SSR and the Tiny Screen

Our school has a very good Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) program. Teachers are committed to modelling good reading habits and encouraging students to develop those same habits. Whether they are overtly doing it or not, they are helping these students to better negotiate the plethora of information they face on a daily basis.

With that said, we now face too many students who want to read on their smartphones. Anecdotally, I know that this is fine for a dedicated reader. And I also know that for a student who would rather not engage with a book, the smartphones provide yet another opportunity to engage with information in…a less dedicated way.

The challenge that faces our school includes the reality that our teachers have excellent relationships with the students, and we want to trust them when they pull out their smartphones during SSR period. If they say they are going to read, we want to believe that they are going to read. Happily, many do.

Sadly, many don’t. I teach a hand-timetabled English 12 class composed of students who would, at times, prefer to do something other than reading—specifically, anything else! My students are not anomalies in the school; there are many kids who would rather do anything else.


Drawing: Kate Beaton

I have found myself having to ban smartphones both in my English classes and in the Library Learning Commons (LLC) during SSR. I don’t like that we have ended up here, but appropriately, the students understand when I make it clear that I allow any kind of tablet or reader. They then realize that I am not anti-technology, but am anti-not reading. For some reason, this helps us find a common ground.

This approach is supported by the work of Guang Chen, et al.; in this article, it is evident that deeper reading comprehension occurs when students see their device as something on which to read. And I mean read. The problem with smartphones is that people do not see them that way. They see them as tools from which to interact. In the two articles below—“44” and “36 smart ways to use smartphones in class”—not one of the 80 ways has to do with reading in a way that will provide the deep comprehension we desire through an SSR and that is possible with tablets according to Chen’s research.

To be clear, this is not to say that smartphones do not have a place in the classroom—they have, apparently, 80 places! However, they might not have a place in an SSR program. We can’t make every student in our school buy into reading. I can’t do it in my classroom and I can’t do it in the library. However, by providing some guidelines about using devices that encourage and foster deep comprehension, I can help students be more likely to commit to reading and becoming better at understanding the texts they are confronted with daily, hourly and by the minute.

Chen, W. Cheng, T.W. Chang, X. Zheng, R. Huang. “A comparison of reading comprehension across paper, computer screens, and tablets: does tablet familiarity matter?” Journal of Computers in Education, 1 (2–3) (2014), pp. 213–225.

Hardison, John. “Part 1: 44 Smart Ways to Use Smartphones in Class.” Getting Smart, 7 Jan. 2013,

Hardison, John. “Part 2: 36 Smart Ways to Use Smartphones in Class.” Getting Smart, 21 Jan. 2013,


2 thoughts on “SSR and the Tiny Screen

  1. Some valid concerns and important reminders here in your blog post. It does seem to be approaching this dilemma from a deficit model however, which is focused on compliance and control, rather than exploring positive response models of reward and engagement. I totally get the ‘clientele’ you refer to and am struggling with getting these same types of students to read authentically and to engage with any materials that will cause them to reinforce reading skills and pleasure, rather than forcing certain formats and behaviors. My personal belief is that reading is reading. Words and letters work the same on a screen and a page. If your students are just playing games, or watching videos on their phones, that’s a problem, they are not reading, but if they are reading articles, websites, stories, books, etc, on their phones where they are actually ‘reading’ text, does it matter if it is on a device, or in a book? I appreciate the discussion and sharing of your experiences, we need to explore this topic deeper as our formats continue to shift. Excellent writing, good references, but all blog posts need to include a “tag” or “category” subject headings to help organize and retrieve blog posts by keyword later.


  2. Interesting that you’ve banned smartphones during silent reading!! I have been battling with an urge to do so for some time now… although if I think about it as a class room teacher then separately as a TL, I am a bit conflicted. Freedom to read however/whatever vs. monitoring on-task behaviour. It’s a tough one for me.

    Great blog post, thanks for sharing!


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