In western educational systems of today, children are taught to read much the same as they have been taught to read for decades. Generally speaking, children are taught to read phonetically, breaking words down into their sounds (individual letter sounds and digraphs, of which there are 42 sounds in the English language), they are taught to recognize ‘tricky words’ (such as ‘the’) that cannot be sounded out phonetically, and they learn to read first out loud, and then silently and independently to themselves. Many aspects are assessed when children first learn to read, such as comprehension and fluency, as well as knowing what to do when encountering punctuation in the texts read. However, being able to read silently and independently is the ultimate goal. Indeed, silent reading is so important in the western educational system that parts of every school day are devoted to it (particularly in younger grade levels), with popular programmes such as Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) and Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) being two of the more common. The purpose of this paper is to look at the origins of silent reading and the influence it has had on reading programmes today in western education systems.
The origins of silent reading are not exactly precise, neither our knowledge of early print and text literacy a thorough, detailed, historical account. We do know that early, pre-text society was an oral-aural one, where information and knowledge were passed through word of mouth, often in rhyme or song (for lengthy accounts), with repetitive elements so that it could be remembered easily by the orator. Written text was first developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around the year 3500 BC (Ong, 2002). By Plato’s time however, written text had become the new way of storing knowledge, allowing for less repetitive thought (Ong, 2002).
Though written text (manuscripts) had become the new way of storing knowledge, it was still originally written to be read aloud, either to others or to oneself (among other people), with little or no punctuation as we would recognize it today (Ong, 2002). It was not until much later that we see recorded accounts of people reading silently to themselves and in these accounts the writers are often surprised to be witness to such events. In AD 383, in the first recorded instance in Western literature, Saint Augustine wrote of Ambrose, “we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud” (Manguel, 1996). Further instances can be seen in plays from the 5th Century BC from Euripides and Aristophanes, with both having characters read items silently and then react to them. (Manguel, 1996).
With the development of the written word came the intimacy of the author with his work. In the fourteenth century authors began composing texts in cursive script, making the text and writing a more intimate affair. With this intimacy of the author came the expectation that it would be read with intimacy, or independently and in silence to oneself (Saenger, 1997). In the centuries to follow, throughout the Middle Ages, silent reading began to work its way into education. Scholarly libraries began to be developed where reference books were chained to lecterns so that they would always be consulted in the library (Saenger, 1997). From these libraries the first instances of a need for the reader’s silence was made note of and this has continued through to libraries throughout the world today (both academic as well as public), as we know them.
Why was there a delay in the move from reading text aloud to reading silently? Early manuscripts were written to be read aloud and did not include punctuation in any way as we know it today. Punctuation as we know it today can be defined as “the practice or system of using certain conventional marks or characters in writing or printing in order to separate elements and make the meaning clear, as in ending a sentence or separating clauses” (dictionary.com). With the development and beginning widespread use of print, as well as the development of the printing press, punctuation started to be used more widely and uniformly in order for people to make meaning of what they read easier and quicker. In addition to punctuation being added to print, so too did proper spacing between words and sentences, as well as paragraphs begin to be seen.
While there has been well documented impact on religious and political fronts over the early years of silent reading, of which I will not even attempt to go into here, there has also been great impact on education, especially in the last few decades. Being able to read silently and with comprehension and fluency is the goal of western language programmes and students are routinely tested on their ability to glean information from text without uttering a word.
Schools continue to spend valuable time every day, devoted to individual, silent reading programmes. These programmes, often called Silent Sustained Reading (SSR), Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) or something similar, are enforced based on the belief that the more often children and young adults read silently, the better they will become at reading in general (mentality of practice makes perfect perhaps). Silent reading is thought to instill a love of reading in children, increase comprehension and fluency and, often of most importance, speed of reading (Surrey School District). There is little supported evidence however, that silent reading programmes in schools are all that effective. One has to wonder how much time has been spent on a daily event that shows few dividends.
It is difficult to imagine what a library would be like today if everyone were not reading silently, or similarly what a coffee shop or metro station would be like. We are taught to value finding a comfortable nook to curl up in with a good book. Oral reading has become a lost art of sorts, with students able to be kept captive while listening to a gifted story-teller. Silent reading has made learning individual in many ways. Though one could always read orally to oneself, silent reading promotes individual, silent reading by its very nature.
Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (digital copy purchased from Amazon.com)
Manguel, Alberto. (1996). A History of Reading. New York: Viking. Retrieved from http://www.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Manguel/Silent_Readers.html
Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen (digital copy purchased from Amazon.com)
Saenger, Paul. (1997). Space between words: the origins of silent reading. Palo Alto, Stanford University Press.
Silence is Not Always Golden: Examining Research into Silent Reading. Research Currents, Surrey School District. Retrieved from http://www.sd36.bc.ca/general/research-eval/researchcurrents/silentreading_vol2.pdf
Punctuation. In Dictionary.com. Retrieved November 6th 2010 from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/punctuation
Sustained Silent Reading. Retrieved November 6th 2010 from http://wik.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/Sustained_Silent_Reading