Monday, November 16, 2015

Time spent reading is a valid predictor of reading achievement; should we force students to read more complex texts?

Response to the claim that reading an extra 4.7 minutes a day, using Accelerated Reader, helps struggling readers catch up.  Based on ten million children using Accelerated Reader.

Comment published at  in response to “Mining online data on struggling readers: A tiny difference in daily reading habits is associated with giant improvements.” 

Prof. Duke's observation that better readers will naturally read more might be correct, but we have strong evidence that time spent reading per se is an excellent predictor of reading achievement. This includes studies of sustained silent reading in which adding a few minutes a day does increase proficiency significantly.

In these studies, students were not reading in preparation for accelerated reading-type tests.  There was no or very little accountability.

The finding that reading more complex tests results in better reading does not mean we should force students to read harder books: A study done in 1958 (!!!) showed that as students mature, they select more complex books and select from a wider vaieity of genres (LaBrant, 1958). 

SSR research: Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann and Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited (second edition).
Krashen, S. (2011). Free Voluntary Reading. Westport: Libraries Unlimited.
Nakanishi, T. 2014. A meta-analysis of extensive reading research. TESOL Quarterly 49(1), 6-37.
Accelerated reading tests not necessary: Krashen, S. 2003. The (lack of) experimental evidence supporting the use of accelerated reader. Journal of Children’s Literature 29 (2): 9, 16-30.  (available at
1958 study: LaBrant, L. (1958). An evaluation of free reading. In Research in the three R’s, ed. C. Hunnicutt and W. Iverson. New York: Harper and Brothers, pp. 154-161.

Original article:

Mining online data on struggling readers who catch up: A tiny difference in daily reading habits is associated with giant improvements
By Jill Barshay
What’s the difference between kids who remain at the bottom of the class and those who surge ahead to the top half?
   It might be as little as 4.7 minutes, in the case of reading.
   According to a November 2015 report on almost 10 million U.S. schoolchildren who practice reading using an online software program called Accelerated Reader, a shockingly small amount of additional daily reading separated the weak students who stay at the bottom from those who catch up over the course of a school year.
   The analysis of struggling readers was part of an annual report, called What Kids Are Reading, produced by Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. The report also noted which books are the most popular at each grade level, and attempted to gain insight into how kids become better readers as they progress from first grade through 12th. Real student data was used, but the children’s identities were kept anonymous in the research analysis. (Findings from the first report and an explanation of the report’s limitations can be found in a piece I wrote last year here).
   In this year’s report, Renaissance Learning found that roughly 200,000 of the 1.4 million fifth graders in its student database began the 2014-15 school year reading at a very low level, among the bottom quarter of fifth graders nationally. Most of them finished the school year in this unfortunate category. But 28 percent of these students somehow got out of the bottom quarter by year’s end. And a smaller subset of those students — five percent of the 200,000 — did something spectacular: in less than a year, they were reading as well as the top 50 percent of fifth graders.
The computer doesn’t know everything that affected them, but it does know that these spectacular students read an average of 19 minutes a day on the software. By contrast, the kids who remained at the bottom read only 14.3 minutes a day. Over the course of fifth grade, the catcher-uppers read 341,174 words. That’s 200,000 more words that those who remained strugglers.
   “I wouldn’t say to a group of educators, ‘Hey, all you’ve got to do is five more minutes,’ but five more minutes is really helpful,” said Eric Stickney, director of educational research at Renaissance Learning. “But if they’re just sticking with low-level books that aren’t expanding their vocabulary, and not really understanding what they’re reading, five extra minutes isn’t going to be helpful.”
   There were two other differences, too. The kids who caught up were choosing to read more challenging texts. (Accelerated Reader allows students to select their own books and articles from a list). And they had higher comprehension, answering 80 percent of the multiple-choice questions after each book correctly, compared with a 72 percent correct rate among those who remained at the bottom.
   Stickney suspects that the students who are making these leaps are receiving extra help at school from talented teachers, and not just reading more on software.
   Indeed, at least one expert in early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty, says we cannot tell from this study whether the extra five minutes a day is causing kids to make dramatic improvements. In an e-mailed comment, University of Michigan Professor Nell Duke explained that stronger readers spend more time reading. So we don’t know if extra reading practice causes growth, or if students naturally want to read a few minutes more a day after they become better readers. “It is possible that some other factor, such as increased parental involvement, caused both,” the reading growth, and the desire to read more, she wrote.
   Stickney also noticed in his data that it was possible to make this extraordinary one-year leap from bottom quarter to top half even as late as eighth grade. Again, we don’t anything about this subset of students. It’s plausible, for example, that some of these leapers hail from well-educated immigrant families and were already strong readers in their native languages. But it’s also possible that some of these leapers suddenly had a breakthrough after years of struggle.
   Even the eighth graders who made the impressive jump aren’t reading very much, though; the report finds interest in reading rapidly deteriorates after elementary school. The eighth graders who leapt from the bottom to the top read for only 16 minutes a day, three minutes less than the motivated fifth-grade leapers.  Eighth graders who remained in the bottom quarter read less than 10 minutes a day, four minutes less than bottom students in fifth grade.  But the word difference was enormous. In that small amount of time, the eighth-grade leapers read almost 500,000 words — 300,000 more than those who remained at the bottom. The more exposure to words, the more kids build their vocabularies, and the more they understand.
   Teachers typically recommend 20 to 30 minutes of reading practice a night. One data mining lesson here is that you can get away with a lot less and still make extraordinary gains.

1 comment:

  1. I am interested in teaching the cultural practice of reading for pleasure. I teach newcomer refugees escaping violence in Central America. I am open to all suggestions of how to make reading in Spanish happen, make it joyful, make it cool, and find leveled Spanish readers appropriate to this 14-18 year old population who have never read for enjoyment and have not heard of such a cultural practice.