If there were a surefire way to help kids become more literate, would you ignore it? Of course not. But that's exactly what's happening across much of our nation. Try searching the literacy information that's available from your state's department of education, and you will be lucky to find a single mention of this method. Or peruse the National Reading Panel's 2000 report, a federally funded study of research-based reading practices, and you'll discover that this approach is scarcely mentioned. What technique am I talking about. It s called free voluntary reading, and it may be the only way to help children become better readers, writers, and spellers.
Free voluntary reading, or reading because you want to, is the kind of recreational reading that most mature readers do most every day. In schools, this approach is often called sustained silent reading, or SSR. Although some educators and parents think that students who read for pleasure are "merely enjoying themselves," there's a huge amount of research that supports the importance of free voluntary reading. In fact, research strongly suggests that free reading is the source of our reading prowess and much of our vocabulary and spelling development, as well as our ability to understand sophisticated phrases and write coherent prose. The secret of its effectiveness is simple: children become better readers by reading. Is free voluntary reading the only program students will ever need to become accomplished readers? No. But research has shown that children who don't read for pleasure have an extremely tough time developing the language and literacy competencies necessary to succeed in today's world.
How does SSR work? In SSR, we take anywhere from five to 10 or 15 minutes out of each school day, usually during language arts class, and let students read essentially whatever they want (within reason !), including comics, catalogs, manuals, graphic novels, and magazines. There are no book reports, no assignments, and no grades. And students aren't required to finish their selections if they don't want to: they're free to choose something else to read. During SSR time, library media specialists and teachers also read for pleasure.
Instead of making learning to read a pleasure by embracing SSR, we've made it a pain by subjecting youngsters to massive doses of phonics instruction. But the real challenge of transforming today's children into competent readers isn't about teaching them the basics (sooner or later, nearly all children get them). It's about helping students develop richer vocabularies, understand complex oral and written language, and become proficient writers and reasonably accurate spellers. In other words, it's about moving children to higher levels of literacy.
The agony and the evidence
Over the past 20 years, I've reviewed scores of studies that have compared students in classes that include SSR with those that don't, and I'm confident that children who read for pleasure do as well or better than their SSR-deprived peers. And the longer the program, the greater the gains. In eight out of 10 studies that tracked...