My site was malfunctioning last week. However, things are working again. In fact, the site should load faster! Sorry for any inconvenience. If you were looking for the free ee/ea phonics book, check out last week’s post. Here’s this week’s elementary reading post on the surprising findings on independent reading:
In elementary reading class, Zachary, a second grader read 20 minutes a day. Each day, there was a scheduled time to read. When that time approached, Zachary selected a book off the class bookshelf, one of his favorites about lizards. Sure, the book was too hard for him and he didn’t actually read the words, but he loved looking at the pictures. He was fascinated that some lizards could walk on walls, and that one lizard could squirt blood from its eyes. The teacher, Mrs. Klein read alongside the students. Mrs. Klein read one of her favorite novels and said she was modeling independent reading skills. After the 20 minutes, everyone felt productive and accomplished.
Do you think this activity improved Zachary’s reading skills?
What about the other kids in the class? Did their reading skills improve?
What was SSR?
Turns out, this experiment was widely implemented and studied. It was called SSR or Silent Sustained Reading. In most cases, SSR meant 1) kids selected texts on their own, 2) the teacher read independently alongside the students, and 3) the students did not engage in any discussion on what they read.
Did silent sustained reading in elementary reading classes work?
Everyone assumed independent reading was beneficial, no matter the parameters. Thus, SSR was widely adopted in elementary reading classes.
Independent reading positively impacts reading skills in kids that can already read. However, SSR involved kids that were still in the learning how to read process. Furthermore, very young kids were selecting their own texts. This meant, poor readers could select texts that were too hard. Likewise, good readers could select texts that were too easy. Thus, kids in elementary reading classes may have been reading inappropriately leveled books.
SSR was a nationwide and even global experiment
SSR was widely studied and was proven ineffective. That is, there was no statistically significant increase in reading abilities. Since we all usually assume any independent reading is good, the results were shocking among educators, parents and researchers alike.
SSR did not improve reading skills.
SSR failed. But why?
Given the parameters of SSR, we can analyze why it was ineffective.
Kids pick texts that are too hard
Zachary was a struggling reader. When SSR time came, he was embarrassed by his reading struggles. The other kids picked chapter books. His best friend picked a fun graphic novel with superhero pictures. Zachary did not want other kids to know his reading skills were so poor. While he should’ve been reading a decodable text, instead he chose a book about lizards with complex orthography.
The words in the book were too hard for him. He misread over half the text, an accuracy rate that meant he was extremely frustrated and discouraged when he tried to read the book. Therefore, he turned his attention to the pictures. He spent the entire 20 minutes flipping through the pictures and pretending to read. As a result, his reading skills did not improve at all.
Zachary’s behavior is the norm. Other struggling readers were also embarrassed to pick the “easy” books. Thus, they went for books that made them look like more sophisticated readers. As a result, a portion of the kids—the struggling readers—did not read at all. They just pretended to read.
Kids pick texts that are too easy
What about the kids that were great readers? Did they improve with SSR? Mel was Zachary’s best friend. He chose a graphic novel with superhero pictures. The graphic novel used lots of slang and easy words. The novel was written far below Mel’s current reading level. Thus, his reading abilities did not improve much.
The SSR program was ineffective even with the top readers in the class. These kids chose texts that were below their reading abilities. Thus, their reading skills were not progressing either.
The importance of leveled books
Should K-3 kids be allowed to select their own books? According to the number of studies done on SSR, NO! Why not? Kids don’t know how to select texts that are appropriately leveled. When kids are in K-3, they are in a unique reading stage. For struggling readers, one word type can wreck havoc on their focus and confidence.
Wendy, a student in Zachary’s class, can’t identify that she can’t read long vowel words yet. She thinks Frog and Toad looks like a cute story. However, when she opens the book to read and experiences reading failure, she begins to lose confidence in herself.
In contrast, an educator can hand Wendy a text at the right level. If Wendy gets a text that’s too easy, she’ll continue to struggle because she won’t learn new content. If Wendy gets a text that’s too hard, she’ll feel like a failure. Thus, she needs a text at a precise level. It’s like tuning an instrument. Too far in either direction can cause problems.
As an educator it’s critical that you keep a close eye on the books your student is reading. Are they too easy? Are they too hard?
How can you tell if a text is too easy or hard?
Selecting texts for students may be challenging, since you may not be sure what texts will engage your student and simultaneously develop their reading skills. Many students read texts at home and at school that are significantly below or above their current reading level. While there may not be an inherent problem in students reading texts that are easy for them for leisure or difficult for them for an occasional challenge, students also need to read texts at their current reading level to continue to develop decoding, vocabulary, automaticity, fluency and reading comprehension skills.
How do you find out if a book is at a student’s current reading level? Accuracy.
Accuracy can be defined as the percentage of words a student reads correctly on a given text. (The text must be new enough so the student has not yet memorized the book). For example, if Jill read 86 out of 100 words correctly on an excerpt from her science reading, her accuracy would be 86%. Since we don’t read in 100 word increments and the math isn’t always as intuitive as in Jill’s case, we can use a formula.
How to find accuracy
Time the student while they read a particular text for one minute. Count the total number of words in the passage the student read. Then count the number of words the student missed. Subtract the total number of words from the total number of words missed. Divide the result by the total number of words. For example:
119- # of words
8- # of words missed
This reader has an accuracy rate of 93%. Determining the student’s accuracy on a particular text can help you decide how the text can best be used. Here are some guidelines:
IF ACCURACY IS 98% OR ABOVE (INDEPENDENT)…the text can be used for independent reading. The student is familiar with almost all of the words in the text, but they still come across unfamiliar words on occasion.
IF ACCURACY IS 92-97% (INSTRUCTIONAL)… the text can be read with a reading specialist or parent/loved one. The more experienced reader can guide the student through miscues and unfamiliar words and concepts.
IF ACCURACY IS BELOW 91% (FRUSTRATION)…the student is experiencing frustration and should not be reading the text at all. If the student is constantly reading below this threshold, he/she will begin to think reading is a frustrating activity and that reading is about guessing. At the frustration level, the student may begin to dislike reading. Some educators put frustration at 92% and below, and I agree in certain cases.
Lessons from SSR
While it might seem shocking that SSR didn’t work, it’s not too surprising if you’re a reading teacher familiar with the nuances of reading interventions. Struggling readers need help selecting texts. Furthermore, they need immediate feedback. Many kids are not even at the level where ANY independent reading is a good idea. Simply hold off on independent reading if your student can’t yet read basic phonics books.
I’m a firm proponent of leveled texts. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to do every single time. I have the luxury of working with fewer kids. However, teachers of large classrooms can check in with their struggling readers to be sure they have leveled books. It’s worth it!
To summarize, here are the lessons from the (failed) SSR program:
-educators need to play a role in helping kids pick appropriately leveled texts
-struggling readers need feedback on miscues
-beginning readers need feedback on miscues
-kids need texts at their recognition level
-teachers are a critical part of elementary reading instruction
The National Reading Panel (2000) https://www1.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf
Hasbrouck, Jan. “For students who are not yet fluent, silent reading is not the best use of classroom time.” Reading Rockets. http://www.readingrockets.org/article/students-who-are-not-yet-fluent-silent-reading-not-best-use-classroom-time