Archives For SSR

Shhhhh….We’ve been very, very quiet in grade 9 this year with our Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) academic experiment in the college prep 9th grade class. 77 students were asked to read a minimum of eight (8)  independent reading books of their choice as part of the curriculum, and to facilitate reading, students were provided 20 minutes twice a week (40 mins total/week) of SSR.  Responses to the independent books were recorded later on blogs or presented in class.

The inclusion of independent student choice texts with the time made available for SSR meant a reduction in the number of whole class reads; four texts remained in the curriculum: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Speak, and selections from The Odyssey. Classroom libraries were augmented with high interest texts (used books in class) with support from the school library and Overdrive software to allow for a wide selection by students.

So, what were the results? At the beginning of the school year, students took a survey based on questions suggested in Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. This week, (June 2012) the same students retook the same survey. In order to account for percentage differences in attendance and enrollments, results were also checked using a t-test calculator to determine statistical significance. While there was only little change in students viewing reading as “fun” or “easy,” 57% to 59% or a 2% increase in the affirmative, the other data gathered from the survey indicates a positive shift in the attitude of our students towards themselves as better readers coupled with an increase in time spent reading  outside of class.

According to our September survey, 39% of our students rated themselves as “good” readers, 42% rated themselves as “average” readers, and 21% rated themselves as “poor” readers. The difference in June was very statistically significant (t-test) with 66% of students rating themselves as good readers; 30% of students rating themselves as average readers, and only 8% of students rating themselves as poor readers.

Responding to the prompt “I read independently every day and look forward to my reading time” in September;  9% of students responded “usually”, 35 % of students responded “sometimes”, and 56% of students responded “rarely”. However, by June, the difference in student attitudes her was also very statistically significant (t-test) with 19% of students responding “usually” (up 10%),  53% of students responding “sometimes” (up 21%), and 33% responding “rarely” (down 23%).

Finally, not only did the SSR program did increase the number of books read  by students for class, students indicated (very statistically significant) that they increased the number of additional independent books they read over the course of the year. Students reading no addditional books dropped from 32% to 11% while students reading 1-2 books increased from 52% to 58%, students reading  3-4 books increased from 13% to 22%, and students reading over 4 books increased from 3% to 8%.  These numbers complemented the finding of students who increased their overall “not for school reading/reading for pleasure” for 60 minutes or more (5%), for 30-60 minutes (17%) , and for 30 minutes or less (17%). The number of students who admitted to doing no additional reading dropped from 22% to 15%.

So what are the implications of this data? There are numerous studies that support independent reading for academic achievement. Students who read independently may also have an advantage as adults in the workplace. Author Stephen D. Krashen writes in The Power of Reading:

What the research tells me [about SSR] is that when children or less literate adults start reading for pleasure… good things will happen. Their reading comprehension will improve, and they will find difficult, academic-style texts easier to read. Their writing style will improve, and they will be better able to write prose in a style that is acceptable to schools, business, and the scientific community. Their vocabulary will improve, and their spelling and control of grammar will improve.

Additionally, high school is not too late to start an SSR program. Author  Steven Gardiner defended the practice when he  responded to questions about his book Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading and discussed the use of SSR at the high school level:

On more than one occasion, I’ve started class by simply reading aloud. I didn’t explain what I was doing or why, I just started reading. They may be 15 or 17 years old, but they quickly get quiet and listen, trying to understand what is going to happen next, just like youngsters in story hour. They aren’t too old for reading aloud, and they aren’t too old for SSR. Most students are grateful for the time. When I look at changes in modern society, I understand why.

So do I. Our students occupy a digitally distracting universe: tweeting, texting, tethered to some instant communication that generates a almost compulsive nervous response. Carving out time, 10-20 minutes a class, for quiet SSR is necessary for students who need to focus when they read. Sadly, this may be the only time during a day when students read.

The significance of our efforts to increase our students’ independent and voluntary reading is addressed in the 2007 NEA report To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability toread but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy, and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully, depend on reading.

Our practice of  good reading habits,  SSR provided twice weekly with student selected texts, can lead to improved attitudes towards reading, and we now have the data to prove that one academic year of SSR has improved our 9th grade student attitudes towards reading. SSR will be included as an important part of our literacy efforts at other grade levels as well.

Teenagers today read for pleasure just as much their parents-or grandparents- read when they were teens. This means that after all the time and effort dedicated by schools and publishers to increase student reading, the statistics show no increase in the number of teenagers who read for pleasure?

I find this a proposition just a little depressing.

65 years and no improvement in teens reading for pleasure? Why not?

An article in the January 2012 Language Magazine: The Journal of Education and Communication by Stephen Krashen titled “Reading for Pleasure” looks at data about the reading habits of high school students gathered from 1946 to the present in order to explain “why we should stop scolding teenagers and their schools.”  Krashen is a linguist and researcher in second language acquisition who promotes the use of free voluntary reading  which he says “is the most powerful tool we have in language education, first and second.”

Krashen looks at questionnaires given to 17 year olds by  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  that asked if they read in their spare time.  Using this data, he determines that despite some improvement between 1946 and 1984, there has been a decline in teenage reading from 1984-2008, resulting in no net gain in reading for the past 65 years. He concludes that, “Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that teenagers are less engaged in literacy activities today than teenagers of the past. Teenagers today do just as much book reading as teenagers did 65 years ago, and it appears that they are more involved in reading and writing in general when we include computer use in the analysis.”

That conclusion is really depressing. There have been considerable efforts to increase student reading on several fronts beginning in earnest with Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It  published in 1955. While this book dealt primarily with the methodology of teaching reading (phonics), the book’s message about the importance of literacy spike a nation’s interest in improving reading skills-an important step in student reading for pleasure. On the education front, the inclusion of   SSR (silent sustained reading) during the school day began over 30 years ago. One of the tenets of SSR is that students have the opportunity to choose materials to read. The practice of SSR has travelled from elementary to many middle and high schools in order to respond to student demands for choice. Finally, on the publishing front, there has been an explosion of  children and young adult literature in the past fifteen years: 3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997;  30,000 titles in 2009. In 2009, total sales exceeded 3 billion.

So, these quick examples suggest there is evidence there is heightened awareness about student reading for over 50 years, there is time provided in school, and there are materials published. Yet, there has been no increase in teenagers reading for pleasure?

Well, Krashen looks at the combined reading and writing habits of teenagers and notes that teenagers in the 2005 and 2010 NAEP reports spent more time on written interaction than on entertainment. Written interaction referred to social networking sites, and these figures are probably on the increase as access to the Internet on mobile devices increases. He writes that, “Communication with their peers is clearly important to them. In terms of total ‘voluntary reading and writing,’ teenagers in the 2005 report and the 2010 report are nearly even.” He concludes that, “’Kids these days’ appear to be reading and writing on their own an average of about an hour and a half a day.”

But student communication with their peers can be limited in vocabulary and scope. A recent student in Britain by Lancaster University’s Professor Tony McEnery who conducted research creating analysis of a database of teenage speech that suggested British teenagers had a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words compared with the nearly 21,400 words that the average person aged 25 to 34 uses. In other words, communication with peers does not increase vocabulary, and this study did not include texting adaptations of vocabulary with acronyms or shortened spelling. Yes, this study was conducted in Britain, but it is unlikely there is much difference in the vocabulary of American teens, other than that lovely accent.

Krashen is very clear to point out that students “are reading peer writing, not Hamlet or the Federalist Papers. And they are writing to each other, not composing essays comparing and contrasting Edgar Allen Poe with Longfellow.” But, I am not comforted that Krashen offers social communication as voluntary reading despite his claim that students experience cognitive development when they write on topics of deep personal concern.

I do agree, however, with Krashen’s claim  that “the true problem in literacy is not related to convincing reluctant teenagers to read: It is providing access to books for those living in poverty.”  I would go further to suggest that all schools, economically privileged or not, need to create reading material rich environments for students.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Our 9th grade students are provided SSR time twice weekly (20-25 minutes/day) to read for pleasure. They may choose what they want to read. Often, a student will arrive in class without materials or, having just completed a book, looking for a recommendation. Our classroom libraries (book carts) are filled with high interest used books purchased for exactly this moment, and our school library is now connected to Overdrive which allows students to check out an ebook on a mobile device. This ability to capitalize on this moment of student’s interest with reading materials is critical to a successful reading program. The hope is that this will lead to continued reading for pleasure outside the classroom.

Krashen’s review of the data is depressing; I would have expected that given the amount of attention given to increasing teen reading for pleasure that there should have been a steady increase in reading habits from generation to generation.He cautions that negative attention given to this topic, including “dissing high school students”, is not the way to increase reading for pleasure. Teenagers by nature, regardless of their generation, should come to reading for pleasure through availability AND  choice. Just ask your mom, or grandma, can we do better?