Sustaining a Love of Reading

Teachers are always looking for ways to improve student literacy skills.  One method, Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), offers an effective way to help students develop skills in spelling, grammar, sentence fluency, punctuation, and most importantly, reading enjoyment.

I started using SSR my first year of teaching and practiced some form of it for all 38 years of my career as a high school English teacher.  While I saw many reading programs come and go, SSR stayed in my program.  It has the advantage of being free and easily customized to meet the needs of every student in school.  

I experimented with many versions of SSR.  What I’ve found works best for me is 15 minutes per day at the beginning of the hour.  If it comes first, it tells the student “This is important.”  If it falls at the end of the period, it seems more like filler to take up slack when the other work is done.  SSR should be scheduled every day or at least most days.  Saving up the time and using a full period on Friday sends the message that reading is something to do at the end of the week when everyone is tired.  Because we read first every day, many of my students, and sometimes entire classes, are already reading when the tardy bell rings.  Also, because we read first, we begin the day’s lesson with the students already in an academic frame of mind.  We transition smoothly to the lesson and quickly proceed.  Far from a distraction, SSR launches each class period for literary success.

Teacher modeling is critical.  I read with my students every day.  I do not check email or grade papers during SSR time.  I read, and they see me read.    SSR is the most important thing I can do for my students.

Starting an SSR program can sometimes be tough.  There are people who view a room of students sitting quietly reading as a class that is not really working.  Ask any teacher who has seen the magic of a room of students who are gripped by their books, who complain at the end of SSR time because they do not want to stop, and you will find a teacher who knows that the time is invested well and knows the returns will be great.  

Don’t make starting a program harder than it needs to be.  If several teachers want to start at the same time, that is great.  Get started.  Talk about what works and what doesn’t.  Share ideas and stories.  If only one teacher wants to try SSR, start with one.  In more than three decades of teaching, I have often been the only teacher in the building using SSR, but I’ve continued every year.  

I was excited when I discovered Stephen Krashen’s book The Power of Reading: Insights From the Research (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1993).  This short book cites very significant research which confirmed so much of what I believed about SSR and convinced me the direction I had taken with my classes was right.  Krashen’s book should be required reading for any teacher or parent who wants to help students develop literacy skills.  A few years later, I read Janice Pilgreen’s book The SSR Handbook: How to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2000).  She supported much of what I had learned from Krashen.

Both Krashen and Pilgreen are university professors, so I decided I would write a book that applied their research and my own findings in the public school classroom.  As I worked on Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading (ASCD, 2005), I wanted to show how that work affected students in their daily lives.  I wrote it as if I were talking to another teacher in the hall at school and attempted to present the ideas in a way that teachers could go back to their rooms and use them immediately.  SSR is a wonderful tool in the classroom, and my goal with that book was to help teachers set up and effectively run Sustained Silent Reading programs.  Those that do will quickly see positive results and will take the first steps in helping their students become lifelong readers.

 

Dr. Steve Gardiner is a National Board Certified Teacher and 2008 Montana Teacher of the Year.  He recently published his fifth book Highpointing for Tibet: A Journey Supporting The Rowell Fund, available on Amazon.