What’s the difference between kids who remain at the bottom of the class and those who surge ahead to the top half?
It might be as little as 4.7 minutes, in the case of reading.
According to a November 2015 report on almost 10 million U.S. schoolchildren who practice reading using an online software program called Accelerated Reader, a shockingly small amount of additional daily reading separated the weak students who stay at the bottom from those who catch up over the course of a school year.
The analysis of struggling readers was part of an annual report, called What Kids Are Reading, produced by Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. The report also noted which books are the most popular at each grade level, and attempted to gain insight into how kids become better readers as they progress from first grade through 12th. Real student data was used, but the children’s identities were kept anonymous in the research analysis. (Findings from the first report and an explanation of the report’s limitations can be found in a piece I wrote last year here).
In this year’s report, Renaissance Learning found that roughly 200,000 of the 1.4 million fifth graders in its student database began the 2014-15 school year reading at a very low level, among the bottom quarter of fifth graders nationally. Most of them finished the school year in this unfortunate category. But 28 percent of these students somehow got out of the bottom quarter by year’s end. And a smaller subset of those students — five percent of the 200,000 — did something spectacular: in less than a year, they were reading as well as the top 50 percent of fifth graders.
The computer doesn’t know everything that affected them, but it does know that these spectacular students read an average of 19 minutes a day on the software. By contrast, the kids who remained at the bottom read only 14.3 minutes a day. Over the course of fifth grade, the catcher-uppers read 341,174 words. That’s 200,000 more words that those who remained strugglers.
“I wouldn’t say to a group of educators, ‘Hey, all you’ve got to do is five more minutes,’ but five more minutes is really helpful,” said Eric Stickney, director of educational research at Renaissance Learning. “But if they’re just sticking with low-level books that aren’t expanding their vocabulary, and not really understanding what they’re reading, five extra minutes isn’t going to be helpful.”
There were two other differences, too. The kids who caught up were choosing to read more challenging texts. (Accelerated Reader allows students to select their own books and articles from a list). And they had higher comprehension, answering 80 percent of the multiple-choice questions after each book correctly, compared with a 72 percent correct rate among those who remained at the bottom.
Stickney suspects that the students who are making these leaps are receiving extra help at school from talented teachers, and not just reading more on software.
Indeed, at least one expert in early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty, says we cannot tell from this study whether the extra five minutes a day is causing kids to make dramatic improvements. In an e-mailed comment, University of Michigan Professor Nell Duke explained that stronger readers spend more time reading. So we don’t know if extra reading practice causes growth, or if students naturally want to read a few minutes more a day after they become better readers. “It is possible that some other factor, such as increased parental involvement, caused both,” the reading growth, and the desire to read more, she wrote.
Stickney also noticed in his data that it was possible to make this extraordinary one-year leap from bottom quarter to top half even as late as eighth grade. Again, we don’t anything about this subset of students. It’s plausible, for example, that some of these leapers hail from well-educated immigrant families and were already strong readers in their native languages. But it’s also possible that some of these leapers suddenly had a breakthrough after years of struggle.
Even the eighth graders who made the impressive jump aren’t reading very much, though; the report finds interest in reading rapidly deteriorates after elementary school. The eighth graders who leapt from the bottom to the top read for only 16 minutes a day, three minutes less than the motivated fifth-grade leapers. Eighth graders who remained in the bottom quarter read less than 10 minutes a day, four minutes less than bottom students in fifth grade. But the word difference was enormous. In that small amount of time, the eighth-grade leapers read almost 500,000 words — 300,000 more than those who remained at the bottom. The more exposure to words, the more kids build their vocabularies, and the more they understand.
Teachers typically recommend 20 to 30 minutes of reading practice a night. One data mining lesson here is that you can get away with a lot less and still make extraordinary gains.