What’s the Difference?

In yesterday’s post, I argued that simply reading more of the same would not necessarily improve a student’s reading comprehension or vocabulary development.  (Strategies to improve these things will come in later posts.) However, I also agreed that we should surround our students with reading material and give them lots of time to explore that material both as part of class and as part of their own choosing.  Some schools do this systematically, and they usually choose one of two ways.  Either they go with a systematic program of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), or they use a computerized reading program like Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts. Sometimes the computerized program is accompanied with SSR and sometimes not.  I am all for SSR, and I would love to see my own middle school adopt SSR Fridays or something similar, which I’ll talk about below. But I am not convinced computerized reading programs should be used past elementary school, and I will outline my reasons here.

While the research is limited and lacks perfect control groups, the research that does exist on computerized reading programs is fairly clear.*  In the upper grades, certainly beyond 5th grade, students who participate in computerized reading programs do no better on standard measures of reading than students who do not participate in such programs when access to books and time spent reading is controlled.  The computerized tests that accompany such programs test only low-level recall of literal facts, which tends to promote shallow reading.   The higher-order thinking and engagement with a text is thus not tested and not encouraged by such programs.  Some studies suggest that the use of computerized reading programs can supplant established reading programs, reduce classroom read-alouds and direct instruction of literature, and reduce the amount of time spent practicing diagnostically-based reading strategies.

Okay…so computerized programs don’t teach reading; they only test it, and not very well at that.  But still, some will argue that such programs promote reading in general and thus go a long way towards creating lifelong readers.  Unfortunately, this may not be quite true either.  According to Kelly Gallagher in Readicide, several studies demonstrate that after exiting a computerized reading program, students actually read less than students who did not participate in a computerized reading program.  Why might this be the case?  In part, by placing rewards on reading, adults have turned reading into a job rather than the intrinsically rewarding experience we bookworms know it to be.  The student thinks, If they are willing to give me a reward for reading, it must be because it’s not a very pleasant thing in the first place.  Whether that reward is a prize or a grade, it’s still a reward.

Why is SSR so different?  SSR is different because there are no tests and no rewards.  SSR is about the pleasure of reading.  Period.  Students who participate in a systematic program of SSR get all the benefits of a computerized reading program with none of its pitfalls.  They get the books, they get the time to read, and they can get “lost in a book” or enter the “Reading Zone” without worrying about a test that doesn’t test much anyway or how many points some company says that book is worth.  When accompanied by book talks and when the teacher also participates, the benefits of SSR are even greater.

Now, you won’t see gains in critical reading scores just by implementing SSR alone.  You still need to provide direct instruction and practice of reading strategies.  You still need to teach the higher order thinking that will allow students to decipher challenging literature.  But incorporating SSR once a week or so is surely a very good thing.

And last but not least, I have a colleague who asked about the idea of letting students read whatever they wanted during SSR.  “What if the student chooses ‘junk’?”  The point of SSR is simply to instill in students a love of reading.  If you start putting too many parameters in place, it takes away from this.  As the teacher sees what students are gravitating towards, as the class has more book talks, hopefully the teacher can suggest to students books that they might like to give a try, steering them towards things that will challenge them and grow them as readers and people in general.  If the teacher is doing their job by teaching great quality literature throughout the year, letting students have a little choice in what they read for SSR isn’t a bad thing and can reap great rewards.

*Names of those who have either done studies or aggregated the studies: Stephen Krashen, Kelly Gallagher, Jim Trelease.



  1. Great job of distilling the research and explaining the differences here. Now can you tackle that next to the last paragraph – teaching higher order thinking skills. Who are the experts? What are those strategies? I fear in the pendulum swings of higher ed, those might go by different names and research may have outdated some of our techniques depending on when we went through teacher training. Next, please…

  2. Interesting! As the parent of a 4th grader who seems to love to read (and to keep up with his A.R. points), I am very interested in seeing what happens once he leaves the world of A.R.

    David Yohn *Trinity Presbyterian School*

    (334) 213-2150

    [image: cid:5E4F3792-B207-478E-9D29-9AB3758CE73B@elmore.rr.com]

    *Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.* Phil. 2:3 *2014 Senior Class Verse*

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