By Tony Dickens - @TonyDickensCPD
Surely, we have all used silent reading with our students at some point? We might be in a classroom, inviting them to dip in for the first ten minutes in order to create a calm atmosphere, or we might be in a library (old school) or a learning resource centre (new school) for half an hour, once a fortnight, so they can experience the delight of ‘free choice’. Perhaps we are in a library where the Silent Reading model is more structured – here, choice is limited and students are invited to read and quiz a on a text of suitable challenge – or we might have used it as a tactic towards the end of a lesson when a student has ‘finished their work’ and there is a spare five or ten minutes kicking around.
I have questioned the tactic over the years. They have ‘forgotten their book’; they have ‘finished their book’ and need to change it; it has been a bad day and they can’t, won’t and don’t want to settle into any kind of reading at all. These situations have to be managed. Deep down I know that the strategy has value; after all, international research has demonstrated unequivocally that young people who enjoy reading the most perform significantly better than those who do not value reading at all (Kirsch et al 2002; OECD 2010). My reservations, however, stem partly from the fact that I know I have been sucked in by the never-ending cycle of teach skill, assess, set target, do it again until you get it right – it can be very difficult to resist – and partly because of guilt. Kids: you read and I will mark the stuff which I should have done last weekend. And no, I am not a Catholic, so it must have something to do with professional pride and the feeling that I should always be at ‘em.
This month I have been reading a very interesting, illuminating and indeed timely article by Margaret K Merga from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia called ‘Should Silent Reading feature in a secondary school English programme?’ Merga has been researching the issue and reflecting on the merit of incorporating the practice into secondary learning programmes.
Merga states that traditional models of Silent Reading ‘have had different emphases, primarily on at least one of four key areas’:
• To increase reading stamina (now rarely mentioned in research concerned with Silent Reading according to Merga)
• To foster independent reading skills
• To increase student enjoyment of reading
• To increase student reading achievement across literacy indicators
Silent Reading has been increasingly questioned in recent years, largely because of the increased pressure on student performance, with some suggesting that Silent Reading may not be a ‘wise investment’ (Fisher, 2004).
The insights gained from Merga’s research, which involved Western Australian students in years 8 and 10, provide a compelling argument for using Silent Reading in secondary schools:
‘…a functional model of Silent Reading might include regular, uninterrupted reading to build stamina and facilitate concentration, a wide range of choice, teacher monitoring and encouragement, and opportunities for student-led discussions about books.
Silent Reading offers educative benefit for secondary students, from extending vocabulary, to providing a sustained, focused cognitive experience that may be otherwise lacking in students’ lives. It is possible that a “reading for stamina” model may regain popularity as a useful tool for building student concentration capacity to meet the needs of sustained testing.’
Any research which promotes strategies to improve concentration and stamina has to be worthy of attention in my view. I recognise in myself a creeping inability to focus on texts for sustained periods of time as I slip from one distraction to another, processing a constant flow of information, eventually worn down and wooed by the soporific pleasures offered by wall-to-wall repeats of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ which require minimal effort on my part as I know the scripts inside out. I am pretty certain that our students don’t score any higher on the concentration scale.
Likewise, any research which promotes oracy is also worthy of attention (especially when we consider the present standing of speaking and listening – certainly in England – which has seen these crucial areas of learning relegated from the Premier League to the Literacy Championship). These are all key skills, vital to lifelong learning and economic success, and if Silent Reading programmes are able to facilitate and improve such skills, it has to be for the good.
I don’t think there has ever been a term in the last twenty years of teaching when I haven’t heard the oft-cited complaint that students ‘do not read enough’ and the one sentence of Merga’s which really stands out for me in her research is this one:
‘In the current climate of increasing aliteracy, a Silent Reading programme should, where possible, raise the appeal of reading as a preferred leisure activity.’
As far as I am concerned, THAT is the battleground. Time is precious and with so many demands on our time, and so many distractions tugging at the elbows of our young learners, it is outstanding advice which needs to be explored more thoroughly in our schools. How we go about it, of course, is always the final question.
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