Research on Reading

Why Read?

The more students read, the better their skills get. Kids who develop a personal reading habit acquire a host of verbal skills that nonreaders do not, including comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. On this point federal standards (Common Core Standards in English and Language Arts) and academic experts (Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project) agree. Likewise the CMU study suggests that good readers are not “born” but “made.” In other words, students become readers by practicing.

Reading may change the physical wiring of a person’s brain. It’s also a way to build the mental structures that allow us to exercise top-down control over our own attention. See Maryanne Wolfe’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper, 2007) or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). More startlingly, a 2014 Emory University study suggests that a person’s brain increases physical connectivity after reading even a single novel. For more on literacy and changes in the physiology of the brain, see the latest from Scientific American.

Deep reading is an active mental exercise, not a passive one. See the Washington University study.

Reading, particularly of literary fiction, seems to increase empathy. See The New School study or this compelling summary from Signature Magazine. Science Magazine reports that reading improves Theory of Mind, which is the understanding that other people hold beliefs and desires different from your own. Authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remind us that stories are a key way of understanding one another’s complicated lives. Maryanne Wolf Maryanne Wolf makes this argument beautifully in her new book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. When we lose reading, we lose the “cognitive patience” to enter someone else’s world.

Lastly, the budding field of Bibliotherapy maintains that reading is a key factor of mental well-being, that the ability to construct nuanced stories, including our own story, is a part of creating identity. The American Library Association offers several resources on the topic. Or you can read these overviews from The New Yorker and the BBC (“Can You Read Yourself Happy?”) For a more in-depth discussion, see Janet Alsup’s A Case for Teaching Literature in the Secondary School: Why Reading Fiction Matters in an Age of Scientific Objectivity and Standardization (Routledge 2015).

Choice Matters

Its’ about choice. Kids get hooked on reading by reading books they love. How do we know?

Key current researchers on this topic are the linguist Stephen D. Krashen (University of Southern California) and the educator Richard Allington (University of Tennessee). Dr. Krashen documents the benefits of “junk reading” in Junk Food is Bad for You, But Junk Reading is Good for You. See a plethora of research on his  website or in Free Voluntary Reading (Libraries Unlimited) or The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Libraries Unlimited). Dr. Allington recommends  Six elements of effective reading instruction [that] don’t require much time or money—just educators’ decision to put them in place.

Earlier, in 2000, Bernice E. Cullinan reviewed the available research on independent reading in Independent Reading and School Achievement, commissioned by the US Department of Education.  She concluded that the volume of free reading students do “has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do.”

For more research on the importance of reading choice, see Dr. Allington’s book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs (Allyn and Bacon) or B. Moss’s Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading, or the classic 1988 study by Anderson, Wilson and Fielding that correlates independent reading with achievement in a startling graph. In another 2001 survey, middle school students themselves say that they’re motivated by choice (Just plain reading: A survey of what makes students want to read in middle schools). We also recommend Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers (International Reading Association) by E.H. Hiebert and D. R. Reutzel and The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research by P. McCardle and V. Chhabra (Paul Brookes).

In the Classroom

It’s also about quantity. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recommends that students should be reading 35-45 minutes a day. Independent reading helps students become more facile readers and contributes to overall school achievement, especially when schools set aside time for it in class. In one inspiring article, reading expert Penny Kittle suggests that students should “inhale books at a rate of 12–25 a semester.”

The ESSA and Common Core before it do not include a required reading list but instead allow schools and teachers to make their own decisions based upon example texts. Traditional approaches may emphasize reading difficult texts with the close mentorship of teachers, but other experts are advocating for a balance between the books students read communally and those they read independently. As Penny Kittle writes, “Students must read much more than the literature we assign for close reading; they need a regular reading habit….” This is how students build lasting reading lives.

Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recommends students read books they can understand on their own, “with at least 96% fluency, accuracy, and comprehension.” Reading a book that’s too challenging doesn’t necessarily increase fluency. Students benefit more from reading books they can understand than they do from being tutored in books that are too hard for them.

Students should move up to more difficult books as their skills increase, creating “a staircase of increasing text complexity.” On this point ESSA, the Common Core and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project agree.

Most camps agree upon one other unpalatable fact: even those children who love reading often drop the habit as teenagers, which means educators have two problems to figure out:  1) how best to create readers and 2) how best to keep them reading. The answer to both questions may not be the same.

Loose Canon™, like so many educators out there, advocates that schools also include a workshop approach, in which students discuss their reading in small groups, conferring with the teacher individually or together, as in Lit Circles and Book Clubs. Reading promotes conversation, and conversation promotes reading.

For shorter articles about how to teach reading in the classroom, here are a series of lists from several teachers who’ve written about the ways in which classrooms can stifle students’ love of reading: from Pernille Ripp and Mark Barnes and Tony Sinanis. (You’ll note that there’s discussion among elementary school teachers about the role of reading logs.) For secondary school teachers, Nancy Barile makes a quick case for reading choice. Or see Kelly Gallagher’s more in depth book Readicide, which is well worth the time. Finally, for more about ways to hold students of all ages accountable, see our page on assessment ideas.