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Expert Q&A

Sustained Silent Reading

Could you send me some current research which indicates that a sustained reading program benefits adolescent readers? We are having trouble in our high school with staff who do not feel that there are any benefits to the 20 minutes of sustained reading we do weekly with our students.

Sustained silent reading (SSR) time is beneficial for most adolescent readers, but we must be careful to not consider it a solution or intervention for struggling readers. First, let me address SSR as beneficial for most students. The more students (of all ages) read, the more their reading skills improve and their vocabulary grows. We also know that motivation and self-directed learning is critical to promote more reading by teenagers. A good reference for this is Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy(opens in a new window). Here is a quote from that white paper:

“One way that motivation and engagement are instilled and maintained is to provide students with opportunities to select for themselves the materials they read and topics they research. One of the easiest ways to build some choice into the students’ school day is to incorporate independent reading time in which they can read whatever they choose. Yet this piece of the curriculum is often dropped after the primary grades.”

For some students, SSR may be the only time of day that they engage in reading for pleasure. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts collated the best national data available to provide a reliable overview of American reading today, To Read or Not to Read(opens in a new window). The report finds that American youths are reading less in their free time than a generation ago. Fewer than one-fourth of 17-year-olds read almost every day for fun, and young people 15 to 24 read 10 minutes or less a day, on average. The report also finds that reading has a significant correlation with success in school and the workplace. For all these reason, a SSR program is way to create a rich literacy environment that promotes reading on a regular basis.

However, educators must be careful to not consider SSR as an intervention for struggling readers or as an activity that can take the place of direct, systematic instruction to address weaknesses in reading skills, such as fluency. “Direct instruction is especially important for readers who are struggling. Readers who have not yet attained fluency are not likely to make effective and efficient use of silent, independent reading time. For these students, independent reading takes time away from needed reading instruction.” (See Put Reading First(opens in a new window), National Institute for Literacy)

My suggestion to middle and high schools that adopt SSR programs is to use the time that on-grade level readers are reading silently to also do some targeted, scaffolded instruction with struggling readers. For example, teachers can have students with fluency problems work with a fluency intervention program (such as Read Naturally or Soliloquy) during the 20 minute SSR that is offered at your school for all readers.