Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) works because it provides both a mirror and a window for our young people. Reading is a mirror as it allows young people to learn more about themselves. It is also a window as it provides young people with access to cultures, lifestyles, norms, and communities outside their own.
In addition to building mindfulness and empathy, SSR builds skills. Regular reading increases knowledge of vocabulary and grammar and there’s loads of assessment data to back that up!
While SSR is one of my most valued components of my curriculum now, it wasn’t something that I have always felt strongly about. I initially implemented SSR because my coach, Mark, recommended I do so. I was hesitant to dedicate so much time to what I feared would amount to wasted hours of fake reading.
At the beginning of last year, SSR was one of the most annoying routines to facilitate. Students would pick a book at random off a shelf, open it, and stare blankly at the pages in an attempt to skirt any consequence for being off task or disruptive. They groaned every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and ravished any opportunity to voice their discontent with me and with reading. Commonplace student feedback on SSR included remarks such as: “This book is trash,” “When is this over?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”
By spring semester, my students and I had transformed SSR into an oasis of comfort, calm, and joy. It would take less than a minute for the classroom to fall silent as students quickly became enveloped in their respective worlds of choice. I would often have to coax students out of their books and back into the world of the classroom.
To make SSR successful you need to do five things:
1. Genuinely believe in the power of SSR.
Joy and excitement are contagious and so is a love of reading. Communicate why and how you got into reading. Model how seriously you take SSR by norming that everyone who enters your class during SSR should be reading, adults included.
2. Name your purpose.
What do you want your students to get out of reading? Explicitly identify, name, and share your purpose with your students. Then create structures that allow y’all to work towards that aim.
3. Build a robust library.
Have you ever read something you weren’t into? Yes? Me too and it sucks! I like to tell my young people that there are too many books in the world to be wasting time choosing SSR books you don’t enjoy. Yes it’s important to be able to read things you don’t like but SSR is about choice.
Do research by talking to peers, students, and checking out recommended reading lists from websites such as: Buzzfeed, Goodreads, NPR, and the Young Adult Library Association. Make a social media post asking people to share the most influential books from their teenage years. Then, if you haven’t already done so, make a DonorsChoose account and start raking in those donations! Regularly have a project on DonorsChoose and routinely introduce new books into your classroom. Prioritize having multiple (I like three) copies of fewer, super awesome books over less access with more selection.
4. Nurture student relationships.
When students aren’t reading, make a point to ask students what they’ve read and enjoyed and what they’ve hated. Ask them to consider if there are any patterns there. If they’ve never read a book they’ve enjoyed, ask them about their interests or favorite television shows. Once you know your students as readers, it will become much easier to recommend books or connect students with similar reading interests to recommend books to each other!
5. Have a plan to get your books back.
At the end of the year I got over eighty books back – yes eighty! I did this by creating a public project to “Rescue Ms. L’s Library!” and publicly tracking the number of books returned. Personal incentives included extra credit points and a raffle towards new books. Classes were also in competition with each other to return the most books in exchange for snacks.
I really, truly believe in the power of SSR. In the last weeks of school, I witnessed a magical moment. Three of my boys who used to hate reading were talking about the books they were reading and how cool they all were. One was reading Sherman Alexie’s Flight, another Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life, and the third was reading Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost. These boys were so excited to share their knowledge of the plot and characters in these books that I actually started crying tears of joy! The seed had been planted, my students are readers.
Shannon Jin-a Yi-Lamborn