Thoughts about practically implementing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading)

I posted this on the Latin teacher facebook group, Latin Best Practices: The Next Generation in Comprehensible Input, talking informally about the kinds of problems I’ve come across in my first year of implementing Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), a reading activity where you allow students to select a novella of their choice and read it for a set period of time with no task attached.

The problems are mostly to do with the attitudes of students, rather than the inherent value of extensive reading. Howevever, I also found that attaching meaningful tasks to reading (pre-, during-, and post-reading tasks) help increase the comprehensibility of the text and increase student engagement in general. Structured tasks, when well-designed, are not merely busy-work: they connect with the meaning of the text and offer opportunities for both scaffolding weaker students and extending stronger students. They can also foster a sense of community, particularly if there is a question that allows learners to discuss their varying opinions of the same text together. ‘Everyone read a book by yourself’ can feel more isolating, less connected both to the rest of the curriculum and to the shared experiences of fellow learners.

Of course, there can still be a place for SSR in classrooms even with those limitations, and a significant minority of students preferred it over reading the same novella with structured tasks.

In any case, here are my thoughts and reflections on a particularly varied class’s experience with Sustained Silent Reading.

This year I’ve been experimenting with using Latin novellas, especially in my year 9 class. The year 9 class had 32 students of very very widely differing abilities (some students started the year 10 chapters ahead of other students, and the weakest one could hardly connect two words together in a sentence, and there were students at every level in between), so I figured that buying a big selection of novellas and dedicating 5 minutes of sustained silent reading time per week would help provide level-appropriate input for this wide variety of students. A lot of the novellas were of the lowest difficulty levels, since I wanted to make sure every student could pick up a book they could read, and I also put in some novellas of higher levels.

The class met 3 periods per week, 50 minutes per period, so 2.5 hours of class time per week.

As the year progressed, this year 9 class grew a lot together, reading through my own stick figure illustrated versions of the Oxford Latin Course stories (chapters 10-24 this year) and doing a lot of choral translation and a variety of follow-up story-based activities. I saw a heck of a lot of growth in this group, especially with the middle students, and a few of the lower ones (though some of the other lower ones didn’t put much effort and attention in and didn’t improve as much – I suspect that sub-group chose Latin mostly to get out of doing geography)

However, I had some problems with implementing a regular weekly session of 5 minutes Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) over this year. By the time we hit Term 3 I was noticing students not really buying into the activity – they seemed to always be on page 1 chapter 1 of whatever book they picked up, they needed lots of reminders and supervision to stay on task (merely being a teacher in the room modelling the behaviour of reading a Latin novella was not enough – they needed active supervision), some were just pretending to read, or spent a lot of time reading the English blurb rather than the Latin contents, and some seemed to deliberately arrive late to the class during that 5 minute beginning activity of reading, or they had forgotten something and by the time they came back it was time to wrap up the SSR activity.

There were some less-than-internally motivated characters in that year 9 group, shall we say. They only made up a portion of the class and they were also showing low effort when doing other tasks. But I definitely got the sense by Term 3 that some of these students were just taking a holiday during SSR and not really reading.

So in Term 4 I replaced SSR with an ocassional longer lesson segment of “everyone read the same chapter of the same novella, and here are structured tasks for pre-, during-, and post-reading”. The weaker and slightly apathetic students were generally more engaged in it when there were clear activities to be done with the text. The downside, naturally, was that the fast readers tended to get through all the prepared content quicker and I’d need to build in extension activities for them, and that was more work than just setting aside X amount of time for SSR. But then the upside was I could put later sections of that novella on the exam as a reading comprehension test, and I could be fairly confident everyone had roughly the same contextual knowledge for that story.

But how did the students feel about doing SSR versus structured reading tasks?

Today it was the last day of school, and I handed out a very short survey to these year 9s asking which kind of reading activity they preferred. 5 respondents preferred SSR and 11 respondents preferred structured tasks.

Students who preferred SSR explained, “I read faster than most, so [SSR] lets me read at my pace”, “[structured reading with tasks] can be boring”, SSR is “more fun”, and “[SSR] lets me read at my level”.

Students who preferred structured tasks said: “some people are wasting time on [SSR]”, “some people don’t learn anything with [SSR]”, “more people pay attention when there are tasks”, “[structured tasks] help us know if we understood it correctly”, “help break things down”, “make it easier to understand”, “tasks were useful for expanding vocabulary and understanding the story”, “more consistent” [what does that mean?], “we can all be on the same page learning together” and “we get to work together on it”.

My conclusion is that total no-strings-attached SSR was beneficial to a portion of the class, typically the more internally motivated and confident students. But a significant minority were abusing it by term 3 and not genuinely using the time for reading. On the other hand, structured tasks made comprehension easier and held students more accountable to reading with understanding, and some students expressed feeling more like they were doing it “together” with other learners when everyone did the same tasks. But it was more constraining to the students with faster reading speeds, who could cover more text with SSR.

Of course, the obvious question is going to be asked – when fast readers finish all their structured tasks and are bored, why not ask them to then do SSR? I’ve tried setting that as an extension task: “if you finish everything, read a novella of your choice.” Most fast students don’t take me up on that offer, but just kind of loiter around and use their time like it’s free time to surf the internet or doodle or whatever. In that sense, even the high achieving students seemed to not really value free-reading inherently. But if I set some kind of meaningfully curated extension task that connected to and built upon the previous lesson content (as opposed to “read a random book – have at it”), they usually went and did what they could.

If I do SSR next year with the new set of year 9s, I’m going to think a lot more carefully about how to ensure that each student really buys-in to reading their chosen book. I might need to more carefully log who is reading what book, and make sure they pick up where they left off. I don’t know whether to increase the time: some students said 5 minutes was too short, while others said 5 minutes was too long; I might start it at 5 minutes but allow the class to vote to increase it if the majority would find it more beneficial. And maybe I can build anticipation before letting them loose, and give a kind of advert-review for a selection of novellas, and maybe get them to discuss their preferences in pairs or groups, before they start choosing.

I know for sure that it just doesn’t work to be verbally telling students that input is fundamentally the most important for their language acquistion and that reading is exceptionally good for them: some students just believe what they want to believe, and don’t believe the qualified language teacher if it conflicts with their views. A student wrote to me about novellas saying that “they’re not that educational, blooket is better”. The blookets are gamified versions of multiple choice vocab quizzes, matching one Latin word to one English word while scoring points on a leaderboard – that kind of fluff is ok now and then, and moderately useful when preparing to read something with those words in it, but it’s certaintly not more “educational” than reading stories. But of course a lot of kids don’t have the maturity and life experience to recognise and appreciate evidence-based teaching over dopamine-triggering gamified edugames. They’re kids and they like games.

So, I’m a lot more skeptical of claims from people like Krashen and Steve Kaufmann where they imagine that if you let young kids loose on extensive reading, they will recognise how valuable that is and do it with intrinsic motivation, no strings attached, like mini-adults, mini-Krashens, mini-Kaufmanns. I’m not working with miniature versions of them or myself or other language teachers here. I’m working with people who have all kinds of cultural experiences at school where they expect that doing = learning, listening & reading = passive, and so on. Perhaps I can slowly shift their attitudes, but it’s going to be little-by-little, and I need to be able to meet them where they are at with this attitude to input, not where I think they should already be. This is the job of a school teacher.


2 responses to “Thoughts about practically implementing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading)”

  1. Hi Carla, when my grandchildren visit I always make sure I am reading, sketching, or listening to Latin on youtube. These activities I have found, sow educational seeds in children and remove the effort of having to encourage them as they; if interested, will throw themselves into the activity of their own volution. Offering help as it is requested is all that is needed with this adopted method of learning. The joy of learning ought to be in education that informs and promotes growth psychologically, which your lessons on youtube deliver admirably. Charles. ________________________________

  2. I don’t know how relevant this is given I’m an auto-didact in my 50s, but I have found that the Latin novellas quickly pall. I loved the first one I read – Olimpi’s Familia Mala, but I’ve mostly been disappointed since. These stories just aren’t that ‘good’. Not just anyone can write a really entertaining middle grade book. It’s just as challenging as writing for adults. Add to that the challenge of vocabulary sheltering and it becomes even more difficult. Add to that the veil between the reader and the immediacy of the story due to an imperfect or slightly fuzzy grasp of the language and it does become tempting to just… not. I’m a huge reader and I can still enjoy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Harry Potter. But though these latin novellas can be engaging and are a great resource – they ain’t Harry Potter, or Roald Dahl. I’m sure they’ll get better and better – but they’ve still got some way to go before they can really rivet young minds. Or old ones. So possibly adding tasks helps to take the student over that bit of a hump.

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