The first day of our summer research Project Based Learning course was the stuff of nerd dreams. It was a typically foggy morning in San Francisco. Our instructor, Dr. Nicola McClung, sat down across from a soon-to-be team of ten of us -- doctoral students in the education program at the University of San Francisco. She posted links to two international data sets, the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). Then she posed a simple and powerful question: “What do you want to know more about?” She sent us off to quiet corners of the room to read through the questionnaires given around the PIRLS and TIMSS data sets, and asked us to look for interesting intersections of questions that we’d like to study as a team.
My initial research questions were ones I’ve been batting around in my head for a few years now; it just so happened that there was DATA out there to help me understand my questions better! Three of the student questions stood out to me: one on reading for fun, another on reading texts students choose themselves, and a third on reading books that are interesting to students. On that first day, I wrote three research questions, all circling around the same issue: Is reading for fun associated with greater comprehension of literary texts? Is reading texts that students select for themselves associated with greater comprehension of literary texts? Is reading for interest associated with greater comprehension of literary and/or informational texts?
As luck would have it, the team ended up selecting my research question! We spent the remainder of our summer course researching the topic of CHOICE in reading, and how that correlates with a student’s reading comprehension scores, as measured by the PIRLS assessment. I spent much of the summer combing through research articles on factors influencing student achievement in reading, and sitting down with awesome practitioner texts, like Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, for inspiration. Although I can’t really get into the nitty gritty of the study quite yet (we’re currently working on publishing a paper!), I can say this:
As a profession, we already know that reading matters. Multiple metrics link an increase in reading with higher reading achievement scores. We also intuitively know that choice influences motivation. Giving students a choice means giving them a voice. The hope is that choice increases motivation which increases reading comprehension. We’re working on drawing a more direct connection in our ongoing study - and I’ll post it once we’re done!
So, in the interim, where does this leave us? As a teacher practitioner working on this study, I am returning to my classroom with three major take-aways:
- Let students select their own texts whenever possible. This may mean providing a limited set of options for core texts, and allowing students to work in literature circles; or, it may mean augmenting some of the full-class reading with independent, self-selected reading.
- Give students time to read every day or almost every day. Allowing students to read like adult readers also means giving them the freedom and privileges that adult readers have - a sort of "bill of rights," as penned by Daniel Pennac, and first introduced to me by Donalyn Miller. Students should have the right to read, not read, skip pages, not finish, re-read, read anything, read anywhere, browse, and not defend their taste...to name a few.
- Help students select relevant texts that are targeted at their skill and interest levels. Independent reading becomes a wonderful tool for differentiation when students are guided in selecting appropriate texts.
I am reminded of an oft-quoted line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I've eaten; even so, they have made me." Here's to giving our students choice, and nourishing their intellect in the process.
Many thanks to my research colleagues ~ Dr. Nicola McClung, Millie Gonzalez-Balsam, Elaine Barry, Yvette Mere-Cook, Hamid Ahmed, Denae Nurnberg, Laleh Talebpour, Rajeev Virmani, and Qu Wang.