'Drop Everything And Read' (DEAR, for short), Daily Independent Reading Time (or DIRT) and Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) are actually all describing much the same thing: school programmes which offer students, teachers, administrators, cleaning staff and visiting parents - in other words, literally everybody on the school premises - the chance to stop what they are doing and read. In some schools, this happens daily for anywhere between ten and forty minutes (depending, perhaps, on the ages of the students reading and their attention spans), while in others it might only be once or twice a week.
Whatever the arrangements, DEAR programmes have been shown to work. At first, education boards and school governing bodies anticipated that teachers would object because time spent on silent reading inevitably meant less time available for science or sport, German or geography. But the evidence provided by a few pioneer programmes in the United States that DEAR greatly improved literacy and language acquisition was so overwhelming it seemed irresistible. Here is what the (US) National Center for Education Statistics had to say in its 1997 report:
"...in 1994, 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students who read for fun at least once a week had higher reading proficiency scores than students who reported never or hardly ever (doing so)."
Later, in the same and subsequent reports, similar claims were made for writing ability, as they have by numerous other authors (Sheldrick Ross, et. al., 2006)
But what do students actually read? This is the crux of the matter for Bamford and Day (1998), who take second language acquisition as their field of enquiry, and for Krashen (2006) who applies the same argument both to first and second language reading. In short, they can read whatever they want, provided it does not feature in texts prescribed by their schools.
Some teachers urge students not to choose an EFL text that is too challenging. The 'five-finger test' is one well-documented means of ascertaining that a book is not too advanced for a potential reader. The student opens the book at any page and holds up five fingers, lowering one every time she encounters an unfamiliar word. If she has not reached the end of a page with at least one finger still erect, then the book is probably too hard for her.
DEAR programmes share the following qualities: they encourage as many as half the students who participate to read more outside school; they engender confidence in the students in their own reading abilities; they offer opportunities for learners to share their reading experience with communities of students similarly engaged; and they also impact positively on writing skills.
There are many ways in which DEAR programmes can be organised. Some teachers pair students so that they can read together and help each out when they are unsure of meaning. This might be with kids of the same age or a pairing of an older reading mentor with a younger student. Others ask students to write a journal individually or in small groups about their experience of reading, although some teachers do not believe in encumbering reading for pleasure with other teacher-set tasks. As you can imagine, there are many permutations.
Nevertheless, all studies have demonstrated that teachers who read and let their students see that they enjoy reading are excellent role models. By chatting every now and then about their own leisure reading and asking the odd question about their pupils' books or comics or magazines, they offer incomparable encouragement to their students to read outside their textbooks.
For those who are turned off by the printed page, www.readlistenlearn.net offers free access to hundreds of articles on a very wide variety of subjects and adapted short stories by the world's greatest authors at five language levels for (young) adult learners. As they include audio recordings and also definitions of difficult words in the margins next to where they occur in the texts, they are also very user-friendly.
Bamford, J. & Day, R. (1998): Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom (CUP)
Krashen, S. (2006, 2nd ed.): The Power of Reading: Insights into the Research (Libraries Unlimited)
National Center for Education Statistics (1997): Digest of Education Statistics, 1997
Sheldrick Ross, C., McKennie, L. & Rothbauer, P. (2006): Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading (Libraries Unlimited)
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