DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or ERIC (Everyone Reads in Class) are very common approaches to independent reading that occur each week in countless schools. They are part of the fabric of the school day and can prove a cornerstone of a rich reading culture.

The rationale for implementing sustained opportunities for repeated independent reading makes sense. Reading books presents opportunities for print exposure to the rare vocabulary of books, along with vital experience with complex text structures.

Indeed, there is good research to indicate that reading for pleasure independently aged 14, along with having access to books, correlates with increased vocabulary above and beyond factors such as parental qualifications. Additionally, reading fiction can be a help to build the crucial background knowledge that supports access to a range of curriculum domains.

There are lots of benefits from pupils reading aloud, but silent reading has the unique value of pupils’ reading up to 30% more than they would if they read aloud.

Silent reading can also offer a calm, contemplative start to the school day, or an afternoon after a windy lunchtime, which should not be undervalued.

Put simply, reading lots can lead to more learning. Silent reading has value.

What are the problems with silent reading?

So, why might silent reading need ‘sorting out’? Along with the benefits that come along with silent reading, there is evidence that it may not be so effective as we may assume.

First, there is the issue of ‘fake reading’. Research evidence has indicated that many pupils will fake reading during DEAR time, or select an easy and narrow range of reading materials.

As reading expert, Professor Tim Shanahan explains in his Reading Rockets article questioning the efficacy of silent reading;

“Some texts are likely to be more supportive of reading development, too. Maybe they use words with particular spelling patterns, academic language, or organizational schemes. Those kinds of texts allow teachers to draw kids’ attention to particular features and to show them how to negotiate them effectively.”

There are worrying indications that utilising DEAR may see the reading rich get richer and the reading poor get poorer. We all know those pupils who read fluently and with great skill. They better select those Goldilocks texts that are just right for them, staying motivated and focused, as they read voraciously and well.

For those pupils who lack reading fluency and skill to begin with, silent reading is less likely to be profitable, without careful scaffolding and more targeted support. The arguments for independent book choice may be trumped by the flattened reading performance of weaker readers.

There is US research on silent reading indicates that it is more effective and enjoyable for pupils who already have a high prior value put on reading. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to many teachers. How many pupils don’t have a book in their bag, nor look forward to making a selection from the library? How many teachers are confident in supporting those selections?

Though there is little evidence to offer an easy solution for all pupils, there are some useful prompts for effective implementation. They go some way to defining ‘structured silent reading‘:

  • Audit reading habits and reading materials. It can be easy to assume the quiet class is reading and learning. Too often pupils are whipping out the same book as last week, or last month, or even last year.
  • Support choice and structure rich reading. Lots of schools are highly explicit about cultivating effective reading each day. Secondary Schools like Greenshaw High have a reading curriculum, that also pays attention to balancing fiction and informational texts (indeed, they also managed to transfer this online to good effect). Primary schools like Layton Primary School have a crafted reading spine to steer help steer curricular choice. More independent choice can be scaffolded and celebrated. Additionally, there is a question about how closely such reading is aligned to the curriculum.
  • Top and tail time spent reading. Highly motivated readers can utilise each moment of their DEAR time. Too often though, many pupils will require explicit teaching both to sustain their effort on reading, but also to help to cohere their comprehension. Asking pupils to summarise the book they are reading before they read can help gain their attention, but also prime them to be focused in their reading. Most importantly, if pupils can expect to summarise and elaborate on what they have read at the end of DEAR, the likelihood of them staying on task is heightened and they are likely to improve their reading comprehension.
  • Utilise reading time to support the weakest readers. Given the evidence that weaker readers struggle to squeeze learning out of silent reading, we should seize the opportunity to use the time to do targeted work with small groups. We may seize the opportunity for reading fluency approaches, or explicit vocabulary instruction etc.
  • Define goals for silent reading. It will not be enough to give over curriculum time to silent reading and expect good things to happen for all pupils. We should define the goals of ‘structured silent reading’ and monitor them accordingly. Are we looking to improve reading stamina; reading motivation and pleasure’ reading fluency; build knowledge and vocabulary; or similar? A reading record may be a start, but more nuanced monitoring and evaluation will be needed.

We could just assume good things happen when we promote independent reading, but the likelihood is that this only occurs for fluent, successful readers, and so carrying on without careful intent may widen the attainment gap in our school.

Implementing structured silent reading, along with exploring other approaches that will make reading and learning gains, should be our aim to help address the attainment gap.

It is a desirable end goal that pupils read complex texts independently. More than that, reading can open up imagined worlds, along with crowbarring open doors of opportunity.

And yet, we need to pay close attention to sorting out our approach to reading to that crucial end.

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