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The Hidden Hurdle of Silent Reading Instruction

Randi Bender | Nov 3, 2018 at 10:52 AM
Randi Bender

Think about everything that’s happening while you read this blog. Your eyes work together to navigate these lines of text, taking in information that is delivered to a part of your brain called the “working memory”—that’s where your brain processes language. The words I’ve written are being decoded and recognized, and their definitions are being recalled. Your brain then further processes the words, making connections between them that help you to comprehend, or make meaning of, what I’m communicating to you. These amazing processes happen in sync and quite rapidly. For people who are good readers, these processes happen with minimal effort.

How are you reading this text? I’m pretty confident that you’re doing it silently, as you do for almost everything you read. In fact, most of the reading you’ve done since about fourth grade—whether it’s been for school, work, or pleasure—has been done inside your head, not out loud.

When all the processes of reading fall into place—coordinating the physical movement of the eyes, phonemic awareness, decoding, recognition and recall of vocabulary, comprehension—then making meaning of text comes easily. But if one or more of the processes are not working properly, then understanding text becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Your first years of reading instruction centered around phonemic awareness and phonics. You steadily built your vocabulary and fluency. During these crucial years of early reading—up to about third grade—your teachers were close by, listening as you read aloud. All those read-aloud sessions provided good practice for honing those early reading skills. But they also allowed your teachers to hear how you were reading.

Teachers can easily hear when students mispronounce or do not recognize a word during oral reading. They can determine if students understand texts by asking the students questions after the read-alouds are done. And, significantly, teachers can identify if a student regularly loses his or her place in the text. Oral reading is a reliable way to ascertain which students are reading inefficiently. An inefficient reader’s eyes do not move smoothly and easily across lines of text. Teachers can hear how a student struggles with the physical process of reading—the teacher can hear the stops and starts, as well as the hesitations and rereading.

Around fourth grade, read-alouds evolve into silent reading practice. Students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Teachers can easily determine if students understand a text that is read silently by giving tests that assess comprehension. But teachers can no longer hear how the student reads, so there’s no way of knowing if the student is reading inefficiently.

When a student’s eyes are not moving efficiently across lines of text, working memory is taxed to its limits. Rather than focus cognitive resources on making meaning of the texts, students struggle with the mechanics of reading. Reading is exhausting, rather than exhilarating.

Research shows us that 70% of students who are not proficient readers are reading inefficiently. Yet only one reading program is addressing this “hidden hurdle”—the unseen and unheard barrier that holds back so many of our students from reaching silent reading proficiency, and blocks them from discovering the joy and value of reading. That program is Reading Plus.


Reading Plus knows that silent reading proficiency can emerge only if three separate (but each vitally important and interconnected) components of reading are strong and functioning in tandem: reading efficiency, comprehension, and motivation. Reading efficiently boosts comprehension and motivation --- when the physical process of reading is dynamic and comfortable, comprehension and motivation can flourish. And, as comprehension and motivation grow, students are likely to want to read more—and more reading practice leads to more efficient reading. It’s a virtuous circle.

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