How to Increase Reading Comprehension With a Daily Dose of D.E.A.R.

Oct 14, 2019

DEAR. OTTER. DIRT. SQUIRT. ZYLAR? It goes by many clever (and slightly ridiculous) names, but all of those acronyms refer to the act of reading recreationally at school.

Many of the benefits of silent reading and recurring sustained silent reading (SSR) have gone under appreciated in recent years. A 2000 report by the National Reading Panel downplayed the effectiveness of SSR despite evidence to the contrary. This report was foundational in crafting the Reading First program and has since skewed the importance of oral reading in the US.

While oral reading is important for developing readers to practice, a balanced diet of the two methods can create stronger readers. SSR also offers a multitude of advantages when it comes to student motivation, preparation for the workforce and, most importantly, comprehension.

But how can you make sure that you’re maximizing the benefits of silent reading and that it continues to aid your students as they grow? We’ll look at a few strategies to supporting silent reading as well as one weird trick that might get your students reading more than ever. (Psst...intrinsic motivation theorists hate it!)

Mechanical Advantage

Reading should not be reduced to a self-contained activity. Scaffolding all steps of the process is important for ensuring positive outcomes.

Silent reading is unconstrained by the mechanics of speech production and can be faster than oral reading by as much as 30 percent, according to a 2014 study published in Literacy Research and Instruction. Although oral reading is important for pronunciation, it can also be viewed as a “word calling” exercise that doesn’t give students as much of an opportunity to test their word attack skills as silent reading does. This is key in allowing students to continually test their ability to deduce the meaning of words based on context. Silent reading also directs students’ focus on comprehension because they aren’t inhibited by their ability to pronounce words and focus instead on reading for understanding.

Another advantage that is often overlooked is the silent part—some students expressed that SSR was the only quiet time they experienced in the entire school day. This peaceful moment of learning can be a welcome respite for teachers and students alike.

Engage and Connect

Reading should not be reduced to a self-contained activity. Scaffolding all steps of the process is important for ensuring positive outcomes. While giving students a choice in what they read can help boost motivation, teachers can further support students by making sure that they are selecting books at the appropriate reading levels.

Teachers can also challenge readers who are more proficient, but only read the same types of books, to try different genres. Take a few minutes during each silent reading period to ask students what they are enjoying about the books they are reading, or ask them to read a few paragraphs to assess the progress they are making. These connections can create a foundation of accountability that fosters a love of reading.

Motivation for reading begins to decline in the fourth grade, and dips to its lowest point in high school.

Fighting the Fourth Grade Slump

A 1999 study in the journal Scientific Studies of Reading found that for many students, motivation for reading begins to decline in the fourth grade, and dips to its lowest point in high school. Why this sudden drop—and what can educators do to stop it?

According to another study, fourth grade is often the point at which students are expected to know how to read, and it also marks a shift from learning to read to reading to learn. The language at this level is more abstract, literary and technical. Suddenly the intrinsic joys of selecting one’s own reading material are fewer and far between.

One way to boost motivation, and even comprehension, is to provide resources that offer supporting context to the texts and tasks. For example, if the reading assignment is about animal ecology, then bringing in a hermit crab or turtle can help them think about freshwater animals and how they differ from those who live in saltwater.

Allowing students to socialize and collaborate can also help build connections between reading and the real world. Some readings lend themselves to student-led discussions or debates, and supporting their agency in leading these conversations can help build their confidence and aid them in thinking critically about their readings.

A Pizza is Worth a Thousand (or so) Words

Then there are some unorthodox ways to encourage your students to read. Since 1984, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program has been offering children free personal pan pizzas for reaching reading goals set by their teachers. And before the naysayers dismiss this mix of books, dough and, let’s face it, bribery, they may want to check out a 1999 study published in The Psychological Record.

Tool for Starting Your Silent Reading Program

In it, 171 undergraduate students were asked about their feelings towards reading as well as the extrinsic motivators of pizza and money. Three out of four students who participated in the program in elementary school reported that it increased the amount they read, and half even said that BOOK IT! helped them to learn how to read.

Based on their findings, the authors suggested that there is “no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading,” and that “extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop.”

Experts emphasize that all successful silent reading programs should adapt and be designed to serve the needs of students. No program should drop books into a classroom and tell students to just “be quiet and read.” Instead, scaffolding and support can help to create proper challenge, foster motivation, and increase comprehension.


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