Silent Reading Comprehension is Worth Teaching – Even at a Distance

  • Sustained Silent Reading
  • 15 August, 2020

Reading instruction is a faddish thing. We reading teachers can be as passionate and fickle as a gaggle of teens cooing over Billy Eilesh or TikTok.

We go through periods of using textbooks or avoiding them; embracing phonics or eschewing it. The educational pendulum swings to and fro. A new reading program or approach is discovered, seems to be everywhere, then one wonders whatever happened to it…. Wisconsin Design, SRA cards, Whole Language, learning styles… the beat goes on.  

One thing that never seems to change, however, is the ubiquity of “round robin reading.” This is the practice of having one child read text to the group or the class, while the others supposedly follow along. The term “round robin” used in this way, is relatively new (the first mention I can find is in the late 1950s), but the practice is much older – Ben Franklin was already complaining about it in the 18th century.

The practice hangs on because it is a workable scheme for operating a lesson. Even low-skilled teachers can keep kids on task through it and can be assured that the content has been covered, if not learned.

Unfortunately, this practice goes wrong two ways. It crushes more potent versions of oral reading practice and then crowds out silent reading instruction, too. In this sense, it is the kudzu of reading instruction, an invasive species that sucks up all of the life-giving resources that other species need to thrive.

I’ve written in this space repeatedly about the value of supervised paired reading and repeated reading and the like. Instead of having each student reading aloud which is a big time waster or focusing on choral reading (in which kids may participate like Milli Vanilli, appearing to mouth the words without necessarily reading them), it makes more sense to partner kids up, having them taking turns reading to each other with the teacher circulating among the groups. Kids can easily engage in 10-20 times as much oral reading practice as they ever could in round robin reading. It also is much more palatable to ask a youngster to reread something that was read disfluently under these partnered circumstances.

My bigger concern now, with so many people teaching at a distance, is the use of round robin as the way to guide reading comprehension. As I mentioned, teachers tend to find this kind of activity controlling. Thus, having students take turns reading a portion of text aloud can fill the Zoom session easily and keep kids on task, without really helping them learn. This practice could eat up reading instruction as well as social studies and science!

Of course, beginning readers need to read aloud initially so round robin isn’t as horrible at that point, but certainly by grade 2 and beyond, boys and girls should be guided to read silently with the purpose of comprehending.

Many teachers tell me they don’t do this because the children may not understand the text when read silently. Duh! That’s kind of like not teaching someone to ride a bicycle because they keep falling down. The reason you teach something is because the students can’t already do it.

Typical guided or directed reading lessons in which the teacher prepares the students for reading (e.g., previewing the text, introducing new vocabulary, thinking about relevant prior knowledge, setting purposes), the students then reads the text in portions, and after each portion is read there is a discussion, is a sensible way to go.

The key here is for those portions to be read silently instead of aloud. Keep the portions short initially and expand them over time as students demonstrate an ability to handle that. Part of your job is to “stretch them out.” This both reduces the variability in reading speed and will allow you to monitor how well a student can read varying lengths of text.

If students are unsuccessful at making sense of a section, then have them read it over (or have them reread a particular sentence or paragraph). The point is to use the discussion to identify where comprehension might be going wrong and then to help the student to figure it out from reading (not from you telling them the answer).  

I’m a big fan of multiple response during class and group discussions. That means that the teacher asks the question, and everyone answers simultaneously. I usually do this through writing… I can easily see who is uncertain (as they look around at everyone else) and I can move among them to see who got it and who didn’t.

I haven’t been able to figure out how to pull that off successfully on the various distance learning platforms. I don’t know if there is a way kids could type in an answer that only the teacher would see but that would be ideal. If anyone knows how to do that, please leave a note as I’m sure I’m not the only one grappling with that idea.

In any event, we want to teach students to read silently with a high degree of comprehension. Extensive oral reading fluency practice contributes to that goal, but it doesn’t take the place of having students engaged in accountable silent reading practice with teacher guidance. Student should get better at this over time. “Better,” in this case, meaning: able to read increasingly complex texts successfully; able to sustain successful reading for longer periods of time or over a greater number of words/pages; able to comprehend well with less teacher support.

That will only happen if you engage students in accountable, supported, and expanding silent reading opportunities – even if that has to be done over a distance.


See what others have to say about this topic.

jill Aug 15, 2020 05:39 PM

On Zoom the host can set the chat to respond only to host- so individal response is totally doable. The setting can be found when looking at the chat window/bottom right stacked dots/choose from the dropdown that appears.

Nancy Frey Aug 15, 2020 05:42 PM

I so enjoy your postings each week! An idea for responding in writing on Zoom: Students write on a small whiteboard with marker (just like in face-to-face classrooms) and hold up their writing to the camera. Simple supplies like a whiteboard and markers, paper, pecils, and crayons should be part of the school supplies that children are receiving at the beginning of the year, along with their books and laptop.

L paul Aug 15, 2020 05:53 PM

Theresa Wills has a wonderful webinar on all sorts of ways to engage students in on-line learning. Much of it is geared towards math but all if it is completely adaptable to any type of question you can come up with. Here is her link :

She shares everything she makes. It works in google slides and google classrooms, but the ideas are also workable in Office.

Ruth Fristo Aug 15, 2020 06:04 PM

Another idea for intermediate level students is to have students following a set of Google Slides that they have been sent via Classroom, perhaps 4 or 5 slides. Slides could include (or refer to) the text segment and salient question, with space for response. During synchronous instruction, after each segment of reading, students would be given time to think, write a response, and then short discussions could ensue. Discussions can be held in small virtual breakout rooms or whole group. At the end of the reading time, students are asked to submit their responses through Classroom. In this way, the teacher has each student's written response for formative assessment, and can provide individual feedback and gather data.

Cheryl Aug 15, 2020 06:09 PM

Pear Deck can also be used for individual student responses

Lindsay Aug 15, 2020 06:10 PM

I can think of a few ways students can write responses only the teacher can see. The first way would be to simply make a copy of a Google Doc for each student to work in. The teacher would have to go through each doc, which could be time consuming. They could also assign a Google Form that students write their response in. This would be a bit easier to quickly go through the responses, however students would have to turn it in before the teacher could see what they wrote. The final and best idea would be to create a Pear Deck and have students respond in text. The teacher can see the responses in real time, and can easily see all the students' responses at once.

Carp Aug 15, 2020 06:22 PM

You can use Poll Everywhere (or the polling feature in Zoom) to ask questions and have remote learners respond in real time. The teacher can see who answers what but can choose to display answers in aggregate not.

Molly Moloney Aug 15, 2020 06:30 PM

Nearpod is also a great platform for individual student responses in this way-- it's basically slide that all students get a copy of (with a simple code) and then can respond to in various ways (polls, bulletin board, but also just straight up responses). Using a nearpod within a zoom can work well with older kids, but is a bit unwieldy for little kids (who would really struggle with toggling between multiple tabs on a small chromebook screen).

Jamie Abercrombie Aug 15, 2020 07:21 PM

We’ve used Google Forms to create reading activities....screenshotting sections of the text and embedding periodic stopping points with questions before students move on to the next section!

Grace Vyduna-Haskins Aug 15, 2020 07:37 PM

Check out This uses cell phones to respond to presenter inquiries. I’m not at all sure how it might interface with systems like zoom but I’m sure they can advise you.

Jackie Aug 15, 2020 08:06 PM

We have to use google classroom and google meets and aren’t allowed to use zoom. There are extensions such as pear deck which allow for student response and you can adjust the settings so only the teacher sees the response.

Caitlin Mohl Aug 15, 2020 11:23 PM

For struggling readers, the teacher could provide a read aloud of all or part of the text for students to listen to and follow along with before whole group synchronous instruction focused on comprehension. Similarly, the teacher can provide additional fluency practice with all or portions of the text following the live lesson. One advantage to online learning is that this extra support isn't obvious to students!

Tim Shanahan Aug 16, 2020 12:56 AM

Thank all of you. These are great.


EMILY AMIE WITTY Aug 16, 2020 01:04 AM allows students to have their own digital whiteboard that only the teacher can see. It just means opening another browser and joining the class.

Jeannette W Aug 16, 2020 01:43 AM

Thank you for your work. I love having students partner read for part of the reading. I usually have kids alternate asking a question so each partner is listening. I have kids shift into silent reading to build stamina, eventually lessening the time partner reading.

Aileen Aug 16, 2020 05:57 AM

Is there a way to save the chats in zoom so I can look at the responses later, also? Thank you.

Luke Swift Aug 16, 2020 12:24 PM

Great as always...!

A couple of queries if I may:

1) Would you pose the question/s prior to pupils reading a passage? Or after? Or a mixture?

2) What strategies would you recommend to keep the quicker readers active and engaged while waiting for everyone else to finish? (In a non-streamed setting in a primary school - UK - the reading speeds can vary quite a lot)

Many thanks in advance.

Mary Knight Aug 16, 2020 12:49 PM

For situations when you need to make quick assessments on what students know, give students either numbered cards like 1-4 or different color cards. Students can easily use any paper at home and make their own cards. The teacher can ask a question like, "Does this quote provide an example of 1. How Scout felt when the kids laughed. 2. How Scout's father felt when the kids laughed. 3. It is not an example of either. The students hold up the card with the number representing their answer. That isn't the best example, but you get the idea. For younger kids, it could be a question like, hold up the green card every time you hear the long a sound at the end of a word. Colored cards make the response time faster and less confusing. The cards can be used for any subject.

Timothy E Shanahan Aug 16, 2020 01:32 PM


Usually, I will give the questions after. The reason is that research shows that if you ask them first, you increase students getting that specific info, but you depress their overall reading of the text. Also, one reason for keeping the sections of reading short, is it reduces the differential between the faster and slower readers. And, have students write a summary of what they have read while they wait. Or, give them a question to work on while they wait (that guarantees that you'll have someone who has worked out an answer when you start).

good luck.

Luke Swift Aug 16, 2020 02:42 PM

Thank you Sir! I love the summary idea, our pupils already do some of that in their Reciprocal Reading sessions (in which they summarise a passage in 20 words or less).

And it definitely seems to make sense to ask questions afterwards. As you mention, they're likely to read to merely retrieve info and answer questions (encouraging skimming and scanning - I know these have their place) if they know the question first rather than striving to read to genuinely comprehend a passage.

Thanks again!

Matthew Phillips Aug 16, 2020 04:23 PM

I agree with your ideas completely, but we often miss a crucial step. We tell beginning readers that “good readers read in their heads”, which often forces children to silence their reading before they are able to truly comprehend in that mode, for fear of being seen as the dumb kid. Strong readers are able to read silently because they have been able to internalize their reader’s voice; they continue to read expressively in their minds, which is what allows for comprehension. Developing readers who are silenced are often simply reading each word in order, in the same monotone voice we frequently hear during choral reading. It would be the same if you read this reply backwards; you might still get the gist of what is written, and certainly would get all of the words right, but complete comprehension would be out of reach.
What we need to do instead, is to explicitly teach children how to read orally with prosody. Telling them they need to “read with more feeling” isn’t enough. We need to understand how and why we change tone and pacing when we ourselves read out loud, and make those moves clear to our students. Then we give them time and grace to experiment with the moves orally to build their skills and confidence, independently or with partners, before we ask them to internalize that voice.
A final thought. Expect children to read everything with prosody: directions, math problems, social science texts, etc. You will be amazed at how quickly you will stop hearing the phrase “I don’t get it”. Reading expressively is what allows us to hear the writer’s voice and divine their intent, which is the key to complete comprehension.

Dorie Combs Aug 16, 2020 05:22 PM

Thank you so much for addressing this problem! I'll be sharing it with a group of middle and high school teachers this week. There are several free online tools you can use to elicit student responses simultaneously. You can create a Google form (which will show you all students responses either individually or on one for) , a Google Doc, Jam Board (a Google add-on that works like Kagan's Jot Thoughts), or Polleverywhere will let students respond in a variety of presentation modes, including a word cloud.

Courtney Ostaff Aug 16, 2020 11:54 PM

Polling is the usual way that online teachers ask questions and expect all students to respond simultaneously. A prepared teacher will know the question they want to ask and have it prepped in the slide deck for the lesson. The poll feature will allow students to quickly choose an answer.

Amy Aug 17, 2020 02:12 PM

Nancy Frey and Ruth Fristo- I love your ideas! I'm going to share them with the teachers I coach. Thanks!

Dr Lora E Lepisto Brown Aug 17, 2020 06:56 PM

Thank you all for sharing your ideas and strategies! This is such a turbulent time... I appreciate the support for making virtual instruction more impactful for all students.
Dr. Lora

Charles Hewes Aug 17, 2020 11:58 PM

Nearpod allows the teacher to virtually review (and share if desired) individual student responses to questions.

stacey Aug 18, 2020 02:45 AM

I am super concerned about this for in-person teaching this year. We cannot move students into groups of any size, we must maintain 6' SD. For the first 2 months or so we won't technology available for students to use. I'm trying to envision this going well, concerned that all the partner and small group work will fall to the wayside.

Samantha Aug 18, 2020 03:27 AM

I recently attended an interactive online Professional Learning where the presenter created a POLL. You can do ye/no polls where they click a button, or short answer to check for understanding. I guess you could prepare a multiple choice and of course they are all prepared before hand not on the spot - so no wait time.
The presenter even showed us the results of the POLL.

Danielle Sep 04, 2020 01:39 PM

What if you are reading a challenging text well above their level? I remember you saying that instructional level was not something to worry about.

Lee Sledd Dec 07, 2020 05:26 AM

Thanks for a great article. For your question about a private remote platform I suggest

Deborah R Wilson Feb 27, 2021 05:58 PM

This article is a helpful reminder about the importance of silent reading & its potential to help students improve their comprehension. I am rethinking my small group online strategies to include this because it does give every student more time reading and shifts the heavy lifting. As far as how to send writing responses only the teacher can see, on Teams students can type responses in the chat and wait to send on the teacher's command. That way, they are not influenced by previous responses.

Cara Feb 17, 2022 01:21 PM

On distance learning you can use a technique called waterfall, where the students all type their responses in the chat but they don't hit enter until you count down. So they aren't using other students' responses to inform their own and there is no competition really as all the answers populate simultaneously. I really like this method.

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Silent Reading Comprehension is Worth Teaching – Even at a Distance


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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