Improving reading in kids: what the evidence says

An interview with Timothy Shanahan, literacy expert and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois.

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Oct 12, 2016
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Timothy Shanahan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was Founding Director of the Center for Literacy and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He is also visiting research professor at Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His research emphasises reading-writing relationships, reading assessment, and improving reading achievement. He is past president of the International Reading Association. In 2006, he received a presidential appointment to serve on the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Literacy. He was inducted to the Reading Hall of Fame in 2007. He is a former first-grade teacher.

What insight is research providing in terms of practical measures teachers can take to improve reading attainment in their students?

This varies a bit by age level, but research has provided lots of valuable information that should be shaping how and what we teach. For example, meta-analytic syntheses of large numbers of independent studies have shown that it is valuable to teach young children (ages 4–6) something called phonological awareness. Young children do not perceive the individual sounds within words and this makes it hard to learn an alphabetic language. Research shows that this aspect of language development can be accelerated through teaching and that doing so tends to improve early reading achievement. Similarly, during my entire career there has been a controversy as to whether we should teach kids phonics or decoding (how to translate text into pronunciation by sounding the letters or spelling patterns). Again, large amounts of evidence showing that teaching this explicitly is beneficial. There is also evidence about teaching kids to read text with fluency through oral reading practice with repetition (rereading texts improves fluency and what is learned from this transfers to other texts). It turns out that it is even possible to improve student reading comprehension by teaching kids more effective ways of thinking about the ideas they confront in texts. Finally, I would point out that we used to wait to introduce writing until kids were really good at reading. But research overwhelmingly shows clear benefits of writing. Having students trying to write words has a positive impact on their decoding, and having them write about the ideas in texts improves reading comprehension.

You have previously said that the most important variable in attaining higher reading achievement is the amount of teaching or academic experience students receive. Can you elaborate on this a little?

This is both true and a bit of a fake. How much academic experience one has—learning to read, reading, discussing or writing about what one reads—has a positive impact on student learning. Kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten learn more than those in half-day kindergarten. Kids who grow up in homes with lots of academic support (books, reading time, discussion, etc.) do better in school. After school programs, summer programs, extended school year programs all have been found to increase learning. Even within regular school days, we find big differences in how much reading instruction children receive—even in the same grade level in the same school; and the classes that provide more such instruction get more learning.

This is a bit of cheat because time alone can never cause anything. I am talking about time in which students are engaged with a demanding curriculum focused on those elements of literacy that lead to literacy learning. Time becomes a measure (not a variable) and it describes how much experience with these essential literacy elements kids are getting. Similarly, I’m not talking about allotted time, but engaged time. Two teachers both might have responsibility for second-graders for six-hours per day… but one of them might keep kids on task more; one might spend an extra hour on reading, while the other doesn’t bother. Researchers usually refer to what I am talking about as “academic learning time” and they distinguish it from the scheduled time or allotted time. It is that time that is really used for academic activity when the kids are really engaged in it that I refer to when I say that more teaching is better than less teaching.

Has technology had an impact on the way students learn to read and write?

Technology has had an impact on reading in lots of ways. Technology has changed how we work and how we communicate so it should have an impact on our literacy. Of course, the internet and all of the information available requires that we learn to source information better than in the past. Previously, it was usually pretty easy to determine if a text was authoritative and represented the best thinking on a topic. One might look at a copyright to help think about whether there might be more scientific or health information on a topic, or which organization authored this material. Try either of those strategies on a lot of what you read on the world wide web. And, of course, technology introduces new text features that one has to learn to negotiate. How do you get back to the previous page? How do you search material? Increasingly schools are moving towards teaching kids to negotiate these new features and to read more critically given the wealth of material—good and bad—that is now available. Things like decoding may remain the same, but how to work your way through a book has changed a bit, and teaching has to move with that.

What effect do low literacy levels have on individuals in later life?

There is a study of this that has been going on in the UK for the past 40 years. That is, the researchers started monitoring young kids’ literacy levels along with lots of other information and they have been following these children through their adult lives. Recently, they released information about these kids who were now 42. They noticed that there were big differences in income levels, and wondered why. It makes sense that the kids from well-to-do families would still be advantaged, and those who grew up in poverty might have been stunted by that experience; more educated mommy and daddies would raise more economically successful kids. That was true to some extent… but even knowing that kind of information, there was still a lot of unexplained variance in these people’s incomes. The researchers tried something. They added the kids’ reading and math scores when they were seven-years-old into their regression equations. Bingo. Early literacy development tends to be consistent with later literacy development and later literacy development explains a lot of the variation one sees in how much money people are able to earn. Literacy gives adults economic, social, political, and cultural power that affords them the ability to participate in all kinds of societal benefits.

In a recent piece for TES, Doug Lemov suggests that early readers should be read advanced texts, as well as reading easier books for themselves, to expose them to complex syntax. What are your thoughts on reading comprehension and oral language?

Again, I’ll rely heavily on the research. Research shows that early language development explains about half the variation in later reading comprehension. Texts, even children’s books, tend to use more complex language—more sophisticated vocabulary, more complicated grammar, more subtle cohesive links—than oral language. Reading advanced texts, and discussing these with children, gives them opportunity to expand their language which sets them up for better opportunities to become good readers. As a parent, I read a plethora of books to my daughters—Through the Looking Glass, Charlotte’s Web, The Odyssey, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Yearling, O Pioneers!, Brave New World, The Hobbit, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think those books stretched them intellectually, enticed their curiosity, and gave them access to language that they would never experience any other way. Unfortunately, too few kids get those opportunities. Lots of the books read to kids are not that much harder than what kids could read on their own. I think parents and teachers who stay to those sometimes beautiful, but much simpler texts, when reading to kids are not helping their kids as much as they could, and are cheating themselves out of a wonderful shared adventure with their children.

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