The SSR Handbook: The number 1 resource to start a reading program. Chapter 1: Roots and Rationale Review

We become what we read.  The SSR Handbook is a title that has guided my teacher persona over the last year.  This review is the first of a series which you can find on the books that leave an impression page.

The SSR Handbook by Janice L. Pilgreen is a must own resource for any teacher who wants to tape into the power pleasure reading has on acquisition.  I first discovered the title at mygenerationofpolygots.  The forward, written by Dr. Krashen, gets right to the point.  While he discusses the research and data around SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) he says:

Note that even a finding of no difference is meaningful:  Since students find SSR more pleasant than skill-building activities, if there is no difference we are at least making their lives better. page viii

As the reading program in my classroom grows, I find myself in constant need of reminders of the idea found in Krashen’s quote above.  SSR, FVR or SDR allows students a chance to read for enjoyment but it also allows students a unique opportunity to reflect and consider their own acquisition without the affective filter raising pressures of points, scores and assessments.  Other parts of the research are interesting.  From page ix Krashen states,

“Here is a recent example from the field of foreign language acquisition:  Stokes, Krashen, and Kartchner (1998) tested students of Spanish as a foreign language on their knowledge of the subjunctive.  The ONLY significant predictor was how much pleasure reading in Spanish the students had done:  the amount of instruction in general, the amount of instruction specifically on the subjunctive, and length of time spent in Spanish speaking countries did not count.  But reading counted.”

I’m sure there are more variables affecting the above, but time reading for pleasure correlates often to literary success in these studies.  As you develop a reading program, make sure you have The SSR Handbook so that Janice Pilgreen can show you how to implement the program with success.

Chapter 1 guides the reader to the history of SSR programs and you may be surprised to discover that this idea has been around for a long time.  As you begin your program take some time to consider what “version” of SSR you will implement.  It is important as each “version” has slightly different needs.  I call my program SDR (Self Directed Reading) with aligns with what Pilgreen terms Self Selected Reading.  Students fill out reading logs, complete the occasional assignment and demonstrate progress for a score.  These 3 simple accountability pieces change the program a bit and it is not technically FVR (Free Volunteer Reading).  A true FVR program will not require accountability measures for students.  Accountability measures will raise the affective filter, therefore make sure there is a plan and purpose if you decide to include them.  FVR doesn’t mean that students will not interact or respond to text, but they will do so in an extension sort of way that allows them to choose to do it or not.

The chapter continues by posing the question “(are) readers more proficient because they read so much or (do) they read so much because they are better readers?” – pg. 4.  The chapter continues by reminding the reader how many things compete with young peoples’ attention.  Even if a reading program only increases young people’s motivation to choose books to read, we are offering students a powerful skill for them to continue learner long into adulthood through their own choice of reading.  But there are many research studies that demonstrate increases in language proficiency connected to free reading programs.  No matter what version of a program you pick, focus on how important it is to teach students how to be independent in reading choices and purposes for reading.

Chapter 1 continues to lay out Pilgreen’s quest for a reading program to base her own.  She found studies to use to construct her program from data.  Although 41 studies doesn’t seem like a lot, she finds common ground in respect to the components of each program and success in increasing students’ motivation to read.  She determined that successful program included the following 8 factors found on page 6:

  1. access to a variety of reading.
  2. appeal to students
  3. conducive reading environment
  4. encouragement to read
  5. staff training to implement the program
  6. non-accountability
  7. follow-up activities
  8. distributed time to read

She continues by discussing which of the 8 factors seemed to show up more than the others as the chapter comes to a close.  Because I am a Latin teacher, there has been some problems for my program to insure 1 and 2 happen.  But there are many teachers writing Latin texts that are helping to offer more selection for students.  Access isn’t just about physical reading material.  Where books are placed.  How they are organized.  How students get to the materials.  These are all important for access.  It needs to be easy for students to choose something or to switch materials when they tire of a title.

At first I thought appealing to students had to be adolescent type topics.  Granted, there are certain topics that students seem to gravitate toward but appeal has to do with perceived difficulty as well.  Many of my students will choose a title that have organized in a lower level over titles that I think will interest them in higher levels.  Content is important to appeal but so is style, perceived difficultly and connection to other things happening in class.

Lastly, I encourage thought about distributed time to read.  From my experience it is better to give students more sessions for shorter amounts of time per session in a week.  Think about adolescents and their attention span with other activities that you complete in class.  Most of them cannot sustain long time periods of reading, especially at first.  For example, I choose to read for two 5 minute sessions per week instead of one 10 minute session per week as we start the school year.  5 minutes may not seem like much time, but students need time to build up their ability to sustain silent reading for periods of time.  Also, if you think your group can handle a certain amount of time, plan for 2-3 minutes less than you think they can handle.  I find it is better for students to want to read for another minute or two than it is to have even a few students start to fidget during the last minute or two of quiet reading time.  You can always encourage students to read more outside of class by allowing them to check out materials or by using online materials if students have that kind of access.  As the semester goes on I add 1 minute to our sessions every 3-5 weeks depending on how school breaks fall and how I feel the group is progressing.  To start second semester we will be reading for 2 8 minute sessions.

If you don’t have The SSR Handbook by Janice Pilgreen pick a copy up today.  She has completed the research on which you want your program to be based.  In further chapters you will find follow up activities that you can implement tomorrow.  Why wait?  This is the resource for your reading program.

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