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Straight Talk with Stephen Krashen on SSR

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A few weeks ago, I replied to a post on the community forum found on my favorite site, Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning. The subject? Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). After some challenging back and forth, I decided to write my own article titled “Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.” I listed and defended eight reasons why SSR is not the best use of class time and closed the article by justifying my proposal that independent reading be assigned as homework, along with the accountability of parent-graded daily reading discussion or online peer response/book clubs.

With such a provocative title, it’s no wonder that I received a number of responses. Among the responses, Dr. Stephen Krashen responded numerous times. Dr. Krashen has always served at the foremost advocate of free voluntary reading, essentially the more scholarly tag for SSR. In fact, Dr. Krashen has a new book out on the subject. For those teachers who are unfamiliar with Dr. Krashen’s work, here is a brief bio:

Stephen Krashen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education Division of Learning and Instruction. From the USC website: “Stephen Krashen is an expert in the field of linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development. Much of his research has involved the study on non-English and bilingual language acquisition.”

Dr. Krashen is a prolific author. The following books are but a representative sample: The Power of Reading (Second Edition, 2004),  Foreign Language Education the Easy Way (1998), Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use (2003), and his newest contribution-Free Voluntary Reading (2011).

I am a seventh-grade English-language arts teacher with my BA out of USC and MA (reading specialist) out of California State University, Sacramento. I’m also a small potatoes educational publisher of ELA/reading resources to differentiate instruction.

Given the richness of Dr. Krashen’s gracious responses to my persistent challenges and questions, I felt it would be helpful to post the unedited exchange. MP for Mark Pennington and SK for Stephen Krashen. If readers wish to read my entire comments (to which Dr. Krashen refers), here is the original posting: Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:00 | #1

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SK: First of several comments:

MP: 1. Reading Research Does Not Support SSR
“According to the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000), the experimental design studies on SSR indicate no statistically or educationally significant differences between those students who do SSR and those students who do not. Some educational researchers have criticized the findings of the National Reading Panel, arguing that long term correlational studies do suggest that students doing SSR gain more in reading than those who do not. However, correlation does not imply causation.”
SK: My criticisms of the NRP conclusions on SSR are not based on correlational studies. Please see not only Power of Reading (second edition, 2004), but also two articles on this topic, free download, at http://sdkrashen.com/index.php?cat=2. Both published in the Phi Delta Kappan. There are also numerous short articles and exchanges published in Education Week and other places on the NRP report.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:01 | #2

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MP: 2. There is Not Enough Class Time for SSR
SK: According to my interpretation of the research, see citations in previous post, SSR does very well when compared with traditional instruction in direct comparisons, which suggests that it is efficient. Also, students who do SSR do more reading outside of school. It increases interest in reading.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:02 | #3

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MP: 3. Free Choice Reading in SSR Does Not Maximize Reading Development
“Students often choose books with reading levels far below or far above own their reading levels and so do not experience optimal reading growth. Most reading experts suggest a 95-98% word recognition level as being necessary for comprehensible input and vocabulary acquisition. To be crass, allowing students to choose their own reading material, without any guidance, lets the lunatics be in charge of the asylum.”
SK: I comment on this in my responses to the NRP. See especially http://sdkrashen.com/articles/in-school%20FVR/all.html, which was published in the Phi Delta Kappan (it is listed as submitted).

June 27th, 2011 at 08:17 | #3

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MP: 3. Having read your defense of reading “books too easy,” yes I agree that there will be language left to learn via context clues, structural analysis, etc. However, I do believe you sidestep the issue here. Why not “limit” self-selected independent reading to optimal word recognition levels and/or other measurements to maximize vocabulary growth? It’s not as if there aren’t enough compelling books to choose at their independent levels-the motivational component remains. And, unless I am mistaken, you don’t address the issue of students who select frustration-level texts because their peers are reading such or they like the perceived theme, e.g. vampires. Furthermore, I haven’t seen you comment on free choice with respect to reading widely in a variety of genres and other print media. As a reading specialist, it just seems that we need to get more bank for our buck with independent reading than is the case with SSR (or FVR) taking up huge amounts of class time and the free choice component limiting optimal reading development. Does your new book, Free Voluntary Reading, address these concerns? BTW Go Trojans! Class of ’78.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:02 | #4

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MP: 4. SSR is Not Teaching
“SSR devolves the responsibilities and applications of reading strategies, comprehension or vocabulary development, and literary analysis to children. I’m not saying a teacher should exclusively assume the role of “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side,” should guide, not merely model.
Additionally, SSR is not appropriate for all students. SSR does not magically differentiate instruction. For example, some students (even secondary learners) need oral fluency practice, not independent silent reading. Other students already read extensively at home and do not need more independent reading time.”
SK: SSR is part of a reading program, not all of it. And MANY of these “needs” are developed as a result of reading.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:03 | #5

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MP: 5. “Reading researchers Von Sprecken and Krashen concluded that children were more likely to read during SSR when certain conditions were in place: When there was access to interesting reading in the classroom and students are not required to bring their own reading material, when teachers read while students are reading, and when teachers made efforts to promote and discuss certain books the researchers found that 90% of students were reading. Even in a class in which none of these conditions were met, however, Debra Von Sprecken and Stephen Krashen found that 80% of the students were reading when observed. (California Reader, 1998, 32(1): 11-13) Not many teachers I know would be satisfied with a classroom instructional strategy in which from 4 to 9 of their 36 students (10-20%) did not participate.”
SK: The 80% is the result under the weakest conditions.

June 27th, 2011 at 07:54 | #5

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MP: 5. However, even the optimal 90% leaves out quite a few students and these are typically the ones with the greatest reading challenges. Why not, instead, use class time for reading instruction that engages all learners? Additionally, many teachers have used SSR under the certain conditions described in the study (such as Yours Truly) and abandoned the strategy because participation was nowhere near the 80-90 percent.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:04 | #5,6

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5. continued and MP: 6: SSR requires band aids, e.g. monitoring, assessing, checklists, questions, discussions, reader response, plot diagrams, etc.
SK: SSR works quite well all by itself. Again, see my citations. Do these supplements help? You have to list sources and show us the relevant research that demonstrates that these activities are superior to self-selected reading for pleasure.
I suspect that most of them are not and when added to SSR do not increase SSR’s efficiency (Manning et al study is an interesting exception).
The ones that are worth-while are part of literature study (readers  theater, circles, discussions). SSR is not literature study, it is a supplementary activity. Many criticisms of SSR complain that it is not literature study. This is true. We need both.
PS: I love Atwell’s book, the Reading Zone. A great way to integrate self-selection with literature study.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:04 | #7

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MP: 7. SSR Turns Recreational Reading into a School Thing
“Let’s face it. SSR is coercive and required in a contrived setting—hardly the conditions that will transfer to recreational reading out of the classroom. If our end goal is to get students to become lifelong independent readers outside of the school experience, shouldn’t we teachers work toward that end?”
SK: Fair enough, an empirical question: Does SSR result in an independent reading habit. The studies so far say that it does.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:05 | #8

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MP: 8. SSR Gives Up on Students, Peers, and Parents
“I advocate abandoning classroom SSR and assigning independent reading as homework.”
SK: If SSR is coercive in school, it is also coercive as homework, especially if we follow your guidelines (novels only, require reading different genres, strictly monitored). But again, this is an empirical question: Does SSR homework result in an independent reading habit?
PS: I am looking forward to a detailed study of the effectiveness of a program following your guidelines.

June 26th, 2011 at 12:05 | #8

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Unrepentant commercial announcement; I have a new book out: Free Voluntary Reading. Available on Amazon.

June 26th, 2011 at 16:22 | #8

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MP: Look forward to it.

June 26th, 2011 at 16:26 | #8

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MP: You are right. My independent reading homework is just as coercive as in-class SSR; however, it is real life reading, not a classroom program.

July 3rd, 2011 at 22:47 | #20

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MP: In response to Mary’s comment: “Just to clarify, the National Reading Panel (2000) did cite studies showing improvement for students whose SSR time was combined with reading conferences and/or discussion.”

“Mary, I’m afraid these studies are not listed in the NRP report. The only reference regarding SSR and other reading instruction is the following: “The available data do
suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills.” (NRP 12) And Dr. Krashen has commented on this finding by agreeing that SSR is not a comprehensive reading program.”

SK: (1) The NRP comment addresses a position that nobody has ever held (or ever stated, to my knowledge). No, SSR is not a comprehensive reading program. Nobody ever said it was. It is used for a few minutes each period, e.g. 10-15 minutes. That is how SSR has always been done.
(2) The NPR says SSR is not for those who haven’t developed “critical alphabetic and reading skills.” Again this is an attack on the position nobody has ever held. SSR is not designed to help beginning readers. It is for those who can already do some independent reading.

MP: “I agree with you that independent reading should serve as practice for the explicit strategies already taught.”
SK: I suspect that independent reading is the place these strategies are developed. So many good readers have the strategies but were never taught them. The field has assumed that all strategies are teachable and should be taught. This is an open question that needs to be investigated.

Re: 90% engaged in reading:
MP: “However, even the optimal 90% leaves out quite a few students and these are typically the ones with the greatest reading challenges. Why not, instead, use class time for reading instruction that engages all learners? Additionally, many teachers have used SSR under the certain conditions described in the study (such as Yours Truly) and abandoned the strategy because participation was nowhere near the 80-90 percent.”

SK: If you weren’t getting 90% involvement, I suggest that one or more of the following conditions were present: (1) reading selections not interesting or not comprehensible (2) too much comprehension checking; (3) insisting that students read a book, not a magazine or graphic novel; (4) insisting they finish every book they start. I prefer to push to 100% by supplying truly COMPELLING reading material, rather than doing lots of monitoring.
The concept of compelling is crucial. Please see Lao, C. and Krashen, S. 2008. Heritage language development: Exhortation or good stories? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 4 (2): 17-18. Available at ijflt.com (free).

MP: “Why not “limit” self-selected independent reading to optimal word recognition levels and/or other measurements to maximize vocabulary growth? It’s not as if there aren’t enough compelling books to choose at their independent levels-the motivational component remains.”
SK: If free reading is simply comprehensible and interesting/compelling, vocabulary growth will be excellent. I can’t imagine getting more bang for the buck. In Power of Reading and elsewhere I argue that self-selected free reading is why everyone with huge vocabularies did it.

MP: “Furthermore, I haven’t seen you comment on free choice with respect to reading widely in a variety of genres and other print media.”
SK: I have argued for narrow reading in several of my books and papers, allowing students to stay with one topic, author, genre. This ensures interest and comprehensibility. As time goes on, readers gradually expand their reading interests. For arguments and supporting evidence, please see: Krashen, S. 2004. The case for narrow reading. Language Magazine 3(5): 16-20.

MP: “…with SSR (or FVR) taking up huge amounts of class time …”
SK: We talking about 10-15 minutes each period of an activity known to be pleasant and effective.

MP: “And, unless I am mistaken, you don’t address the issue of students who select frustration-level texts because their peers are reading such or they like the perceived theme, e.g. vampires.”
SK: The cure for reading books that are too hard in order to impress people: Make available reading material that so interesting/compelling that showing off is no longer a concern.

July 4th, 2011 at 07:32 | #21

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MP: Stephen,

You are so gracious with your time and responses. Even when you disagree with me, you do so agreeably-certainly a much needed model in the educational blogosphere. I’ve placed my order for Free Voluntary Reading and look forward to it.

With respect to the crux of my article… I think I have my cake and eat it, too.

My students (80-90%) do get their independent, free-choice reading for two hours per week. Plus, they get immediate reader response and I get accountability with a brief discussion about their daily reading with their parents. Instead of the “What did you do at school today?” dinner table discussion, my students (and parents) get engaging conversations about their reading.

Plus, I keep the 60-75 minutes of class time that SSR would consume each week. And with additional furlough days coming here in California, teachers need all of the time they can get.

My last point will be one of advocacy. My colleagues who do SSR in the classroom just do not assign independent reading for homework. In fact, many do SSR precisely because they have given up on expecting students to read at home. As a reading specialist, I know students need more than just an hour per week of independent reading. In your review of the research literature, how much independent reading per week is optimal to both achieve reading/vocabulary growth and develop lifelong readers?

July 4th, 2011 at 10:48 | #22

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SK: What we do know is that students who participate in SSR do more unassigned reading on their own, outside of school. A very interesting study: Vincent Greaney, who reported more reading even years later. It isn’t just the time assigned for SSR, it’s the ability of SSR to promote more independent reading outside of school.
Greaney, V., & Clarke, M. (1973). “A longitudinal study of the effects of two reading methods on leisure-time reading habits.” In D. Moyle, Reading: What of the Future? (pp. 107-114). London: United Kingdom Reading Association.
Also: Pilgreen, J. and Krashen, S. 1993. Sustained silent reading with English as a second language high school students: Impact on reading comprehension, reading frequency, and reading enjoyment. School Library Media Quarterly 22: 21-23.
And I still think that SSR and literature discussion are different things. Both crucial.

July 5th, 2011 at 07:53 | #23

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MP: The study may well indicate that SSR results in more unassigned reading at home, but it may well be that assigned reading at home produces even more unassigned reading at home. I know there are no studies on this; however, if compelling, free-choice reading begets more voluntary reading, wouldn’t it necessarily follow that reading assigned for homework would produce more voluntary reading? From my own experience, many of my students read much more than the required two hours per week.

Also, agreed that literature discussion is separate from independent reading; however, having students discuss their reading on a daily basis with parents provides a social context for reading and helps students practice the reading comprehension/meaning-making strategies of internal monitoring of text, developing the reader-author dialogue, self-questioning strategies, summary/re-tell, inferences, drawing conclusions, etc. In other words, I don’t advocate having students and their parents engage in heavy-duty literary analysis (teachers do have a role here), but reading a lot surely should be coupled with reading well. Yes, some of these reading skills can be acquired naturally through reading in-it-of-itself, but why not intentionally design independent reading to maximize comprehension development, as well as appreciation and enjoyment of the reading? Also, let’s not forget that we are dealing with children… Whether reading independently in or out of class, the knowledge that the text will be discussed does motivate levels of concentration. And not just for children… for example, a grad student assigned The Power of Reading will read differently if the work will be discussed in a paper or on an exam. Reading for a purpose does provide motivation to read well.

In addition to student-parent discussions, I also encourage my students to form literature circles and book clubs. This last year a group read The Hunger Games and discussed the reading daily on a forum I set up and monitored: one post and one response required per day. Students love the interaction of the reading and say that they understand the novels more when they have the immediate opportunity to discuss.

July 5th, 2011 at 12:07 | #24

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MP: “The study may well indicate that SSR results in more unassigned reading at home, but it may well be that assigned reading at home produces even more unassigned reading at home. I know there are no studies on this; however, if compelling, free-choice reading begets more voluntary reading, wouldn’t it necessarily follow that reading assigned for homework would produce more voluntary reading? From my own experience, many of my students read much more than the required two hours per week.”
SK: I agree that it would be an interesting study to do. Assigned reading at home might result in LESS voluntary reading than SSR. Most likely, it depends on how it is organized and implemented.

“Also, agreed that literature discussion is separate from independent reading; however, having students discuss their reading on a daily basis with parents provides a social context for reading and helps students practice the reading comprehension/meaning-making strategies of internal monitoring of text, developing the reader-author dialogue, self-questioning strategies, summary/re-tell, inferences, drawing conclusions, etc. In other words, I don’t advocate having students and their parents engage in heavy-duty literary analysis (teachers do have a role here), but reading a lot surely should be coupled with reading well.”
SK: I would categorize discussion of reading with parents as a literature activity.

“Yes, some of these reading skills can be acquired naturally through reading in-it-of-itself, but why not intentionally design independent reading to maximize comprehension development, as well as appreciation and enjoyment of the reading?”
SK: Yes, good point. Some strategies, even though acquired, might be helpful in making reading more comprehensible when taught early. My point: We have assumed that ALL strategies good readers use should be taught explicitly. But: Some are innate (e.g. prediction), some develop without teaching as a result of reading. Among the latter, we need to determine which are profitable to teach and which are not. I’m not opposed to direct teaching. I’m opposed to the assertion that everything can and should be taught directly.

MP: “Also, let’s not forget that we are dealing with children… Whether reading independently in or out of class, the knowledge that the text will be discussed does motivate levels of concentration. And not just for children… for example, a grad student assigned The Power of Reading will read differently if the work will be discussed in a paper or on an exam. Reading for a purpose does provide motivation to read well.”

SK: We shouldn’t have to be prepared to discuss everything we read. At least some of our reading should be simply reading. That’s the point of SSR. Again, it is part of the program, not the entire program.

MP: “In addition to student-parent discussions, I also encourage my students to form literature circles and book clubs. This last year a group read Hunger Games and discussed the reading daily on a forum I set up and monitored: one post and one response required per day. Students love the interaction of the reading and say that they understand the novels more when they have the immediate opportunity to discuss.”

SK: Agreed. Lit circles/book clubs can be terrific. I would consider these activities to be “literature” activities. SSR is not a competitor to these activities.

MP: Apparently, the reading research since the National Reading Panel has moved more in the direction that free reading time (free voluntary reading, SSR, or the like) is not beneficial in terms of improving reading comprehension. According to noted reading researcher, Doctor Timothy Shanahan in his August 13, 2017 article:

NRP did conclude that there was no convincing evidence that giving kids free reading time during the school day improved achievement — or did so very much. There has been a lot of work on that since NRP but with pretty much the same findings: either no benefits to that practice or really small benefits (a .05 effect size — which is tiny). Today, NRP would likely conclude that practice is not beneficial rather than that there is insufficient data. But that’s arguable, of course.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading

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  1. teacher
    September 13th, 2011 at 03:21 | #1

    Hi there. A bit of anecdotal support for Krashen: I do FVR in my high school class and devote a good 20 minutes a day to it (a third of my class time!). I get 100% of the kids reading–maybe not at every single moment, but certainly for most of the time. It also definitely made my students read on their own more. And the class time is not at all lost: I do what ATwell recommends and go around the room having mini-conferences one-on-one. Those mini-conferences have been, for me, MORE productive than most of the other uses of class time and my time. So I wouldn’t say that FVR necessarily “consumes” class time. It actually, in my case, freed the teacher up to do some individual coaching that has seemed pretty useful.

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