In Class Silent Reading: Not Just for Elementary Students

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There is a photograph I keep on my desk of my oldest son when he was in kindergarten. We were attending an event at his school called “Bingo for Books” and he was excited about his winnings. The picture documents his five-year old self in a state of pure bliss: a juice box and Clifford the Big Red Dog spread in front of him on a cafeteria table. As a young mom of two boys, I had no idea at the moment that picture was taken how significant reading would be as a cornerstone of my children’s education. 


Years later when I joined the faculty of a community college I realized very quickly what I should have already known: not everyone’s experience with books and reading mirrored that of my family. Teaching at a college where the threshold for taking a class is minimal (the equivalent of a high school diploma) I am reminded constantly how important reading is to our academic pursuits, no matter the field of study. The use of technology in classes, for example, has not reduced the amount of reading our students must do – while they might not hold many paper books in their hands nowadays, they are still regularly engaged in reading materials. And, for many of my students, this task is difficult.


Recently I’ve been integrating more primary source discussions into my US History II class meetings. In previous semesters I would assign the documents as part of their homework assignments. I was finding, however, that very few students were coming to class prepared to discuss. Even those who read the textbook chapter, for example, would express to me that they had struggled with the primary sources. This semester I have been regularly bringing to class paper copies of the sources and then breaking the students up into small groups. I provide them with two or three questions that focus on identifying the audience, argument, and significance of each document. Witnessing with my own eyes the students’ process as they grapple with material has been very informative. I’ve been able to watch them reading silently and listen to their conversations about the sources before I lead them in a full-class discussion based on what their groups have identified as the significance of each document. 


In some ways the casual conversations I have overhead have been most informative: many of my students do not read anything beyond what is assigned to them for classes and they express to each other how difficult reading academic materials is for them. This knowledge has inspired me to increase the amount of in-class reading time for future classes. And, to encourage students to take advantage of the reading support initiatives available at our college. While I will continue to employ the group work, I am brainstorming other ways that silent reading time can be incorporated into my class meetings. Suggestions welcome! 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.