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Reading for Pleasure, Reading for Life

published in Texas Adult and Family Literacy Quarterly, February 2008

“Okay, you may stop reading when you get to a good place,” I say softly as I try to reach my own good place to stop. At the end of a half hour of silent reading in my multi-level ESL class, I see some students making notes, some writing in their reading logs, and many still reading, trying to reach a good place to stop.

When I first introduced sustained silent reading (SSR) to my class last spring, I expected resistance, but I met none. There was an initial period of apprehension, but that was quickly replaced with a mounting level of confidence as students discovered that they could read and understand much more than they expected they would.

Getting Started
I was driven to SSR by a desire to help students become readers, as opposed to simply people who can read. My first attempt was to use leveled readers for adults as a whole-class activity. I chose novels over short stories because Steven Krashen’s (2004) argument for “narrow reading” appealed to me. A novel is likely to provide repeated exposure to the same words and phrases, thus providing continual reinforcement for new vocabulary. We read Rain Man and Amistad, and students demonstrated comprehension, but I was dissatisfied with the fact that I was coming between them and the text. I was directing the reading and providing background information, probing for evidence of comprehension, and the reading activity was missing the mark. Students were not getting the message that they are capable of reading for pleasure on their own.

Then I attended the 2005 TESOL convention in San Antonio, where I was inspired by a session on using SSR with beginning-level adults (see Banke & Kurzet, 2005), but it took me a year and a half to work out how to implement SSR in my classroom and to have the courage to put it in motion. From the presenters’ information and other reading I’d done, I knew that the key to a successful SSR program is accessibility to appropriate text. I would need books in a wide range of reading levels on a variety of topics. I took advantage of the leveled readers available from my department, to which I added some young adult books for more advanced students. My biggest obstacle then was to figure out how to organize and present the program to my students.

How It Works
I am fortunate in having a class that meets three hours a day, five days a week, so we read every day for half an hour. A total of another ten to fifteen minutes is absorbed with getting started, returning books after reading, and questions and observations that students have from their reading.

My SSR library of 65 books is housed in a plastic file box with six envelope-style manila folders—one for each of six levels of readers. I also have a binder with reading logs that students keep as a record of the books they have read. If they finish a book during reading time, they quietly get their log from the notebook, record their observations about the book, choose their next book, and continue reading.

Nobody talks during the reading half-hour. If students have questions, they write them down to ask later. I discourage the use of dictionaries, but I don’t make an issue of it. The most important thing is for students to be comfortable with their reading, and for some that means translating every word. For others it means taking copious notes. I have observed both of these crutches fall into disuse—or at least into diminished use—as students gain experience and confidence.

Student reaction to SSR has been phenomenal! I don’t know what effect it has on their BEST scores, but I do see them developing confidence in their ability to read on their own, enjoying the reading they do, and voluntarily sharing their reading experiences with others. They do not take tests on the books they read. They do not do the activities and exercises that the publishers often provide at the end of the books. Apart from the reading logs, the only accountability activity they engage in is occasionally to meet in small groups for a book discussion. I find validation for the process in their engagement—and in seeing their slow return to the real world from the worlds of their books as they find a good place to stop reading—for today.

Banke, S. and Kurzet, R. (2005). Modified sustained silent reading: Does it benefit beginning learners of English? Focus on Basics, 8(A). Retrieved October 6, 2007 from http://www.ncsall.net/?id=990

Krashen, S. (2004). The case for narrow reading. Language Magazine 3(5):17-19. Retrieved October 6, 2007 from http://sdkrashen.com/articles/narrow/index.html

Cambridge English Readers

Extensive Reading

Using Graded Readers

Penguin Readers

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