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A Conversation with FOB: Modified Sustained Silent Reading

A Conversation with FOB

Modified Sustained Silent Reading

Does it benefit beginning learners of English?

One of the many research projects carried out at NCSALL’s National Adult ESOL Labsite, or Lab School, in Portland, Oregon, focused on beginning-level reading. The research project tested the use of sustained silent reading (SSR) as a methodology for teaching reading to very beginning learners of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). Classes were conducted by Portland Community College (PCC). Sandra Banke, one of the teacher/researchers in the project, and Reuel Kurzet, professional development associate/researcher for the project and chair of PCC’s English as a second language (ESL) department, spoke to Focus on Basics about the project and what they learned from it.

FOB: Let’s start with the basics. What is SSR?

Sandra: Sustained silent reading, or SSR, was introduced in the late 1960s or early 1970s. It was intended for K-12 native speakers. If you look at the original guidelines for SSR, everyone in the school building, even the custodians, was supposed to drop everything and read a book of their choice for about ten minutes. The idea was that adults model reading behavior for the students. To make reading a more pleasurable and worthwhile experience, not something you’re always having to answer comprehension questions about, there was not supposed to be any follow up, or postreading, activities.

In the early 1980s, SSR started being used with ESOL populations in K-12 settings. Researchers found that, as a result of SSR, the students showed improvement in their attitudes towards reading. Results varied regarding improvements in comprehension, vocabulary development, and other language skills, but studies that continued for more than four to six months did find gains in various reading and language skills. Studies that failed to find skill gains often had shortcomings or limitations in their implementation or research design.

FOB: So why experiment with using SSR in low-level adult ESOL classes?

Reuel: It had been shown to be effective in changing learners’ attitudes about reading, and some learners showed gains in comprehension and fluency. There were indications that it worked at higher levels. The question was: Would SSR work for low-level adult ESOL learners? Would they leave in droves? Would they improve their reading skills? Would they improve their reading habits at home?

Sandra: We also found that there weren’t many studies of SSR done with ESOL students, and none on SSR with absolutely beginning-level adult English-language learners. The studies that had been done involved high-school ESOL students; any adult studies were with university-level ESOL or matriculated ESOL students, getting ready to take or having taken the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language]. None had been done with low-level ESOL students. None had anywhere near the numbers of students in the samples needed to make viable statistical comparisons. Many of the studies were short-term; ours was going to be 12 months.

Reuel: In PCC’s program, the reading instruction is skills-based. It is designed from the bottom up: phonics, word recognition, and preteaching of vocabulary; and from the top down: schema-building, so students think about what the topic is, what they already know about it, what can they gather from the pictures, headings, and the vocabulary they already know. Some of our students knew how to read in their first language, some didn’t. Using SSR with students who had no literacy skills was different.

FOB: Trying SSR with absolute beginners was new?

Reuel: Yes. It was also challenging because any kind of research with really low-level adult students is hard. Most low-level ESOL classes are in community-based programs, where the population is transitory, it’s hard to get consistent numbers, and the funding is transitory.

FOB: Were there any other concerns?

Reuel: Not really. First, the students attend three hours of ESOL class twice a week, and SSR was only one hour a day, or less than that at the beginning. So the students were still getting at least four hours a week of high-quality ESOL instruction. Also, PCC’s program is not focused as much on how instruction is done as on outcomes. It’s not rigid about how to get to get to those outcomes. So there is always room for new methodology. Plus, we have an agreement with PCC that provides some leeway for research.

FOB: What did the implementation using SSR for reading instruction look like?

Sandra: Students entering the program at the lowest level of instruction were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions: control or intervention. Random assignment is important to experimental research so that differing student characteristics (in our case, age, gender, prior education, and work status), do not disproportionally affect the results in either condition. Random assignment distributes students with these characteristics between the two conditions.

Whichever condition the students were placed in at intake they stayed with for the entire year. From their perspective, their instruction didn’t change; a given student had either SSR [intervention] or skills-based instruction [control] all year. The teachers, however, changed; the other teacher/research associate, Dominique, taught the SSR group in the fall and winter quarters while I was teaching the control group, using our skills-based approach to reading. For the spring and summer quarters, we switched. This prevented findings from being attributable to the instructor instead of to the intervention. Throughout the year, the learning gains of students in both conditions were measured through standardized language proficiency assessments administered in class. Some students also volunteered to participate in in-home interviews and were tested during those.

FOB: What did you do to prepare to teach using SSR?

Sandra: A big issue was finding reading materials suitable for beginning adult readers. Not all children’s books are appropriate for an adult audience. We did find some books with adult characters or adult situations, such as divorce, for example, presented from a child’s perspective.

Dominique selected some books from her own children’s library; we also had some medical literature; we weren’t really sure what would work. We had a few of what would be considered classroom readers as opposed to chapter books, with comprehension questions at the end.

We also had alphabet books, which we found were appropriate for students who were literate in a Chinese but not a Roman alphabet. Because we had the funds to put together a library, we bought materials: readers from Penguin and New Readers’ Press, two publishers that specialize in materials for adult literacy students; nonfiction science books written for children, and appropriate children’s picture books. We had National Geographic, cookbooks, and some lifestyle magazines.

FOB: What about the teaching model?

Sandra: Dominique did quite a bit of reading about how SSR had been done with native speakers. We decided that we couldn’t do the classic model without follow-up activities or student accountability, for the following reasons. Unlike SSR with native speakers, for whom the context is reading instruction, we were doing SSR in a language-learning context. Oral practice is essential, particularly in the beginning-level classes. Activities that help the students focus on the meaning of what they had read were necessary. The teachers expect it, and the learners expect it. We also needed to have some kind of accountability worked in to the reading to maintain participation. If the students had viewed it as an uncontrolled activity, with no follow up or review, their participation (i.e., attendance) would have decreased in that part of the lesson. Finally, in order to study the implementation and effect of SSR in the classroom, we needed to have visible (and audible) evidence of the students’ participation and the language they were getting from their reading.

It had to be modified, which is why we called it mSSR: modified sustained silent reading. We used a postreading activity to help the students reflect on and process what they had just read: each day we gave them a question to talk about with a partner. We knew that the lowest-level students would have difficulty talking about the book without a prompt, so each day we gave them a task. For example, share one interesting idea, or tell about one person in your story. Or even: Where does the story happen? Or Show your partner the title and author of your book. Often the students ended up talking about some other aspect of their reading, not necessarily the given questions, which was acceptable. The idea was to get them talking about their reading and expressing their opinions about the material: an authentic literacy practice.

Sandra: The follow-up activities were also to give the students a sense of accomplishment. We had them fill out reading logs, in which they wrote the dates, the title of the books, and whether they liked, didn’t like, or were neutral about what they had read. This let us know how long they stayed with one book and what was being checked out compared what wasn’t. At the very least, these were valuable literacy activities: the students learned how to fill out charts and file their reading logs alphabetically.

FOB: You mentioned earlier that SSR was one hour a day, twice a week?

Sandra: We needed to have the reading easily locatable in the research videos, so it was not feasible to have it at different times each class session. Even though it felt a little bit artificial, we put all of the reading instruction, regardless of condition, in the last hour of class. This hour in the SSR condition generally followed the same format. After the class break, the students had 10 minutes to select a book from the library cart, or to retrieve the book that they had been reading the previous class session. Then they had silent reading time for 30 minutes. The beginners, because of the novelty of the activity, as well as their language proficiency, started out at 20 minutes per class, gradually building up to 30 minutes of reading time. I extended the reading time by five minutes or so with advanced beginners, if they seemed particularly engaged. The next 10 to 15 minutes were then devoted to pair discussion of what students had read. The last five minutes of class were then spent on filling out and filing the reading logs.

I think it wasn’t artificial to do the reading all at one time in the class period, because it is such a defined and self-contained activity. However, skills-based reading instruction is usually more interwoven throughout a three-hour class period, so putting it at the end in the skills-based class felt artificial.

FOB: What about the learners?

Sandra: Our learners were beginning-level students, all of whom were adult immigrants and permanent residents, from the Far East, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. They ranged in age from 17 to 77. We had the full range of educational backgrounds from less than six years of schooling to some students with postsecondary degrees. They were in a full range of employment situations as well. The total number of students in the beginning-level ESOL classes for the year was 190. Each term we had two beginning classes and two advanced beginning classes, with 15 in a classroom at a time. We have managed enrollment: no one can join the class after the fourth week of the term.

FOB: How did you introduce the idea of SSR to low-level adult ESOL learners? Your ability to communicate with them was certainly limited.

Sandra: Dominique started them off. She demonstrated the activity and said “Now we’re going to do reading. Here are the books, pick one [she had talked about what “pick” meant] and sit with that book for 20 minutes.” We told the advanced beginning class that research shows that the more you read, the better you read. We also explained that we were doing an academic investigation: that term is a cognate in some of the students’ languages.

Reuel: The instructors found that during the first couple of classes they needed to explain that they were doing this investigation. Although the students understood about the research in general, and all of them had gone through a native-language informed-consent process to be research participants, some had difficulty understanding the specifics of the SSR experiment.  Particularly if they were brand new students, they wondered what the instructors were doing, since the teacher was reading her own book and not teaching during SSR time.

Sandra: By the time I started teaching the SSR group, six months after the program began, the veteran SSR students had started to explain to new students what to do. The veterans would explain that we’re doing this research; that the more you read the more you get used to reading; and not to feel bad about making mistakes: the teacher will help you. They were explaining all these things in Spanish or Chinese to their classmates. I had little explaining to do. When I wheeled the library cart in and set out the books, even though some of the students were new to the class, they were ready.

FOB: Did students have problems finding books that were appropriate?

Sandra: According to SSR, you shouldn’t tell students what to read, but the students with little previous experience with books had trouble making a selection. They might never have had to choose a book in that manner, and so had no basis upon which to make a selection. We couldn’t let them continually flounder (and get discouraged), so we would choose three books at their level that we thought might be of interest, and ask them to pick from those. Gradually they began to choose independently. Usually the students more literate in their native language could determine if a book was appropriate for them or not.

We originally had the books organized by difficulty level, assuming that the students would pick by their level, but they didn’t know how to do that. So then we clustered the books by theme.

FOB: What was the students’ reaction to SSR?

Sandra: They were pretty good-natured about the whole process of using the follow-up reading logs, and checking whether they liked, didn’t like, or were neutral about each book. The reactions were mixed. Some people enjoyed having that quiet time. One woman said she didn’t have quiet time at home and was happy to have it in class to read. Others were glad to have access to a wide variety of texts. Some had difficulty, but they stuck with it. Some kept and read the same book for several class sessions.

Sandra: Of course a few students voted with their feet and left, but there were very few. It was about the same number in the SSR group and the skills-based reading group.  In both types of classes, very few students left during the break to avoid reading.

FOB: What was hard?

Sandra: We had to come to terms with both practical and philosophical issues. For example, if I observed a student having trouble with the activity, I couldn’t help him or her, or I wouldn’t be following the design of the SSR condition. As in classic SSR, I had to be reading also, to model the reading behavior. That was the hardest thing for me: to be sitting at the front of the room reading my own book. A teacher’s natural instinct is to watch the students and help if there is a problem. Of course, if students came up to me and asked me questions, I helped them.  However, if students started doing this repeatedly, I reminded them it was silent reading time. One student often asked me about vocabulary; this was fine since he was engaged in his book. One student in particular, however, wanted me to read everything out loud. I discouraged this. It was really difficult for me to watch students and to recognize what skills they needed to be able to manage this reading but not be able to intervene. You want to help your students. The pace of a class and how you set up lessons are based on the cues you pick up from the students, yet as part of a research experiment I couldn’t really do any of that. 

It was difficult to do the SSR exclusive of other reading instruction, at both beginning and advanced-beginning levels, but mostly with the beginners. Beginning-level students were able to do SSR, but I felt they would have gained more if I had given them some reading instruction before I set them loose on the books. The experiment was set up so that I wasn’t supposed to do that.

Reuel: I think this is a constraint of doing any classroom experimental research. At the Lab School, we’ve come to define effective teaching not as the teacher’s one-way transmission of knowledge and skills but as a reciprocal, interactive process. The teacher designs language activities that provide learning opportunities. Then, during class, the teacher observes and reflects on learners’ responses to those activities in real time and deftly makes adjustments as the class period unfolds. In contrast, to meet rigorous experimental conditions, any in-class research must consist of completely preplanned activities and procedures that are strictly adhered to regardless of the learners’ response. This inflexibility is a huge constraint in teaching and affects the learning situation in ways that are not always recognized.

FOB: What did you learn?

Sandra: We learned that SSR can work; it can be done at beginning levels of ESOL instruction. The students can gain some meaning.

We recognized that by watching the students talk about their books, looking at their logs, and seeing them progress from one book to another. They were able to start talking about reading as an activity, get meaning from the text, choose a book, hold the book. The student who just reached over and grabbed something off the cart at first was thumbing through different books to select one by the end.

I also learned that reading behaviors aren’t innate. I was surprised when some students were reading the credits page. Although the students with limited educational backgrounds knew how to hold the book and turn the pages by the end, this was not the case at the beginning. The other students and I modeled that behavior. There was the sense that some reading skills might profitably be taught.

FOB: And the findings?

Reuel: Students in both the skills-based and SSR groups made substantial advances on all of the assessments that we gave. From teacher observational data, however, we’d recommend starting with skills-based reading and introduce SSR a bit later.

FOB: What suggestions do you have for others who are interested in doing SSR?

Sandra: Besides working to put together an accessible and appropriate library, I would suggest not doing SSR in a vacuum. Some skills-based reading instruction is beneficial, and the SSR is beneficial as well. Since both work, and work well to build different aspects of reading, do both. SSR influences affect, or a student’s emotional response toward, or enjoyment of, reading. Skills-based instruction influences technique: vocabulary skills, predicting, reading speed, and so on.

Reuel: That’s the kind of thing that effective ESOL teachers do anyway: a variety of things to meet different needs. This is another example of that. The more we learn about teaching and learning, the more we reject simplistic notions of there being one best way to teach.  Thoughtful, principled use of a variety of teaching strategies is necessary to address different learners’ needs.

Resources on Sustained Silent Reading

As part of the Northwest Practitioner Knowledge Institute, a teacher decided to use mSSR and conduct related practitioner research. To read her blog, go to:

For SSR-related links, go to

To see how one teacher used SSR to help ABE students reach individualized goals, go to: and read Susanne Campagna’s article in Volume 7C of Focus on Basics, “Sustained silent reading: A useful model.”