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20 Feb 2014

Are Students Really Reading in Independent Reading Contexts? An Examination of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Rate

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Kathleen M. Wilson & Guy Trainin

Book Chapter

Hiebert, E.H., Wilson, K.M., Trainin, G. (2010). Are Students Really Reading in Independent Reading Contexts? An Examination of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Rate. In E.H. Hiebert & D. Ray Reutzel (Eds.), Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers. Newark, DE. IRA.


After a recent presentation by one of the authors, a teacher asked, “My students act like they are reading when reading silently but how do I know if they are really reading?” This teacher’s question reflects a concern of many teachers. Recently, however, teachers have not been the only ones asking questions about the efficacy of silent reading. As a result of the conclusion of the National Reading Panel (NRP; NICHD, 2000) that sustained silent reading has not proven particularly effective in increasing fluency and comprehension, policy-makers and administrators have raised questions about the effectiveness of silent reading during instructional time. The NRP’s conclusions regarding the efficacy of oral, guided repeated reading have meant an emphasis on oral reading experiences in the primary grades as evident in classroom observations (Brenner, Hiebert, & Tompkins, 2009) and in textbook programs (Brenner & Hiebert, 2010). At the same time, the Panel’s conclusions regarding the lack of a substantive empirical literature that confirms the efficacy of independent silent reading experiences on comprehension have meant, at least in the primary grades, a de-emphasis on silent reading (Brenner et al., 2009).

Ultimately, however, most of the reading that adults, adolescents, and even middle- and upper-elementary grade students do is silent. Unarguably, the ability to read extended texts on one’s own (i.e., silently) with comprehension is the foundation of proficient reading. The products and processes of comprehension are frequently the focus of researchers and educators. However, one dimension that is infrequently addressed is the rates at which students are reading with meaning. The topic of rate of silent reading has often been equated with speed reading. We are not suggesting a return to the speed reading craze of the 1960s. Nor are we advocating the obsession with speed that has become the interpretation of oral reading fluency during the last decade.

There can be little doubt that demands for efficient and effective silent reading have increased as the amount of information facing citizens of the digital-global age increases. The form of reading in which we are interested has comprehension at its center. Within a focus on comprehension, we believe that there is room for attention to the rates at which students are reading. In particular, we believe that it is appropriate to address whether students are reading at appropriate rates. The digital revolution has meant that there are potential ways to address the rates at which students are reading and for determining whether these rates are appropriate for the tasks confronting students. We have termed the construct in which we are interested as comprehension-based silent reading rate (CBSRR).

Teachers in our graduate courses and workshops have asked numerous questions about CBSRR, such as the one that introduces our chapter. We delved into the research literature to answer these questions as well as our own questions. Our search for answers, however, produced few definitive responses. With only a few exceptions (e.g., Carver, 1990, 1992), researchers have not addressed CBSRR over the past decades. While the lack of a robust research surprised us, it also served as an impetus for us. We initiated a study that considered several persistent questions about CBSRR. We could not address all of the critical questions in a single study. We raise some of our many remaining questions at the end of the chapter. We were able, however, to provide at least preliminary answers to some critical questions about CBSRR in our study.

This chapter provides a summary of responses to three questions that our study addressed: (a) how different/similar is the CBSRR of students of different quartile groups within an age group? (b) how consistent is the CBSRR of students at different points of an extended text? And (c) how consistent is the CBSRR of students in a digital context relative to a paper-and-pencil one? Before describing the design of the study and its findings, we provide an overview of what is (and isn’t) known about CBSRR and our three foci in this study (differences across quartiles, the nature of stamina in reading extended texts, and consistency between digital and paper-and-pencil contexts.