It seems that lately there has been some kind of sustained silent reading epidemic--people are becoming scared of it. The findings of the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000) on the effects of silent reading programs in schools are commonly quoted and often misinterpreted. The panel found little convincing evidence that traditional sustained silent reading (SSR) improves students' reading comprehension in school, and now the practice of having students read on their own in the classroom is coming into question. In an article from Reading Today, IRA President Timothy Shanahan (2006) suggested that SSR is "probably not such a good idea" (p. 12) because research doesn't show that encouraging reading improves reading. Much of the research Shanahan consulted on SSR didn't demonstrate actual benefits of SSR but claimed them anyway. Yet, there are supporters of silent reading in the classroom. Krashen (2005) argued that the National Reading Panel erred in its analysis of the research and that the researchers missed some vital studies on the effects of SSR. He criticized the findings of the National Reading Panel: "I have concluded that long-term studies are more likely to show positive results for in-school reading" (p. 445). Krashen maintained that the case for SSR relies on more than experimental studies (qualitative studies should be considered as well) and that it is still a valuable program.
What Does That Mean for Me?
So, as teachers, what should we do in our own classrooms? If the evidence for SSR hasn't been proven to be effective on students' reading, should we have our students read independently at all? With so little time in the school day, educators have the responsibility to challenge practices that do not prove to be effective for their students. If SSR isn't working, maybe it's time to cut loose the strings. In moving on, we need to be proactive and find out what does work.
Like Shanahan, Krashen, and other educators (maybe even you), I recently found myself wondering if silent reading was working in my classroom. I had students participate in SSR because that was the only silent reading structure I knew. Students were permitted to read whatever they wanted, and I served as a model by reading at my desk. Halfway through our SSR time, I looked up to take a visual "state of the classroom" assessment. What I saw was frustrating but not surprising. Many of my best readers were sitting at their desks deeply engaged in reading and chuckling every so often (presumably about what they were reading). A few were sharing with a friend. Another group of students appeared to be reading contentedly, but they had selected books that were either much higher or much lower than their reading ability. For example, Diego (all student names are pseudonyms), a reader at a second-grade level, had selected J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Several students were milling about in our classroom library, trying halfheartedly to find a book....