Why SSR matters in English classes

There is nothing new about Sustained Silent Reading; it has been around for decades.  You will see it in many forms in elementary school but it is not standard in most high schools.  Some schools practise USSR or Drop Everything and Read as a means to boost literacy skills but rarely is it seen as a daily school practice on a long term basis.  The argument is that it is too time consuming, there are not enough books, students refuse to do it etc. but this has not been my experience.

About 15 years ago, we decided as an English department that we were short-changing our students in one of the main areas of English literature-the pleasure of reading.  We always had a portion of students who read on their own but we knew we had a larger group who had never read any book other than what was studied in school.  Let’s be honest-answering questions, analyzing, writing essays and tests doesn’t exactly correspond to curling up with a good book.  We wanted our students to read for pleasure with no strings attached. Originally, we provided our students with choices of novels or allowed them to bring their own but over time that has evolved to any type of reading so long as it is not homework.  Today the students read Ripley’s, graphic novels, the newspaper, non-fiction texts and yes, novels.  We have classroom libraries with a mixture of texts but most importantly, we have a library full of youth-oriented books.  Our librarian has steadily bought a variety of YA fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels.  He has also invested in Kindles which are in constant use.  The number of monthly check-outs from the library is justification alone for the expenditure.

So how does it work?  Every English class begins with 10-15 minutes of silent reading.  The teacher can skip it on days when the whole class time might be needed but basically it is department policy and it has been adhered to for 15 years.  We do provide the students with choice of reading material but we also have a 10 minute library period scheduled every 2 weeks as well.  There are no tests, book reports or anything like that attached to the reading.  Are there some students who don’t read?  Of course, but at least 90% of them do and look forward to that quiet time in their day.  The teacher has to insist that they have a book and that they are quiet.  Even those complainers who say it is boring eventually give up and actually read something or at least pretend to.

What are the advantages to this policy?  Fifteen minutes of quiet at the beginning of class, the message that reading is about more than prescribed texts,  the fact that many students will read multiple books over the course of a semester and finally, improved reading skills.  I have no empirical evidence for that last statement but I know this: I teach in a school of mixed ability.  It could almost be called an inner-city school except it is in an old suburb.  We have some middle class students who have gone through French immersion, we are totally multi-cultural, a large portion of our students do not speak English at home, a portion of our students live in low-income housing, a small portion of our students should be at a vocational school but refuse to go there and we can’t make them because this is their home school, some of our students are well-below grade level in their reading, some of our students are behaviour problems.  Ontario has had a mandatory literacy test in grade 10 for about 10 years; our school has always been well-above the provincial average.  Has SSR played a role in this?  It hasn’t hurt.

Reading is fundamental to all learning because reading is thinking.  Reading teaches patience and all reading enhances your overall comprehension and writing abilities.  Despite what the futurists say about the disappearance of traditional book culture, we want our students to become life-long readers and learners.  I have never met a good reader who wasn’t good at some other parts of learning but I have met many poor readers who were poor students.

This entry was posted in Education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why SSR matters in English classes

  1. “Reading teaches patience.” Thanks, Cathy! I had not thought of reading in this way before, although of course it’s obvious once you state it. I’m going to mark this down as the most important thing I learned this month, and keep it in mind as I’m planning reading lessons.

  2. Thank you , Nancy, you made me smile. Oddly enough, I learned that fact quite a few years ago when I was reading criticism about Sesame Street. SS’ original purpose was as a head start program for under-privileged kids. Some people believe that the highly-entertaining, frenetic nature of the early shows actually worked against reading readiness because reading is a slower process that demands patience and perseverance.

  3. deidrakay says:

    I am currently in my first semester of student teaching and will be playing the part of a full-time teacher next semester.

    I greatly enjoy your blog post! It has caused me to reflect on how I want to incorporate silent reading in my future classroom.

    Like you, I see the benefits of having students read for pleasure for 10-15 minutes everyday. It develops a positive relationship between the students and reading, teaches patience (as has been discussed), and allows students to practice reading reach would improve vocabulary, reading fluency, and writing/grammar skills. If students actually use the time, the benefits are undeniable.

    I’m going use my older brother as an example for a question that I would like to pose. I have been talking to him a lot about how to get my students to actually read what I assign them to read. He said that when he was in high school, he rarely read books that were assigned to his class. During silent reading time, he would doodle or stare at the book, pretending to read. In order to keep up with class, he would look up summaries of the book online. He did not even read the book that he was able to handpick himself.

    How in the world would I get a student like him to read? He is an intelligent person and was an intelligent student in HS. There is just something in the mindset some of high school students that keeps them from reading, and I am not sure how to tackle that mindset.

    I read a section out of one of my methods books (I can’t find it now because I am reading 10 books at once) about allowing students to have a “nightstand.” Like avid readers might have a nightstand piled with multiple types of reading material that we want to read (magazines, novels, a book on a hobby, etc.), students are encouraged to have a collection of books at their desk. If they aren’t in the mood to read one, they can pull out another book on their “to read” list. I think think that something like this could go along with what you are saying. Students have 10-15 minutes to read purely for pleasure, so if a student doesn’t find pleasure in one book, they should trade it in for another book.

    I think something like this would have solved my brother’s problem in high school. He didn’t like the book he chose, so he only pretended to read it. If he would be able to realize that he didn’t like to book, and read something else, he might have had a better experience. After all, I think of all the times I’ve picked up a book, wasn’t satisfied, so I stopped reading it for another book.

    What are your opinions on making sure that students are actually using the time to read? I know that you said that 90% of the students do use the time, but how do we reach the other 10%, or how to we even rest assured that 90% actually are reading? What has been your experience?

    (Anything will be helpful, as I can tell that at least half of the students I will be teaching next semester are reluctant readers.)


    • I am glad you found this helpful, Diedra. We have classroom libraries in addition to our school library books. My students may read whatever they want and that includes Calvin and Hobbs or even comic books which I have a large selection of. My 31-year old son read nothing but comics in high school, not even his English texts ( he was a good listener and a fair writer and could fake his knowledge). He now reads a lot, most of it non-fiction, but the point is, that comics kept him reading until he went on to other things. You’re right, students should change texts until they find a book or something that they like. I could make a convincing argument for the use of comics.
      Our big problem is to get our students to actually read the books we are studying. My son and your brother are good examples. That’s one of the reasons that I am a huge advocate of more age-appropriate literature and for using books that have not been used for the last 50 years. One helpful hint-design quizzes or writing activities that require more than a superficial knowledge of plot e.g. give them a quote from a chapter and ask them to respond in writing in class. This helps to flush out the summary readers.
      Best of luck in your teaching-don’t worry, it takes a long time to learn how to really teach well.

      • Veronica Martin says:

        If your goal is to “flush out” summary readers, what do you then do with them? Will they learn, after being flushed out, to read more carefully?

      • Marks oriented students will read more carefully if demanded of them. Students who don’t care about the mark will do what they want. A teacher’s life is a balance of carrots and sticks but human nature being what it is, sadly we have to use the stick more often. We spend a lot of time designing assignments that they can’t fake or cheat on. With something like To Kill a Mockingbird it is impossible to assign an essay question that they can’t find on the internet, so we have to be creative. Mind-mapping is the perfect way to separate the non-readers from the real readers.

  4. deidrakay says:

    Thank you for your helpful response. I find it interesting that you say that your son moved on to be an avid reader on nonfiction. I don’t see where I mentioned this, but my brother now reads nonfiction books for hours everyday.

    I really like the idea of using comic strips. I think the key is to offer a variety of text and allow students to choose what they read. Yes, we will assign various things to read (or give specific options based on our learning goals), but surely allowing for the silent reading time based around personal choice will benefit many of the students we have a hard time reaching during other activities.

    Regarding what to do with the “flushed out” students, I think that flushing them out at least gives us an idea of who we need to continue to push to read. I think that it was mentioned in our methods class the other night that sometimes those students might be sent to the hallway to finish their reading before they can participate in class discussions. This is a good option, but it is a fine line because students would be missing out on valuable discussions time in which they could at least hear their peers exhibit higher level thinking as we discuss the text. Also, if they only read a meaningful passage, that is *something* that they can use to analyze whatever aspects that we are talking about in class.

    All we can do is to always be thinking of ways to help each individual student.


  5. EC says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I am curious to know whether your school noticed any difference in achievement after instituting the regular SSR.

    • We have been doing it for so long, it would be hard to say. However, I can say this: we have a provincial literacy test in grade 10. Our school does substantially better than other similar schools in the school board. We are not a highly ranked academic school. We are a mix of middle class and low income students. At least half of our students speak another language at home but still we score anywhere from 5-15% better than similar schools and only about 5% lower than the top schools. So, something is working. If you read my post about SSR and the library, I credit the wonderful job our librarian has done with getting books the kids want to read.

  6. Jessica says:

    Thanks so much for this post! This is really very helpful. I was wondering, you take 10-15 minutes out every day — but do you have block scheduling? I can’t imagine taking 15 minutes out of a 48 minute class to just read silently, and then try to gather the class into a lesson. I worked in an inner-city school last year that had 40 minute periods, and we could never squeeze in everything that we needed to go over, let alone 38 minutes or less! What would you suggest for a school that does not have block scheduling? Perhaps one full period a week?


    • We are semestered so our periods are 75 minutes long. How about trying 15 minutes twice a week since you must have them all year long. It’s a calming way to start the class then you would 30 minutes to do something like correct homework or something like that. You could try the whole period but it is a bit long for some kids and you may have trouble keeping some of them on task. Thanks for replying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s