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What Should Teachers Be Doing During Student “Free Voluntary Reading” Time?


Free Voluntary Reading (also known as SSR, Extensive Reading, and a number of other terms) is a key element in the English curriculum at our school — and in many others. It’s basically the practice of having students read a book of their choice during a period of time in class, and encourage that they do the same at home (you an learn more about it at The Best Resources Documenting The Effectiveness of Free Voluntary Reading).

In class, especially during two-period double block mainstream and ESL classes, we generally have students read for the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs, our extraordinary instructional strategies consultant about whom I have often written, is always pushing us to be active and walking around during this time, talking with students about what they are reading, having them read passages to us, asking them questions, etc.

We all know that what he’s suggesting is the right thing to do. To be honest, though, for many of us, it’s easy to, instead, use a a portion of that time to get ready for the lesson, answer a couple of school emails, clean-up papers from the previous class, or just take a breather for a minute or two. The spirit is willing, but the body sometimes doesn’t follow.

However, a new study might give all of us a little bit of a push to take Kelly’s words more seriously.

In an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers found that teachers providing individual feedback to students during this kind of reading time was, by far, one of the most effective ways to help improve students’ reading ability. It primarily looked at students using their silent reading time to read class text (thought not exclusively), but it seems close enough to the basic ideas of Free Voluntary Reading that we should carefully consider what they found.

You can watch a video about the study, too, at Best Practices Weekly.

What do you do during the time your students Free Voluntary Reading time, if that’s a practice you use?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I teach an English elective, Reading for Pleasure, which is essentially SSR with LOTS of writing…While my students are reading, I read also. I consult with kids about books, give recommendations, but I provide the model for reading. I laugh out loud, I occasionally cry, I gasp…I am sometimes the first adult my students have every seen read for pleasure.

    All that feedback comes in the form of Reading Logs…kids write every day, and once a week I collect all the Logs, and write extensively on each students’ Log…often, at the beginning of the semester, I write more than kids do! But by the end of the semester, we’re having lively conversations on paper.

    My students DO have feedback and support and encouragement; I’ve just arranged my work so that happens when I’m at home, grading and reading their work. Thanks for the information!

  2. Love CAFE by The 2 Sisters for conferencing strategies used during wide reading time.

  3. I think teachers should be reading the same kinds of books the students are during silent reading. We need to be seen as readers, too. This would also allow us to talk more intelligently with the kids about the books they are reading. I used to do this with my high school remedial English classes and I read when then did to show how important it was. They usually read the same book all semester and made very little progress at actually finishing it. However, I read pretty voraciously so I had a new book every few days. They noticed that I read more than one book a week and asked me if I read in all of my classes. Nope, I replied, just yours. Well, when else do you read? My answer was I read at lunch, I read after school, I read while I am waiting in line, I read while I eat dinner and I read before I go to bed. They were amazed. BUT, this conversation would have never taken place if I hadn’t modeled reading for them during their silent reading time.

    Just my 2 cents worth!

    Laurie Fowler

  4. Larry,

    I know you know that teacher interaction with students is what works, regardless of the exercise going on in the class. If it is reading by the students, then this approach makes sense. If it is group work, then this approach makes sense. If it is a writing exercise, this approach makes sense.

    It is about the teacher/student interaction. The reasons why it works may vary. It could be that we are getting our kids to verbalize their thoughts. It could be that the kids realize they are being monitored. I might be that for the first time the student recognizes that someone cares enough about them to ask what they think.

    In my mind, it doesn’t really matter the reason it works, I just know that everything I do works better during the time I am interacting with my students.

  5. Larry,

    I have to disagree with your consultant (in general) and agree heartily with Claudia. A teacher showing they are interested in what they are reading and modeling this “tacit” form of knowledge – is indeed the most beneficial thing a teacher can do. I’ll have to dig up the references I have for this.

    For the life of me, if you want to “make a reader”, the last thing you want is a teacher modeling the complete opposite behavior of the one you wish to promote. I think a teacher can consult/conference with Ss either outside the class or at another time.

    I’ve done a 180 in terms of the notion of teachers always having to “be busy” – also, keeping the students so busy that there is no time to relax and savor. Our school systems promote a teacher busy assessing, making checklists, consulting with students. Of course this is beneficial but it becomes a must and thus, ruins the school experience. IMHO.


  6. I am currently taking a foundational reading class at the University of South Alabama, and the textbook also supported this practice as increasing reading comprehension. Thanks for the links. I also find myself finding useful things to do during quiet-reading time. This is an idea I had: Maybe take five minutes and have several students give a quick book-talk with a classmate, you, or the whole-class. This could be done each day on some sort of rotation system. This would create conversational feedback. Creating more book-conversation is definitely something good.

  7. Hi, Kim. I have my students sign up on a rotating basis to give ‘book shares.’ They produce a 2-slide PPoint with visuals, links, and a short blurb or quote from the book. It even works for the very shy, since the class is paying attention to the screen…we also talk to each other once a week or so. Once kids find books they really love (and they DO), they don’t want to do much else. BUT a huge goal I have for them is to learn that readers are talkers! Once we read something we enjoy, it’s hard to keep quiet…I try to balance, with the lion’s share of our time devoted to reading….It works for us.

  8. You may wish to look at an overview of the Clausen-Grace and Kelley R5 method. It is a very useful variation of SSR. The attached also has handouts to facilitating using the process. Be sure to read the last page for the overview.

  9. The Department of Justice, through the civil rights division, found 90% of all ESL programs used Silent Sustained Reading. They hold that it is wrong to expect an English language learner to read silently. Several states received letters mandating a change in reading instruction.

    We are being told to use literacy circles with ESL, special ed and other struggling readers. What does anyone know?

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