When the headlines report that the overall average reading score of 8th students in 2015 declined in comparison to the previous assessment in 2013, there was a chorus of educators who most likely responded:
"But… they just don't want to read!"
The report released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered a benchmark on the academic progress of an estimated 60 million secondary students attending private and public middle and high schools in the United States. The most recent statistics on these students indicate that there is a significant drop in reading proficiency levels in grades 7-12. For example, only 34 percent of 8th graders (2015) scored at or above proficient levels on the, the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment. This NAEP data also shows a disturbing trend, with reading scores of eighth graders across demographic groups declining from 2013 to 2015.
The report confirms what secondary teachers have been saying anecdotally, that both high and low achieving students are often unmotivated to read. This lack of motivation has been also explored as a cultural problem in David Denby's New Yorker article, Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore? and illustrated in an infographic created by Common Sense Media (2014) titled Children, Teens and Reading.
Perhaps it is no surprise to researchers that the decline in reading proficiency coincides with a decline with student autonomy or choice in reading materials. That decline in choice is created by an increase in teacher control of reading materials at the higher grade levels.
They Were Once Readers
In the elementary grades, students are given the opportunity to develop a sense of autonomy in reading choice; they are allowed and encouraged to independently select books to read. There is explicit instruction in making good choices in lessons that explain how to judge a "just right book" using questions such as:
- Are there more than five words on a page you don't know?
- Are you confused about what is happening in most of this book?
This autonomy contributes to the growth of a reader. According to J.T. Guthrie, et al, in the research brief "Reading Motivation and Reading Comprehension Growth in the Later Elementary Years, (2007) published in Contemporary Educational Psychology:
"Children who valued choosing their own books subsequently developed elaborate strategies for selecting books and reported being more intrinsically motivated readers."
By giving their students a choice of reading materials in the early grades, elementary teachers increase academic independence and motivation. However, in most school systems, a student's choice of reading material lessens as he or she moves up to the middle and high school grades.
Assessment and Standards are Factors
By the time a student moves into the middle grades, the emphasis is on on discipline specific reading materials, as seen in the recommendation by the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core State Standards in Literacy (Key Design Considerations) . This recommendation has resulted in an increase in the reading percentage of nonfiction or informational texts in all disciplines, not just ELA:
- By grade 8, reading materials should be 45% literary fiction and 55% informational texts;
- By the time students graduate, reading materials should be 30% literary fiction and 70% informational texts.
These same education researchers, Guthrie et al, have also published an e-book (2012) Motivation, achievement, and Classroom Contexts for Information Book Reading, to document their pursuit of what motivates students to read and what classroom contexts best promote motivation. They note in their e-book that because schools are seeing an "increase in educational accountability at different levels" and there are a variety of reading materials are assigned in all subject areas so that teachers can take 'formal and frequent' evaluations of their students." Much of this reading material used for accountability, however, is dull:
"Middle school students overwhelmingly describe the information texts they read in science classes as boring, irrelevant, and difficult to understand-hardly a recipe for positive motivation to read this material."
The researchers who argue for student autonomy agree that student interest in reading independently (for fun) diminishes when teachers overly control reading topics or materials. This is especially true for low achieving students. Researcher Carol Gordon noted that for this population of adolescents, student attitude is another factor. She explains:
"Since low-achievers typically do not read voluntarily outside of school, most of their reading is mandated. These students express anger and defiance, as indicated by survey data. In many cases, low achievers don't really hate to read-they hate to be told what to read."
Paradoxically, low-achieving students are the population that would benefit the most from an increase in voluntary reading. To counter the recent drops in reading proficiency, educators need to stop telling students, high and low-achieving, what to read so that students can develop develop ownership over their reading choices.
Choice Motivates Students to Read
One of the best ways to move beyond assigning all reading is for teachers to provide time in the academic day for voluntary reading of texts for extended periods of time. There may be objections to the use of already dedicated academic time, but the research indicates that time spent reading in school improves academic performance. This is true even for the "light" or fun reading of young adult literature. Gordon explains that the practice of free voluntary reading is "not only conducive to reading motivation, but it actually works better than direct instruction." She cites Stephen Krashen's work (2004) with 54 students, with 51 of those students who scored higher on reading tests than similar students given traditional skill-based reading instruction.
Another compelling argument for providing time in the school day to reading practice is the comparison to the practice necessary one needs to do in order to become proficient at a sport; the increased number of practice hours increases performance. Even 10 minutes a day of reading can have dramatic effects by simply exposing students to multiple texts text. Researcher M.J. Adams (2006) developed a data breakdown that illustrates how ten minutes of daily book reading in middle school will increase a student's exposure to print by about 700,000 words each year. This exposure surpasses the amount of reading currently done by the same grade level students who are performing at the 70th percentile.
To facilitate student voluntary reading, students need access to reading materials that allow for their choice of reading materials. Independent reading libraries in classrooms can help students generate a sense of agency. Students can discover and share authors, explore topics in the genres that appeal to them, and improve their reading habits.
Create Independent Classroom Libraries
The publisher Scholastic produced a report, Kids & Family Reading Report (5th edition, 2014) As a publisher of children and young adult literature, Scholastic has a vested interest in increasing the number of readers across the country. In their research based on student polling, they found that in populations aged 12-17, 78% of frequent readers who read books for fun 5-7 times per week are provided time and choice in contrast to the 24% of the infrequent readers who are not provided time or choice.
Scholastic also noted that choice for adolescents requires easy access to a wide range of interesting texts. One of their recommendations was that "school districts must begin to put money into texts and allocate funds for high-interest books." They recommend that independent reading libraries should be developed with student input as the critical resource for increasing reading proficiency.
Another proponent for independent reading is Penny Kittle, an English teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire. She has written Book Love. a popular guide to helping secondary students read independently. In this guide, Kittle offers strategies to help teachers, particularly English Language Arts teachers, to increase the volume of what students read and to deepen student thinking about what they read. She offers advice on how to build up those classroom libraries including grant writing or applications to Donor's Choose or The Book Love Foundation. Asking for multiple copies of texts from book clubs and going to warehouse, garage, and library sales are also great ways to grow the classroom libraries. Developing a good relationship with the school library is also important, and students should be encourages to recommend texts for purchase. Finally, teachers can look for the numerous options available with e-texts.
Choice: A Desired Option
The research concludes that there are millions of students who do not have the rudimentary reading skills that are needed to locate relevant information or make simple inferences. Without the necessary literacy skills for college or career, students may be retained in school or drop out of high school. The consequences for underdeveloped literacy to the student and to the economic welfare of the country can mean the collective loss of billions of dollars in wages and earnings over a lifetime.
Secondary educators need to guide students to associate reading with enjoyment and a worthwhile activity by offering choice. This association can result in making reading a desired option; to make students want to read.
The benefits of allowing and encouraging students to make choices about reading will last beyond school careers and throughout their lives.