“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.