How to Get Your Students Quiet During Silent Sustained Reading

Dear Kid Whisperer,
I’m a first grade teacher and I have a question about small group time. Every year during reading group time (while I’m sitting with my small group) I have a hard time with voice control. I must admit that we do reading group time for an hour and so 30 minutes is independent work time, 15 minutes with me and 15 minutes on the computer. So sometimes I feel like I may be asking them to work silently for too long. However, what are some tips and tricks that can help them either work silently or at least quietly during this time so I’m not nagging them about this? Thanks!

– Natalie, Meridian, Idaho

Dear Natalie,

Thank you for the excellent question! Most K-12 education involves some kind of silent reading. Whether your reading program calls it Silent Sustained Reading, Silent Reading, Independent Reading or Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), the most challenging part of facilitating this important part of our curricula for most teachers is to make sure the reading is truly silent. This is especially true when you are working with small groups.

Part of my job as a third grade teacher is to facilitate up to an hour of silent reading while meeting with small reading groups. We build up to that length. We start with fifteen minutes and build to an hour by the twentieth day of school. Today we finished our ninth day of school. Not a single student spoke for the entire half hour. Interested to find out how I did that?

On the first day, I give my students the following instructions:

Kid Whisperer: Okay, friends. At the end of each day we will have Readers’ Workshop. We just learned some things in our minilesson that you will be discussing with each other when we are done. For the next fifteen minutes you will be reading silently. I will dismiss teams to silent reading whose eyes are silently on me.

That is all that I say about my expectations.

“But, wait,” you say. “That’s all you say? Aren’t they going to act out? Aren’t they going to talk? My students talk when I say something like that.”

My answer: I want them to talk.


Let me explain this by telling you the prayer I say silently after I give the directions.

Kid Whisperer: (To God) Lord, you may remember me. I’m the one who asks you every year for the University of Dayton men’s basketball team to please make the NCAA tournament. Yes, Scott Ervin. Hi. OK Lord, please let these kids mess up so I can calmly place some limits on them. Please let them mess up so royally that there can be serious consequences so they can learn quickly so that I can do some teaching very soon. Thank you, Lord. Go Flyers.

As soon as I say the last word of my directions, my ears are open for any talking. I am up and wandering around. I stand next to children and get eye contact with kids who aren’t talking but look like they may start. The moment a child talks (yes!) I whisper the following to the student:

Kid Whisperer:Oh, man. Could you put your head down on your desk and listen to our silence? Thanks.

Sometime in the next thirty seconds to fifteen minutes, whichever is most convenient, I walk up to the child or say softly from afar:

Kid Whisperer: Thumbs up if you hear our silence and think you can do it.

The kid puts his thumb up

Kid Whisperer: Awesome. Good luck!

I then pray that he talks again so that I can repeat what I just did.

If the child does’t give a thumbs up, I simply tell them to feel free to join us whenever they think they can follow our rules.

Once there is no talking, and heads are up, I sit and read a book. I am currently reading “Be the Pack Leader” by Caesar Milan. I read in my chair as close to my students as possible. I drink a Diet Pepsi or a coffee to show how calm and relaxed I am. When necessary, I repeat what I have already outlined. I do this for the first six to eight days of school in order to model the behavior I expect. Also, I get some time to relax!

If at any point there are several people talking and I feel that I am losing control of the room and that there is a general lack of respect for the expectation set, I thank my lucky stars and I say the following:

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. This is sad. Readers’ Workshop only happens when things are going well. Everyone, please put your heads down. I’m going to read my book silently. Thanks.

I then sit and read my book for as long as I need to in order to keep calm and cool. Once I feel up to it, usually after five to six minutes, I say the following:

Kid Whisperer: Feel free to pick your head up and try being part of Readers’ Workshop. Good luck.

At that point you can repeat the single student consequence or the whole group consequence as often as is necessary. Don’t be afraid to “shut it down” for long periods of time if necessary.

One final point about putting heads down. A head being down must mean that the student’s head is over their desk and that their eyes cannot be seen from any angle. I model this. If a child does it wrong, I am thrilled and I say the following:

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. Looks like you need to practice having your head down.

This elongates the amount of time that they need to have their head down. If I have to say it more than once or a child has had a habitual problem with this in the past, I just mention that they will do some practicing later. At recess or after school, I have the student come in and practice putting his head down.

Natalie, I hope this helps. Feel free to ask me follow up questions on Facebook. Actually, that goes for everyone else out there.

-The Kid Whisperer