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N.Y.C. Chancellor Pushes for Schools to Reinstate Independent-Reading Time

Carmen Fariña, the new schools chancellor in New York City, is bringing the specifics of classroom reading instruction back into the public eye. 

As I wrote in July, Fariña is a fan of "balanced literacy," an approach to reading instruction that was once mandated in the city but has since been abandoned by many schools. At the heart of the approach is an emphasis on independent reading, also known as "sustained silent reading" or "drop everything and read."

A recent Chalkbeat article on Fariña's hands-on leadership style tells how the chancellor visited a middle school and "flatly told [the principal] to reconsider the school's move away from independent reading time for students."

The principal remembered Fariña saying, "Look, I think this is something you should not take out of your reading curriculum." The chancellor later took the principal and a handful of students on a shopping spree at Barnes & Noble. 

Veteran reading teachers will recall that the 2000 Nation Reading Panel report steered teachers away from using sustained silent reading in the classroom. The few studies available on the topic at the time "failed to find a positive relationship between encouraging reading and either the amount of reading or reading achievement," the report states. The panel did not find the practice was ineffective, it simply found there wasn't enough evidence to conclude it improved achievement. 

That report is now 14 years old. Since then, many classrooms have stopped using SSR—though many continue using it. The federally funded panel has not reconvened since, and subsequent research on the topic has been limited.

There was plenty of fervor over the whole language vs. phonics "reading wars" in the 1990s, but that has since died down. And while the debate's not resolved, there's been much less public attention paid to the issue in the last decade-and-a-half. The nitty-gritty details, such as whether students should spend 20 minutes a day reading silently at school or not, have especially seen little media attention. (A search on the Education Week website shows just one mention of the exact phrase "sustained silent reading" in the last 5 years.)

But Fariña, it seems, is bringing the specifics of reading instruction back into the limelight. 

Walt Gardner, a former teacher and education professor, and Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, both rehashed the reading wars on their Education Week opinion blogs recently. The New York Times did a roundtable blog on the "right approach to reading instruction" in July. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham recently revisited the research on New York City's reading programs on RealClearEducation. And of course Chalkbeat New York and The New York Times have both focused on reading pedagogy in their ongoing coverage of the chancellor.   

As always, I'd like to hear from readers. Regardless of whether you agree with Fariña's approach or not—is it a good thing people are talking about reading instructional strategies again? Or is it a case of needlessly drudging up old controversy? And in the end, what effect will this have on the nearly 1 million students in New York City public schools, and beyond? 

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