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Meeting Readers Where They Are: Mapping the intersection of research and practice

By Carol Gordon

The reading patterns and habits of young and old are changing as reading migrates from the printed page to the computer screen. Now, new forms of expression such as remixes and mash-ups are emerging from interactive digital environments. How can school librarians help students read with understanding in dynamic digital environments? How can they anticipate the help young people need to successfully negotiate new forms of reading?

Examining current reading practices—and the underlying research-based beliefs that may or may not guide those practices—can not only help us improve our work today, but it can also help us create future practices. But are our current practices working? Some of our beliefs are mythical, while others are based on research. How can we tell the difference? Below are the seven most prevalent beliefs about reading examined in the light of previous research.

slj1110_gordon2(Original Import)

Illustration by Ken Orvidas

1. Young people get better at reading by reading, just as they learn by doing (Shin, 1998; Dewey, 1916).

Do we provide enough reading opportunities? For decades school librarians have assumed the role of reading motivator, arranging author visits, distributing bookmarks, delivering booktalks, creating reading lists and READposters. A statewide study of school libraries showed that most reading activities sponsored by school libraries are passive, rather than active (Todd and Heinstrom, 2006).

While passive activities create interest in reading, and possibly motivation, they are more effective when balanced with active reading through sustained silent reading. Those who participate in sustained silent reading programs show clear increases in the amount of free reading they do outside of school (Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993), and the effects appear to last years after the program ends (Greaney and Clarke, 1975). Despite these findings, sustained silent reading has declined in schools. Book clubs and summer reading programs also offer time to read, but they are extracurricular. They motivate reading because they create reading communities that extend reading into a social activity.

2. The social aspects associated with reading are motivational (Guthrie and Wigfield, 1997).

School librarians can reduce the isolation of reading through reading blogs, reading clubs, literature circles, and student reviews reported in podcasts and Voice Thread. These activities give reading a voice, making the experience of reading communal. Social networking tools are useful in bringing readers together, yet in many schools web 2.0 sites are blocked, cutting students off from the virtual worlds in which they spend a good deal of their time.

Even summer reading programs are rarely collaborative. There’s little opportunity for teens to connect reading with social interaction among their teachers, librarians, or peers. Reading in isolation is compounded by reading mandates that dictate texts that are simply not interesting to adolescents. Often the closest that reading comes to being a social activity is through competition rather than cooperation (Guthrie and Davis, 2003). Reading motivation programs that use competition and artificial measures of reading success, such as point systems, distort the reason for reading. They rob students of free choice by shifting the focus from what they want or like to read to what will earn them more points.

3. Free choice is a factor in reading motivation (Guthrie and Davis, 2003).

Do young people believe they have free choice? The decline in motivation of middle school students is accompanied by a decline in choices and an increase in teacher control (Guthrie and Davis, 2003). Studies of summer reading in Massachusetts (Gordon and Lu, 2008) and Delaware (unpublished) show that low-achieving students don’t think they have free choice, while their higher-achieving classmates feel they do. 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.

Free choice is violated when schools give preference to books, especially for low achievers, and fail to validate alternative media such as magazines, newspapers, and websites (Gordon and Lu, 2008). Summer reading programs typically present graded lists that narrow choice to “recommended” books. The focus on reading books turns off reluctant readers who say they hate to read, but actually do read during the summer (ibid). Although they read alternative materials, they don’t think this kind of reading counts. Instead of encouraging students to read what they’re already enjoying, schools demotivate them by limiting their reading choices. Preferring books over other sources of reading not only fails to validate low achievers as readers, it invites low levels of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977). “Self efficacy refers to beliefs a person has about his or her capabilities to learn or perform behaviors at designated levels” (Schunk and Zimmerman, 1997). Low achievers begin to believe that they cannot read.

4. Free voluntary reading is as effective, or more effective, than direct instruction (Greaney, 1970; Krashen, 1989).

Free voluntary reading (FVR) is not only conducive to reading motivation, it actually works better than direct instruction. Fifty-one out of 54 students using FVR did as well or better on reading tests than students given traditional skill-based reading instruction (Krashen, 2004). In fact, young people who read have better comprehension, research tells us, and they write better, spell better, improve their grammar, and increase their vocabulary.

For example, one study (Saragi, Nation, and Meister, 1978) presented adult readers with copies of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a novel that contains 241 words of an artificial language called nadsat. Each artificial word is repeated an average of 15 times. In the study, the nadsat dictionary was removed from the books and readers were told they would be tested when they finished reading, but they didn’t know their vocabulary acquisition would be tested. They finished their books within three days and a few days later were given a multiple choice test covering 90 nadsat words. Scores ranged from 50 to 96 percent, with an average of 76 percent.

There’s also evidence that FVR benefits English-language learners as well. In three studies of 3,000 children, ages six through nine, children following a program that combined shared book experience, language experience, and free reading outperformed traditionally taught students on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, oral language, grammar, listening, and writing (Elley and Mangubhai, 1983).

5. People will read when they have access to reading materials (Krashen, 2004).

Access is the silver bullet for reading improvement. Krashen (2004) argues that there’s consistent evidence that those who have more access to books read more. Students who have more time for recreational reading demonstrate more academic gains in reading than “comparison students.” A lack of reading practice results in a decline in reading ability.

In Colombia, the government dramatically increased access to reading materials. Fundalectura, a government agency charged with promoting reading implemented a program called I Libri al Viento, or Books to the Wind. The country was flooded with inexpensive reprints of out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry. Books were placed at bus stops, train stations, and markets—wherever there were people. As people read more, literacy rates improved.

6. It is important to design inclusive summer reading for all students (Gordon and Lu, 2008).

The “summer effect” on student achievement is well-researched: “The long summer vacation breaks the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires a significant amount of review when students return to school in the fall” (Cooper, 2003). Research findings have consistently reported that student learning declines or remains the same during the summer months and the magnitude of the change differs based on socioeconomic status (Malach and Rutter, 2003).

Family income emerged as the best predictor of loss in reading comprehension and word recognition loss (Cooper et al. 1996). Disadvantaged children showed the greatest losses, with a loss of three months of grade-level equivalency during the summer months each year, compared with an average of one month loss by middle-income children when reading and math performance are combined (Alexander and Entwisle, 1996). The difference between high- and low-income children’s reading scores on the California Achievement Test, as a percent of the standard deviation of scores, grew from 68 percent in first grade, to 98 percent in third grade, to 114 percent in eighth grade.

During the school year, learners’ gains are remarkably similar for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds (Entwistle, Alexander, and Olson, 1997, 2000; Heyns, 1978; Murnane, 1975). However, when school is not in session during the summer, there are inequalities in educational opportunities and outcomes (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 2001; Cooper et al. 1996). Children with special educational needs (Sargent and Fidler, 1987) or those who speak a language other than English at home may experience a greater negative effect from an extended period without practice. It can be said that the achievement gap is a summer reading gap.

While summer reading is a good idea, it often violates research-based beliefs about free choice, the importance of access, and the social aspects of reading. Teacher- and librarian-authored reading lists often don’t include student input. The classics are emphasized, and choices are limited to books. There is no attention paid to reading across nonprint media formats, i.e., transliteracy. Despite what the research shows us, many educators insist that summer reading should be curricular and students should read “good” books.

Although research shows that stimulating tasks increase situational interest, which in turn increases reading motivation and comprehension (Guthrie, et al. 2006), summer reading programs often lack stimulating tasks. Instead, students are asked to write a report about what they read. Situational reading, or interest in a particular book at a particular time, requires intervention in the form of reading advisory that’s often absent during the summer months. Writing about what they read is not, for most students, a stimulating task that captures the excitement of situational reading. In fact, for reluctant and struggling readers, who are also reluctant and struggling writers, it’s punitive.

7. The pleasure hypothesis—reading is its own reward (Krashen, 2004).

Summer reading and other reading motivation initiatives are problematic when they offer extrinsic rewards for reading. Intrinsic motivation is found to be a predictor of the amount and breadth of reading more often than extrinsic motivation (Guthrie and Wigfield, 1997). Many reading initiatives use extrinsic motivation by offering points for reading or a grade for “book reports” or summaries presented to the English/ language arts teacher when students return to school after summer vacation. For aliterate and reluctant readers this translates to extrinsic punishment for not doing the written assignment, usually because they didn’t read books.

Extrinsic rewards, often combined with competition, suggest that young people are resistant to reading. This is, for the most part, not true when we broaden our view of what it means to read. Meeting readers where they are, rather than expecting them to meet us where we think they should be, is critical to reading motivation. In fact, it’s a key concept in opening doors to reading for adolescents because it’s related to self-efficacy. Reading is its own reward because it’s enjoyable—even for low achievers and reluctant readers. Reading is described as “perhaps the most often mentioned flow activity in the world” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

What do successful reading motivation strategies have in common with why tweens and teens like being online? Whether teens are reading a book or blogging, they like interactive, hands-on experiences. They thrive on social interaction and inclusiveness. They are self-directed learners who know free choice is part of being creative. Teens expect access to books and computers. School librarians aren’t trapped by institutionalized beliefs about reading. Rather, school librarians are empowered to promote reading, not as a school subject that’s mandated, practiced, and tested, but as a personal experience that fulfills intellectual and emotional needs.

Carol Gordon ( is an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, and director of research for the Center for International Studies in School Libraries.



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