Monday, 30 July 2012

Is Silence Golden?

A teacher I worked with last year started every lesson with ten minutes of silent reading. This was a fairly self-explanatory process: the students brought in a book from home or the school library and read it for the allotted time. But was this a good use of their time?

My strong suspicion is that this opening activity was designed purely for the teacher’s benefit. The silent reading period ensured the class settled quickly after break or lunch, meant that latecomers didn’t miss anything vital and allowed her time to set up the lesson, do a register and finish her coffee. Occasionally she would make a token effort to check that the pupils had an ability-appropriate novel in their sweaty little mitts, but largely they were left to their own devices.

Of course, not every child in her class had a voracious appetite for literature. Many kids would spend ten minutes either staring through their paperback or around the room. Others failed miserably to ever bring a book with them. Instead they would steal from the teachers’ appalling collection of grubby charity-shop cast-offs, reading tattered copies of outdated kid-lit from the mid-seventies before tossing it carelessly back from whence it came. 

As a prospective teacher of English, i’m very aware of the benefits of a varied diet: as a child I’d polished off CS Lewis by the age of twelve and had moved onto sneakily stealing copies of my dad’s Steven King novels, reading my mother’s copies of Bella in the bath and giggling at the readers’ letters in the soggy porn mags I hunted for in local hedges. Without these formative literary experiences, where would I be now?

But why do we read? Aside from the obvious pleasure we take from a good story or a neat turn of phrase, what is its purpose? The late Bill Hicks was once posed a similar question by a waitress and responded:  "Wow, I've never been asked that... You stumped me. Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? I guess I read for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress!”

This was, of course, a typically caustic joke. But humour only works when it contains a kernel of truth – and Hicks was a famously honest and perceptive comic. He knew, like you and I, that reading benefits us by improving our vocabularies, aids our understanding of the world and our place within it, enhances our spoken language skills, helps us to empathise or criticise, enables us to construct arguments and forces us to develop our imaginations.

In principle, then, silent reading ought to be hugely beneficial – but only if it is active reading. How do you ensure it is a valuable experience? Ask the kids to write book reviews? Ensure you have a good selection of books to lend them? Spot quizzes? Replace silent reading with some form of guided reading tasks? Or just spend ten minutes teaching them something instead?

Let me know below or on Twitter!


  1. I think what you do with that ten minutes is a value judgement you as the teacher have to make.

    One task that I might suggest an English teacher undertake. I haven't thought it through that much but I hope it provides some sort of food for thought.
    I hated reading when I was in Key Stage 3. In particular Non-Fiction. To this day, I still struggle to read non-fiction; it has to be an AMAZING story to get me turning the pages, and of course my definition of "amazing" will very much differ from somebody else/another kid's. I have put that down, in part, to the fact that I had a very active imagination from early on & quite a distinctive one at that - thus I could not stand fiction which didn't fit in with my own imagination's concept of what was possible and believable. I wonder if many other non-readers are exactly the same, yet English teachers continue to shove standard book-lists of the 'must reads.'
    I imagine every child has their own unique 'literary profile' if you will. They just need to find what type of writing gets them going best. Travel writing? Biographies (I love a good biography), fiction of a specific kind? I'm not sure. Perhaps you could try with a class early on listing the different types, going off and reading some and then not writing a book review, but a review of the different genres, which ones they like, which they do not and proceeding from there. The one worry I would have with such a task is you wouldn't want a child to therefore build up a very negative view of a genre, a bit like my "I don't do fiction" which dogmatically persists to this day and could prove something of a hindrance to class tasks.

    I do think a 'class blog' type of thing could be brought into play here too. Students could publish a guide to what sort of reading members of the public/internet might like to try. "If you are like this, or interested in that - you might find this sort of writing good. A good book is..." and proceed with a traditional mini book review.

    Just my two-penneth! Another thought provoking piece. Quite a good blog you've got going here,


  2. Lovely stuff, Warren!

    I think sometimes it's easy to forget that, just because i've forever got my nose in a book, not everyone enjoys reading.

    I love the idea of linking up other people's tastes in some kind of meta-critique produced by the class themselves. And the idea of exploring genre before deciding on what we might want to read.

    Food for thought!