Do your students read enough? After all the worksheets and exams, can we help them discover that reading is fun? CRPP researchers teamed up with a group of secondary school teachers to determine how well the school’s Extensive Reading Programme really works.
The Extensive Reading (ER) Programme helps students develop the habit of “reading for pleasure” by exposing them to a wide variety of material which they can choose and read at their own pace. In one secondary school in Singapore, this is implemented in the form of 20-minute reading periods and special classes where students review and talk about the books that they’ve read, often through creative presentations.
Teachers fully support the school’s ER programme and believe in providing students with plenty of opportunities to read. However, they had one major problem: they were concerned that students were only reading for school and not for pleasure.
Given that ER was supposed to encourage students to be lifelong readers, this was an important issue that needed to be addressed.
School teachers approached CRPP to help them determine how well the ER programme works and how it could work better. This led to the project, Independent Variables that Impact Literacy and Reading Habits, led by Dr Jeanne Wolf and Dr Wendy Bokhorst-Heng.
Looking for answers
Jeanne and Wendy evaluated the ER programme using a formative evaluation approach, where teachers and school leaders were involved in everything from conceptualising research instruments, to gathering and analysing data. “It was never us saying, ‘So this is what we’re going to do’,” recalled Wendy. “At every stage, it was a partnership.”
The evaluation required student interviews, classroom observations, diagnostic exams, and “a LOT of meetings”. At the same time, case studies of three teenagers from different streams were done in order to get a deeper understanding of their literary practices beyond school.
Of course, this approach also had its share of challenges. “Because we had such a heavy process approach, it wasn’t until the middle of the first year that people stopped thinking of us as those who were out to monitor what they were doing,” said Jeanne. Still, it was this “heavy process approach” that kept teachers fully aware of the status of the research and how its findings were being interpreted.
“In a sense, there was no one moment of great surprise because they were part of the process from Day One,” said Wendy, “We made sure we showed teachers some data at every meeting. We always gave them an update on where we’re at and what we’re finding. Most of all, we always asked them, ‘What do you think?'”
What they found out
So it works, but…
Interestingly, the evaluation showed that the ER programme actually did well in spite of the teachers’ earlier perceptions. Although they did not like filling out the online logs where teachers kept track of how much they read, students enjoyed the reading periods and talking about books with their classmates. They also showed a relatively positive attitude towards reading, with most seeing it as a way to do better in school and expand their vocabulary.
Ironically, this perception of reading was also the root of the ER programme’s problem. The strong association between reading and school was actually part of the reason why few students read beyond the classroom. The case studies showed that this perspective was also shared by many parents and grandparents alike. “If your home is telling you the more important reading is the ones that are school-related, or that comics are not important although you love them, then that’s what happens,” said Jeanne.
Of course, this is not to say that reading to improve one’s vocabulary is a bad thing. “You can’t impose on any school or anybody what the appropriate value of reading is,” Wendy explained, “but it needs to be recognised that okay, you’ve got a programme where a very important goal is reading for pleasure. Sure, there are other benefits, but simply, you want students to read because it’s fun. If your objectives are this and the programme’s objectives are that, is this the programme that we need?”
At the same time, there were also contrasting definitions about the ER programme’s objectives and purpose. Jeanne and Wendy discovered that teachers and school leaders had different ideas about what “reading” they wanted to achieve.
“The perception of literacy, how the programme works and how it should work, varied among stakeholders and within stakeholders,” said Jeanne. Some teachers believed that reading was for gaining information while others thought it was to improve English and do better in school exams. While these were all powerful reasons to encourage students to read, many teachers forgot that the actual purpose of the ER programme was to teach students that one can read for pleasure as well.
As a result, even students themselves were unsure of what ER was for. When asked why they go through the reading periods everyday, the students didn’t know because the teachers did not tell them what it was about.
The BIG paradox
Another big question raised during the evaluation was how to reconcile the concept of reading for pleasure with the outcome-oriented focus of Singapore’s educational system.
“It’s a powerful question because it gets at one of the biggest challenges of the programme,” noted Wendy. At the same time, it also leads to more questions, such as whether students should record how much time they spent reading or whether there should be a departmental standard about how much they should read.
The case studies also showed that there was a need to look into the students’ motivations and attitudes towards reading. “There are many schools where you walk around and see all these book posters and book contests. But the notion that reading is fun is just not there – the liveliness, the passion. That’s the way to change attitudes!” exclaimed Jeanne.
In spite of such challenges, Jeanne and Wendy do not think that the current paradox is a sign of failure. “Part of our answer is that there is the ‘Singapore ER programme’,” explained Jeanne. “It’s not the Western idea of what ER is but, rather, a Singaporean version. Perhaps there’s a way to make it more focused on reading for pleasure as well.”
So what happened?
Jeanne and Wendy were quick to stress that the evaluation was not an intervention. While both are self-proclaimed bookworms, neither claims to be a “reading expert” with all the ready solutions for the ER Programme. “Once the school sees the evaluation report, it’s up to them to think of what the implications are for them,” clarified Wendy, “We can flag some – and we are going to in the report – but it’s really up to them.”
This does not mean that there has been no significant change. Since the beginning of the evaluation, the school has noted the limitations brought forward by the research and worked towards improving the ER programme. For example, students now choose from a wider selection of books and may be allowed to read magazines by next year. Newspapers are also delivered to the school every Monday morning, giving students yet another genre of reading. At the same time, the evaluation highlighted the need for teachers to question things and share information.
“Initially, you really had very few conversations, but as the year wore on, we had a lot of people talking and even questioning. They would ask, ‘Do we really need these online logs?’ At the beginning, nobody would ask a question like that,” recalled Jeanne. In a way, making teachers co-evaluators rather than simply those who were evaluated allowed them to step back and think about their own practice.
When asked about how other schools can make use of their research, Jeanne and Wendy refer to the evaluation process “as the most positive story you can get from the research”. While the research findings are definitely important, they believe the formative evaluation is a perfect example of using research to inform practice, encourage reflection, and create change.
As stated by Jeanne, “A real benefit of evaluation is to raise questions for further discussion.” It forces educators to consider how a programme may need to change to suit their own particular classroom contexts, rather than assume one can simply implement a static programme. As the project moves on to link ER with home and school literacy practices, it will be exciting to see what kinds of discussion we will have next.