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Between the Lines: Sustained silent reading can improve literacy



My daughter and her kindergarten buddies are adjusting well to Grade One and life in a “big kids’ school”. They are learning new skills to develop their independence and self-reliance.
The most conspicuous changes from kindergarten are that these children no longer have teachers to remind them to wash their hands before lunch, or to make sure they bring the right exercise books home for homework.
This transition to a new school is daunting for my daughter. I imagine that she misses her kindergarten teachers’ warm embrace and sitting on their laps to share stories of recent adventures.
Yet, with new teachers to get to know, new friendships to establish and new routines to master, it’s unlikely that she reflects much on the past.
My daughter is fortunate enough to attend a local school where the daily schedule includes three recess breaks, and sustained silent reading.
Also known as free voluntary reading, sustained silent reading at this primary school involves all students reading silently for 20 minutes every day. The only restriction is that students must read English-language books and Chinese-language books on alternate weeks.
The key to sustained silent reading is that students can select their own books, and read them freely without comprehension tests or rewards for reading.
An eminent authority on second language acquisition, Dr Stephen Krashen is an influential advocate for sustained silent reading.
In his recently published Free Voluntary Reading, Krashen set forth his voluminous research on language proficiency, all of which pointed to the finding that more dictation, worksheets and lists to memorise are consistently less effective than the simple activity of reading.
Although my daughter has been exposed to a large volume of books covering many different genres, she has yet to develop strong preferences. I remember one library excursion where she had insisted on borrowing a book titledRobbie and the Alien.
It was not something I would have chosen for her at the time, because it was written with lower primary school-aged children in mind. We read the story aloud after returning home, and the book remained untouched until it was returned.
Of course, there are countless times that a book we overlooked on our bookshelf turned out to be a family favourite after reading it together.
Perhaps her inability to make a decision on which book to bring for silent reading comes from having learned that one can’t judge a book by its cover.
With the responsibility of book choosing resting on my shoulders, I did what I normally do: I overthought the situation. I wanted to give my daughter a picture book, but I worried that her classmates would bring chapter books.
Then I worried that, if I gave her a chapter book, it would look like I was showing her off as an accomplished reader. Although she is capable of reading a chapter book, it’s hard work for a six-year-old to concentrate on pages and pages of text. It is like an adult trying to read Tolstoy or Cervantes on a weekend beach getaway. It’s doable, but it’s not fun.
What six-year-olds want to read are picture books with thoughtful text presented in a large font, accompanied by appealing illustrations.
Formal language instruction aims to teach language skills, and is complemented by a sustained silent reading programme.
But developing strong language skills is only a side benefit of sustained silent reading, because its primary goal is to develop a life-long reading habit. My daughter is revisiting books that I read to her when she was younger. Back then, she only focused on the illustrations. Now she is able to enjoy the wonderful words, too.
Bob Graham’s April and Esme Tooth Fairies is a timely read as my daughter wiggles her loose front teeth. She has also rediscovered Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn after her grandmother tried to teach her to knit.
Bring Me a Book Hong Kong has thematic guides to the best English and Chinese children’s picture books that are perfect for beginning readers to explore on their own. The guides can be accessed for free on its website.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Why it helps to read in silence