Does Educational Research Really Support Promoting Independent Wide Reading as an Educational Practice?
by Dr. Sam Bommarito
(screen capture taken from Dr. Molly Ness’s Website)
Author’s note: this is part of a series of blog postings about the issue of wide reading.
I’ll start by answering the question posed in the title. My answer is as follows:
That answer is different from some you will find in various books, articles, blogs. These contrary opinions are held by individuals who are well credentialed and who have substantial experience both in the practice of reading and in doing research about the field of reading. So why do I insist on taking the position that there is a substantial research base supporting independent wide reading as a preferred educational practice?
The answer lies in my take on what constitutes usable research. Many individuals who write about the science behind literacy practices, warn that one cannot take the concept of being guided by science at face value. The question must be asked, whose science? What are the limits and limitations of each view of science?
Let’s first consider the position taken by some critics of independent reading. They indicate that that isn’t possible to provide sound estimates of the impact of Independent Wide Reading from existing experimental studies. They maintain we only have correlational data about independent reading, and these studies are not very thorough. The problem with requiring that all research guiding practice be mainly done with experimental studies is that the methods and techniques developed for such studies were born in fields often referred to as the “hard sciences”. Randomly assigning treatments and availability of widely accepted ways to measure the phenomena being studied are usual characteristics of this approach. We could call this a “pure empirical approach”. This approach when transferred directly to educational research can sometimes raise some red flags on the issue of face validity. Almost every Doctoral candidate in the field of reading becomes aware of these issues. By the time one includes random assignment, acceptable instrumentation for a completely empirical study, et. al., the danger is that one narrowed the scope of the research to such an extent that the results could potentially lack face validity and consequently lack any educational significance.
On the other hand, when considering a qualitative research approach, one is often relying on correlational measures. Correlational measures can result in finding spurious relationships. One example that stands out from my statistics course work is one where a researcher found a significant correlation between the birthrate in Puerto Rico and the subway schedules in New York. The example was meant to bring home the point that correlation does not establish causality. It was a strong enough example for me to remember it some three decades later! Let me tell you how I reconcile the limits and limitations of each approach to science.
Before I was a reading teacher I was a history teacher. I learned an important lesson in decision making. It involved General Eisenhower and the issue of selecting a date for the Normandy invasion. There were two competing schools of thought on how to predict the weather. Why did Ike did pick June 6th? June 6th was the date on which the two competing schools of thought on how to predict weather agreed. The strategy worked. Its implementation contributed to an important turning point in world history.
In the same way, I look at both qualitative and quantitative research to see what I can learn from each. I remain skeptical of those who advocate using evidence from only (or mainly) from one or the other. When considering each kind of research, I check for both face validity (is what is being measured really reading) and for spurious correlations (could the finding really be a result of random chance). Overall, I’ve found enough evidence to support the concept of promoting independent reading. Most of this is evidence we have already talked about in the last few posts in this blog. I will review it now.
I’ll begin with an excerpt from Bill Kerns post on this blog last week:
The Battle Over Wide Reading
The ability to provide students with opportunities for wide reading in school is under attack. Given pressures of high stakes tests, schools commonly reduce wide reading opportunities while narrowing the curriculum and focusing on test taking skills (Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). This contributes to lack of opportunities for students to engage in reading for pleasure and simple enjoyment within classrooms (Lareau, 2003).
Fluency, involving an ability to read with accuracy and expressiveness with little effort (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003), is a strong predictor of comprehension skill. There appears to be a strong relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension according to numerous studies with children from the primary grades through middle school (Hosp & Fuchs, 2005). Children trained in the acquisition of reading fluency also demonstrate growth in comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2009). Students with reading disabilities often lack fluency as readers (Torgesen et al., 2001). Wide and repeated readings improve both fluency and comprehension skills among students with reading disabilities (Allington & Gabriel, 2012; Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Therrien, 2004; Vaughn et al., 2006).
Vocabulary knowledge also is significantly linked to comprehension skills (Baumann, Kamenui, & Ash, 2003). Reading an hour per day greatly increases vocabulary (Mason, Stahl, Au, and Herman, 2003). Progress in vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and achievement is strongly related to increased time spent reading (Taylor et al., 2000; Krashen, 2004; Wasik & Iannone-Campbell, 2012).
I don’t just argue for wide reading but also deep reading. Giving students a say in what they read promotes motivation to read (Cambourne 1995, 2000). This can be a challenge on a tight budget. When I taught high school English I would sometimes have 40 or more students in a class. So, I recommend reaching out for partnerships with organizations such as the local affiliate of the International Literacy Association for help in building up a classroom library without breaking the bank account. Choice isn’t enough, motivation to read is also fostered when the books are of personal and cultural relevance to students (Gambrell, 2011; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002) and with sustained engagement in the texts (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).”
In addition readers are invited to view Dr. Molly Browns March 7th 2018 blog entry, which a lively defense of independent reading and gives classic research examples to back it up, https://www.drmollyness.com/stop-the-anti-independent-reading-madness/ . Kylene Beers has a blog that supports the idea of wide reading (http://kylenebeers.com/blog/tag/reading-2/). A teacher quote from that blog reads “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft. I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read. And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels. They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.” Beers’ book, Disrupting Thinking contains a widely used graphic listing research that shows the benefits of wide reading. When the book came out she shared the graphic on twitter. It can easily be found using a web search and it is used by many teachers to send home to parents in order to sell parents on the importance of wide reading.
Some ideas that I hope readers will take away are the following. First, great books must be made available and these should include both expository and narrative books. Student book choice is not absolute. As the teacher from Beer’s blog said: “some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen”. As Kern’s indicates the talk around the book must include deep thinking, and the book themselves must be socially and culturally relevant. Parents can and should be part of the process of promoting wide reading. And finally, there’s the quote from Atwell (my favorite Atwell quote of all times!). It reminds us that the only way anyone becomes a reader is to sit and read in a quiet room. That is how readers can enter The Reading Zone. That is both a place and a title of one of the best known of Atwell’s publications.
So- those are my views about how (and why) to proceed with a program of independent reading. Please feel free to comment. Push-back and praise are both welcome. I am delaying the finish of the talk this topic because I want to do one more share with you about some of the splendid work educators are doing in getting quality books into the hands of ALL children. Then I will take on the topic of workshop teaching and how it can be used to promote the development of lifelong readers.
Happy Reading and Writing
Dr. Sam Bommarito (A.K.A informed consumer of educational research both quantitative & qualitative)