Sustained Silent Reading

"Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) is a period of uninterrupted silent reading. It is based upon a single simple principle: Reading is a skill. And like all skills, the more you use it, the better you get at it. Conversely, the less you use it, the more difficult it is. Like swimming, once you learn it, you never forget it. But in order to get better at either reading or swimming, you must jump into the book or the water and do it over and over." (Dowling)


Sustained silent reading has been a standard practice in schools since the 1960s. It was a part of the process for learning to read based on the belief that students needed time to practice reading on their own with the text of their choice. In 2000, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reviewed educational studies and reported that sustained silent reading was not proven to be beneficial for reading achievement. Schools around the United States reacted by taking away sustained silent reading or modifying it to be more structured. Others have responded with more research to see if this common educational practice is beneficial for students. Sustained silent reading does have its downsides as pointed out by some studies and the report done by the NICHD, but even the report admitted that there needed to be more research done on the topic. There have been several schools and studies that have practiced variations of sustained silent reading that have been shown to improve reading ability in students.

Findings of the NICHD 2000 Report

"With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency." (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)
This statement made in 2000 caused a stir among teachers and literacy experts. Did sustained silent reading actually benefit students in literacy? What sometimes was looked over in this report was the reasons why they could not find a positive relationship. It was not that research studies showed sustained silent reading was not beneficial, it was that the research studies themselves did not fit the criteria the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development required in order to be analyzed, and that very few studies focused on fluency or amount of time spent reading indepedently outside of class. Out of hundreds of studies, the NICHD could only use 14 studies and these studies varied widely. More than critique on sustained silent reading, this report was asking for more research to be done in this area with a focus on fluency and independent reading time in order to discover if this widely used teaching practice was actually beneficial for students. (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)
Advantages to Sustained Silent Reading
“Data analysis found that more time spent reading had a significant effect on achievement compared to a control condition where less time was allocated for independent reading. In addition, results found that poor readers showed significantly greater gains in word recognition and vocabulary than good readers. [...] Furthermore the results also showed that poor readers tended to have greater gains in vocabulary with 15 minutes of reading, but they had better gains on reading comprehension with 40 minutes of reading." (Garan 340 from Wu and Samuels)
Sustained silent reading allows students to practice reading on their own. And as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. With sustained silent reading, students are able to practice reading at their own level and their own pace. Students that read at a higher reading level can read what challenges them while students at a lower reading level can read at their own level, this allows all students to improve at their own level and pace. As well, students can choose what they want to read rather than reading the same book as the entire class so students can read about what interests them: dinosaurs, Star Wars, princesses, history, or whatever. Practicing reading for 15-20 minutes every school day can improve reading skills for each student, as shown in the research study above. As well, by allowing students to choose what they want to read, this encourages students to continue to read outside of class.

Disadvantages to Sustained Silent Reading
“The traditional implementation of SSR has been criticized for the lack of teachers’ teaching, monitoring, interacting with, and holding students accountable for their time spent reading. Weaknesses associated with reading practice approaches such as SSR suggest that extend their studies over longer periods; employ strict experimental controls over the amount of time spent in reading practice at school and home; make comparisons with known, proven effective reading practice routines; use multiple measures of fluency growth; and examine the use of differing levels of text difficulty that are useful in promoting reading progress.” (Reutzel 38)

After the 2000 report was published by the NICHD, people began looking closer at sustained silent reading and found that there were several disadvantages to this practice. In the pure form, sustained silent reading was not to be observed, graded, or used in any way as an assignment. It was meant to teach children an enjoyment for reading without worry or stress about a grade. Teachers were asked to read with the students to provides a good example of reading for pleasure. For some teachers, this caused difficulties because of the lack of structure, observation, or accountability. If teachers are not watching students read, how can they ensure that the student is actually reading? What if the student is just sitting there, sleeping, doing other homework, or writing notes/texting? There was also a concern about how much of a benefit it actually was for students who were struggling with reading to be required to read by themselves for 20 minutes without any assistance. Would they actually read, or do they need assistance? Without accountability, there was no structure in place to actually encourage students to finish books or even to push themselves to read at their current reading level. It would be difficult to improve reading ability and fluency if students were not using the sustained silent reading time wisely, and without observation or accountability there was nothing in place to encourage students to use this time wisely.
Modifications to Sustained Silent Reading
“Our society values books. Certainly, it would be a betrayal of those values if we did not promote or allow real books and real reading in schools” (Garan 341).
Due to these issues, sustained silent reading has been modified in several classrooms in a way that continues to allow students to gain the benefits of independent reading, but reduces some of the problems with the lack of accountability. Here are some of these modifications that have been tried:

Scaffolded Silent Reading: This form of silent reading allows students to read independently, but with more accountability and assistance. Students still pick what they want to read, but it requires students to report to teachers about what they are reading at different times in book reports or through teacher interviews and readings to the teacher. Students would also practice fluency by reading to other students or into a phone that timed the students (Reutzel 39). In the study that analyzed this modification to sustained silent reading, it was found that students increased in fluency by 43% on average and showed a substantial increase in reading comprehension. (Reutzel 48)
Book Clubs: With book clubs students read the same book as a group of students that was chosen from a list of certain books and then are able to discuss or do activities associated with the book. Book clubs limit the options of what books students can read since students pick from a particular list and it requires students of different reading levels to read the same book (although modifications can be put into place that will ease this differences), but it also encourages discussion that may lead to a deeper understanding of the book. There is more accountability for the students to read because they have to read the chapter in order to participate in the book club, and teachers are able to monitor the groups' readings and activities.
R5: (read, relax, reflect, respond, rap) This modified version of sustained silent reading keeps the independent reading aspect, but requires students to write and discuss what they are reading. Students are required to have a book ready to read, must be reading the whole time, write a response to their readings, and then share their responses with others in the class. Students can read anywhere around the room, as long as they read the whole time. In a study where a classroom was using R5 it was reported that after the second year students gained 1.6 years on their reading levels (Garan 342).
Partners: Students can get into partners and read to each other then discuss what is going on in the story. The partner acts as a "teacher" who then makes sure the other student pronounces the words correctly and times the student for fluency. This works especially well for young children as they are learning to read because then they practice reading and learn as well as they assist the other student. (Garan 342)
Parental Involvement: Many studies have been done recently to analyze the role the home life plays in how a child does in reading. It has been shown that children who have parents who encourage them to read tend to have a more positive association with reading, especially during sustained silent reading. So, one of the best ways to encourage reading is to get family members involved. "The more that parents are involved in their children’s reading activities, the more positive their children’s value of reading will be. In turn, their children will be more actively engaged in sustained silent reading and therefore more likely to enjoy and hold a positive attitude toward reading leisure books” (Siah 173)
IR:(Independent Reading) Elementary school teacher and researcher Heidi Trudel found positive changes in students' attitudes and reading engagement when she switched from SSR to IR in her classroom. IR is more structured than SSR, the goal being "to provide students with the self-selected reading time that they need and the social supports that foster reading engagement." Similar to SSR, IR includes scheduled time for students to read on their own, but instead of simply modeling reading, the teacher supports the students' text selections and coaches them on reading strategies as needed. "The five key elements of IR (which make it different from SSR) are as follows:
1. The teacher provides guidance in the students’ text selections.
2. Students keep records of what they read.
3. Students reflect on what they read.
4. Both teacher and students participate in mini-lessons and discussions from time to time.
5. The teacher is not reading during the entire reading block (unless modeling a strategy with a student)" (Trudel, 309).

Recommendations for Librarians
While sustained silent reading tends to be a topic for the regular classroom, this practice also affects the librarian as the supplier of the literature for the silent sustained reading. Here are some suggestions of how to support silent sustained reading:
  • Update and diversify the nonfiction section: For those students who do not like reading novels, reading nonfiction can be a great alternative. Books about politics, different cultures, science, world issues, computer programming, etc can be topics that would interest someone who is a little shy about independent reading. One library that found this beneficial is the Billings Senior High School Library. “It means we have to keep up with books that are outside our own area of interest, but because these students have choices in what they read, we’ve seen kids change their attitudes 180 degrees toward reading. They quickly become good readers and demand good books.” (Librarians)

School librarians who see students on a regular rotation can plan SSR once a month for each class during their library time. Anderson, in her article on SSR, details the rules and guidelines she uses at her school. For example, remember to tailor the length of SSR to a reasonable attention span based on the age of the class. Start the younger children at 5 minutes and build up the amount of time over the course of the school year. (Anderson)

Further Resources

Cho, Grace, Hong Choi, and Stephen Krashen. "Hooked on comic book reading: how comic books made an impossible situation less difficult." Knowledge Quest 33.4 (Mar 2005-Apr 2005): 32-34.

Humphrey, Jack and Leslie B. Preddy. "Keys to Successfully Sustaining an SSR Program." Library Media Connection 26.6 (March 2008): 30, 32

Krashen, Stephen. "Free Reading." School Library Journal 52.9 (September 2006): 42-45.

Moser, Anne Marie. "Sustained Silent Reading." School Library Media Activities Monthly 23.2 (October 2006): 43-45. Also published in: Indiana Libraries 25.1 (2006): 33-35.

Nichols, Beverly W. "What Does the Research Tell Us About Sustained Silent Reading?" Library Media Connection 27.6 (May/June 2009): 47.

"Sustained Silent Reading and Recreational Reading." Library Media Connection 26.6 (March 2008): 5.


Anderson, Cynthia. "Sustained Silent Reading: A Standard Library Practice." School Library Media Activities Monthly 15.4 (December 1998): 24-25.

Dowling, Laura. "Sustained Silent Reading Time." Mrs. Dowling's Virtual Classroom. January 1998. November 2011.

Garan, Elaine M. and Glenn DeVoogd. "The Benefits of Sustained Silent Reading: Scientific Research and Common Sense Converge." The Reading Teacher 62.4(2008): 336–344. DOI:10.1598/RT.62.4.6

Gardiner, Steve. "Librarians Provide Strongest Support for Sustained Silent Reading." Library Media Connection 25.5 (February 2007): 16-18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development."Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read." National Institute of Health.

Reutzel, D. Ray, Parker C. Fawson, and John A. Smith. "Reconsidering Silent Sustained Reading: An Exploratory Study Of Scaffolded Silent Reading." Journal Of Educational Research 102.1 (2008): 37-50. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Siah, Poh-Chua, and Wai-Ling Kwok. "The Value Of Reading And The Effectiveness Of Sustained Silent Reading." Clearing House 83.5 (2010): 168-174. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

Trudel, Heidi. "Making Data-Driven Decisions: Silent Reading." The Reading Teacher 61.4 (December 2007/January 2008): 308-315. DOI:10.1598/RT.61.4.3