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What’s silent reading got to do with it?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 27 June 2006

I gave many talks around the country after the release of the report, Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985. After several months of having conversations with teachers around the country, I concluded that: “In education, the solutions of one generation when taken to their extreme become the problems of the next generation.” For example, Becoming a Nation of Readers suggested that trade books needed to be included in the school curriculum, not simply controlled texts. In some contexts, this recommendation was interpreted to mean only trade books at all grade levels (including first grade). This interpretation is still evident in the anthologies of basal reading programs where, at least in grade one, the number of unique words per 100 words is approximately four times what it was before Becoming a Nation of Readers (Hiebert, 2005).

Similarly, some (mis)interpretations of the report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) can be expected to create a new set of problems. Several weeks ago, I was talking with a group of teachers about the need to verify that their students are, indeed, reading a critical mass of text annually and cumulatively over the primary grades. I presented guidelines that ensure students have read at least 1,000,000 words in school by grade four (the reason for the one-million words by grade four may be a topic of another Frankly Freddy). The table that was the source of these guidelines appears below.

Table 1. Estimates for Opportunity to Read In-School: Ensuring 1,000,000 Words of Text By the End of Grade 3 1

Level Reading as Part of Instruction Scaffolded Silent Reading 1 Total
Grade 1 10 minutes daily @35 wpm = 63,000 7 minutes daily @30 wpm = 37,800 100,800
Grade 2 15 minutes daily @80 wpm = 216,000 15 minutes daily @80 wpm = 216,000 432,000
Grade 3 20 minutes daily @100 wpm = 360,000 20 minutes daily @100 wpm = 360,000 720,000
TOTAL 639,000 613,800 1,252,800

1 from E.H. Hiebert (in progress). Scaffolded Silent Reading: Instruction and Intervention to Support Independent Reading Strategies and Skills. Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject. © E.H. Hiebert, 2006

This table generated considerable confusion for teachers from one school in the audience. Their confusion pertained to the third column—the recommendation for scaffolded silent reading. Their supervisor(s) had concluded that, because the NRP concluded that “No research evidence is available currently to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency or overall reading achievement,” there should be no silent reading during the Reading First block. That is, even in a teacher-directed instructional lesson, students were not to read silently. All reading during teacher-directed instructional lessons was aloud. Even when students were working on extensions of lessons, their reading was to be aloud. For all intents and purposes, silent reading had been eliminated from the primary grades in this school.

The debate around this finding of the NRP has centered on consequences of eliminating self-selected, independent reading from the elementary curriculum. Much has been written on this particular issue, although not much on the nature of the instruction of self-selected reading. I am in the midst of reviewing research on the characteristics of avid readers and the kinds of instruction and interventions that support similar characteristics in all students (Hiebert, in progress).

The issue that I want to focus on here is the consequences for students’ silent reading comprehension when opportunities to read during instruction in the primary grades overemphasize oral reading or even are exclusively oral.

Silent reading is the primary mode of reading for proficient readers. If primary-level students only read aloud during instruction, it is doubtful that their reading rate and comprehension in silent reading will progress at the level required to be proficient. That is, their rate of thinking about text will be limited to their rate of oral reading fluency. While the information on silent reading rates is limited and dated, the best available data suggest that average third graders should be reading approximately half again as quickly in a silent reading task as they are reading orally (Taylor, Frankenphl, & Pettee, 1960).

A constant diet of oral reading during instruction does not give students the opportunity to develop silent reading fluency. In particular, if students’ only opportunity to read silently during instruction occurs when other students are reading orally, students have impoverished silent reading experiences. A long research literature (e.g., Gilbert, 1940) shows that those following along silently while another student read slowly or dysfluently display the eye movements of poor readers.

Students whose only opportunities for silent reading occur in the context of following along as other students read orally are particularly at a disadvantage during assessment events. Even with first graders, group-administered reading assessments (other than oral reading fluency) are measures of silent reading fluency and comprehension. On the norm-referenced tests and criterion-referenced tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state tests modeled after the NAEP, reading is silent.

Students who are part of communities of readers outside the classroom are able to get the opportunities that are required to develop high levels of silent reading fluency and comprehension. Students who depend on schools to become literate will be penalized by instruction that overemphasizes oral reading and fails to model and provide opportunities for silent reading. What does silent reading have to do with it (with the “it” being comprehension)? Everything. Silent reading is the medium in which proficient readers typically comprehend.