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'Modeled Sustained Silent Reading' Is Spreading Like Wildfire Internationally

Picture this, please: 1,000 primary school students in a school – plus their teachers, plus the school principal, plus some parents of the students all silently reading for 15 to 30 minutes each and every school day. The school is quiet for those 15 to 30 minutes. The teacher is sitting at her/his desk reading a book of her/his choosing. A paper book; not a digital book. And each of the 40 or students in the class is sitting at her/his desk, silently reading a paper book – not a digital book – of her/his choosing.

Where do you think the school that is doing this silent, paper book reading, is located? San Francisco? New York? Peoria?  Hard to picture, frankly ... even in Peoria! No, the school described above is in Taiwan ... and is participating in the “Reading of Tomorrow” program.

For 15 years, the Taiwan government had been trying to get its elementary schools to adopt a reading program to promote students to read a lot – without much success. But, along came Dr. Chan Tak-Wai —  Professor from National Central University, highly respected educational technology researcher — and he cracked the code! Dr. Chan introduced the MSSR pedagogy, or “Modeled Sustained Silent Reading” into Taiwan elementary school classrooms in 2012, and it is spreading like wildfire ... in Taiwan and now in Singapore and Hong Kong, too. Of the 2,700 elementary schools in Taiwan, 10 percent are already using MSSR daily!

Reading of Tomorrow. Why “of”? Dr. Chan was influenced by the American educational philosopher John Dewey and his book, published in 1915, called: “Schools of Tomorrow”.  (Hmm ... what would Dr. Dewey think about Schools of Today, 2015? But that’s another blog....)

Now, SSR is an instructional strategy that has been used in U.S. schools for almost 40 years . It has its proponents, and it has its detractors – and the empirical evidence as to its effectiveness is equivocal. In 2015 it is not mainstream (nor its cousins, e.g., Drop Everything and Read).

According to Dr. Chan, what made MSSR a success in Taiwan was the M – Modeled. He explained that when the children see their teacher – and their school principal, and their parents – at the front of the room, at their desks, silently reading, enjoying a paper-based book of her/his own choosing, then they feel they can and should do the same! Some teachers told Dr. Chan that many students have never seen their teachers pick up a book and read. He said that the best way to persuade students to read is to model reading in front of the students. (Aside: Tantalizingly, the recent discovery of mirror neurons in neuroscience may suggest that imitation learning may be a form of fundamental and powerful learning.)

Parents, in Taiwan, come into class now and read along with the children. And, at home, parents are adopting MSSR with their children.

Dr. Chan started the MSSR project because, he explained, the school culture in Taiwan was not giving children choice, was not valuing what they were interested in. The only thing that counts, in the Taiwan school system – and indeed, in much of Asia’s school culture – is the grade on the test. But, with MSSR, children pick a book – a paper-based book – about something they are interested in. That’s a sea change in the school culture of Taiwan.

Now for the really interesting bit: The “scientific studies” evaluating SSR and DEAR in the United States are equivocal at best: Do those strategies lead to increased reading fluency? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Dr. Chan told us that in his experience with MSSR, teachers report that the students do enjoy reading and do develop a reading habit and that some students do seem to be more engaged in classes after the reading period. But, at this point in time, Taiwan doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with "data."

Interestingly, the United States spent $6 billion on its Reading First program – and the data has indicated that while it helped children develop decoding skills, it failed to help children develop comprehension skills. Oops.

  • Commonsense: Children will improve their reading fluency by doing lots of reading!
  • Data: Virtually all the programs for having children engage in lots of reading don’t seem to result in increased reading fluency.

Hmmm. Commonsense. Data. Commonsense. Data.

At some point MSSR will be rigorously evaluated; at some point data will be collected and MSSR will come under the objective scrutiny of statistical analysis. As they say: Stay Tuned!

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