LEARNING TO READ
After I got married (beginning 3 days after, as a matter of fact) I rode the #82 bus every day from Bryn Mawr and Kimball to the Ravenswood “El” (now the Brown Line) station at Lawrence Avenue. From there it was a 40 minute ride downtown to the Loop and my job at Carl Fischer Music at 312 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. The full trip was about an hour…and it was during the 2 years I worked at Carl Fischer and made that trip daily that I finally “learned to read.”
I could read before that. I had an Arts and Sciences degree from Indiana University (IU) and had been reading books, novels, short stories, and non-fiction for most of my life. I don’t remember when I learned to read in elementary school, but I was never a very good student. There were other things getting in the way of my learning, and reading was a chore. I could do it, but I always had trouble focusing on what I had to read. I had trouble remembering what I read…characters, plot…it all went in as I read, but dissipated almost immediately. So I didn’t really “learn to read” until I started riding public transportation, the CTA, to downtown Chicago every day.
One of my co-workers was a voracious reader and he got me in the habit of writing down the name of a book and its author in a little date book whenever I finished reading it. The first few months I only read a couple of books, but after a while, with two hours a day devoted to reading I made quick progress.
I read more, faster, and with greater comprehension and clarity than I ever had before. I also started reading books which had been more difficult for me…books by people like Dickens, Hesse, Proust, and Thomas Mann. I remember the latter especially. I had tried reading Buddenbrooks when I was in college, but found it to be too long and drawn out…too boring. In other words, too hard. But after a few months reading for two hours on the CTA I picked up a copy of Mann’s Magic Mountain and thoroughly enjoyed it. I followed that with Joseph and His Brothers. Years later I was amazed when I picked up my copy of Joseph and found that the first paragraph in the introduction ran for several pages, and the language was once again, too hard for me to handle.
But during those two years I read and enjoyed so many great novels…like The Lord of the Rings and Pickwick Papers. Some of the books (like the Tolkien) I had read before, but not deeply. I hadn’t retained what I had read…I missed a lot. I hadn’t really enjoyed them. By the end of the two years I had read dozens of classics and popular novels and had understood them and actually had fun reading.
What was different? I hadn’t gotten smarter in the two years since I graduated college. What I had done, though, was to practice reading every day for two hours a day.
SUSTAINED SILENT READING
That lesson stuck with me and when I started my post graduate work in pursuit of my teaching certificate I pounced on Sustained Silent Reading.
Earlier this month I wrote about how important it was to read aloud to children…at home and at school. In Reading Aloud: Still the Most Important Part of Reading Instruction I mentioned how Dr. Madden introduced me to reading aloud and it became the basis of my reading program from my first day in the classroom. He also introduced me to Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), and with the reinforcement I got from my own experience on the CTA in Chicago, as well as Jim Trelease, I used both reading aloud and sustained silent reading every day.
The more you read, the better you get at it; the better you get at it, the more you like it; and the more you like it, the more you do it.
The more you read, the more you know; the more you know, the smarter you grow.
Sustained Silent Reading is, according to Jim Trelease, “read aloud’s silent partner.”
Among the many purposes of reading aloud, a primary one is to motivate the child to read independently for pleasure. In academic terms, such reading is called SSR— sustained silent reading. Take a book, a newspaper, a magazine, and enjoy it! No interruptions for questions, assessments, or reports; just read for pleasure.
The best thing about it is that SSR works, too.
“Wait,” you say, trying to remember the staff inservice you went to 12 years ago, “didn’t the National Reading Panel report that SSR didn’t work?”
No. They didn’t. For a complete treatment of the National Reading Panel’s coverage of SSR read the following…then come back. I’ll wait.
At first SSR programs were designed to show students that reading could be fun…and didn’t have to be connected to school, a test, or a goal of some sort. Reading was good in and of itself. Writing in Educational Leadership, Steve Gardiner wrote,
The primary goal of silent reading programs has always been to increase students’ enjoyment of reading. Researcher Janise Arthur (1995) investigated the connection between sustained silent reading programs and attitudes toward reading, with special attention to aliterates— those who can read but choose not to. She found several studies that correlated daily reading opportunities with improved attitudes, which in turn produced other benefits.
Studies of children in kindergarten, primary, and middle grades who have demonstrated a voluntary interest in books were not only rated to have better work habits, social and emotional development, language structure, and overall school performance, but also these children scored significantly higher on standardized reading tests. (p. 2)
Sustained silent reading programs do more than improve students’ attitudes toward reading. Studies show that students who enjoy reading also read more books and develop better skills in reading comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary.
Trelease goes a step further. He talks about “summer setback.”
…the at-risk child’s summer includes a home without books, magazines, or newspapers, and without adults who read avidly; no car by which to leave a dangerous neighborhood; no bookstores or convenient library; a daily routine in which the child seldom encounters new people, new experiences, or new vocabulary, thus there is no growth in background knowledge; and little likelihood that educational or informational TV or radio will be seen or heard.
So it’s important to build that habit of reading “for fun” during the school year.
Jimmy Kim’s study of 1,600 sixth-graders in eighteen schools showed that the reading of four to six books during the summer was enough to alleviate summer loss. He further noted that when schools required either a report or essay to be written about a book read during the summer or that parents verify the student had read one summer book, this greatly increased the chances of its being read.
[See: Jimmy Kim, “Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk ( JESPAR) 9, no. 2 (2004): 169– 88. See also Debra Viadero, “Reading Books Is Found to Ward Off ‘Summer Slump,’ ” Education Week, May 5, 2004.]
The results from the latest NAEP progress report (The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress) are also clear. Reading for fun helps.
Results from previous NAEP reading assessments show students who read for fun more frequently had higher average scores. Results from the 2012 long-term trend assessment also reflect this pattern. At all three ages, students who reported reading for fun almost daily or once or twice a week scored higher than did students who reported reading for fun a few times a year or less…
The NAEP data reported a decline in the number of students who read for fun. In NAEP’s Solution to Flat Reading Scores: “Read for Fun” Educator’s Room author, Colette Bennett tries to figure out why — technology, television, whole language vs. phonics debate — whatever the reason, she says,
The sad truth is that there was plenty of research by 1995 to support a focus on independent “reading for fun” in a balanced literacy program…Yet seventeen years later, as detailed in the NAEP report of 2012, the scores for 17-year-old students who read independently for fun dropped to the lowest level of 19%.
Ironically, these authors are assessment experts, data collectors, who have INCLUDED a strategy that is largely anecdotal, a strategy that can only be measured by students volunteering information about how often they read.
A POWERFUL COMBINATION
Now you know. Reading aloud to children helps improve their vocabulary, introduces them to language they wouldn’t normally hear in their daily lives, and increases their interest in books. Sustained silent reading gives them an outlet for that interest…and an increase of reading “for fun” improves students’ reading achievement.
Reading aloud and SSR are much more effective learning tools than test prep or drill and kill…and they’re more fun.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.