Dianne Henderson and Gene Kerns offer practical strategies to help all students reap the benefits of reading
A new report says that nearly half of kids read for less than 15 minutes per day.
No skill is more essential to students than reading. Every other domain of learning plays off our literacy abilities. If students are strong readers, everything else gets easier. If they are weak readers, everything gets more difficult. Reading is also a skill that needs to be practiced. We would not expect a football team that practices for fewer than 15 minutes each day to be very good. Students in band are expected to practice with their instruments for twice that long to hone their musical skills. And yet, according to data in the 2019 What Kids Are Reading report (https://www.renaissance.com/wkar/), nearly half of our students read for less than 15 minutes a day. This lack of practice translates to lower vocabulary acquisition, lower reading growth, and, eventually, students who are not ready for college or their careers.
Reading Is Self-Teaching
Students increase their vocabulary by approximately one new word for every 1,000 words they read (https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED354489). As such, wide reading can contribute more to vocabulary acquisition than direct teaching. That is a little bit counterintuitive because, as educators, we think we must teach kids everything. But the reality is, if we can create the motivation and expectation for students to dedicate time to reading every day, they are generally going to learn more vocabulary through their own reading than we could teach them through direct vocabulary instruction.
According to the report’s findings, students who read less than 15 minutes a day are going to acquire 1,909 additional vocabulary words. Students reading an average of 15–29 minutes a day have significantly more vocabulary growth, at about 6,249 new words. At the top end, students who read 30 or more minutes each day learn 13,866 new words—seven times as many as the kids reading for only a few minutes each day. Unfortunately, this last group only represents 18% of the students surveyed.
Students who spend more time reading also get better at reading. That is not so surprising—reading is, after all, a skill that can be improved with practice. But the size of the gains in ability is surprising. Among typical students—those who began the year with percentile rank (PR) scores between 35 and 65 on a reading assessment—the differences were dramatic:
Those who read for less than 15 minutes a day saw a modest increase in their scores, up three PR points;
Those who read between 15 and 29 minutes a day saw more than double the increase, up seven PR points; and
Those who read 30 or more minutes a day saw their scores go up by nine PR points—triple the gains of the first group.
Previous research (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8447247) has also demonstrated that, in addition to improving reading ability and broadening vocabulary, time spent reading helps students develop greater world knowledge and better abstract reasoning skills. The literature is quite clear: reading is a powerful form of student self-teaching. It creates a rhythm that allows students to teach themselves all types of things, but it requires time.
Reading Time Is Non-Negotiable
Reading is perhaps the most fundamental academic skill, with wide-ranging benefits for many other kinds of learning, so a minimum amount of reading practice time should be a non-negotiable aspect of education. But if nearly half our students are reading less than 15 minutes daily—and the What Kids Are Reading report tells us they are—then it clearly is negotiable to many teachers, administrators, and families.
Of course, it is not that those educators and families do not understand the importance of reading. They have the best of intentions, but sometimes people think of that time as “just reading,” not understanding how much learning takes place when kids read. And so, instead of insisting on reading time, teachers may “over-skillify” reading instruction, filling students’ schedules with worksheets about what they have read and activities related to it—such as explaining the main idea—to the point that little time is left to actually read.
In his paper “Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?” Daniel Willingham argues that many of the skills we teach students around reading are techniques they pick up pretty quickly with just a little practice. Working with students on these strategies will give you a nice little bump in improvement at first, but then it plateaus.
In some classrooms, we are so concerned about the hundreds of skills involved in reading as identified in the academic standards that there is very little time left over for kids to spend actually reading and writing. The nice thing about the specific skills is that they are easily measurable, but to return to the analogy of a football team, approaching reading in this way is akin to having your team watch videos and memorize playbooks all day long—without ever getting on the field and playing football.
It is a question of balance. We need the skills, the standards, and the instruction, but if we have over-corrected toward those things to the point that the kids are not engaged in the actual activities of reading and writing, then we need to correct course and get back to something that is more realistic. If we turn it around and use the reading and writing to inform the skills and the instruction, a teacher may notice his or her students frequently making the same grammatical error, for example, and address that more directly.
Reading Should Be Challenging
Another issue uncovered by the What Kids Are Reading report is that, although students are reading texts within the recommended difficulty range for their grades, those texts tend to be at the very bottom of the recommended range. To use another athletic analogy, a weightlifter can go to the gym and lift weights all day, but if she is not using enough weight to create a challenging amount of resistance, she is not going to see much in the way of results. On the other hand, if she puts too much weight on, her form will be poor, and she may not have the energy to do enough reps—or she may even injure herself.
Similarly, students need challenging texts, but not so challenging that they cannot comprehend what they are reading. There is a balance between the quantity of reading each day and the quality of that reading.
Students who are reading for a slightly shorter period of time but doing very well when they read actually grow in overall reading achievement scores more than kids who are reading more but not comprehending as much when they read. This is why teachers really need to know how to manage student reading practice. In the field of talent and expertise, people use the term deliberate practice, which is when a coach engineers an activity for a practitioner that is designed to achieve maximum growth.
This is where research is especially important. We need to better understand how to most effectively manage our students’ reading practice to deliver optimal growth. What factors matter the most? How do you best balance them? With reading, it all comes back to quantity and quality. You need both, with the complexity as high as you can get it without sacrificing comprehension.
Use Depth to Motivate for More Quantity and Complexity
In his landmark book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Mike Schmoker suggests that we take guidance from David Conley’s College Knowledge and strip down our language arts objectives to the following four critical things:
Infer, interpret, and draw conclusions;
Support arguments with evidence;
Resolve conflicting views encountered in source documents; and
Solve complex problems with no obvious answers.
Those things become powerfully operationalized through reading texts and discussing them with others, discovering that you need more information in some areas, then going out and finding another text that answers those questions. Using this approach to get kids into reading more complex texts might sound simple, but it is a powerfully motivational thing to become an expert in a topic, to feel that you really do know it and that you have something to say.
When students feel like they have something to say, learning becomes powerful. That is when kids, instead of being pushed by external motivational levers, begin to operate on their own speed.
This suggests a “less is more” approach. If teachers ask students to read about fewer topics but at greater depth, students can really get turned on to reading and the whole world of learning it opens up. If a student is interested in a topic, try to harness that, even and maybe especially for students who are reading below grade level. If they are interested in the Civil War, for example, get them started with simple texts about it. As they read, they will gain background knowledge about the subject, along with wider vocabulary that is relevant to their interests, both of which will enable them to read more complex texts. As their ability improves, keep feeding them material they are interested in while ramping up the complexity at an appropriate rate.
Other Strategies to Increase Reading Time and Complexity
Giving students texts about topics they are interested in and encouraging them to read deeply on those topics may be the best way to improve both reading time and complexity. The What Kids Are Reading report features lists of the most popular texts in each grade, plus curated book lists for a range of cross-curricular topics. Those lists, with both Lexile® measures and ATOS® levels, are a great place to start for teachers looking for reading material likely to interest their students.
Classroom and small-group discussions are a great way to jumpstart interest in topics students may not be interested in yet while also touching on all four of Schmoker’s goals for students. Students love to debate issues in class. Encourage that, and use it to drive motivation to read. Provide students with various texts coming from different perspectives on an issue—for example, immigration—and then let them hash it out.
Some students, as they read conflicting texts, will be stopped in their tracks. They will say, “How can that be? One author said this and the other said something completely different.” That is an opening to get them digging through more texts to find evidence and analyze claims. As they work through those issues, they begin to see the relevance of reading and how it can help them find their way through challenging issues happening around them—and maybe even to them—in the real world. By their very nature, those dialogues are going to encourage students to read more and engage with more challenging texts.
Personalized goal setting is a very simple, but very effective, way to encourage students to read more texts at greater complexity. We know that kids who have personalized goals tend to read longer and to choose more challenging material. Giving them something to strive for is motivating on its own, but teachers, like everyone else, need to “inspect what they expect.” That is, when we set goals for students, we need to follow through by monitoring their progress and making sure they know whether they are on track. Even setting bad goals is better than setting none—at the very least it is a reminder that the activity is important—and it is so easy there is no reason not to do it.
As a teacher, let your students see you reading. If you tell your students reading is important, but then during silent reading time they see you taking care of paperwork or other classroom business, what message are you actually sending them? It is easy to forget how important modeling is, but by “walking the talk” you can ensure that the message is sent and received accurately.
Provide access to digital texts. Physical books are great, but if students have to get a pass to go down the hall to the library to check out a book that may or may not actually be on the shelf, that is just another series of hurdles they have to clear in order to start reading. It is just a simple fact that, as human beings, the harder it is for us to do something, the less likely it is we are going to do it. Luckily, digital reading platforms eliminate many of those barriers and are becoming more ubiquitous each day. Providing students with immediate access to a wide assortment of electronic reading material will help them read more and, ultimately, learn more.
Dr. Dianne Henderson is VP of psychometrics, research, and learning sciences at Renaissance. Dianne holds a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Alberta. She tweets at @Diann_Henderson.
Dr. Gene Kerns is the VP and chief academic officer at Renaissance. A former classroom teacher, administrator, and professor, he is the co-author of the book Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise (https://www.renaissance.com/lp/unlocking-student-talent/?utm_source=rli&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Awareness). Follow him on Twitter at @GeneKerns.ss). Follow him on Twitter at @GeneKerns.