When It Comes to Reading, Is Silence Really Golden?

a person with his finger on his lip making the shush gesture

I can still remember some of my English classes as a student; please believe me it wasn’t yesterday but I’m not providing the exact date!

I remember a time when we had whole one-hour lessons devoted to reading in total silence. Even as a student back then I thought this was a very easy lesson, especially for Mr Lawrence! No lesson preparation; no difficult questions to answer, no quizzing or assessment strategies in place and he had no behaviour difficulties either; he knew how to use the belt!

My class was mixed ability, so in its very nature some of my peers found reading challenging whereas others loved it. This hour of silence therefore was a dream come true for some, but an utter nightmare for others. Regardless however there was no teaching going on, only exposure to print!

I also remember other reading lessons which involved the whole class taking their turn to read out loud. One lesson in particular springs to mind when I was about 13 years old and was left totally humiliated due to my stutters, hesitations and mispronunciation. Everyone laughed, including Mr Lawrence! As you can imagine, this did nothing for my self-esteem or confidence in reading. The word that I made the mistake with was ‘conscience’ and yes you have probably guessed it, I read it as con-science. Well that’s what the word looks like doesn’t it?

To avoid this humiliation in the future I became one of those kids who would try to work out which paragraph I would be asked to read aloud. I never seemed to judge it right because Mr Lawrence would unexpectedly split a long paragraph, asking two or three people to read it instead; putting the whole pre prepared order out of sync; resulting in sheer hot sweat panic as my rehearsed section had gone to someone else.

I still see silent reading in classrooms taking place around the UK today. I know it’s suggested by some to be good practice and know that the “Drop Everything And Read” (DEAR) method is favoured by many. The DEAR method has students, regardless of what they are busy with or in what lesson, stop what they are doing and read for a set amount of time. The reasoning behind this method is to improve the reading skills of all pupils which sounds great…but… let’s do a bit of role play…

Imagine having twenty minutes a day, uninterrupted, doing something you love: … Heaven!
Now imagine having twenty minutes a day, uninterrupted, doing something you hate because you can’t do it: … Hell!

Marilyn Adams (1990) stated that: “if we want children to read well, we must find a way to induce them to read lots” which might be where initiatives such as DEAR originates. It was believed that if students were provided with opportunities for reading practise, they would improve their reading. Heard of the saying ‘practice makes perfect’? Of course you have but only if you have been taught the initial basic skill and then guided and supported throughout the practise. You need to know what to practise and how to practise before you even begin to think about becoming perfect! If students don’t read because they find it too difficult, I can’t see how forcing them to stop what they are doing, open a book and read it will help. Does “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” spring to mind for anyone else?

What I have seen happen in this type of reading session is an increase in student frustration and boredom and please don’t think I am referring only to SEND students. I am referring to many of our mainstream students.

Marilyn Adams also stated, “if we want to induce children to read lots, we must teach them to read well”. I’m sure this was her point: we need to teach students to read well first and then support them in becoming independent for strategies such as DEAR. It goes without saying: ‘can’t read, won’t read’ so the explicit teaching of reading should continue straight through from primary to secondary and beyond. We must not assume students leaving primary are proficient in reading. We must continue to explicitly teach reading and not just expose our students to books and hope for the best.

“Teachers tell us what to read – but they don’t tell us how to read it.”
– Lewis and Wray, 2000

We know this is still true in the secondary mainstream classroom today. But, what if you don’t know how to teach students to read? What if you know the rhetoric and can see the barrier an inability to read has on students self-esteem and progress, however you as the teacher lack confidence in this area?

The crucial ingredient needed is to have well-trained staff with appropriate resources and time to spend not only with students who need support in reading, but also time for their own development and love of reading. Unfortunately, I fear we have a severe training gap at teacher training level in this crucial area; one which schools are having to plug.

My fear comes from conversations I have had with many secondary English trained teachers and what is more alarming, from conversations with Key Stage 2 teachers who feel they don’t have the skills to teach reading. So perhaps this is what needs exploring – the quality of teacher training and continued professional development.

However, let’s get back to the silent reading sessions. Let’s change it. Let’s get all subject teachers reading to students once the teachers feel confident and trained in doing so. If the teacher did the vast majority of the reading with expression and enthusiasm, demonstrating their love of reading and initiating class discussion, everyone, regardless of ability, would be able to enjoy and benefit. After all many able adult learners enjoy and choose to listen to audiobooks and podcasts these days.

Alternatively, let the groups who can read and enjoy reading have their uninterrupted, heavenly, twenty minutes and let the teacher concentrate on teaching reading skills to those who struggle. We must get students reading, but only once they explicitly know how.

Just a thought! I would love to hear yours.

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.

Katy Parkinson
Founder Director Sound Training

Adams, M.J. (MIT,1990): Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print Lewis , M. and Wray, D. (David Fulton Publishers, 2000): Literacy in the Secondary School