There is a debate in the field about whether students in sustained silent reading programs spend the time reading, or are just doing "sustained silent page turning." In Krashen (2011), I reviewed a number of claims that students were doing fake reading, and I concluded that it was surprisingly rare, and when we did see genuine cases, one or more of the principles of SSR were violated, eg not enough books of interest available, the books were too hard, the programs were run under rigid conditions, and students had a fear of evaluation.
Beath (1979) provides more evidence that non-reading is not widespread and her data confirming that a problem with non-readers in SSR may indeed be in not providing enough comprehensible material.
In her study, 64 fourth graders participating in SSR were observed on three different days by three observers. Observers watched students for ten minutes in 15 second interviews and noted if students were "on-task" or "off-task" (off-task = eg, flipping through pages out of sequence, talking to one's neighbor, sitting with books closed). Beath reported that there was a substantial amount of reading taking place, with 65% of the students "on-task" at least 90% of the time.
She then divided the group into two equal sub-groups, those who were considered more on-task and those who were less on-task. The top half, the more on-task group, scored much higher on a standardized reading test, average grade level 5.36 versus 3.16, a difference of two years. In other words, those who could read better were shown to be more engaged in reading during SSR, most likely because the material was more comprehensible for them.
Beath informed us that "In each classroom there were many materials, such as magazines, newspapers, comic books and tradebooks. These materials were at a variety of reading levels." (p. 75). There may not, however, have been enough interesting material at lower levels in the classroom libraries (see also Marshall, 2002, who arrived at a similiar conclusion).
So many of our reading "problems" can be solved by providing more access to comprehensible and truly interesting reading material.
Beath, P. R, 1979. An examination of the relationship between on-task behavior during sustained silent reading and reading achievement. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Maryland.
Krashen, S. 2011. Nonengagement in sustained silent reading: How extensive is it? What can it teach us? Colorado Reading Council Journal 22: 5-10. (available at www.sdkrashen.com, "free voluntary reading." section).
Marshall, J. C. 2002. Are They Really Reading? Expanding SSR in the Middle Grades. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.