Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sustained Silent Reading, or, "This Magic Moment"

Our local paper reports that a huge percentage of college freshmen are having to take remedial English courses before they can begin their college courses.  I am not surprised. I don't think those students can read.

 I think I have a cure, and for sure I have an opinion:

Sustained Silent Reading, also called SSR.  Reread those words and translate them to mean: for a decent period of time, without any other noise, students READ.

In elementary schools, it is sometimes called DEAR time, which means "Drop Everything And Read." Whatever the catch phrase for is, I believe, close to sacred time, or should be, in all schools, all grades.

Thinking adults do this, also, but we just call it READING. It is also good for children at home. Whole families could do it together.

 I am worried that schools are chipping away at SSR time little by little, until it will no longer exist. One school I worked in removed it so subtly that we hardly noticed: First they took ONE SSR time per week away for data collection, and then, lo and behold, the next year, SSR was not even mentioned in the school schedule............POOF!  GONE!.....but we certainly collected a lot of data about what those same kids couldn't read!!!!

As a language arts teacher for the past thirteen years, I see SSR as one of the most valuable learning tools for reading instruction.  For twenty minutes or so each day, every student gets to READ material of his own choice SILENTLY, and as a result of this, kids are forced to READ. (The word "forced," used here, is not a negative word, by the way.)

 A previous school where I taught endorsed SSR religiously for a number of years. The building was almost totally quiet for twenty blissful minutes each morning as the minds worked. Those minds translated symbols into words, words into ideas, and voila: comprehension! The teachers sat and read silently right along with the kids. We modeled the behavior, showed them that we loved to read, and they mimicked us.

Guess what happened?  I watched kids who did NOT value reading, did NOT come from homes where the "lap method"* of reading was practiced, did NOT have books in their homes, and did NOT think that reading was fun, suddenly become mesmerized by stories, get lost in books, and start carrying books around with them for "free time." Kids HAD to read, so they DID, and they found out that they COULD, or if not, at least they could TRY, and they had time allotted to them to figure out how to do it.

 Schools are giving up SSR or DEAR time. Teachers have to prove that they are doing everything they can do to pass state tests. SSR time seems to be giving way to test-related tasks instead.  (Data collection.) No wonder our college freshmen are so ill-prepared!

We want to create a society of readers, yet we are taking away the scheduled time, sometimes the only quiet time kids can find for reading, to do activities which, while of value perhaps, are not READING:  the thing these kids do not do well.

Without reading, kids cannot do ANYTHING. They will fail language arts, science, social studies, math (story problems, remember?), history, health, and not be able to read school rules posted on the hall walls. If they cannot read, they cannot write. If they cannot read English, we may as well not dream about reading Spanish or French. (Not to mention Chinese.......) EVERYTHING begins with READING!

SSR takes work for teachers to set the expectation and model the behavior at first, but once in place, it is a haven for kids to have quiet time for reading something of their own choosing.

I saw non-readers become READERS during the years that SSR was ENFORCED. I saw one boy fall in love with the Harry Potter books. He began SNEAKING around to read! I would find him under his desk with a book, instead of working on classwork. I loved it!  Books appeared in the hands of kids in hallways,  study hall, on the way out of the building when the day was done. I'd bet those kids were reading at home, too. Without SSR in our school, the librarian had very few books checked out, where before the cut students were constantly searching for their next book, and the library was busy.

If I were not a READER, I cannot even begin to imagine the joy I would have missed.  Most of my good conversations sooner or later involve a book.  In my youth, we didn't have to schedule a quiet time to find to read. We had time, libraries filled with books, teachers who showed us the value of reading and had the TIME TO READ TO US in class. They let us sob in class when the dog died at the end of one book, and then they got out another book!  We had quiet places, time to read, and a slower pace to our lives. Teaching to the state test doesn't leave time to read a book to students.

 Today's kids carry cell phones, iPods, have perpetual "entertainment," and have few quiet places to retreat with a book. No wonder many cannot read well.

You know that old adage,"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink"?  If we don't even LEAD the horse TO the water, how will it know if it wants to drink or not?!!!

What do I want YOU to do about this? Tell principals, teachers, and school board members that you want SSR to happen in the schools your children attend.  If this doesn't get results, I would  suggest that parents set aside twenty minutes a day in their home for the entire family to sit quietly and READ.  You don't need a school system to do it for you.

I wonder what they do in China and Japan, in schools and homes of  nations that shame us educationally. Their college freshmen can read.  Gee, I wonder if they have some type of sustained silent reading going on, daily, do ya think?

I'd bet on it.

* "Lap method" means a parent put a kid on his or her lap and read to him.

copyright:  K P Gillenwater