Can sustained silent reading help children with reading disabilities? Generally, yes. But overemphasizing it can shortchange them.
Many schools involve struggling readers in some form of sustained silent reading. In such programs, all students, including struggling readers, read silently for some 15 to 45 minutes daily. As they read silently, so does the teacher. The teacher models silent reading, showing that she values it and enjoys it. If done right, sustained reading is important practice for children, an important way for teachers to communicate they value reading, a way of helping children become competent, motivated readers. Sustained silent reading goes under different names, such as Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), Super, Quiet, Uninterrupted, Independent Reading Time (SQUIRT), Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), and Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR).
If your child struggles with reading and his program involves some form of sustained silent reading, you ought to know what it aims to do, what the research says, and what it doesn’t do. To help you make better decisions about your child’s reading program, especially at program planning meetings, such as Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, we’ll discuss the aims of sustained silent reading, the research, and the limitations of the approach. By understanding sustained silent reading, you might avoid this common mistake: complaining “it’s a waste of time.” If your child’s reading program overemphasizes isolated skill instruction (e.g., sounding out words), your might recommend the school use sustained silent reading to balance his program.
If children don’t regularly read lots of paragraphs, stories, articles, and books, they’re unlikely to become competent readers. They may learn to recognize words in isolation, but that’s all. They won’t learn the joy and importance of reading, or how to read anything more involved than simple sentences, like “Sam ate the ham.” They won’t learn how to stick with, comprehend, critique, or discuss longer materials.
Unfortunately, many schools drill students in recognizing words, but give them little opportunity to read stories and other lengthy materials, depriving them of important opportunities to learn to read and depriving them of the enjoyment of reading. Not giving students lots of daily opportunities to read materials they like is like trying to teach them to swim without letting them go in water. It doesn’t work. Thus, the aims of sustained silent reading:
Sustained silent reading tries to reverse this problem by providing students with a quiet time to practice silent reading, providing them with exemplary models of silent reading behavior (such as the teacher reading silently for the entire period), and increasing their abilities to read for longer periods (paraphrased from Tierney & Readence, 2005, p. 101).
Because sustained silent reading is a general approach that comes in many forms and different schools use it so differently, the research results are mixed. In writing about Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR), Robert Tierney and John Readence (2005) noted:
Although USSR is a simple technique and can easily be implemented in classrooms at any level, it is very difficult to evaluate. It should not be surprising that research studies, in which the influence of USSR upon achievement and attitude has been studied, have yielded quite mixed results. (p. 105)
Despite the mixed results, reading specialists such as myself view sustained silent reading — reading that engages struggling readers in lots of easy, enjoyable reading of books they choose — as an important element of high quality reading instruction. Here are four related reasons:
Struggling readers need to compensate for an overemphasis on isolated skills: “Students who cannot sustain themselves in print may have had too much experience with isolated skills. There are students who have no experience reading ordinary books and, as a result, have little idea that reading is a sense-making process. The benefits of SSR [sustained silent reading] for these students include recognizing the purposes of reading, providing practice and transfer opportunities, and providing experiences with meaningful reading material.” (Lipson & Wixson, 2009, p. 569)
Struggling readers need to do lots of reading: “There exists a potent relationship between volume of reading and reading achievement…. Children whose reading development lags behind their peers engage in far less reading than their higher-achieving peers. This has been found to be true even when these children participate in instructional support programs such as remedial reading or resource room…. I would suggest that one and one-half hours of daily in-school would seem a minimum goal.” (Allington, 2001, p. 33)
Struggling readers need to do lots of easy reading: “Students do not learn to read unless they read a lot. And they cannot get better by reading difficult material. This is especially so for struggling readers.” (Duffy, 2009, p. 10)
Many struggling readers need programs that motivate them to read: “When students are permitted to read from materials that they choose and when teachers model silent reading themselves, everyone benefits…. Although direct instruction [such as teaching struggling readers word recognition and reading comprehension strategies] is important, it is not the only way to teach. Indeed, some important literacy outcomes simply cannot be achieved via direct instruction. Such is the case with reading stamina and motivation.” (Lipson & Wixson, 2009, p. 567)
We hope the message has been clear: readers, including struggling readers, need to read lots of enjoyable materials, and sustained silent reading helps them do this. But, for struggling readers and most other readers, sustained reading is not enough. They need direct, explicit, systematic instruction in how to recognize words and how to comprehend what they read. Such instruction requires a curriculum that moves struggling readers, in a logical sequence, with lots of reinforcement, from point A to point Z; explanations by teachers and lots of teacher-reader and reader-reader discussions; modeling by teachers and peers; lots of teacher guidance in helping readers practice what they just learned; lots of constructive feedback from teachers, telling readers what they did right and showing them how to correct any errors; lots of opportunities for readers to independently apply what they’ve just learned; and lots of opportunities for readers to choose easy, enjoyable reading materials and to read, read, read.
Sustained silent reading is part of these last two components: lots of opportunities for readers to independently apply their abilities and to read, read, read. As indirect instruction, it can supplement, but not replace direct instruction, such as a teacher demonstrating Ellis’ RAP strategy for reading comprehension:
Allington, R. L. (2001). What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs. NY: Longman.
Duffy, G. G. (2009). Explaining Reading (2nd ed.). NY: The Guilford Press.
Ellis, E. S. (1996). Reading strategy instruction. In D. D. Deshler, E. S. Ellis, & B. K. Lenz (Eds.), Teaching Adolescents with Learning Disabilities: Strategies and Methods (2nd ed.) (pp. 61-125). Denver, CO: Love Publishing.
Tierney, R. J., & Readence, J. E. (2005). Reading Strategies and Practices: A Compendium (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 19-years he has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. Howard and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, Professor of Psychology and Chancellor’s Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, have recently published a book on reading and advocacy for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. This column was originally published at www.reading2008.com/blog.