“I failed retirement,” chuckles Steve Gardiner during a recent conversation. After teaching English and journalism for 38 years in Wyoming and Montana and one year at the American School in Lima, Peru, and racking up numerous honors (2008 Montana Teacher of the Year) and certifications (National Board Certification and a Doctorate in Education) along the way, Gardiner and his wife decided to retire to Minnesota in 2016 to be closer to their newborn grandson. Shortly after the move, Steve applied for a local reporter position on a lark, a decision that highlights his spirit of curiosity.
In SSR, the question, “What would a good adult reader do?” is helpful.
“I am now employed again full-time, and I'm absolutely loving it,” he said. “I'm covering outdoor topics, especially anything to do with the Mississippi River, which is absolutely fascinating me. I can't believe how lucky it is that I got this job after moving to a new area because I'm meeting all sorts of interesting, amazing people and learning a lot about this area.”
In addition to his budding knowledge as an outdoor reporter, Gardiner is an established expert on Sustained Silent Reading (SSR); he practiced SSR with his students from the very beginning of his career and published Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading in 2005.
In this discussion of the benefits of Sustained Silent Reading, it’s apparent that encouraging his students’ love of reading was an effort to extend his curious nature to them—an effort that, after almost four decades in the classroom, clearly paid off.
EdSurge: What is Sustained Silent Reading, and how is it different from regular silent reading?
Steve Gardiner: SSR is something that happens every day for ten or fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes for me seemed to be the sweet spot. It's sustained in that it's not whenever you decide you can take those ten or fifteen minutes from your class time. It happens every day throughout the whole year.
One thing that teachers sometimes say is, "I don’t want to break up my lesson plans. What if I just take those ten minutes from Monday through Friday, and then we just read for fifty minutes on Friday instead?" That doesn't work. Five times ten does not equal fifty in SSR. It's just like when I coached cross country for a while, and it would be the same thing. It would be like saying, "Instead of running two miles each day, we'll just run ten miles on Friday." If they do that, they're going to be injured, and they're not going to have any fun!
More about Sustained Silent Reading
In SSR, the question, “What would a good adult reader do?” is helpful. Having students choose their own books is a huge part of SSR. They have the ability to say, "I don't like this book. I'm going to stop." Adult readers do that all the time, so there was no penalty for my students putting a book down.
Then, of course, I think a huge part of a program like this is allowing students to talk about the books they selected. I used book talks with students, and they were allowed to speak about their own book and comment on how much they liked it or disliked it and what they thought about the characters.
In your teaching practice, how did you first become aware of the importance of SSR? How did you identify this as something to be nurtured?
My first year of teaching, I was given five sections of a class called Basic Communications. They were the students who had failed every other English class. This was their only chance of getting English credit and eventually, of course, graduating. They were not students who were interested in English. They were not students who wanted to read and write. We had little packets. There were workbooks and things, and it was not a very stimulating curriculum for the class. I thought, "There's got to be something better here." One of the other teachers in the building said, "'Have you ever heard of sustained silent reading?" I’d never heard of it. She explained to me what it was, and I thought, "At this point, I'll try anything."
The transformation was instant. These were kids who didn't want to read, didn't want to be in my class and didn't want to be in school, but I gave them the choice to read what they wanted to read. Within two weeks, they were complaining when I would ask them to put down the books. I said, "Let's work a deal here. We'll do the packets and the information we're required to do by the curriculum for this course, and if we move through it faster, then you'll have more reading time." That was it. They were hooked on it, and I became hooked on it, too. Within two months of starting my teaching career in the fall of 1977, I was committed to SSR and I used in every class I taught until 2016.
Within two weeks, they were complaining when I would ask them to put down the books.
Having practiced SSR for so many years, can you speak to some of the long-term benefits that you saw for your students?
First, I always saw growth within the school year or the semester. Students—even the slowest readers and the least interested—would read multiple books during the course of a year, and they would feel very proud of it.
Then my students would come back from college and say things like, "Wow, I got into this engineering program and I never imagined how much I was going to have to read for it. Thank you so much for teaching me, giving me that SSR that helped me learn that I was a reader, that I could read a full book from start to finish, and that I could stick with reading projects." They would say things like, "It's been so valuable for me now." Dozens and dozens of students came back and thanked me for SSR.
Are there any limitations or drawbacks of SSR for certain groups of learners, for instance, English language learners?
Absolutely not. Stephen Krashen’s work has been particularly effective at illustrating how SSR is truly one of the best ways of teaching a second language.
And take my experience living in Peru. I moved to Peru with my one year of high school Spanish that had been a dozen years before. I was absolutely lost. I wanted to learn Spanish. I wanted to talk to people. I thought, "How do I learn the words people are using?" So I bought a newspaper called "El Comercio." At first, it took me an hour to read one story. I had to look up all the words, but I just kept doing it. Pretty soon, I could read the front page in an hour. Eventually, I could read the whole newspaper in an hour. All of a sudden, then, I was able to talk with taxi drivers and talk with people that I met in stores. SSR works incredibly well with language learners. There are individual students that have reading disabilities that may require some help, but even at that, they still respond well to SSR because it's at their own pace and they can use texts that engage their interests. I’ve never found a group or type of student it didn't work with.
It can add so much enjoyment and appreciation to a person's life.
Why was it your goal to encourage students to become good adult readers?
First, there are probably very few professions now where you are going to be able to make a living if you are not capable of reading and understanding instructions or rules about your business. Then I think you can expand on that a little bit. To be a good citizen of a nation, you should be aware of what's going on. You need to be able to read and understand political views. Finally, I think the focus of my SSR was reading for enjoyment. I just feel like it can add so much enjoyment and appreciation to a person's life.
When asked what guided his practice of SSR over such a long career, Gardiner’s answer was short and to the point: “It only takes one book to change a kid's life.”