to a whole other level of thinking.

Incorporate book "ownership" into the SSR equation. Require students to bring their own choice of books. They can come from the library, home, a classroom library, or a friend. If a student doesn't bring a book, keep a selection of short stories -- and even books students might see as less appealing. (Steve includes a copy of his own mountain climbing book.) After one dose of "what the teacher has for me to read," most students show up with a book. If they don't, maybe they haven't a clue as to how to choose an appropriate book, to find that one that will turn them on to reading. That's a coaching opportunity for you.

Make it a daily event. Gardiner equates SSR time to training long distance runners. "As a coach, I wouldn't expect my runners to run once a week and see times and skills improve. The experience of running daily is what builds their skills. It is the same with SSR." Assessment of their progress comes after they've been given direction and allowed time to practice.

Consider those guidelines as first steps in evaluating SSR in the classroom. Remember SSR is not a stand-alone activity. Teaching comprehension strategies gives students tools for SSR. Teaching decoding gives them the ability to read successfully in SSR and elsewhere. Providing SSR time might give your students time in a busy world to apply what you teach and it might be their only chance to fall in love with reading.

Steps to Literacy

Looking for books that will capture your students’ imagination and stimulate their intellectual curiosity? You can find curated collections of highly engaging fiction and non-fiction texts at Steps to Literacy.

Steps to Literacy offers inclusive and differentiated collections of age and developmentally appropriate books and resources that engage students and foster a love for reading within each of them.

Learn more about building your own customized classroom library.


About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.