Making SSR Work for Them – And Us

An email conversation from blog reader Lynn this weekend (used with permission) might help all of us as we set our classroom reading routines:

Hey Laura,
What do you think about this? My department has an SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) initiative where the students read for 10 minutes per class period. It has to be something they’re reading for pleasure, and no assignments can be given. It’s a way to promote independent reading for fun. They do get a daily participation grade for it worth 20 points, adding up to 100 by Friday. Do you think it would be a good idea for me to have that be my opener? Set the rule that students are to be in their seats, quietly reading their SSR novel by the time the bell rings? At that point, should I just jump right into my lesson for the day or maybe give one of your bell ringer assignments?

Let me know what you think about the SSR at the beginning of class idea. Most of the teachers do it at the beginning, but a few wait until the last 10 min. so that the kids can be all packed up and ready to walk out when the bell rings.


Hi Lynn,
Thanks for checking in with me. I know launching each period with SSR works fine because lots of English classes start this way, but, I gotta tell ya, I hate reading like that. Just personally as a reader, I’m barely settled in and getting traction at the 10-minute mark and then you’re telling me to put away my book and shift gears to focus on something totally different? Ugh.

When I started at my campus in the late 90s (yes, yes, I know), most of the English dept. did the 10-minutes-of-SSR-at-the-beginning-of-each-period thing to not only help us hit our state standards (by grade 12, students were expected to independently read two million words a year), but also give us time to take attendance/catch our breath before starting the next class. I’m a rebel, though, so without asking permission I slid those five 10-minute sessions into once-a-week 45-to-50 minute SSR sessions on Fridays and many of my colleagues, especially at the freshman level, followed that shift.

I prefer the weekly approach for a variety of reasons:

• That’s how I want to read books. If I wouldn’t want to do something, I try to avoid making my students do that thing. (Only exception? Pep rallies, they gotta attend the pep rallies. Rules are rules, people.)

• I want my kids to build reading stamina, but 10-minute chunks don’t get that job done. (Is reading for 45 minutes really tough for some kids? Definitely. More on that below.)

• It feels wrong to go from 10 minutes of silent reading to a lecture-based lesson for the next 10-, 20-, or even 30-minute chunk of class. That’s a lot of quiet seat time for basically the majority of most class periods. B…o…r…i…n…g.

• I need time to conference with individual students for a variety reasons, tame the ever-growing stack of papers, lesson plan for the upcoming week, and sometimes even read a book for fun alongside my students. I would uselessly fritter away ten minutes, but 45 minutes means I can give everyone the needed attention, even some individualized writing support, without holding anyone after class or hoping a kid remembers to show up at lunch for a conference. (Sidenote: I HATE lunch meetings. I mean, I need that 25-minute lunch period to, you know, actually eat and take care of some personal needs. Lunch conference = No bathroom break = Miserable afternoon classes. Who’s with me?)

Now, you might be thinking, Yeah, but some of my kids can barely hang on for 10 minutes of reading. How in the world are they going to stick with it for 45 minutes? You’re right to be concerned. Reading silently for 45 minutes will definitely be a challenge for some of your students. I’d say most of my regular ed kids can hang, but about 15 percent (usually students with IEPs for attention deficit issues) will struggle. For those kids, I allow a covert midpoint break to get a drink of water/walk a lap around the building or I’ll send a kid who looks like he/she needs a break to run an errand for me. A strategy that’s been incredibly successful is to allow those struggling kids to listen to their SSR books on earbuds as a digital download (our librarian has several mp3 devices loaded with high-interest books that kids can borrow) while also holding and reading the book. Just listening isn’t enough; the kid also has to have the physical book with him in order to get the weekly reading points.

Even with the accommodations and selling this as a decadent treat rather than an assignment to be endured, do all of my kids love to read? Nope. Some will absolutely adore SSR because it’s a solid, quiet block of time to fall into a book (something their busy lives don’t usually allow), but others just tolerate it. It’s important, though, for them to lengthen their attention spans with text and I try to make it enjoyable. I let them bring a healthy snack. They can stretch out on the floor or sit at an empty seat, and I even have a drawer full of blankets for chilly Friday mornings.

If parents or teacher colleagues balk at the assignment (no one ever has), I would remind them that our “regular” classes are noted as college-prep. It’s reasonable to expect that a student be able to sit and read for 45 minutes. And I’m not even requiring academic texts – we’re talking fun stuff here.

In the absence of a diagnosed learning disability, I’d say that the kids who still struggle are doing so because they just haven’t found the right book. Some kids are convinced they don’t like to read, but that’s simply not true. I tell those kids, if the hottie from third period slipped you a lengthy note, I’ll bet you would happily read and re-read that note. It’s all about the content and a student’s motivation. I try to help those kids find books that are compelling. My edgy kids appreciate the books in our library that tilt toward adult content, such as Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks and anything by Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club. Now, those books are gnarly and not something I’d pick up for fun, but many of my kids who don’t like school just love those books – and I figure if they’re in our school library then they’re fair game even if some of the stuff is…well…let’s use the word “intense.” Again, it’s about finding the right book for the right kid. Your librarian can help with this, too.

Finally, just a few more practical tips. If a student doesn’t have a book on SSR Friday or is talking/making noise/falls asleep, he loses some or all of the 10 weekly SSR points. My class is pretty tough, so kids appreciate the buffer to the grade that the weekly 10 points provide and they want to hang onto all 10 of those points. For a kid who shows up without an SSR book (kids forget sometimes – it happens), she can use the class as a study hall to work on materials for other subjects, she can take a pass to the library to choose a new book, or she becomes my employee, usually helping me with filing or changing out bulletin board displays. In any of those cases, she still doesn’t get the weekly reading points.

Each nine-week quarter, students need to book talk with me as a 100-point assignment, above and beyond those weekly reading assignments of 10 points. Click here for a free copy of the materials I use with my kids to explain the ins & outs of the program and keep track of their book-talked pages.

I know there’s a lot to think through as you get ready to launch the year, but I hope you’ll consider this once-a-week approach. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to the daily routine, no?

Hope you’re all set for a great school year! Holler when you need me.
🙂 Laura

22 thoughts on “Making SSR Work for Them – And Us

  1. Elizabeth Simpson says:

    I have done SSR for years and I love it. I do it at the beginning of class and it does seem to settle class nicely. I have always done reading response journals afterwards, though I appreciate your school wanting it to be a just for the pleasure of reading thing. My journals have always been pretty low pressure, as long as you did them, you got the credit.

    Ten minutes is not enough. Fifteen minutes is nice. Twenty minutes was pushing it because my administration thought it was wasted time. (Don’t get me started.) As a reader, fifteen minutes seems like a good number because it’s enough to get a good taste of a book, a nice breather in a busy day.

    I always had books in my room for those who forgot theirs. I found this to be a pain, though, because they would always forget and then be reading a different book every day. So I took to making them do MLA citations for every new book as punishment. Sucks, I know. But they got to know the MLA format, so there’s that. You could also direct them to the literature book. Nobody gets a day off!

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. I agree, 10 minutes just isn’t enough time. I’m also chuckling at the idea of admin. thinking that reading time is wasted time. Certainly, 20 minutes every single day is a lot of class time and would carve WAY too much out of the regular curriculum, but a kid who reads 20 minutes a day on his own (maybe after school while sitting under a big leafy tree – a teacher can dream, right?) is a kid set up for success. Read on!

  3. Nancy Holden-Nims says:

    Laura – How exactly does a student convince you they have read the book? If it is a title you haven’t read and aren’t familiar with how do you devise questions to elicit detailed responses from the students?

  4. Great question, Nancy. For these book talks, I personally have read only about 20 percent of the titles my students bring in to discuss. Luckily, I’m just asking the questions and the kids are the ones doing most of the talking. 🙂 The book talk is just a conversation between the student and myself, not a quiz. I’ll ask questions about the plot. Sometimes, I’ll stop and read a bit from the kid’s book and then he/she needs to be able to tell me what happens next in the story, as I scan to check as he/she is talking. Most book talks last about three minutes and you’ll pretty quickly develop a good sense of which students have read and which have not.

    Most students want to tell me all about their books and it’s clear that they’ve read the book thoroughly. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who can’t confidently answer my questions. In those cases, I tell the student that I’m not sure he/she has a good enough handle on the material and then encourage the student to review the material and try again on another day. I write “unconvinced” on the book log, allowing the student to make another attempt when he/she feels ready. I also allow my struggling readers to have a Post-It note or index card of character names and events to refer to as we talk, but the kid still needs to be able to pick-up the action and describe the scene/what’s going to happen next in a random section I read aloud to him/her.

    Hope this helps make things clear. I really like this approach to grading SSR assignments because it’ll save you a ton of time at the end of each term AND help you have some rare one-on-one time with each student. Hope you like it, too!
    🙂 Laura

  5. Laura,

    Thanks for a great read! I am definitely thinking about making the switch from 10-15 minutes to once a week. A question I do have for you though centers around how long your classes are. I teach 83 minute blocks. Would you still approach SSR the same way with a block schedule? Thoughts?

    Thanks! You are awesome.

  6. Hey Michelle,
    Glad you’re considering the weekly read as an option. I’m thinking an 80-minute session (while lovely for bibliophiles like you and me) wouldn’t work for nearly all of my students. Instead, I’d aim for a 40-to-45 minute session and then pair that with another activity or two to fill a class session. I usually think of block scheduling in 20-to-25 minute chunks of activity, so I’d just use the weekly SSR session to fill two chunks in one class meeting and then fill the remaining two chunks with other curriculum. My two cents, anyway.

    Happy planning!
    🙂 Laura

  7. Laura,

    I like this as applied to writing. Instead of the 10 – 15 minute daily free write for the year, we should build up to the extended free write over time. I’m gonna’ do it.
    Great column this week.

  8. Thanks, Debra! So glad this was a drop of inspiration for your writing tasks. 🙂

  9. As far as book talks, let’s say a student read a book that was 200 pages.and presented it for a book talk. She wants the full credit for an “A”. Does she then have to come back and discuss another 25 pages on a new book by the end of the marking period in order to hit the 250 mark?

  10. Yes, John, you have it exactly right. That’s why I leave that #12 item on the handout, permission to “abandon” a book. It’s a bit of a loophole, but it’s intentionally there to allow kids who are very concerned about their grades to top off their quarter SSR score.

    Hope this helps!
    🙂 Laura

  11. Hi, Laura!

    I was wondering when you do 20Time for 45 minutes per week in the Spring, do you also continue to give 45 minutes of SSR time? I’m wanting to pitch both of these ideas to my team and administration, but I’m wondering if you do them both together, how do you find time to fit everything from the curriculum into the remaining time?

  12. Hi Kara,
    Great question! In a perfect world, I’d be able to fit in both SSR and 20Time in the spring semester, but that just hasn’t ever happened. Instead, I usually scrap SSR and assign that reading as take-home work to squeeze in enough in-class time for our 20Time work sessions. The good news is that 20Time work sessions tend to run 10-to-12 weeks (but feel free to run a shorter session, too), so there are still quite a few SSR sessions in our spring term.

    I’m teaching on an A/B block schedule for the first time this year, so I’m toying with the idea of making our last class each week a combo SSR/20Time session, with a half-hour of SSR and 60 minutes of 20Time hands-on work. Not sure about that yet, as I plan to brainstorm my spring semester path over this upcoming winter break. We’ll see.

    If I were proposing this to my admin., I’d maybe focus on one of the programs for each grade level. Maybe SSR for 9th and 10th and 20Time for 11th and 12th? Just an idea…

    Hope this is helpful info. So glad you’re interested in taking the plunge! 🙂

  13. How many books talks can you get to in one SSR period? I like the idea, but am concerned that I won’t have enough time to get through all students due to my large class sizes.

  14. Great question, Debra! In a 45-minute SSR reading session, I can quietly Book Talk with 8-to-10 students. After a few cycles of getting crushed by procrastinators who waited until the final deadline day to visit me for a Book Talk, I now stagger my due dates, chopping the class up into groups of 10-to-12 kids (alpha. order by last name) and assigning deadline dates for those three groups on the last three Fridays of the grading period. This has worked SO much better. Thanks!

  15. I thought you had a link that students could go to to find a book that would be a fit for them, but I cannot find it. If you do have a link (or two) can you please share it?

  16. tina watson says:

    I agree that 10 minutes isn’t long enough, so I will try a 45 minute SSR time on Fridays this year! I also do book talks, one per quarter. (6th grade) The only thing that was a little complicated was keeping track of what everyone was reading and whether their book talks were telling me about a book that they read recently or one that they’ve read in previous years.

  17. So glad you’re going to give this a try, Tina! For the most part, students book-talk books that I’ve seen them reading in class on Fridays, though I suppose they could sneak something past me and report on a book they read in the previous year. In the high school, I file their book talk tally sheets in their writing portfolios as an accountability check for their future teachers. I’m not sure if the upper-level teachers check those sheets, but they are there if they want them. 🙂

  18. Hi Laura! I was just wondering, what grade category do you put SSR in (both the full 100 pts. and the weekly 10 pts.) and why? Thanks! 🙂

  19. kmsteelenc says:

    I love this idea, especially with the book talk idea! I appreciate the implicit grading while the conversation is happening, since that also cuts down on the amount of time I have to spend grading. With reluctant or struggling readers, do you have any suggestions for how to introduce it to them and then scale it so it’s more approachable? Or would you suggest just setting the bar at 45 minutes from the beginning?

  20. Hi kmsteelenc,
    So glad you’re digging into the program to find a way to make this work for all of your students. Love it! For students with reading or memory issues that require an IEP, I meet with them and their case worker individually to set a reasonable page-count goal. Those students are included in my mainstream classes so their session is always the same 45 minutes as the rest of the class, but I have had some cases where I ask a student to run an errand for me or allow him/her to get a drink of water as needed to give that kid a brain break. Also, as I mentioned in another comment, I’ve had success with allowing students to listen to an audiobook version of their novel while they also read a physical copy of the same book. The stickiness of actors’ voices often goes a long way in aiding with retention. Maybe your librarian can help you track down some of those resources, too? Hope this is helpful as you launch your new program! 🙂

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