Fun, Easy, and Effective: Sustained Silent Reading as a High School Practice

Recently I gave a tour of Noble High School (NHS) to a visiting teacher. A large rural high school in southern Maine, NHS is divided into three schools-within-a-school called academies. Each academy consists of multiple grade-level small learning communities called teams. As we began walking through the hallways towards one of the learning communities, my visitor turned to me.

“I haven’t seen a student yet,” he said. “Where are they all? In fact, this place is silent. Is anyone here?”

“Let me show you,” I replied. “Do you have something with you to read?” I asked. He nodded.

We entered a tenth grade team. Throughout the large carpeted room, which was the center of this learning community, thirty students sprawled out in chairs, on the floor, at the computer tables, and in corners. A few teachers were mixed in as well. Even with the large number of individuals the room was silent. Everyone was reading.

As the visitor and I sat down to read, he stared at me with a half-smile of incredulity. “This goes on every day?” he whispered.

I smiled back. “Welcome to SSR,” I said.

What is SSR?
SSR is an acronym for Sustained Silent Reading. First developed over thirty years ago by Lyman Hunt at the University of Vermont, SSR has become a common practice in classrooms. SSR occurs most frequently when a teacher allots a specific amount of time once a week for students to read self selected texts. Some teachers go further and build SSR into every school day. Less frequently, SSR is implemented as a whole-school practice. SSR occurs often in elementary and middle school settings, though high schools are beginning to embrace this practice.

As Janice Pilgreen writes in The SSR Handbook: How to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program, SSR programs, when implemented effectively, can play a significant role in increasing reading engagement and reading achievement, and can therefore address a tremendous challenge. Research shows that the literacy performance of students at all levels across the nation has not improved over the past three decades. In fact, at the high school level, it has declined. Research also documents that by sixth grade most students are not motivated to read for pleasure. For many students this decrease in motivation continues or worsens during high school. In order to become engaged, students need time and opportunity to develop effective habits of reading for pleasure. SSR provides this.

SSR has a long history of demonstrated success. As 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.

The reasons these gains occur make sense. In general, the more students read, the more exposure they have to unfamiliar vocabulary and content knowledge. The more students know and understand, the better they do in school. Many studies show that individuals who read more achieve at higher levels. However, it is important to point out that while SSR will not address all literacy issues, a whole-school sustained silent reading program can play an essential role a high school’s literacy program.

Components of Successful SSR Programs
Successful SSR programs typically have key features in common. In The SSR Handbook, Pilgreen identifies eight factors for a “stacked for success program.” These factors are:

  • Access: ensuring students have access to a wide range of reading materials
  • Appeal: tapping into students’ reading interests and letting them choose their own materials
  • Environment: providing a comfortable atmosphere in which to read
  • Encouragement: implementing various strategies to support students in developing effective reading habits
  • Non-accountability: making sure not to attach work to reading that takes place in SSR
  • Distributed time to read: creating opportunities to read on a regular basis
  • Follow-up activities: establishing activities that occur after SSR to allow students to share what they are reading with others
  • Staff training: supporting staff in the rationale for SSR as well as best practices for effective implementation

While not all of these factors are required in order to develop a strong SSR program, most need to be in place. Four factors essential for success are 1) allowing students to choose their own reading, 2) ensuring that teachers model by reading with students, 3) not assigning work, and 4) making sure students can find interesting things to read.

SSR at Noble High School
In 2004, results from a self-study of literacy at Noble High School indicated a school culture of literacy that did not embrace reading. In addition, according to a student survey, many students identified themselves as non-readers, many rarely read outside of the classroom, and only a small percentage of students regularly used the school library. In order to change the school culture of non-reading, NHS followed one of the recommendations from the self-study and created a school-wide sustained silent reading (SSR) program to be implemented at the start of the school year in 2005.

A great deal of planning went into designing the SSR program at Noble. This process began with the literacy coach conducting a comprehensive review of literature and research on SSR. After this review, we allotted a year to design the program, pilot it, and train staff in how to implement SSR. Three teams piloted a version of SSR that occurred once a week. These pilots were so successful that teachers requested time be devoted to SSR every day. Based on this request, an SSR block was built into the whole school schedule. Within this revised schedule, students and staff engage in free voluntary reading every day for 25 minutes. Very few restrictions are placed on what students can read during SSR, and work is not assigned to any of the reading. We debated whether or not to grade participation, but eventually the school council decided that assessing participation with a pass/fail grade would send the message that SSR was a valued part of the school day. In addition to receiving a grade, students also earn one quarter of a credit each year for SSR that can be used towards graduation.

Measuring Success
A variety of indicators support the interpretation that SSR has been a success at NHS. Since SSR began, book sign-outs in the library have almost doubled. Over one hundred classroom observations have been conducted in the first year of the SSR program, and results indicate that almost ninety percent of the students are reading on a consistent basis. These are very encouraging signs. In addition, where it was once rare to see students reading outside of class, students and staff can now frequently be found in the library, cafeteria, and even in the hallways reading books. Staff members have also shared numerous anecdotes where they have overheard students talking about books they are reading in SSR. For example, after SSR, one teacher saw a student crying in the hallway. This student had two friends nearby consoling her. As the teacher moved forward to talk to the distraught student she overheard her say, “I just can’t stop crying. The end of the book was just so sad!”

Another indicator of SSR’s success comes from the teachers themselves. Many teachers who were initially reluctant or skeptical about shortening classes to accommodate an SSR block in the schedule have become the most vocal advocates. Many of these teachers have also shared that SSR is one of the most important changes to take place at Noble in years.

Arguably the most important indicator of success is student achievement. While we do not have any data that demonstrate a direct link between SSR and student achievement, student performance on the Scholastic Reading Inventory is showing greater gains this year than in years past. We are very confident SSR has played a key role in this improvement.

Is SSR Right for All High Schools?
I believe that every high school across the country should devote time for daily, sustained silent reading at the whole-school level. In other words, every high school should ensure that during a portion of every school day all students are engaged in reading for a sustained period of time at the same time. To support this claim, I pose three questions for readers to consider. These questions ask you to use your own experience and understanding to reflect upon the students in your learning community.

Question 1: Are there many students who struggle with reading or who consider themselves non-readers?
Most high schools have significant numbers of students who struggle with reading. SSR helps these students develop effective habits of readers. Research has demonstrated that as students navigate through school, their motivation for learning and engagement in reading decline. In addition, increasing reading engagement has been shown to increase reading achievement. When you consider how simple SSR is to implement and how much training is involved compared to a variety of reading programs that currently exist, implementing SSR just makes sense. As Stephen Krashen notes, a wealth of research has shown the SSR at its worst is just as effective as direct instruction in increasing reading achievement.

It is also important to note that SSR not only supports struggling readers—it supports all readers, therefore functioning as a useful tool for differentiated instruction. Of the students who read at or above grade level, many consider themselves non-readers or amotivated readers. On top of this, the competition for students’ time outside of school from television to sports to hanging out with friends is intense. It is no surprise that many capable readers read very little in their free time.

Question 2: How much time do students have available to read for sustained periods during the school day?
When I ask this question to content-area teachers, many initially respond that they think students spend a lot of time reading in school. However, when these same teachers are asked to count how many minutes students spend reading in their classrooms, many are surprised to realize that the number of minutes is very small, often only a few minutes each day on average. The reason for this is simple. Many teachers at the high school level feel extreme pressure to cover content. As a result, most reading is assigned outside of school to allow for time to cover needed material in the classroom. This is a very understandable and reasonable choice that many teachers make. However, because of this choice students typically do little reading during school. In fact, because they have so many things competing for their time, there is often very little time for students to enjoy free reading.

Question 3: How much reading do students do at home?
As discussed above, educators typically agree that a significant number of students do very little free reading at home. However, if teachers habitually expect assigned reading to be completed at home, how much reading for school do students actually do outside of school? When I ask this question of teachers, most state that many students either do not appear to read assigned material at home, or they do so in such a way that they remember very little of what they have read. How many times did you cram reading in the night before a test or discussion? As a result, teachers share that they frequently need to go back and re-teach content that was covered in texts assigned for reading.

In my own experience with educators from high schools across the state of Maine, most have affirmed my contentions above. Many students in our high schools are struggling or non-readers. Many are not provided time to read during school. Many do not read at home. Thus, many rarely read at all. How can we expect students to become better or more avid readers if they do not read on any consistent basis? How can we expect this when research shows that increasing reading engagement is a critical link in increasing reading achievement? We must provide students with time and adult role models to develop the habits of effective readers, and we cannot expect them to learn these habits only at home. Thus, schools must provide time for sustained reading on a daily basis.

Addressing Some Concerns
When I share the above arguments with educators they offer two objections. The first is a fear that if a high school begins devoting time every day for sustained reading, classes will need to be shortened. This would mean that there would be even less time to cover the required content in each class. This is true. However, by providing students with opportunities to engage in reading every day, they become better readers. This supports reading in every content area. Prior to implementing SSR block at NHS, many content teachers shared a concern about classes being shortened. Once SSR began at the start of the 2005-2006 school year, those same teachers were the most vocal in protest when, on a few occasions, announcements were read mistakenly during SSR. It did not take long for these teachers to see the importance of SSR in supporting their own instruction. In a matter of a month, SSR became one of the most sacred practices of the school.

The second objection comes from educators who have read some research on sustained silent reading. Some of this research provides examples of schools in which sustained silent reading appeared to have little positive impact on students’ attitudes and abilities in reading. However, a comprehensive review of the body of research on SSR overwhelmingly demonstrates the potential of sustained reading programs to improve attitudes and performance in reading. Schools where little gains were seen often implemented programs poorly or expected unreasonable improvement in short period of time. For example, it is not reasonable to expect all high school students that consider themselves to be non-readers to love reading after only a few months.

A few years ago, as a high school English teacher, I had never heard of sustained silent reading. When a colleague described it to me I thought it was something that made sense only in elementary schools. As I read more about it, I became convinced that SSR had potential in high school. Now that I have seen it in action at NHS, I have no doubts about SSR’s powerful impact on the literacy learning of students. In short, I can boil down three reasons all schools should seriously consider implementing SSR. It’s fun. It’s easy. It works.

References Cited
Pilgreen, Janice L. The SSR Handbook: How to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program (Boynton/Cook, 2000) Krashen, Stephen D. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Libraries Unlimited, 2004)

Noble High School Facts
Noble High School is a rural public school serving 1,115 students in 9-12th grades. Noble High School is a regional high school, drawing students from several area towns in southern Maine.

Noble’s Self Study in Literacy
In 2004, Noble High School contracted with the Center for Resource Management, Inc. (CRM) to conduct a literacy audit of the entire high school. This audit analyzed three sources of data to assess how well the school supported the literacy development of students. First, the reading comprehension ability of all students was assessed through the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI). Next, all staff took a comprehensive survey designed by CRM to assess teacher knowledge of content-area literacy strategies. Finally, NHS created a literacy team to determine and describe the various supports and resources available to support literacy. CRM analyzed all of this data and provided NHS with a comprehensive report with recommendations for literacy form. Foremost among these was to hire a full-time literacy coach and to develop an SSR program. This audit served as a catalyst that spurred literacy reform at NHS of which the SSR program is an integral part.

Kevin Perks, Noble High School’s Literacy Coordinator, earned his BA at Boston University, a Masters of Teaching at the University of Chicago, and is currently working on his doctorate at the University of New Hampshire.

The CES Small Schools Project welcomes the following schools to our growing network:

Mentor and Emerging Mentor Schools

  • Life Learning Academy in San Francisco, California was founded in 1997 and is dedicated to serving a high risk urban student population in grades 9 through 12. Life Learning joins CES as a new mentor school.
  • International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas seeks to challenge all members of the school community to act at one’s fullest potential as a learner, leader, and global citizen. International School of the Americas is an emerging mentor school.
  • Greenville Technical Charter High School in Greenville, South Carolina provides equitable opportunities for all students to acquire an education focused on linkages among rigorous academics, technology and careers. Greenville Technical is an emerging mentor school.
  • Memphis Middle College High School in Memphis, Tennessee motivates its students to improve their academic performance and self-concept. Middle College is an emerging mentor school.

New School Design Teams

  • The Academy of Creative Professions in New York City will engage students through collaborative creative projects beginning in fall 2007.
  • Urban School of Public Affairs and Service in New York City will serve students who are socio-economically underrepresented in institutions of higher education and in decision-making positions in the body politic starting in fall 2007.
  • Urban School for Inquiry in New York City is dedicated to providing all students in grades 9-12 with the preparation needed to pursue engineering or other technology-related careers. USI will open as a CES school in fall 2007.

New Schools

  • Memphis City Schools in Memphis, Tennessee will open a new small CES school in fall 2006 for at-risk youth that increases student commitment and engagement through leadership development and service learning, strong relationships, and innovative academic support.