Learn What Works

Students come to our classrooms exhibiting a wide range of exposure to print.  Many schools have responded to the unequal distribution of reading experiences by fostering wide reading through sustained silent reading (SSR) and independent reading programs. Incidental vocabulary learning through wide reading has many benefits, as do research-based practices for successful SSR and independent reading programs.

According to Nagy & Anderson (1984), from third grade on, the amount of reading a student does is the main determining factor in vocabulary growth. The average student adds 3,000 words yearly between third and 12th grades. The majority of this is attributed to repeated exposure to new words in context encountered through wide reading.

The link between vocabulary development and wide reading exists because students are most likely to encounter rich vocabulary in written language of many sorts. Hayes and Ahrends (1988) found that speech contains far fewer unique words than does written language. Consider that the average college-educated adult uses about 17 rare words per 1,000 in casual conversation. As for written text, a newspaper has over 65 rare words per 1,000, comic books over 50 rare words per 1,000, popular magazines about 35 rare words per 1,000, and children’s books about 30 rare words per 1,000.

Students gain new vocabulary from text and develop rich concepts around them through repeated exposures. A new word first moves into a reader’s sight vocabulary while reading, and through repeated exposures in connected text the readers builds a deep understanding of the word.

See How it Works

Reading widely encompasses the quantity of materials read, the variety of materials read, and the time spent reading. Students should be encouraged to read books to support content area work, and as a recreational past time. In order to encourage students to read both in and out of school, the following factors should be evaluated:

  • Variety of content area texts available
  • Variety of recreational texts available
  • Variety of text levels available
  • Providing time during every school day for reading
  • Content-area Read Alouds
  • Informal or formative assessments to encourage at home reading

Enhancing Access to Appropriate Books

Access to Books in the School Library

  • Books and staff available on an “as-needed” basis as recommended by American Library Association
  • Before and after school access to the library should be provided

School Book Rooms

  • Houses collections of books that classroom teachers may “check out” for use in their classrooms
  • A fully stocked room includes multiple copies of leveled books
  • Books may be organized by genre, author, or topic


  • A rich classroom supply is a staple in classrooms
  • Elementary examples: Ranger Rick, National Geographic Kids, Cobblestone, Your Big Backyard, and Sports Illustrated for Kids

Series Books

  • Offers a commonality in text structure or author’s style
  • In the transitional years (grades 2-6) they simplify the reading act by reducing the word recognition load, particularly proper nouns

Access to Books at Home

  • Book distribution program
  • Reading is Fundamental (RIF website)
  • Encourage students to use their local community library

Building and Displaying the Classroom Collections

  • Create classroom displays and change them frequently (author, genre, or topic displays)
  • Feature books daily to ensure that children notice the range of books by mentioning the title and offering a few words of information

Do What Works

Eight Factors of SSR Success Handout

The work of Janice Pilgreen (2000) has been instrumental in the success of sustained silent reading (SSR) programs across the country.  She performed a meta-analysis of several studies on SSR to determine which factors contributed to a successful program.  She found that there was a modest increase in reading achievement with SSR and a statistically significant effect on interest and motivation toward reading.  Click on the links above to see the eight factors that Pilgreen identified as contributing to a successful SSR program.

As with SSR, students read on their own during independent reading.  However, unlike SSR, they read from books selected on a specific topic.  Quality independent reading initiatives involve a number of books on a topic, and students choose from those books.  Independent reading should mirror the behaviors of real readers who read widely for information.  We also know that independent reading builds background knowledge and fuels vocabulary growth.


  • Fisher, Douglas & Frey, Nancy. (2008).  Better Learning Through Structured Teaching.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Frey, N. & Fisher, D. (2009). Learning Words Inside & Out, 126-127.
  • Hayes, D.P. & Ahrends, M. (1988). “Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Special Case of ‘Motherese’?” Journal of Child Language, 15, 395-410.
  • Iowa Department of Education. (2008). Accelerating Adolescent Literacy: A Report from Iowa’s Adolescent Literacy Research and Development Team. Des Moines, IA.
  • Nagy, W.E., & Anderson, R.C. (1984). “How Many Words are there in Printed School English?” Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 303 – 330.
  • Pilgreen, Janice. (2000).  The SSR Handbook:  How to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program.  Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton/Cook Publishers Inc.