Reading & Literacy

A Teacher Revisits the Sustained Silent Reading Debate

By Liana Loewus — September 28, 2015 2 min read
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Over at MiddleWeb, middle school teacher Amber Rain Chandler describes an internal struggle that many English/language arts instructors will find relatable: Should she devote class time to free-choice silent reading, unattached to other classroom work?

Fifteen years ago, the National Reading Panel, convened by Congress, determined that there was insufficient evidence to indicate that silent, independent reading without feedback and guidance had a positive effect on fluency. Most people interpreted that finding as sustained silent reading doesn’t work. Many schools abandoned the practice.

But the debate, as you probably know, has roiled on. Many teachers are fiercely dedicated to giving students uninterrupted time for pleasure reading, saying it builds a lifelong love for books. (University of Southern California education professor Stephen Krashen has spent much of his career advocating for free, voluntary reading.)

Chandler at MiddleWeb is still wrestling with the question of how to handle free reading. She’s decided to give her students 30 minutes of it on Fridays with no strings attached. But she’s not quite comfortable with the no strings attached part. “How can I justify giving valuable instruction time to reading without assigning writing with it? How can I not justify it?” she writes.

Weighing Reading Accountability and Fun

The decision is particularly difficult, Chandler explains, because holding students accountable for reading can make it less fun. “I think there’s a direct relationship between making middle school students write about their independent reading and the sudden onset of groans when they are then given time to read books of their choice,” she writes. But not holding them accountable seems like a waste of precious classroom minutes.

Her solution? To make free reading a more social activity.

At the end of each quarter, Chandler will have students pick a book they’ve read and do a project on it to share with the classroom. The projects will be “a sort of enticement for others to read the book and perhaps a chance to connect with fellow students who’ve already read it,” she writes. “And I’m going to encourage students to read the same books, to pass around the ones they think are good, and even to borrow multiple copies and consider agreeing to ‘be on the same page’ by each Friday.”

While the tactic is still a work in progress, she says, it does seem “to honor both of my inclinations—reading for reading’s sake AND the idea that reading should be connected to my class (and other students).”

I’d love to hear from other educators on how they’ve solved the silent reading conundrum in their own classrooms. Do you give students free reading time? If so, have you found creative ways to hold them accountable for it without making it less enjoyable?

Image: Students read books silently at Bishop Ford in Brooklyn, N.Y. —Mark Abramson for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.