Students need time to read books of their choice.
They need time to read in class, and it needs to be consistent.
I’m talking about giving students time to read in class where they are independently reading books or stories that they choose, whether you call it FVR (Free Voluntary Reading), SSR (Silent Sustained Reading), GSSR (Guided Self-Selected Reading), or any of the numerous other acronyms for it.
In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that my students have been more enthusiastic about their free reading time in class. I have more students asking to take books home, more students coming in to class and getting their books out to read while they wait before class starts, and more students who tell me they enjoy the reading time.
I think one of the main reasons is because I’ve been giving my students time to read almost every single day of class.
When I first started giving my students free reading time during class, I did it a little more sporadically—only about two or three days per week. I thought this seemed best, especially for students who weren’t used to doing much independent reading. I thought it was a good way to ease them into reading, to start off slowly. I was worried they might get bored or sick of reading if I “made” them read too much.
But now that I’ve started making it a point to give my students free, independent reading time every day, I’ve realized how much more effective it is than doing it sporadically. In fact, I think that consistency is part of what makes free reading time what it is. It is essential to the success of a reading program.
Some other teachers have discovered the same thing—in this article on the Nerdy Book Club blog, middle school teacher Tara McCabe wrote about her students’ free reading time. She and her colleagues realized that their 7th graders were not enjoying their reading time. The students were only occasionally given time to read books of their choice, and many of them were using the time to take bathroom breaks, talk with friends, and “fake read.” In response, the teachers decided to increase the amount of time they gave students to read. The plan seems illogical—if students aren’t enjoying something, why give them more of it?
But it worked. The teachers found that giving students more time to read helped them to enjoy it more.
There are probably a few different reasons why it’s important to give students consistent reading time. One reason, I think, has to do with the nature of reading itself. When reading longer texts—especially novels—it is hard to really “get into” the story when you only have a few minutes here and there to read. I know this is true in my own reading. When I’m in the middle of a book and I pick it up to start reading again, it takes a few minutes for me to re-orient myself—What just happened in the story? What are the characters’ names again? It takes a few minutes before I can get back into the story and get immersed in that “world.” If it has been several days since I last read the book, it takes even longer. If we only give students a few minutes at a time to read, we’re never giving them a chance to get lost in the story. And getting lost in the story is what makes reading fun and enjoyable.
I’ve been reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow, where he talks about how to achieve what he calls the “optimal experience” of flow, when we are so focused on a task that we lose all sense of time and are fully concentrated on the present moment. Achieving flow helps people to develop new skills, build self-confidence, and to experience enjoyment in their work. Csikszentmihalyi even says that the ability to get into flow is one of the keys to happiness for human beings.
As a teacher, I want to try to create the conditions for my students to get into flow. I think it is the ideal state for students in a classroom: for students to be so focused on learning that they forget about everything else for a time and are fully concentrated on the present moment. We know that that doesn’t happen every day in class, but I think it’s a good goal to aim for.
As Csikszentmihalyi mentions in his book, reading is an activity that commonly puts people in a flow state. But in order to achieve a flow state, we need time. It’s hard to get fully concentrated on a task if you are only given a few minutes here and there to do it and if you keep getting interrupted.
Another reason why consistency is so important in free reading time is to help students form a reading habit. That is our main goal in giving students free reading time—we want them to eventually develop the habit of reading for pleasure on their own. But it takes time; it’s hard for people to build a habit if they only do the activity occasionally. In Krashen and Cho’s article “What Does It Take to Develop a Long-Term Pleasure Reading Habit?”, they reviewed several case studies and determined that one of the crucial factors in establishing a reading habit is having “a time and place to read regularly.”
Having consistent reading time also sends the message to students that independent reading time is important—that it’s integral to their development in learning the language. It shows students that free reading time is not just an activity that we throw in at the end of class if there’s an extra five minutes but that it is an important part of the curriculum.
One caveat: I don’t mean to say that all language teachers should immediately start giving their students long periods of time to read every day. Teachers need to keep in mind the age and abilities of their students—younger and lower-level learners probably won’t be able to focus on reading for a long period of time. Personally, I only give free reading time to students at the low-intermediate level and above (though I do think it’s possible with high-beginning-level students, if the teacher is careful to provide students with reading material that is easy enough for them). When first starting a free reading program, it can be a good idea to start off a little slowly.
But as soon as students are ready for it, I think it’s best to make free reading time as consistent as possible. I give my low-intermediate-level students at least 10 minutes of free reading time every class period. With high-intermediate-level students, I give them 15 minutes. The exact amount of time you give your students will depend on many factors—not only the age and level of the students but also the length of the class periods, how often the class meets, and the students’ attitudes toward reading. But my general rule is: the more consistent, the better.