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.