Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers (International Reading Association Institute #6, Chicago 2010): Part One

photo of Hiebert, Reutzel & Pearson

I attended Institute #6 at the International Reading Association’s 55th Annual Convention on Sunday, April 25, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The title of the Institute was, “Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers.” There will be a book with the same name published by the International Reading Association in September 2010. It is edited by Elfrieda H. Hiebert and D. Ray Reutzel. (To see the itinerary, click on the institute title above.)

The presenters for the plenary (or whole group) sessions included: Elfrieda “Freddy” Hiebert, P. David Pearson, Susie Goodin, D. Ray Reutzel, S. Jay Samuels, Richard Allington, and Anne McGill-Franzen. The speakers for the three breakout sessions included: Maryann Manning, Gary Ockey, Kathleen Wilson, Gwynne Ellen Ash, Melanie Kuhn, Devon Brenner, Jacquelynn A. Malloy, Michelle J. Kelley, Nicki Clausen-Grace, Kathie Bach, and Emily Swan.

**Updated 8/19/2010: Click here to find all presentation handouts from this institute at**

After Freddy’s welcome, P. David Pearson and Susie Goodin spoke. Their topic was “Silent Reading Pedagogy: An historical perspective.” Here are some items from their presentation that I found particularly interesting:

  • Public libraries were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

  • The first bookmobile (or book wagon) was founded 1905. Here is an article about the original founder, Mary Lemist Titcomb, and the first book wagon on Wikipedia. This reminds me of the teacher in Columbia, Luis Soriano Bohorquez, who operates a biblioburro, or donkey library. I love that he named his donkeys “Alpha” and “Beto” (Alpha bet). Here is a video:

  • Public librarians knew the people wanted fiction and they slowly and reluctantly embraced it, but teachers resisted allowing public library texts in their classrooms.

  • Once more secular texts became available, silent reading was increasingly practiced.

  • “By the early 1900s, silent reading instruction began to be widely espoused over oral reading.”

  • “As research and experimentation in the field developed, an instructional methods debate about silent versus oral reading instruction gained momentum.”

  • “Research of the time confirmed the superiority of silent reading over oral reading in speed and comprehension, initiating the call for silent reading in schools (Matthews, 1966).”

  • However, silent reading prevailed in the schools until World War I. After administering assessments to the troops, it was realized that “many soldiers could not read well enough to follow written instructions and prompted public calls for better reading research and reading instruction.”

  • During this same time, librarians supported children’s reading practice by designing reading programs and focusing on children in libraries.

  • USSR (Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading) was coined in the 1960s. It was believed that everyone needed an individualized reading approach.

  • The first federal funding of school library materials came about in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1967 (Michie & Holton, 2005) (after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957). This “helped establish school libraries as a valued part of public education, in part for their contribution to independent reading programs.”

  • “Even though we lack definitive studies of the incidence of silent reading in classrooms across the decades, it is probably fair to conclude (from examinations of basal readers, standards, and curriculum guides) that from the 1960s through the early 2000s, silent reading played an important role in America’s elementary classrooms…”

  • “But with the publication of the National Reading Panel Report in 2000, silent reading, at least as a regular classroom activity within the reading class, has met its most serious policy and curricular challenge.” (Most policy makers misinterpreted the NRP to mean, “that we should cease the practice of allocating class time to independent reading, replacing it instead with instruction in various aspects of reading.”

  • Pearson and Goodin also mentioned the McDade non-oral reading method of the 1930s and 1940s in the Chicago area in their presentation. Unfortunately, I did not take many notes on this because I was so fascinated. From what I remember, in this method, there was absolutely no oral reading allowed (not even read alouds from the teacher). Not even sub-vocalization. In order to prevent students from sub-vocalizing, pencils were placed in their mouths. I think this method was used in various Chicago public schools for three to four years. Once they realized the students had not learned how to read this way, they abandoned the method. I performed a brief Internet search, but mostly came across articles for purchase. I found one chapter in a book that mentions this method and the chapter can be read online. I read this book a few years ago and it really shaped my understanding about reading fluency. I highly recommend it. It is called, What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction edited by S. Jay Samuels and Alan E. Farstrup. The McDade method is mentioned in Chapter 1 (pages 4-23) which is titled, A Brief History of Reading Fluency by Timothy V. Rasinski.

    After Pearson & Goodin spoke, D. Ray Reutzel discussed, “Changing Perspectives on Silent Reading Instruction.” You can find his PowerPoint presentation on the International Reading Association’s website at the following link (scroll down to “Reutzel” and look for “Silent Reading Revisited”).

    Reutzel started his presentation mentioning that he wrote an article for Reading Research Quarterly fifteen years ago in which he advocated oral reading. Now he advocates silent reading. (Personally, I love when people talk about how they went from believing one thing to believing the opposite). Then, he talked about his own memories of SSR time (Sustained Silent Reading) which included the SRA reading libraries. He remembered that nobody wanted to be brown and that everyone wanted to be aqua. He also remembered that student data was posted on the wall. It did not sound like he was a fan.

    The SRA Reading Laboratory kits are still sold today. If you are interested, here is a link to the SRA Reading Laboratory website. I would love to hear about your experiences with this program–either as a student or a teacher. As a student, I remember passing the little quizzes without even reading the articles. I did not read the articles because they did not interest me for the most part. I also remember how much competition they created. Although I was a good reader, I felt very bad for those who had difficulty passing the various colored levels. I must say I was not a fan either.

    Then, Reutzel talked about how he embraced SSR as a first grade teacher “nearing the epicenter of the whole language movement.” He specifically talked about a memory of his principal walking into his classroom while he lounged on a beanbag chair reading the book he self-selected. This is the gist of their conversation:

    • Principal: What are you doing?

    • Reutzel: I’m modeling reading.

    • Principal: Is this news to your children?

    This little conversation made him reflect on why he loved SSR so much. He realized that during this 20 minutes, he did not have to deal with the children (after all, it was uninterrupted reading) and that it was very easy to plan–he just put “SSR” in the planner. He also convinced himself that practice made perfect. But then he thought, “Were they really practicing?” He reflected on his own SSR time and realized that there were times he took “in-the-room fieldtrips to the Bahamas” instead of practicing his reading. He wondered how often his students were doing it, too.

    Then he talked about a great analogy. He imagined teaching someone how to drive a car the same way he was “teaching” reading during SSR time. The analogy went something like this: “Watch me. This is how you drive.” That’s it! He would not:

    • give them any suggestions on which car to drive
    • limit where they drove
    • watch them drive
    • give them any feedback on how they were driving
    • explain/model how to drive in different road conditions
    • ask for any accountability while driving or after driving

    I think this is a great analogy for what SSR time looked like in the past and why it needs to change. Would you really let your children choose any car to drive and under any driving conditions without any sort of monitoring? Personally, I do not think that would be very safe, nor would it be a wise way to teach a youngster how to drive. The same goes with independent reading–especially for the strugglers who always seem to choose books that are too hard for themselves. In addition, without any kind of monitoring, it is these students who are masters at the art of fake reading and the ones who learn to use up all of the actual reading time by “selecting books.”

    He talked about how our assessments of reading need to change, too. One thing he discussed that was new to me was using high speed infra-red eye movement photography to assess silent reading. S. Jay Samuels talked about this at length a little later in the day, too. According to them, it sounds like there are goggles that students can put on and we can keep track of their eye movements as the read. The goggles would allow for a digital record that we could easily access. I am fascinated and just did a little Internet research. I think they might be talking about Eye Movement and Miscue Analysis (EMMA). I found this nice blog post by Mr. Ferguson that talked about EMMA. I look forward to learning more. Here is Mr. Ferguson’s post. If you have any experience with this, I would love to hear about it!

    Some quotes from Reutzel I liked (not necessarily verbatim) include:

    • In Utah (?), our motto is to “stack ‘em deep and teach ‘em cheap.” (This was said sarcastically. Unfortunately, it sounds exactly like what education looks like in California.)

    • Reality check! The misinterpretation of the National Reading Panel’s report was “one of the worst misinterpretations of all-time” because silent reading has pretty much been banned in schools and “silent reading is what professional readers do.” (Right after this, he brought up the important work of Kuhn & Stahl on wide reading.)

    • I am concerned about the amount of time student’s eyes are actually on the page–their reading stamina

    • Pizzas [as a reading incentive] don’t make readers; they just make fat kids!

    From this point on, my notes basically cover his PowerPoint. It has great suggestions for how he envisions successful SSR times and it also includes great questions for future research, so be sure to check it out.

    After this plenary session, we chose which breakout session to attend. I chose the strand “Special Issues in Silent Reading” where Kathleen Wilson presented, “A comparison of oral and silent reading development.” Her presentation began by asking, “How do I know if they are really reading” and about how the misinterpretations of the NRP report resulted in a de-emphasis of silent reading during the school day. She also discussed how there was a lot of research on oral reading rates and on comprehension, but that there was scant attempts to study the two components at the same time. She also brought up something I was unfamiliar with, “Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Rate (CBSRR) which is “the optimal rate needed to comprehend text when reading silently.” She mentioned (and I know it’s true) that many teachers focus on rate and not comprehension even though comprehension is the most important aspect of reading.

    She also mentioned that there were several norms for oral reading rates, but only one set of norms for silent reading rates and this data was gathered in the late 1950s and only reported the 50th percentile. Wilson mentioned that the Hasbrouck & Tindal oral reading rates are not based on comprehension at all and that their 75th percentile is approximately the same as the 50th percentile silent reading rate norms. Here is a chart of the Hasbrouck & Tindal oral reading rates which I find very useful–although it is only one measurement. I could not find a copy of the silent reading rate chart that I could include.

    Wilson mentioned that oral reading rates seem to stall at the sixth grade, but that silent reading rate increases dramatically and on into college. In regards to oral reading rate, she mentioned these constraints:

    • Oral reading is a performance activity.

    • It is difficult to skip unfamiliar words when someone is assessing your oral reading fluency.

    • Oral reading rate is bound by the rate of speech. (This was a big ah-ha to me a few years back. I had a reader who was not having difficulties comprehending, but her oral reading rate was well below the 50th percentile. She was a slow speaker in general. I don’t know why I never thought about the fact that if students speak slowly, their oral reading rate will be slow, too. I guess you could say this was one of those ah-has, where you think, “D’oh!”)

    • Oral reading is often evaluated by a teacher or an assessment administrator.

    Some problems with measuring silent reading rates are that students self-reports of silent reading rate are unreliable with struggling readers and we lack adequate technology to measure student’s silent reading rate.

    Here are some great points/questions she brought up about reading stamina:

    • Few references to stamina in the literature. (Sad, isn’t it? I plan to write a post about this in the future.)

    • How does familiarity with the subject matter and vocabulary impact stamina with a longer text?

    • Will rates increase in longer texts due to increasing familiarity?

    • What about variations in self-regulatory behaviors–especially in low performing readers?

    • Does context (hard copy vs. digital) make a difference?

    • Does assessment format make a difference? (maze assessments with 3 or 4 choices vs. passages around 300 words)

    Then, Wilson talked about a study they did with fourth graders in a midwest urban area. Hiebert developed the assessments for this study. There were five passages in each text set with three paragraphs per passage for a total of 1,000 running words. Four comprehension questions followed each passage (two literal, one inferential, and one interpretive). Some of the students were assessed using a paper and pencil version, while others took the assessment on the computer. Interesting findings from the computer group: the lowest group fake read (they could tell because their silent reading rate was off the chart) and the second lowest group seemed to try two passages and then gave up (fake read) for the last three passages. The average and high students read silently with comprehension. Their conclusion? Limiting silent reading is unnecessary and inappropriate for about 80% of students once they are at a basic level of reading.

    A potential benefit of silent reading is that “30 minutes of silent reading vs. oral reading can yield exposure to over 1,000 more words each day. Students are calculated to learn about 530 additional words per year [by predominantly reading silently rather] than though predominately oral reading.”

    Wilson’s PowerPoint was great and includes great questions to think about that I did not mention in this post. I hope it is available on soon. If it is not, I will email her to ask if I can include it in this post.

    Okay, I guess that about sums up the first two hours of this institute. I will continue in the next post. I hope you will share some of your TWRCs about things I mentioned. Also, if any of you have blogged about how you run SSR in your classrooms, please post a link. Some of you whom I know from Twitter do a fabulous job at this!!!

    You can find part two here.

    Note: If you have taken the time to read this, would you please take a second to click on the stars below to rate this post on a scale of 1 to 10? Thanks a bunch–I always appreciate feedback. In addition, if you like a comment, I encourage you to click on the “Like” button so the “Sort by” drop-down menu will be useful. Thanks again and happy TWRCing! :)

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  • Reading Countess

    YES! “Pizzas don't make readers, they make fat kids,” NEVER participated in that program. Kids don't need it, and sends the wrong message.

  • Julie S.

    I use the Daily 5 and I love the way this format links all aspects of literacy – reading silently, reading to someone, working with words, listening to reading, and writing – it all happens much more naturally than when I used just SSR time. Also ~ I use this time to confer with students individually. Strategy instruction is an integral part of literacy learning. As much as I would love to have the time to just hang out and read as a “model” for my students, it is pretty difficult to justify the time for my personal reading when I can use the time to help kids improve their reading skills. There is usually a buzz in the room – not just silence and wandering eyes, but kids that are more engaged in literacy.

  • Keith Schoch

    Wow! This post is a goldmine of information!

    I too remember reading those little cards and answering questions. I actually enjoyed them, but I was a really good reader and my friends and I made it all about competition. Like you, though, I probably skimmed and scanned to burn through as many as possible.

    I'm a big fan of SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Reading Time) but know that it's frowned upon in middle school in my district. Too bad. Some kids really can't find time and place to read at home.

  • Keith Schoch

    Also, re the stamina issue, I've seen difficulties with that as well!

    See my related post at….

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  • Julie Niles Petersen

    I agree wholeheartedly! I think I first heard that saying from Alfie Kohn in the book, “Punished by Rewards…” I would have to say that book is in the top ten books that influenced my thinking the most. If you haven't read it, here's a link:

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    Telling children that they cannot watch TV/play video games/etc. until they read for a specified amount of time also sends the wrong message–that reading is a chore to complete, not something that can be fun.

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    That sounds great, Julie! I was not familiar with the “Daily 5,” so I just Googled it and came up with this: Is this what you are talking about? The little bit I just read sounds very interesting. I look forward to learning more about it and hearing from others who use it. Thanks for pointing it out to me! :D

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    Thanks, Keith!

    I love hearing about people's memories about learning to read or the reading instruction they received in school. Thanks for sharing yours! :)

    I don't think I have heard the acronym SQUIRT before. Very cute! I remember someone linking SSR to surfing somehow, but I cannot remember the actual acronym.

    Has SQUIRT always been frowned upon in middle school or only since the National Reading Panel report came out in 2000? In case you are not familiar with that report, here is a link:

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    I remember retweeting that post! :) I know I definitely read differently online than I do in print. Maybe I skim and scan more online because I am deciding if I want to invest the time in reading the entire thing–not that I don't have enough reading stamina to read it in its entirety. If I decide I really like it, I usually do read most of it online. Further, most of what I read online is informational text meaning that I do not need to read every word to get the gist like I do in a narrative text. In other words, informational text does not need to be read in the linear fashion that narrative text requires in order to comprehend.

    When I think of stamina, I am thinking about how long people can actually read before they begin to daydream or close the text–not whether they are scanning or reading the entire document. I think about the 60-120 minute portions of the reading/language arts sections on the standardized tests. These tests must be torture for the students whose stamina is around five minutes. It is these students I worry about most. The study that Wilson discussed showed what I bet typically happens–those who struggle the most don't even make an honest attempt and those who are just a little bit better will make an attempt, but they shut down quickly.

    To teach students about building stamina, I always used the analogy of marathon runners. They don't just start out running a marathon one day; they build up their stamina over time. Readers do the same thing. Getting a student's stamina for reading (especially at home) up to 10 minutes from 5 minutes is a huge success in my mind. Let's say they are reading at 125 words per minute. That extra 5 minutes equates to 1,250 words read at home each day rather than 625. In a week (if they have the stamina to read daily), that is 8,750 words, rather than 4,375. In a year: 456,250 rather than 228,125 words. Think about the extra vocabulary they would learn just by increasing their stamina by 5 minutes a day. It is powerful when you look at the numbers that way, isn't it?

  • Julie Simmons

    That is the right site. And – even better than Daily 5 is the CAFE portion (also part of the Sisters site), where the real strategy instruction occurs Comprehension/Accuracy/Fluency/Expanding Vocabulary. Using CAFE has changed my literacy instruction because I am much more intentional with both mini-lessons and one-on-one reading conferences. Of course, it is the Daily 5 framework that gives me the time and atmosphere that makes use of CAFE possible.

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    Thanks for the extra information, Julie. Your enthusiasm for this framework has me very intrigued. I want to learn more! I am curious why “accuracy” is separate from “fluency” in their acronym, “CAFE.” I also wonder if anyone else reading the comments uses the Daily 5 and CAFE. I will definitely have to find some time to do a little digging around there. Thanks again for sharing! :)

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