‘Do you enjoy reading?’ is simple indicator of how well students are likely to perform

iStock_000004896500XSmallWhen filling out forms at the doctor’s office, patients often are asked to indicate whether they consider their health to be excellent, good, fair or poor.

This is a quick and accurate indicator of an individual’s health status that can be used not only by doctors, but also by policymakers to gauge the health of the general population.

In education,  the question, “How much do you enjoy reading?” could play a similar role in assessing a student’s academic health, according to an international survey of 520,000 15-year-olds conducted as part of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing.

Students who reported enjoying reading the most performed significantly better on PISA 2009 than students who enjoy reading the least, according to the report, PISA 2009 Results: Learning to Learn, Student Engagement, Strategies and Practices.

For each of the 71 counties participating in PISA, 4 groups of students were identified according to how much they reported enjoying reading (top quarter, second quarter, third quarter and bottom quarter).

As much as 18% of student variation in reading performance can be explained by differences in how much students reported enjoying reading.’

“The difference between the top and bottom quarters on the index of enjoyment of reading shows what large inequalities in reading performance there are between enthusiastic and unenthusiastic readers in all countries,” the report says.

“On average, across OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, a difference of one unit on the index of enjoyment of reading corresponds to 40 points on the PISA reading scale, or the equivalent of an average school year’s progress.”

The link between enjoying reading and performance seen in PISA indicates that helping students learn to enjoy reading more is an important way to help them do better in school.

Socioeconomic background

Approximately one-third of the association between reading performance and socio-economic background is mediated by the extent to which students enjoy reading and are aware of effective strategies to summarize information, according to the report.  And as much as 70% of the difference in reading performance between boys and girls is the indirect result of these 2 factors.

“Enjoyment of reading and awareness of effective learning strategies to summarise information are two distinct, yet complementary, aspects of students’ approaches to reading and learning,”  the report says. “Enjoyment of reading is one of the motivating aspects of learning, while awareness of appropriate strategies to summarise information is a meta-cognitive and self-regulatory aspect of learning.”

The bad news is that 37% of 15-year-olds–and as much as 45% in Austria, the Netherlands and Luxembourg—report that they do not read for enjoyment at all.  The report suggests that enticing disengaged readers with easy and interesting texts, such as those found in magazines, and then gradually introducing more complex texts could be one way to improve the reading performance of boys and disadvantaged students.

Research suggests that creating conditions that promote reading practice and letting students read what they want to read could also be beneficial.

Some of the other findings about how reading attitudes and habits impact reading performance include:
Frequent brief periods of reading are more important than large amounts of time spent reading.  The PISA score point difference between students who spend fewer than 30 minutes per day reading for enjoyment and students who spend no time reading for enjoyment  is  greater than the score point difference between students who spend half an hour to an hour reading for enjoyment and students who spend fewer than 30 minutes.

Students who read a wide variety of materials outperform those with narrower interests in reading.  Students who read fiction for their own enjoyment several times a month or several times a week are more proficient readers than students who do not read fiction. Yet the highest performers read a wide variety of materials.

What students read makes a difference.  Reading comic books is generally associated with low levels of reading proficiency.  However, students who engage in online reading activities, such as reading e-mails, chatting on line, reading news online, participating in online group discussions and searching for information online, are generally more proficient readers than students who do little online reading.

Girls are more likely than boys to be frequent readers of fiction and are also more likely than boys to read magazines.  More than 65% of boys regularly read newspapers for enjoyment and only 59% of girls do so. About 27% of boys read comic books several times a month or several times a week, while only 18% of girls do so. To narrow the gender reading gap, educators should consider catering to boys’ reading preferences, such as their relatively strong interest in reading newspapers and reading online.

Over the longer term, parents, teachers and society need to change the stereotyped notions of what boys and girls excel in doing and what they enjoy doing.

Besides questioning students about their reading preferences and habits, PISA 2009 assessed how students approached learning based on their use of memorization, elaboration and control strategies.   Examples of statements in the survey that students were asked to respond to included “I carefully check whether the most important facts in the text are represented in the summary” and “I read through the text, underlining the most important sentences. Then I write them in my own words as a summary”.

Girls use memorization and control strategies more than boys, while boys rely more than girls on elaboration strategies (e.g. relating knowledge to experiences). Students from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds know more about and report using learning strategies more than students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, although memorization strategies are used to the same extent by students from all socio-economic backgrounds.

“Reading a lot is not enough: students who read a lot but who do not understand how to learn effectively perform worse in reading  than students who read less but understand what effective learning entails,” the report concludes.

PISA 2009 Results:Learning to Learn Student Engagement, Strategies and Practices,  Volume III, OECD (2010)

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