Teaching of English Language and Literature (TELL) Journal

Volume 15, Number 2, November 1999

What Do We Really Want Out of USSR?

Anthony Seow
Nanyang Technological University
Singapore

Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR) is a common reading strategy which many schools in Singapore have used to promote reading, albeit with varying degrees of success in implementation. Some schools are more successful in getting their pupils to appreciate and enjoy reading the USSR materials, while some other schools are less successful in carrying out the reading activity for various reasons. This article describes some significant similarities and differences between the USSR programme and another reading programme, the Extensive Reading Programme (ERP). According to the writer, USSR is best used as a prelude to ERP. Once pupils have formed the habit of sustained silent reading, they would then be ready for the more independent extensive reading programme.

USSR is alive but perhaps not doing very well

Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR) is still very much alive in the schools today since its formal inception in the school curriculum way back in the latter half of the 1980's. In my visits to schools (both primary and secondary) on teaching-practice supervision of NIE trainee teachers, I have had the good fortune on several occasions to watch the USSR in session. A number of schools have the whole pupil population converge in the school hall or a large canteen (or simply some large open space within the school premises) to hold their regular, if not daily, USSR for between 20 and 30 minutes each session. Pupils from some schools seem to be enjoying reading their USSR material. Some other schools are, however, less successful in carrying out the reading activity for various reasons. Whichever the reading scenario, are the schools really doing justice to the USSR? If we re-examine the original intent of the USSR programme, it will become apparent that a good number of schools might have assiduously practised USSR for more than ten years but for quite different purposes.

What actually is USSR and what are its primary objectives?

Denoting basically the same activity, Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR) is variously known by other terms such as Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) and High Intensity Practice (HIP).1 In Singapore, USSR is part of the school's Extensive Reading Programme (ERP) or the Extensive Reading and Information Literacy (ERIL) Programme.2 The main objectives of the USSR are:

USSR may, thus, be construed as an initial reading strategy that is meant to prepare readers - especially the younger pupils and those who have not already mastered the skills of focused, silent reading3 - for a much more extensive reading programme (ERP). During USSR, pupils are encouraged to begin modest by reading something manageable and enjoyable. Thus, USSR is not itself ERP; it is, however, the starting point of the ERP. What USSR, in fact, does is to provide readers with the preliminary training in the acquisition of essential and transferable reading skills for extensive reading. As noted by Gambrell (1978), "SSR can be the component of the reading program which gives pupils the opportunity to transfer and apply isolated skills in a pleasurable, independent experience." A distinction between USSR (i.e. skills training) and ERP (i.e. independent, extensive reading) must be made clear here. While USSR may be planned by the school to begin at a certain time for a relatively short session each day, extensive reading may be done independently by the pupils any time and at their leisure. Since it is not inconceivable that some schools would take a longer time than others to have their pupils acquire those initial reading skills needed for independent reading, USSR may continue for as long as there is a perceived need for it. However, USSR, must eventually phase itself out at some point in time, once it has fulfilled its objectives or exhausted its usefulness. USSR could not go on indefinitely.

The need for institutionalizing USSR as a prelude to ERP rests on a fundamental premise. If we could not properly train pupils to read silently and in a sustained way for some twenty minutes or so, then it would be even less likely that we could expect the same pupils to want to read more extensively and for a much longer period on their own. It is, thus, crucial that adults - in this instance, teachers - should provide an exemplary reading model for their pupils to emulate, and that the right reading habit should be internalized quickly. Hopefully, through formal USSR, pupils would gradually develop a love of reading that would become a life-long passion.

Why is USSR in some schools less successful?

  1. In quite a number of schools, USSR is almost synonymous with ERP but without all the accoutrements of a proper extensive reading programme. We know that an actual extensive reading session would be substantially longer than twenty minutes to be really effective and, if formally done in the classroom, may also involve some follow-up activities. Thus, USSR should not pretend to be ERP.
  2. Much time is wasted getting pupils to settle down quickly to USSR, and by the time the pupils are beginning to read, they are also beginning to get ready to move on to the next school period for the day. There is, therefore, a need to know what ought to be done in the USSR session for it to achieve the desired result.
  3. If the main reason for gathering a large number of pupils at a centralized location for USSR is to have the convenience of global monitoring of the reading, then this strategy frequently creates more problems than it solves. Some tell-tale signs of the mass USSR losing its efficacy are the visible restlessness of pupils, the random flipping of the pages of books brought in for the reading session, the disinterested look on the readers' faces, the unhealthy competition among readers for more physical space in a crowded reading area, and so forth. USSR usually works better in small groups in the classroom and with the pupils comfortably seated.
  4. USSR is frequently allowed to drag on as a programme for too long. Schools often fail to realize that once pupils have formed the habit of sustained silent reading, they should graduate to the more independent Extensive Reading, where they are encouraged to visit the school library and read whenever they are free. However, an extended period on the class timetable may be fixed for ERP, if needed.

Some significant similarities/differences between USSR and ERP

As schools may be concerned about whether they are doing it right for USSR, some comparison between USSR and ERP may be drawn so that one need not be confused with the other.

USSR

ERP

1.Sustained silent reading for a short period of time. (The present practice of having USSR lasting some 20-30 minutes is fine so long as precious time is not wasted in getting real reading started).1.Sustained silent reading for an extended period of time, which may last an hour or more.
2.No talking when everyone (including the teacher who models the reading process4) reads at a designated time.2.Silent reading, which may be done in a set period in the classroom, but usually independently and at pupils' own leisure.
3.Pupils read short articles, or any suitable material which interests them. 3.Pupils read from a wide selection of reading material in the classroom and/or from the library.
4.Any material read is to be completed within the time given for the session.4.Reading material (e.g. extended novels, nonfiction material, magazines, etc.) may be completed "by instalment" over time.
5.No formal assessment.5.No formal assessment.
6.Basic skills training. 6.No further skills training necessary, but some follow-up reading activities may be conducted periodically in the classroom.

What other complementary reading skills may be developed during USSR?

It is often the experience of many schools that keeping the pupils' reading interest level up during USSR is quite problematic. Rather than allow pupils to read silently but not know what else needs to be done with the reading material in front of them, schools may help pupils to stay more focused in their reading and to acquire other complementary reading skills and habits that professional adult readers possess.

In a somewhat controlled USSR situation, the school may hand out to pupils specially prepared, short texts to read. The reading material should be sufficiently stimulating to keep the pupils interested and sustained in their silent reading. Each reading text has previously been chosen for its high interest value5, and the reader should be able to enjoy and complete reading it within the limited 20-30 minutes given for the USSR.

The prepared short texts may be neatly typewritten - with double spacing, on A4-size paper - and laminated to last longer, and to be re-used by different pupils over and over again. At the head of each short text is a simple question that sets the focal purpose for reading. Since it is not uncommon for efficient readers, at the post-reading stage, to habitually arrive at the gist of the text, the author's intention or attitude towards the topic, any ONE of the following questions, as appropriate, may be used to lead pupils into the reading with a particular focus:

Done conscientiously, silent reading, even in 20 minutes, can be time well spent. USSR is, at last, vindicated.

Notes:

1See Mork (1972).
2The English Department Handbook 1997.
3Silent reading has shown to be "an efficient means of comprehending" (Mendak, 1986:636). We could take "comprehending" to mean understanding, in a critical way, what is read.
4Teachers modelling the USSR may actually find it useful to utilize the time to read short professional articles that they often have little time for.
5 Short texts used for USSR should span different genres.

References

Gambrell, L.B. (1978). Getting Started with Sustained Silent Reading and Keeping it Going. The Reading Teacher, 32:3, pp. 328-331.

Mendak, P.A. (1986). The Use of Silent Reading in the Primary Grades. The Reading Teacher, 39:7, pp. 636-638.

Ministry of Education, Singapore (1997). English Department Handbook. Revised Edition.

Mork, T. (1972). Sustained Silent Reading in the Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 25:5, pp. 438-441.