Some thoughts on silent reading

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Is silence is golden?

“And Johnny, what makes you think that is suitable for silent reading?” 

“Because Sir, you really would not want me to read it out loud”

Jim Smith, The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook

Apparently silent reading hasn’t been around as long as you might think. The 4th Century church leader Saint Ambrose’s reading habits were unusual enough for Saint Augustine to note in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions that:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

Why is this important? Well, ever since I learned to internalise my reading I’ve been devouring books and developing my interior world. This is a private and mysterious place in which all sorts of surprising things happen. I consider myself to be highly articulate and able to vocalise my thoughts in a way that less articulate folk cannot. My vocabulary allows me to conceptualise abstract thoughts because I’m not groping for the words needed to express myself; they’re there, waiting. But the swirl of thought beneath this is numinous and liminal (I’m just showing off now.) This process is going on (I think) inside everyone, but only those with sufficient words can dip into it and pull out something useful which can be expressed and shared.

The point is that I value silent reading very much. I am, however, not a fan of silent reading in the classroom.

Doing a sopt of research lead my this list of reasons why silent reading should be undertaken in the classroom. I have no issue with any of these points. My concern is that silence may not not conducive to understanding. I’m a member of what Geoff Barton refers to as The Literacy Club. I’m capable of deft and subtle understanding of a text and am able to absorb information rapidly. Others don’t share this advantage.

The problem for non-members is described by the Matthew effect: the word rich become richer while the word poor become poorer. Students who are good readers experience more success which makes them want to read more. As they read more, they become even more successful at reading. Their vocabulary and comprehension grows. Hey presto! a virtuous circle. Readers who struggle with decoding or who have poor vocabularies are unlikely to want to expose these weaknesses by picking up a book. They get much less practice and the gap opens up and widens. Silent reading is a lovely experience for the word rich: they can pick up their current read and crack on. For the word poor it becomes an exercise in trying disguise the fact that you’r holding the book upside down. The role of the teacher becomes that of Reading Police, penalising poor readers for non-compliance.

Maybe I’ve been damaged by my experience of reading lessons coupled with Accelerated Reader. This is a computer program which tests students’ reading ability and categorises books into levels of difficulty. Children are expected to read books within their ‘reading range’ and then take a multiple choice quiz to prove they’re read the damn thing. They then get points equal to the value of the perceived difficulty of the book. And you know what points mean? Now if, as Kenny says, “all you want is to look into a classroom and see a class full of wee kids reading then Accelerated Reader is your man.” But, if you’re interested in developing lifelong readers it ain’t gonna work any more than any other system of extrinsic rewards will affect behaviour beyond the immediate to short term.

The best ways of getting all students to read involve having conversations about reading and books. I love Kenny Pieper’s use of Reading Journals and can see the very real benefit to students of interacting with their teacher in this way. But the bit that makes it work isn’t the silence. It’s the conversation. Kenny’s a big fan of silent reading and starts lessons with 10 minutes of it. Now, I respect Kenny and know that he is a sincere and reflective practitioner so there’s no way I’d want to dismiss his experience. I think the key element in what he does isn’t necessarily about silence, it’s about his commitment to and value of personal reading. He says that we must be involved in students’ reading and I agree. But should this involvement happen in silence?

We all agree that getting students reading is a good thing and there’s loads of well-meaning approaches designed to make this happen Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) and Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) to name but two. The problem with these programmes is that if we want kids to read lots we need to teach them to read well. This means we have to make implicit reading skills explicit. Silent reading looks like a good idea because it gives students the time and space needed to read. What it doesn’t do is help poor readers become more fluent and is therefore doomed to failure.

Communication is, I believe, the key to the successful teaching of reading. EB Hirsch Jr says ,”If children are brought to speak and understand speech well in the early years, their reading future is bright.” He suggests that “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class.” So, high quality speaking & listening that develop students’ control of language and broaden their vocabulary is the key to reading.

I like the idea of reading lessons in which excitement about books is the focus. We want children to enjoy reading not suffer it in silence, so let’s celebrate it. Let’s make it exciting and interactive. Let’s read aloud and then stop at a cliffhanger. Let’s put on literary festivals. Let’s call it something silly like Loud Reading or Noisy Reading. Let’s be imaginative and do stuff which might not work but which stands a better chance than doing something which definitely won’t work for the silent legions of word poor.

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  1. mrpieper July 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Great post, David,
    Can I add a few more thoughts on silent reading? You are correct in saying that involvement is the key here but I insist on ten minutes of silent reading for many reasons. I worry that many of the kids I teach have no books at home and nowhere to read. No quiet places, no corners in which to hide, no garden to sit in. I worry that there are no adults at home who read or promote reading. I worry that some of them have no idea what reading ‘looks like’.
    The ten minutes I give them may be the only time they have, the only time they have to experience an atmosphere and develop the behavior/ manners required to develop that atmosphere. They may have never seen an adult read quietly for ten minutes. I read with them. When they interrupt with a question, I say, sorry but I’m reading. I insist that they do the same. Over the year we develop that respect for reading and the right of others to do so. It works.

    I got into teaching because of books. I had that opportunity to see why it is important. If I can pass one thing on to these guys it would be that. Read, read, read some more. The rest will follow. I can control forty minutes of that reading. The deal is that they do at least that again at home. They usually do a lot more. There is no greater gift that a teacher can bestow.
    Sorry if this sounds like a rant but it is a topic about which I am a very passionate.

    • learningspy July 1, 2012 at 5:08 pm - Reply

      You’re right to be passionate and it doesn’t sound like a rant. Despite all you say, I maintain that how to read must be made explicit and this cannae happen in silence.

  2. mrpieper July 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    But it can happen alongside all of those other things. Can and does. So how do you know that they ever read?

  3. misterlock July 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    I once went to see a comedy gig where Simon Munnery, in character as Alan Parker – Urban Warrior, described being attracted by the SWP. He said “I was in awe. MARCH against the Tories. MARCH against Mining cuts. MARCH against fatcats. MARCH against bonuses. MARCH against the bankers. And then I thought…. “but what are you for?””

    The punchline was “Marching”, but I digress.

    I don’t think you have sufficiently put what you’re for. Maybe that’s a (past) blog post or a future one that you haven’t written yet.

    If I follow correctly, you are against Accelerated Reader (I’ve just been persuaded to sign off a budget request to purchase that, so I’m not happy!), and you’re against silent reading in school.

    So what are you for?

    From what I can see, you’re for “teaching reading”. Well I can’t be opposed to that; I mean I think that’s the responsibility of all teachers… but surely you can’t teach that real wish to read independently… that comes from encouragement. And isn’t ten minutes silent reading (we don’t do this – yet) plus modelling from staff encouragement? What else is?

    I think that trying to teach students how to read (ok, it’s necessary when we’re young, but you know what I mean about students who are a bit older) is the most boring part. Surely encouragement and the availability of support when the concept or the words are a bit too difficult is key.

    Anyway, I think I’m saying, can you point me in the direction of what you are in favour of please? I get from this blog post what you are against.

    • learningspy July 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm - Reply

      Hope the update has answered some of your question. As to the rest, I’m for marching!

  4. James Theobald July 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    I agree with this completely, David. Whilst being a silent reader myself (I guess most adults are, otherwise tube trains would be confusing cacophonies of ‘Harry Potter’ and ’50 Shades of Grey’ – something nobody wants to hear), I think that we as teachers must recognise that we are at the formative stage of the reading lives of our pupils (yes, even in secondary schools) where readers and non-readers are working out what they like and whether they want to read or not. I personally feel that the best way to do that is not to prescribe the ambience within which reading should occur, but to open up choices to pupils as to how they want to approach the reading.

    Also, the idea of ‘community’ is really important in reading to everyone when reading (adults have book groups, internet forums or even just have conversations with friends about books they’ve read – just look at your Facebook feeds and see how many people that you never associated as ‘readers’ are talking about ’50 Shades of Grey’).

    Whilst community can be built through discussing a book that we’ve all read, my personal feeling is that such community is built best through shared reading in a classroom. There’s few greater moments when a whole class gasps as they learn something about our story or our protagonist at the same time. The shared look across the classroom: “OMG… are you thinking what I’m thinking?… what’s she/he going to do next?…” Maybe better than that is the collective groan that the lesson’s reading is over and we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what’s going to happen. And at that moment, maybe an independent reader or two is born, running off to find a copy of the book in the library so that they can read on at home… maybe in silence?

    Hmm, not sure I articulated any of that in the way I wanted. Oh well.

  5. James Theobald July 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    *Columbo mode* Oh, and one more thing… I think we should address our objectives for reading: yes, we are getting them to learn how to read well – to progress; but I think we also have an imperative to encourage a love and value of reading. Or is that too romantic an ideal? If not, does ‘silent reading’ really best serve the latter?

  6. Helen Wilson July 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    In the autumn term, a year 10 student who hqd been through literacy interventions and accelerated reading, came to me and asked me to help him to become a better reader. We have been reading the same book since then. 5 pages a day; he reads 3, i read 2. Hearing me read helps him to meant pronunciation of unfamiliar words (it’s not an easy book) and what confident reading sounds like. By hearing him read, i can help him sound out new words. His reading is more fluent and he enjoys it more now even reading for pleasure at home. The problem is, it takes 1:1 time every day (before either of us officially start school) to achieve this. No other method i have used has proven even remotely as successful. So, how can i help more than one student per year?

  7. […] of time to spend and so on (see Kenny Pieper and David Didau in particular)  This is a hugely complex issue depending on so many variables, including those […]

  8. […] followed some very interesting discussions recently on the blogosphere (see Kenny Pieper  and David Didau in particular) on the place of silent reading in the classroom, the pros and cons, the optimal […]

  9. Mary July 16, 2012 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    My son’s primary school (local to your current school) participates in the Power of Reading project: I don’t know a lot about it but I do know my son has absolutely loved the shared reading with his teachers this year and he has come out of school most days excited to tell me, ‘What happened today in the book.’ He loved two books so much he insisted we bought them and read them again with him. Having said all that I don’t know how much of his enthusiasm is down to the project and how much is down to his brilliant teachers.

  10. Learning Spy | Pearltrees January 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    […] Some thoughts on silent reading But is it art? I’m a big fan of art. I wouldn’t claim to know a lot about it, but it speaks to me. Whether it’s standing, enraptured in front of The Ambassadors , climbing Louise Bourgeois’ towers , peering into Tracey Emin’s tent , or trying to mentally piece together Cornelia Parker’s exploded garden shed it grabs something inside me and compels me to be present. Building challenge: differentiation that?s quick and works ? The Learning Spy Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn?t keep me up at nights nearly as much as it used to. But this is still one of my most visited posts so clearly other folks continue to be troubled. I want to set out my stall early by saying that this is yet another of those troublesome topics which is far simpler than most teachers imagine. The first is fairly straight forward. Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something and then they do it. 3. Almost all teaching in schools depends on a teacher’s ability to create effective groups because, wait for it, classes are just large groups. Let’s deal with each of these in a bit more detail. Firstly, as I’ve discussed before , when we try to work together to work towards a collective goal we get, what is known as the Ringelmann Effect . This means that in a group each member believes that every other member is doing the hard work. […]

  11. […] down and ensuring that no one saw reading as a pleasure. I’ve come to believe that while silent reading is what we should aim for, it doesn’t necessarily make for a great school experience. Since […]

  12. Hannah Tompkins November 23, 2017 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    Great article. Do you know any alternatives to accelerated reader for secondary school students?

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