25 November 2014

The Impacts of Daily Reading on Academic Achievement

what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how
(Wordsworth, 1888).
This quote embodies my belief about reading and is at the top of my Books 2014 page, which charts my attempts to read 100 books this year. It also heads my latest essay documenting my research into the impact daily reading can have on overall achievement in middle-school learners.


I have always believed that reading has a significant impact on our understanding and appreciation of the world. As both a life-long passionate reader and an experienced English Language Arts teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the impact that reading has on the ability of learners in terms of comprehension, grammar, empathy, confidence, vocabulary and expression. This has however, only ever been phenomenological through informal observations in the classroom, and in an effort to incorporate sustained silent reading (SSR) as a regular, valid and essential practice, I have embarked upon this research in order to determine the impacts that daily reading has on middle-school learners, not only in terms of English Language Arts, but also across the curriculum.

This paper sets out to synthesize existing data and research on SSR, also referred to as DIRT (Daily Independent Reading Time), DEAR (Drop Everything and Read, Hopkins, 2007) or SQUIRT (Super Quiet Reading Time, Garan & DeVoogd, 2008). It also explores how the incorporation of technology may help engage middle-school readers in daily independent reading. I am not alone in my belief that reading improves academic acheivement. Donalyn Miller, reading teacher and author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, states that “reading has more impact on students’ achievement than any other activity in school” (2009), and Krashen (2004) states that “the students who read the most are the best at every part of school - reading, writing, researching, content-specific knowledge, all of it”. But does research back up what educators have long seen to be true?

The hypothesis is that by developing a reading culture, where texts are chosen autonomously and read using technological devices for fun - not for assessment or as part of the taught curriculum - middle-school learners are placed at an academic advantage in terms of the development of skills that span the curriculum.

Research Analysis: The Impacts of Sustained Silent Reading

Whilst research cited in the National Reading Panel Report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), 2000) suggests that there are “literally hundreds of correlational studies that find that the best readers read the most and the poor readers read the least”, it also suggests that there is not enough sufficient data “from well-designed studies capable of testing questions of causation” to substantiate claims of the positive influence of SSR. However, Garan & DeVoogd (2008) suggest this hypothesis may in fact be due to a poor choice of methodology coupled with the selective use of data, for example dismissing findings such as that of The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), that proved “the more you read the better your vocabulary, your knowledge of the work, your ability to read and so on” (NICHHD, 2000). Overall, it appears that “the body of evidence on SSR reveals an alignment of research with what the professional judgment of many teachers has determined - Sustained Silent Reading benefits students” (Garan & DeVoogd, 2008).

Impact of Attitudes Towards Reading
A six-month quasi-experimental study found that “more time spent reading had a significant effect on achievement compared to a control condition where less time was allocated for independent reading” (Wu & Samuels, 2004). In addition, a twelve month analysis examining the effects of SSR on “cultivating students’ habits and attitudes regarding reading books for leisure both during the SSR period and after school”, found that students who “always or sometimes read books for leisure actively during the SSR period” increased from 76.85 percent, to 87.92 percent, and finally to 88.74 percent (Chua, 2008). The study also revealed that “the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed that reading books for leisure was pleasurable and enjoyable increased”, suggesting that SSR had a positive impact on attitudes and habits towards reading for fun. If the practice of SSR can increase the amount and enjoyment of reading, can it also have positive impacts on achievement?

Impact on Reading Scores
In Reading and Writing Habits of Students, a report produced by The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 1994), the conclusion was that 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds who “reported reading for fun at least once a week had higher average reading proficiency scores than students who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun”. Figure 1 (see Appendix) focuses on data for 13 year-olds and displays the reading proficiency scores of those who read for fun either daily, weekly, monthly or never, in 1984, 1994 and 2004. What is clearly evident is that over the course of twenty years, what remains consistent is that the learners who read daily for fun score most highly, whilst those who never read for fun score lowest.

Equally, the scores for those who read on a daily basis are quite a bit higher than those who read only monthly or weekly. In 1984, there is a difference of 9 points, from 255 (monthly) and 255 (weekly), to 264 (daily). This is highest in 1994, increasing by 17 points from 255 (monthly) and 255 (weekly), to 272 for daily reading. In 2004, there was a slight general increase in scores; monthly to 256, weekly to 261, with a drop of 1 mark in the daily score to 271. There was still an increase in scores for those reading daily however: 15 points from monthly scores, and 10 points from weekly scores, leading to the conclusion that daily reading for fun is certainly beneficial in terms of reading scale scores - but what about other areas of the curriculum?

Impact on Achievement in Other Areas
There is general concern about lack of reading habits and the impact it is having on achievement in middle school, “particularly among students from culturally diverse backgrounds in economically disadvantaged urban areas” (Lewis, Hancock, James, & Hill-Jackson, 2008, cited in Little, McCoach, & Reis, 2014). In a study conducted by the University of London’s Instutite of Education in 2013, the “reading behaviour of approximately 6,000 young people” in the UK was analysed. It compared how often they read as children with test results in vocabulary, spelling and math at age 16. Focusing on the “effect of reading for pleasure on cognitive development”, the conclusion was that “children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers” who “rarely read” (Battye & Rainsberry, 2013). The results found that those who read often “gained higher results in all three tests” – including math - than those who read less regularly (Battye & Rainsberry, 2013). The study concluded that reading for pleasure is “more important for children's cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents' level of education” (Battye & Rainsberry, 2013), suggesting that socioeconomic factors should not necessarily affect overall attainment if a healthy reading habit can be instilled.

Impact on Twenty First Century Skills
Whilst Sustained Silent Reading may increase enjoyment of reading, increase reading scores, and impact positively in other areas of academic achievement, in today’s world, it is no longer enough to be able “pass an objective test to demonstrate mastery, nor is it enough [to] parrot definitions from a teacher-made list” (Thomas, 2000). Current universities and employees demand twenty first century skills such as “creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration” (P21.org, 2002). Can reading for fun help learners improve academically and develop essential critical thinking skills?

Reading has been “shown to improve students’ writing and grammar” (Elley, 1991, in Krashen, 2004), and the 2013 University of London study concluded that reading not only affects attainment in all subjects, improving results in spelling, vocabulary and math, but also that a “strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information” (Battye & Rainsberry, 2013). This is backed up by further analysis of data from the NCES, which suggests that reading for just twenty minutes a day can also significantly help improve a child’s ability to search for information, interrelate ideas, make generalizations, and explain relatively complicated information. Looking again at the data from Figure 1, learners who score 200 on the reading scale possess the necessary skills to “understand, combine ideas, and make inferences” (NCES, 2006). This score appears to be the norm for 13 year olds, as even those who ‘never’ read for fun scored over 200. However, those who ‘never’ read for fun will be at a particular disadvantage, as they all score below 250. Scoring at or above 250 means learners possess the ability to “search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations about literature, science, and social studies materials” (NCES, 2006), therefore moving beyond simple understanding into higher order thinking skills that span the curriculum. The chart in Figure 1 shows however, that those who read for fun monthly and weekly, rather than every day, are only just scoring within this skill-set. What is most significant is that the scores for those who read daily for fun across all time periods, (264, 272 and 271 respectively), are creeping towards the 300 mark. Learners scoring 300 are able to utilize a wide-variety of higher-order skills such as the ability to “find, understand, summarize, and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material” (NCES, 2006). In short, not only can daily reading for enjoyment help a child across all areas of the curriculum, it also has a huge impact on their ability to understand the world and operate successfully in the future.

The Impact of Choice
This research backs up the hypothesis that a healthy reading habit can positively affect overall achievement in middle school learners. However, problems arise when middle school readers are unable to reconcile their out of school reading choices with what is expected of them in school (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). Educators need to establish reading as a life-long habit and have learners “embrace reading as a worthwhile pursuit outside of school” (Miller, 2009). “Readers are made, not born” (Miller, 2009) and it is essential to cultivate the value of reading to “promote students’ reading habits beyond the classroom” (Chua, 2008). This is where autonomy, motivation and the use of technology may help. Young adolescents “can and want to participate in literature activities” but are lacking the appropriate support or motivation to do so in school; there is also incongruence between what middle school readers prefer and the choices offered at school (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001).

Sustained Silent Reading: Motivation through Technology

Deci et al (2001) state that autonomy can play a significant role in motivation, and a distinguishing feature of SSR is that, rather than have a book dictated to them by a teacher or curriculum, learners read “a book of their own choice” (Stahl, 2004). Ivey & Broaddus (2001) found that one of the biggest motivators in reading for middle school learners is choice through SSR or free reading time, as shown in Figure 2, and providing the opportunity for autonomous reading means teachers empower learners, developing motivation through independence of choice. Technology can go some way in offering this autonomy and motivation for many middle-school readers, and can be deployed by teachers in the “quest to create young readers who possess the higher levels of literacy skills and background knowledge demanded by today’s information-based society” Biancarosa & Griffiths (2012).

Rethinking Texts
As humans, we have always shaped our texts and organized our thinking according to the technologies that are available to us (Snyder, 1996). As Goodwyn (2014) points out, books are products of technology and have been in constant evolution since the inception of inscriptions made on stone, which, incidentally, also required the latest technology to be created. As teachers, we need to move our thinking in line with as the shifting concept of books and change how we perceive writing, literacy and text beyond the traditions of the printed page to engage and motivate learners to read in a way that looks recognizable to them. We must foster an appropriate culture of reading for these middle school “digital natives” (Prensky, 2006) by understanding that “the nature of text includes more than just words on a page” (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000) and that e-reading technology tools can help to improve literacy outcomes for all children (Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012).

Technology Devices
McCombs (2002), suggests that middle-school learners can be inherently motivated by feeling in control of their environment (Daniels & Steres, 2011), which is a real problem if one of the biggest issues facing them is access to material they want to read (Ivey and Broaddus, 2001). To combat this, Patterson & Pipkin (2000) state that teachers must meet learners were they are “with the textual experiences they bring to the classroom”, which includes “electronic texts such as games and Internet reading”. Access to a variety and quantity of high-quality relevant reading materials is an issue for middle school readers (Kim & Guryan, 2001, Neuman & Celano, 2001 cited in Little, McCoach, & Reis, 2014), but it need not be so. Since 2007, the “number of devices available for displaying digital text has increased exponentially” (Tablet Adoption Drives Ereader Sales by 400% , 2011 cited in Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012) and e-reading devices such as iPads and Kindles offer both control and choice. They provide “easy access to books and newspapers” (Sullivan in Battye & Rainsberry, 2013), as well as have the capacity to house thousands of books and the capability to download new ones in seconds. They also offer support for all readers’ needs as the font size can be manipulated, they have text-to-speech features, built-in dictionaries, can create vocabulary lists, and connect to the Internet, features which may “substantially improve the learning of many students” (Anderson & Horney, 2007).

The Impacts of Technology on Reading and Achievement
It is not difficult to surmise that e-reading technology offers “real promise for improving literacy outcomes” (Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012). In a study on young children, Bus (2009), found that the use of multimedia supports available when using technology to present high-quality children’s books helped “improve children’s focus on and subsequent recognition of words from the text, as well as their vocabulary”, whilst Verhallan et al (2006), found that “embedding multimedia practice opportunities into e-reading technology that can be sent home” increased children’s at-home reading. However, research on “matching students to technologies is still at an early stage” and “evidence of its effectiveness is relatively limited” (Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012). As of 2012, only two large-scale studies of e-reading technology tools have been conducted; results were overwhelmingly underwhelming, but Biancarosa & Griffiths state that this might be because some of the programs used were utilized far less than recommended - “about 60 minutes a week rather than the recommended 110 to 165 minutes”. In his recent research into the opinions of UK-based English teachers towards e-reading devices, Goodwyn (2014), reported that 67% strongly agreed that re-readers would be useful in teaching and 81% strongly agreed that it would “engage more students in reading” (see Figure 3). However, access to devices remains an issue as “only 15% of teachers surveyed had e-readers available in their schools and even less currently used them in their teaching” even though “just over half stated they would like to use them in their classrooms if they were available” (Goodwyn, 2014).

Sustained Silent Reading: Digital Dichotomy

Autonomous reading for enjoyment increases reading scores as well as impacts positively on other areas of academic achievement, and the promotion of developing a culture of independent reading is deemed significant and recognised widely in education. At the Guardian Reading for Pleasure Conference in 2011 for example, every participant decided that the most important activity a school could initiate was Whole School Reading or Drop Everything and Read (Kanolik & Turker, 2011), whilst The Commission on Readings report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, recommends that students engage in two hours of sustained silent reading per week (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985). This paper suggests that to establish a successful SSR or DEAR program, autonomy and motivation is crucial in the cultivation of a reading habit. It also proposes that technology can provide the necessary variety, support and access to relevant and appropriate texts to impart that motivation.

Rethinking Reading Pedagogy
Effective technology integration is achieved when the use of technology is routine and transparent and supports curricular goals (Edutopia staff, 2008), however, e-reading devices were not designed with teachers or the classroom in mind, and current pedagogical uses can only come via the adaptiveness of teachers (Goodwyn, 2014). “Electronic media is causing us to redefine the word text” (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000), yet little research has been conducted on the use of differentiated instruction in reading (Little, McCoach, & Reis, 2014) and even less on the effect of technological devices as a means of differentiation. English teachers “predict the prospect of a growing emphasis on using media devices in teaching as being primarily student centered; relating to the belief that students like and use technology “ and also expect to use it in the classroom (Goodwyn, 2014). As English Language Arts teachers, we “have a responsibility to integrate these technologies effectively into the literacy curriculum in order to prepare students for the literacy future they deserve” (Bedard & Fuhrken, 2013) as well as meet them where they are with the knowledge and experience they bring to the classroom.

Many educators, however, may not appreciate that learners who “play electronic games on a system or on their computers are engaging in the passionate act of reading” and are having “intense reading experiences through electronic gaming” (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000). Hypertext fiction for example, a new narrative form, allows readers to choose, through the click of a computer mouse, a narrative path (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000). These experiences “may mark the beginnings of a lifelong reading habit” (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000) even if they are not recognizable to our generation as ‘reading’, and to become truly literate in today’s digital environment, learners “must become proficient in these new literacies of 21st-century technologies” (Bedard & Fuhrken, 2013). Learners “need more than access to technology; they need to learn how to apply it strategically to advance their literacy skills - especially the conceptual and knowledge-based capacities that become crucial in later literacy tasks” (Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012).

The dichotomy of the digital revolution continually taunts the ‘death’ of books even while teachers recognize that young people “relate, and respond, to technology” (Goodwyn, 2014). For example, studies of elementary classrooms show “how rapidly young learners are able to use the special features of the e-reader to personalize their reading experience” (Larson 2009, 2010), which can only help with motivation to read. Whilst some parents and educators continue to view technology as the “enemy to serious reading and a constant distraction for young people” (Goodwyn, 2014), opening a dialogue with readers of online text will help assuage concerns regarding any negative impact screen-time may have on reading time. The data discussed earlier in Figure 1, helps confirm the positive impact technology may have on reading, as the amount of time spent reading has increased from 1984 to 2004 in line with technological advancement and access. The amount of time spent reading daily has increased, access to technology has increased, and reading scale scores have increased - can there be a direct correlation?

The Future of Middle School Sustained Silent Reading

Middle school English Language Arts teachers and learners are blazing a trail, and more research needs to be done concerning their use of reading using technology. Limited work has been carried out on the behaviors of university students using e-readers (Grudzien & Casey, 2008), and a study of third grade readers provided evidence of pleasure and ease of use in e-readers (Sternberg, Kaplan, and Borck, 2007). These devices “offer real potential for a range of readers and may well provide reading experiences that are more valuable for some readers because of the nature of an electronic text that can be easily manipulated” (Goodwyn, 2014). There is, however, limited research on how teachers deliver SSR programs and virtually no empirical guidance on how to do so in a way that supports learning or by using technology. If technology “enables students learn in ways not previously possible” (ISTE, 2012), then the use of technology could affect a correlation between the frequency of autonomous reading learners do for fun, their reading scores and achievement overall. As educators, we have an obligation to expose learners to the many types of texts and reading available by understanding and exploring ourselves, and by accepting and meeting them at their experiences with online hypertext or gaming narratives. Using new tools and a revised understanding of ‘text’, we must deliver a “technologically infused curriculum [that] can develop multiple essential literacies: technological literacy, visual literacy, informational literacy, and intertextuality” (Smolin and Lawless, 2003 cited in Bedard & Fuhrken, 2013) otherwise, individuals will be unable to keep up with or develop strategies to deal with informational technologies and will quickly be left behind.

The Power of Text
Technology is considered a good fit in education when “the learning connections are clear and the selected activities add to the motivation and opportunities for students to gain knowledge” (Labbo & Place, 2010). We know that our students become readers when adults and peers invite them into texts they admire and respect, and who are passionate about reading and books themselves (Rief, 2000). English teachers are, by nature, passionate about reading; the act of reading that is, rather than books per se. It is, afterall, the content not the medium that matters. Engaging students with reading is the key issue and, as teachers, the responsibility is for us to do this in any way that works (Goodwyn, 2014). Reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1995) argues that the transaction between the reader and the text is a dynamic entity, however, changes in what we understand of as ‘text’ means that the power no longer only resides in the text or with the author of the text (Patterson & Pipkin, 2000). As Biancarosa and Griffiths suggest, the question now is “not the narrow one of how to fit technology into literacy education, but the broader one of how to transform literacy education to meet today’s changing demands” as the dynamic transaction between reader and text is enhanced and made more transparent. Ultimately, the question is, can we utilize this power and relationship with text and technology to meet middle school readers where they are, and motivate them to choose to read for enjoyment in order to impact their overall achievement?


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Figure 1

Average reading scale score, by age and amount of time spent on reading and homework: Selected years, 1984 through 2004. Data from Table 112 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).

Figure 2

Results of survey of middle school readers asked what reading activities they enjoy most in class (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001).

Figure 3

Results of a questionnaire surveying the opinions of 137 English teachers in the UK abut their perceptions and attitudes of e-reader and English teaching (Goodwyn, 2014).