The Power Of 'Just Reading' A Good Novel
Reading longer texts aloud instead of having students read brief excerpts can boost comprehension.
English teachers are increasingly trying to teach comprehension using short texts and excerpts from novels. But if they just read whole novels aloud at a fast pace, they might get better results.
Elementary school teachers have long used brief texts to teach reading comprehension, but now English teachers in middle and high school are also abandoning the idea of teaching whole books and novels. One factor is the pressure to raise scores on standardized reading tests that began in 2001 with the passage of No Child Left Behind. The tests aim to assess comprehension abilities through questions about short passages on disconnected topics, and teachers try to prepare their students by mimicking that approach in their instruction.
Another impetus appears to be a misunderstanding of the Common Core’s requirement that students engage in “close reading” of “complex text.” A lead author of the literacy standards, David Coleman, recorded a couple of videos explaining the approach that went viral. In one, Coleman used the Gettysburg Address, suggesting that a lesson on that 272-word text might last three to five days. He urged teachers to have students engage in deep analysis—by, for example, discovering that the word dedicate occurs frequently, and that it changes its meaning depending on what other words it’s connected to.
Coleman’s intent was to move teachers away from disconnected comprehension “skills” and toward immersing students in rich text. But many teachers got the opposite message, concluding that the Common Core was all about building skills, including "close reading." Some have also apparently concluded that the bulk of classroom time should be devoted to snippets of text that they feel are too difficult for their students to analyze on their own. And if students lack the stamina and motivation to read long, complex novels independently, the answer seems to be to just provide them with a taste of that experience through excerpts.
Close reading of brief text has its place, and—done well—it can help students learn how to wrest meaning from complex text. But the authors of the Common Core saw it as just one component of English language arts instruction, to be supplemented by the reading of short stories, novels, plays, and literary nonfiction. In many schools—especially those with large numbers of struggling readers—that’s not happening. Or at least, it’s not happening with challenging text. When students do read entire books, they’re often confined to those at their own reading level, which may be far below their grade level. Many teachers believe that's the way to improve comprehension, but there's no evidence that's the case.
Pretty much no one has argued that the way to boost comprehension is to have teachers read entire challenging novels aloud at a fast pace, pausing only occasionally to make sure everyone is following the story. And yet, a recent study from England suggests that approach can be powerful.
According to the study, students in the equivalent of middle and high school in England also get a fragmented exposure to literature, with excerpts from novels and frequent interruptions in the form of questions intended to develop their analytical skills. The researchers who designed the study, which focused on 365 students in the equivalent of seventh grade, hypothesized that if challenging novels were read in their entirety at a faster pace and combined with “explicit teaching of comprehension,” poorer readers would show marked improvement on a standardized reading test.
Their hypothesis was only half right: comprehension was indeed boosted. After getting through two novels in 12 weeks, average readers made a full nine months of progress. And poor readers made 16 months of progress. But the researchers were wrong about the value of comprehension instruction. It made no difference.
The researchers speculated that students made so much progress simply because they were able to read far more text—and more sophisticated text—during the 12 weeks of the study than they have ever done before. In addition, the inclusion of poorer readers in a regular classroom—where they were exposed to the same challenging text as their more able peers—raised teachers’ expectations for them.
I haven’t done a scientific study myself, but I suspect there’s more going on. I’ve been in classrooms where students are listening to a teacher read aloud from a novel they couldn't read well on their own, and I’ve seen how rapt they become. Even if they don’t understand every word or allusion, they get swept up in the story, especially if it’s read with few interruptions. And, as the authors of the recent study note, previous research has found that when readers (or listeners) are emotionally engaged in a text, they acquire more vocabulary. They may also unconsciously absorb more of the sophisticated syntax and conventions that appear only in written language, which can help them understand other complex text. Brief passages and decontextualized excerpts don't allow for the emotional engagement that reading a novel provides.
I've visited an elementary school in rural Delaware using a curriculum called Bookworms, which de-emphasizes comprehension instruction and has teachers in kindergarten through 5th grade read aloud from books too difficult for students to read themselves, including many novels. Both students and teachers said they couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next in a story, and several teachers reported that formerly reluctant readers were now among the most eager. (The same thing happened in the study done in England, which quoted students as saying, “Can we speed read so we can finish the book?” and “Can we just read and not do any questions?”) A study has shown that after only a year, students using Bookworms made gains in comprehension that were significantly greater than those in comparison schools.
I've also visited a secondary school in England called Michaela, where the weakest readers stay after school for a kind of book club. The day I was there, the teacher was reading aloud from Jane Eyre while students followed along in their own copies. Even teachers who advocate for having students read whole novels emphasize that the novels should be "high interest," which generally means they should reflect students' own lives and concerns. That would seem to place Victorian novels like Jane Eyre off limits, especially at a school like Michaela, which serves students from low-income families, many of whom are of color. But in that classroom, you could have heard a pin drop. (I was moved to reread the whole novel myself.) The practice of having the teacher read aloud while students follow along, and are occasionally called on to read a sentence or two, is used throughout the curriculum at Michaela. And it seems to work. The school takes in many students who are reading on the level of a six-year-old at the age of 11, but within two years they've all caught up to where they should be.
Questions remain about the most effective method of “just reading”—for example, whether the reading aloud should be done by teachers or students. At Michaela, the theory is that the teacher is most likely to be able to read fluently and with expression. In the recent English study, some teachers had students take turns reading aloud, but that practice caused anxiety for struggling readers and made it hard for others to follow the story.
Another question is whether students should follow along in the text while the teacher reads. Some maintain that can be cognitively overwhelming. But Michaela's experience indicates otherwise. And there’s evidence that when students listen and read simultaneously, they acquire more vocabulary and improve both fluency and comprehension.
Clearly, students need to do more than just listen to novels to develop the fund of knowledge that will enable them to understand complex text in history, science, and other subjects. And English teachers need to lead some discussion of what's going on in a novel. But they might want to try spending less time on “skills” and more on just plunging into a good, long story. Not only could that boost comprehension, it might also acquaint students with the joys of reading, develop their ability to empathize with others, and counteract a disturbing internet-fueled trend towards shorter attention spans and skimming. Given the lack of progress in educational outcomes over the last 50 years, it’s hard to see why we wouldn’t try something so simple and yet apparently so powerful.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.