The effect of independent reading on a comprehension skills test

iStock_000006625549XSmallFurther evidence to justify scheduling independent reading time in elementary schools was reported by D. Ray Reutzel and Paul M. Hollingsworth. Previous research was established that sustained independent reading can have a positive effect on standardized test scores. Still, some educators are concerned that using additional instructional time for sustained independent reading will negative affect student scores on locally mandated criterion-referenced tests. Using a reading comprehension test, Reutzel and Hollingsworth set out to compare the performance of students who spent time reading books of their choice to students who received instruction and practice in specific reading comprehension skills.

Sixty-one 4th graders were randomly assigned for 30 minutes each day to one of three different treatment groups: independent reading only, independent reading and skill instruction, and skill instruction only. All students also spent 30 minutes each day in a basal reading program (Houghton Mifflin Series). The basal reading lessons, however, covered none of the reading comprehension skills taught in the experimental treatment sessions.

Each student in the reading-only group read a book of his/her choice for 30 minutes each day for 30 days. Students in the combined reading/skill instruction group read books of their choice for 15 minutes each day and received instruction in comprehension skills for the other 15 minutes. Students in the skills-only group received 30 minutes of specific comprehension skill instruction and practice during this same time.

Performance of independent-reading group comparable to other groups

Comprehension skill instruction focused on four areas: noting details, drawing conclusions, finding sequences, and determining main ideas. Each lesson was planned around the following elements: anticipatory set, lesson objective, input and modeling, guided practice and checking for understanding, independent practice and assessment. Throughout the study, classes were monitored to ensure that this plan was followed consistently.

Pre- and post-tests using the Specific Comprehension Skills Test were administered. The scores for all three groups showed significant growth in reading comprehension. The average gain for all three groups was as follows: 25% on noting details, 16% on drawing conclusions, 8% on finding the sequence, and 20% on determining the main idea. The composite mean gain across the four areas was 16.5%. There were not statistically significant differences in performance between the groups.

Reutzel and Hollingsworth conclude that all three treatments contributed equally to gains in specific reading comprehension skills as measured by the Specific Comprehension Skills Test. They speculate that the students who read independently scored as well as those who received instruction for several reasons. First, independent reading develops background knowledge which has been shown to be important for comprehension. Secondly, as research indicates, reading enables students to internalize text structures and literary genres which also aids comprehension. Thirdly, reading trade books exposes children to a wealth of vocabulary and a variety of text structures not normally a part of skill lessons.

This study is limited by its sampling of students from a single grade, as well as by its measurement of only four comprehension skills. Therefore, Reutzel and Hollingsworth do not recommend that teachers drop all skill instruction. Nevertheless, these results indicate that equal time, at least, can be spent in sustained reading in the middle grades with no decline in performance on criterion-referenced comprehension tests. Since this study was limited to the 4th grade level, these researchers warn that it should not be assumed that these findings would apply to younger, less experienced readers.

“Reading Time in School: Effect on Fourth Graders’ Performance on a Criterion-Referenced Test” Journal of Educational Research Volume 84, Number 3, p. 170-176.

Published in ERN May/June 1991 Volume 4 Number 3


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