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What is Silent Reading


Silent reading is the act of processing print to gain meaning without sounding out the words. When people are seen reading silently only the eyes move from left to right across the page and back. The core of silent reading is the ability of readers to extract the meaning and message of text without voicing the words. As we observe the silent reader, it would seem as if the eyes and the brain are in harmoniously engaged in a private dialogue. When an individual is a fluent silent reader, Huey 1908 contends that there is a fusion of auditory and motor elements. According to Edmund Huey in reporting on the findings of his experiments, “ [s]ometimes when the inner speech was very prominent it was difficult for the reader to say whether it was auditory or motor, although it seemed to him to be one of a kind.” Since Huey’s experiment silent reading has continued to gain prominence. Literacy experts and educators have capitalized on his research and many sustained silent reading (SSR) programmes are based on Huey’s findings of 1908 – 1918. In an article entitled “Silent reading in public life” published in The Boston Globe in 2007, James Carroll suggests that silent reading evolves from speech, a physical realm, which we move from to “the utterly interior space of contemplation; from rote and imitation to invention… Your eyes move, but nothing else does.”

Evolution of Silent Reading

Reading medieval.jpg

Walter Ong (1982, 2002) seems to indicate that the change from oral reading to silent reading occurred as a result of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg during the 1400s. He states “[w]ell after printing was developed, auditory processing continued for sometime to dominate the visible, printed text, though it was eventually eroded by text.” (p.117) He is not alone in supporting this kind of thinking as it is suggested by John Anthony O’Brien (1921) that since the invention of the art of printing by Johann Gutenberg about 1448, the reading of printed symbols has continued to grow in importance.

However Alberto Manguel(1997) suggests that the shift began much earlier than that. Manguel refers to a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions in AD.397 where he records with obvious fascination and intrigue, the behaviour of Bishop Ambrose, “ When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence for he never read aloud.” ( Confessions,v) Manguel sees this as the first definite example recorded. He points to earlier examples which we might want to classify as examples but declares them uncertain. Nevertheless they are worth mentioning to be assessed and scrutinized. In the fifth century two plays contain characters that could be classified as silent readers. In Euripides Hippolytus, the actor, Theseus reads a letter in silence which is clasped by his dead wife. Also in Aristophanes The Knights, Demosthenes examines a writing-tablet sent by an oracle and expresses surprise without revealing what he has read. Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, according to Plutarch, read a letter from his mother in silence and shocked his soldiers. There was also Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century who commented on a book entitled On the Criterion, that sometimes people read silently whenever they are concentrating deeply because reading aloud may cause distraction to thought processes. It was also recorded that Julius Caesar, whilst standing next to his opponent in the Senate, Cato in 63BC silently read a billet-doux sent to him by his Cato’s own sister. About four centuries later, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, advised women, in a catechetical lecture perhaps delivered during the Lenten season of 349 to read quietly. These examples though sketchy indicate that once symbols could be decoded some kind of silent reading occurred before it was formalized.

Mapping the Evolution of Silent Reading

This was rearranged and mapped from http://www.liveink/whatis/history.htm This supports Saenger(1997) in terms of how he presents the gradual separation of words through the ages. Diagram-1-.jpg

Silent Reading: Impacting the Educational Practice


Oral Reading Decline Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, the use of oral reading as the primary method of instruction began to decrease. Both American and European scholars of education sought to question the effectiveness of oral reading classes (Hyatt, 1943) by suggesting that it gave rise to concentration on elocutionary matters such as “pronunciation, emphasis, inflection and force” (Hyatt,1943, p.27) rather than students understanding what they read. Long before this period Horace Mann(1891) had observed that reading instruction become a mere movement of the speech organs rather than an intellectual exercise of the mind in thinking and feeling and that many children were not comprehending the meaning of the words they read.

Additionally, Francis Parker (1884) who is highly recognised for placing emphasis on the Language Experience Approach to reading instruction also questioned the use of oral reading for instructional purposes, based on the theories of German educational theorist, Friedrich Froebel (Hyatt, 1943). He lamented that the emphasis placed on oral reading in schools was inappropriate and elocution was being preferred over understanding. 

Monumental Shift to Silent Reading As behavioral science began to have an impact on reading instruction procedures towards the turn of the century, some researchers such as Huey observed that oral reading was mostly practiced in school whilst silent reading in public life had become more popular. Huey recorded:

      Reading as a school exercise has almost always been thought of as reading aloud, in
      spite of the obvious fact that reading in actual life is to be mainly silent reading ... The 
      consequent attention to reading as an exercise in speaking, has usually been a 
      rather bad exercise in speaking at that, has been heavily at the expense of reading as the 
      art of thought- getting and thought manipulating... By silent reading meanings from the 
      first day of reading, and by practice in getting from the page ...the rate of reading and of 
      thinking will grow with the pupil’s growth and with his power to assimilate what is read.
                                                                                                                               (Huey, 1908)

Eventually the focus shifted from the oral production of text to extracting meaning from the text. Silent reading now emerged as the principal mode of teaching reading comprehension. This period was characterized by scientists attempting to study and interrogate the basic components of their differing fields. For example, chemists and physicists were studying the essentials of nature and biologists were studying the cell and its components. The educational psychologists were engaged in studying reading, the word became the basic component. As a result of this the connections between sight and sound became more harmonized in reading instruction and many sight vocabularies were created. (Rasinski, 2003) During this time as well, more printed materials were becoming more available to both children and adults. In order to take advantage of this growing world of books many teachers and students silent reading was deemed more efficient than oral reading. Buswell and Wheeler (1923) discovered that schools that employed oral reading used made little use of the materials. (Rasinski, 2003) Rasinski (2003) also recalls that the need for oral reading for imparting information began to wane. Individual silent reading became more widespread in family and community life.

Revolution in Reading Instruction Ong (2002) suggests that with the inventing of writing which led to the printed “is the most momentous of all human technological inventions. It is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.”(p.84) It is this amazing transformation of the inner speech that led to educators, linguists and other researchers to suggest a replacement of oral reading with silent reading. They offered many benefits: silent reading represented the practice of reading of the wider society, it afforded students to grasp a deeper understanding of text, the number of texts read could be maximised because students were very likely to understand texts upon their first and only silent reading of them and be able to read a wider variety of texts, and whilst oral reading was centred around one student reading at a time, silent reading enabled several students reading simultaneously. (Hoffman & Segel, 1983),(Rasinski, 2003). According to Rasinski (2003) by 1902, the Indianapolis Public Schools Course of Study issued this statement on reading instruction: “Reading ... fundamentally is not oral expression. Children should do as much silent reading and be called upon to state the salient features of such reading in order to know how far they have grasped the thought. Silent reading is too much neglected in schools... Pupils should be thought how to read with the greatest economy of time and with the least conscious effort.”

According to  Rasinski (2003) “[b]y the 1920s, silent reading had been fully entrenched in American schools” (p.15). An item from the Course Study from the Ohio Department of Education State of Ohio, 1983) reflects the fundamental change:

“During the past few years investigations have been in progress along several lines in reading, one of the most important having to do with the significant factors in silent reading and the emphasis due this type. It would be amiss not to suggest here some of the values of training silent reading: 1. It is the most economical form of reading 2. Silent reading bears a close relationship close relationship to the other school subjects in that attainment in other subjects depends largely upon ability to read. 3. Training in silent reading constitutes a real preparation for life reading. 4. Silent reading develops interest because thought plays a prominent part.”

Rasinki (2003) cites several research findings from McDade (1944;Roher,1943)and Roher (1943) subsequent to Nila Banton Smith (1965) who all declared that the teachers had become too obsessed with silent reading and had diminishing returns. Today silent reading is less popular and is recommended to be used in conjunction with oral reading. 10, 20 - 30 minutes per day is devoted to silent reading in the classroom. This is done through Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) according to McCracken(1972,1978),and Lyman Hunt(1970) calls it (USSR) for Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading. The teachers have created their own acronyms such as (DEAR) – Drop Everything and Read and SQUIRT which is Super Quiet Reading.

Silent Reading: Its Role in Literacy

Improving Adolescent Literacy Content Area Strategies at Work by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (2008), Literacy for the 21st Century – A Balanced Approach by Gail E. Tompkins (1997), Subjects Matter – Every Teacher’s Guide to Content Area- Reading by Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman (2004), Reading and Learning to Read by Jo Anne L. Vacca et al (2003), Developing Literacy – An Integrated Approach to Assessment and Instruction by Donald R. Bear and Dianne Barone (1998) are few of a long and still expanding list of books which define and support silent reading by offering discussions about the various sustained silent reading programs. The impact that silent reading has had on literacy is far reaching. Educators in the field of early, adolescent and adult literacy are all embracing this practice as key to developing independent reading. Silent reading is actually one of the steps of some of the comprehension strategies developed by literacy specialists. While most of them are in favour of silent reading they also warn that it is difficult to assess and so many instructions on how to effectively use it in the literacy classrooms are being developed and used.

SSR: Sustained Silent Reading

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) or Uninterrupted Silent Reading (USSR), according to Heilman, Blair and Rupley (2002), is “a scheduled period of silent reading in the classroom. During this time, both teacher and students may read a book or any form of print without interruption”. This activity provides time for students to read independently. When time is set aside for silent reading of self-selected materials by students and teacher in this way, it can stimulate students’ independent reading as well as improve reading fluency.

The teacher can assess a student’s silent reading capabilities by beginning the silent reading passages at the highest instructional level that the child has read during oral reading. The student can then read the passage silently before responding to comprehension questions asked by the teacher. Teachers can also get information about a student’s reading rate by timing the student as he she reads the passage. Silent reading assessments are also important in accurately judging a student’s reading comprehension. The method of having students read a passage silently then proceeding to oral reading of the same passage, provides the students with practice before reading the passage out loud (Heilman, Blair and Rupley ,2002). Prereading material silently can also give students an opportunity to ask for assistance with difficult words.

In addition, “Learning to read fluently is the result of the satisfactory evolution from oral reading to silent reading” (The Literacy Company, 2009).Therefore, abundant opportunities should be provided for students to practice the act of reading, not only orally, but silently in order to improve reading fluency and comprehension. (Shanker and Ekwall, 2003).

The Power and Intimacy of Silent Reading


“In any case, writing changes the intimate relationship between the creator and the audience. It is no use shouting at a novel whose plot is heading in a direction we do not like, for the book obviously cannot adjust itself to our wishes as readers. If in that sense the reader loses control, in other ways the reader is more powerful than the listener, because each reader determines the pace of his own reading and can at least try to change the path through the text by scanning or skipping a paragraph, a page, or a whole chapter.”(Bolter, 2001, p.102) Was David Bolter also alluding to silent reading in this quote? It seems so because when we read aloud it is not wise for us to skip a page or a whole chapter or our listener will not get a sense of what is being read. Silent reading is very powerful because it allows us a kind of quiet contemplation as our eyes move across the page. You are not at liberty to divulge any of your thoughts with anyone and so what you really have emerging is an intimate relationship between reader and text. The silent reader also has power to choose what to respond to and/ or what to put away. Plato through Phaedrus suggests that the written word has no one to speak for it. But the New Critic says the text speaks for itself. We can revisit the text over and over and identify issues which might have been missed on a first reading. We can develop higher order comprehension skills as we question the validity of the text.

We can interpret what the text means to us based on our background experiences and view aspects we can relate to our experiences (Rosenblat, 1978).

There are many ways we can quietly bond with the text and think deeply about it and come up with ideas that could shape a better society.


Silent reading seems to have had its beginnings in antiquity. But it was with the invention of the printing press in the 1440s that silent reading became more popular. Silent reading was then recommended to educators and there was in some cases an over indulgence in the use of it.

Today silent reading is recommended to be used alongside oral reading and there is no denying that it is key in helping to lead students to become independent learners. 

If both silent and oral reading are used in increasing literacy then there is sure to be success. Ong (2001) states: “the use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life.”(p.82) Silent reading is one such technology.


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