a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
Chapter 5: SSR—sustained
reading aloud's silent partner
What is SSR?
Among the many purposes of reading aloud, a primary one is to motivate the child to read independently for pleasure. In academic terms, such reading is called SSR— sustained silent reading. Take a book, a newspaper, a magazine, and enjoy it! No interruptions for questions, assessments, or reports; just read for pleasure.
The concept operates under a variety of pseudonyms, including DEAR (drop everything and read), DIRT (daily individual reading time), SQUIRT (sustained quiet uninterrupted reading time), and FVR (free voluntary reading).
This chapter will be devoted to SSR in school as well as at home. I’ll also examine a variety of topics associated with silent reading: reading incentive programs (like Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts), teachers’ reading habits, junk reading, and “summer setback.”
Because we adults have done this thing called reading for so much of our lives, we take many of its facets for granted. Children do not, as evidenced by the story told to me by Lee Sullivan Hill, of Clarendon Hills, Illinois. One day her young son Colin came upon her reading silently to herself and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Reading,” she answered.
“Then why aren’t you making any noise?”
So she explained how people read to themselves as well as to others, like when she reads to him. Hearing that, the light dawned for Colin. “So that’s what Daddy does!” he exclaimed, recalling when he had seen his father reading silently to himself— in fact, practicing SSR. Until it is explained, silent reading is sometimes a mystery to young children.
PPARENTLY, SSR is also a mystery to some school administrators. Here is the exact wording from an evaluation a principal completed of an eighth-grade language arts teacher who had included a forty-minute SSR period in her students’ weekly schedule (as prescribed by the school improvement plan):
“I see a great deal of free reading taking place in your classroom. I realize the students are working on assigned reading, however I feel that much of the reading taking place in the classroom could take place out of the class. This would allow you more time to interact with the students. Decisions as to how class time is used must be sound if our students are going to be successful later on.”
Here’s how would I respond to that principal:
- SSR works as well as any other method, and the research proves it (see page 82 of the print or e-book edition).
- It’s almost impossible to interact with students about literature they haven’t read—so they’re reading it.
- The students who are the least likely to read outside school are the ones who either hate reading and/ or come from homes where there is the least space and quiet for solitary reading; my classroom is a clinic where such reading ills can be cured.
- There is a natural falloff in recreational reading during adolescence due to the hormonal and social conflict inflicted on their twenty-four-hour day; this is most often reflected in how badly they use their out-of-school time, so I’m providing structured time for reading.
- My classroom may be the only place where some of them ever see other people reading silently to themselves, and it might be the only place they ever see an adult reading for pleasure and not just for work. My classroom is a laboratory for positive role modeling.
Didn’t the National Reading Panel (NRP) Condemn SSR or Independent Reading?
“Condemn” is a little harsh, but the panel didn’t exactly give an unqualified endorsement of it, and that bumped the practice from some districts afraid of losing federal funds. In a nutshell, here’s the scoop on the NRP versus SSR. (Don’t confuse the National Reading Panel of 2000 with the 1985 Commission on Reading—they are two very different animals but probably had the same goals.)
The National Reading Panel’s 2000 report noted that there wasn’t sufficient scientific evidence to support SSR’s use in school, especially if it is being used as the only method of instruction. I know of no one in their right mind who is advocating that SSR be the only way to teach reading.
Certainly there needs to be instruction, but you also need the opportunity to put it into practice. How can anyone imagine students could get better at reading without reading and reading a lot?
The NRP study subgroup deemed only fourteen short-term studies worthy of their disputed “medical-scientific” standards and found insufficient evidence among them to support SSR, even though SSR students performed the same as ten of the control groups and surpassed the control groups in the four remaining studies. There was not one negative SSR performance in their fourteen “scientific” studies, but this was not convincing enough for the NRP.
Which brings us to Stephen Krashen, the leading proponent of inclusion of independent reading in the classroom schedule. (If you are contemplating SSR for your school or class and haven’t read his The Power of Reading, do so immediately. It should be the bible of SSR.) This professor emeritus from the University of Southern California has thoroughly refuted the NRP’s claims, as have a host of other qualified reading authorities. Krashen examined not fourteen short-term SSR studies, as the NRP did, but a total of fifty-three studies, long ones and short ones. Overwhelmingly the results favor SSR, especially in the yearlong studies. The only three negative results for SSR were in short-term studies, compared with twenty-five positive results. If that were a baseball or football score (25–3), could it be more decisive? (see chart below)
SSR is based upon a single simple principle: Reading is a skill— and the more you use it, the better you get at it. Conversely, the less you use it, the more difficult it is.
In 2002, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which for decades has helped its thirty-four member governments monitor school achievement worldwide, issued a report in which it examined the reading literacy of 250,000 fifteen-year-olds in thirty-two countries. In every country, those who read the most read the best regardless of income level. A decade earlier, a similar study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) compared the reading skills of 210,000 students from thirty-two different countries; it found the highest scores (regardless of income level) among children who:
- were read to by their teachers daily;
- read the most pages for pleasure daily.
Moreover, the frequency of SSR had a marked impact on scores: Children who had it daily scored much higher than those who had it only once a week. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments found an identical pattern for the nearly thirty-five years the NAEP has been testing hundreds of thousands of U.S. students. The evidence for reading aloud to children and for SSR is overwhelming— yet most children are neither read to nor experience SSR in the course of a school day.