Research into reading, the promotion of reading and literature education

Reading Education

-> For reading comprehension, good instruction, motivating texts and an expert competent teacher are crucial.

-> Teachers stimulate pupils' motivation to read by means of lesson formats that reinforce their relationship with and the autonomy and competence of pupils.

-> The presence of a reading coordinator at school improves the reading climate.

-> Special programmes in primary and secondary education that stimulate reading motivation have been shown to be effective.

-> Discussions of books in the classroom stimulate conversational skills and the ability of primary school children to interpret texts.

-> For the development of their reading skills, children benefit from reading complete, authentic texts.

-> School textbooks ideally present their texts with conjunctions and in a continuous layout, and they should be ‘to the point’.

-> Reading performance benefits from teachers who are better paid and better trained.

Good instruction, motivating texts and expert/professional teachers drive improvements in reading proficiency

In learning technical reading and reading comprehension, children benefit from systematic and integrated instruction. They need this to develop phonemic awareness (of sounds in words), to learn letter-sound combinations, and to master spelling patterns. It is also important for the development of vocabulary and the ability to use reading and comprehension strategies flexibly (Belfi et al., 2011).

In the case of reading comprehension, children also benefit from authentic texts that they experience as interesting and appealing. In addition, interaction with other children helps them to process what has been read. The combination of good instruction and motivating texts increases the likelihood that children will develop into skilled readers (Belfi et al., 2011).

The context in which the teaching and reading materials are offered is crucial. The teacher and the atmosphere in the class accounts for 6 to 26% of differences in performance (Houtveen & Van der Grift, 2007). An expert teacher not only offers high quality instruction, but also ensures that the lessons are structured and is able to differentiate between individual pupils. He/she also demonstrates how a text should be read (‘modelling’), initiates interaction about the texts that have been read and has pupils work together on reading tasks (Belfi et al., 2011).

Three effective lesson formats for education that encourage reading

A favourable reading climate reinforces an autonomous motivation to read, that is, reading for pleasure and its personal meaning. Parents and friends are the most important stimulus for children. However, teachers also make a contribution. They can serve as positive role models who are willing to transfer their passion for reading to their pupils. Three supporting lesson formats are effective in reinforcing the autonomous motivation to read for both primary and secondary school children (De Naeghel, 2013; De Naeghel et al., 2014; Van Steensel et al., 2016):
a. Teachers can focus on social relationships so that pupils feel that they have a personal bond with them. This can be done by showing a sincere interest in the children’s reading behaviour and entering into discussion with them about this.
b. Teachers can also focus on autonomy so that pupils have the feeling that they can make their own choices. This can be done by listening carefully to the preferences that the children have with regard to books and giving them the time to read a book of their choice.
c. Teachers can focus on competency, so that pupils acquire more confidence in their own ability. This can be done by offering challenging texts at or slightly above the children’s level, by creating clear expectations and by providing constructive feedback.

A reading coach stimulates motivation to read

An increasing number of schools in the Netherlands have appointed a reading coordinator. This is a teacher who specialises in reading, who is responsible for formulating the school’s policy to promote reading, for organising and coordinating activities that promote reading and for supporting teachers in their endeavour to improve the quality of their reading instruction. The presence of a reading coach such as this has a positive effect on the autonomous reading motivation of pupils in primary education (De Naeghel, 2013).

Programmes aimed at promoting reading in education bear fruit

Special programmes aimed at promoting reading aim at increasing the motivation of children to read, so that they read more often, obtain more pleasure from reading and become more skilled readers. Many programmes take place in an educational context, such as the Library at School programme in the Netherlands. A meta-analysis of 88 studies shows that such interventions boost both pupils’ motivation to read and their reading proficiency. The positive effects are ‘moderate’ or ‘small’ according to Cohen’s guidelines: d=0.28 for reading motivation and d= 0.40 for comprehension (Van Steensel et al., 2016).

A number of elements of programmes aimed at promoting reading appear to be particularly effective. Firstly, interventions which stimulate the pupils’ interest in reading show improvement in pupils’ motivation to read as well as their reading proficiency. This interest may be personal (an interest in particular topics) or situational (a reading task that focuses on reading strategies). Secondly, it helps if attention is paid to the autonomy of pupils (by giving them freedom of choice with regard to the texts they read), as well as to their social relationships (by allowing them to work together during the lesson while performing reading tasks and having them discuss books). Thirdly, the motivation to read is also encouraged if the interventions stimulate the pupils’ feelings of competence, for instance, by matching the texts to be read to their level of reading (Van Steensel et al., 2016).

Secondary school pupils benefit more with regard to their reading skills from programmes aimed at promoting reading than primary school pupils. The motivation to read of poor readers, on the other hand, increases more substantially than average readers. This is good news because there are relatively many pupils with low levels of literacy in practical training and preparatory secondary vocational education. They may benefit, in particular, from such interventions (Van Steensel et al., 2016).

Discussions about books deepen narrative comprehension

Teachers can allow children to have discussions in class about the books which they have read. Pupils in groups 7 and 8 (the last two years of primary school in the Netherlands) who participated for one year in a specially developed programme, inspired by Aidan Chambers’ pupil-focused method, achieved slight progress in conversational techniques. During the course of the programme they asked each other more and more varied questions, for instance with regard to the motives of the characters. In addition, they learned to explain their experience and interpretation of the story better. However, they showed no progress with regard to the two remaining dimensions of literary competence, i.e. assessment and narrative comprehension. As a means of processing books, discussions of books may therefore contribute to literary development. However, it must be remarked that  the study did not include a control group of children who did not participate in the intervention (Cornelissen, 2016).

Complete texts rather than isolated words

Practice makes perfect. It ensures that reading becomes increasingly automated. The reading material may increase the value of practising. In this respect, authentic texts help more than simply lists of words. Children who read these authentic texts numerous times learn more quickly and learn to read more fluently than if they were to do exercises with isolated words (Houtveen, Van de Grift, & Brokamp, 2013; Martin-Chang, Levy, & O'Neil, 2007).

Vocabulary and text comprehension also benefit more markedly from reading texts than from learning lists of words. The context helps children to deduce the meaning of difficult words. It appears that young, beginning and poor readers benefit from this most (Houtveen, 2013; Archer & Bryan, 2001; Nicholson, 1991).

Finally, text-focused reading education results in greater ‘transfer’ of that which is learned. Pupils who practice with complete texts and books perform better with unfamiliar reading material than those who do exercises with isolated words (Houtveen, 2013; Martin-Chang & Levy, 2005).

From reading aloud to reading silently

Reading aloud is important, in particular, in the initial phase of learning to read (Belfi et al., 2011). Once children are able to read fluently, reading silently has a greater effect; it  enables them to process 30% more words. In effect, they will read more words per year, as  a result of which their vocabulary will increase (Houtveen, 2013).

Effective reading strategies for comprehension and motivation

Teachers who pay attention to ‘metacognitive’ reading strategies will stimulate the performance of their pupils. Examples of such strategies are the activation of prior knowledge and the use of the title, paragraphs and subheadings to make predictions (Houtveen & Van der Grift, 2007). Deriving information which is not explicitly stated in the text (inference) is also effective, as is evaluating comprehension of the text during reading (monitoring). Pupils who learn to master these strategies not only progress with regard to reading comprehension, but also with regard to their motivation to read. The same applies if they learn to simulate mentally. In doing so, they create a visual, auditory and motor (i.e. movement) representation of the text in their mind, as if they were ‘present’ (Bos, 2016).

‘Comprehensible’ textbooks are counterproductive

In some textbooks, particularly for the lower level, the texts are published without conjunctions and in a fragmented layout in which each sentence starts on a new line. In addition, these texts include narrative elements (e.g. characters, dialogue in history textbooks). Publishers make these changes to enhance the involvement, motivation and, above all, the comprehension of pupils (Van Silfhout, 2014; Land, 2010).

Although they are meant to provide support, these textual characteristics are counterproductive. Indeed, conjunctions, such as ‘because’, ‘but’ and ‘above all’ result in better text comprehension. This applies to subject-related texts (for instance, about biology), historical texts and (short) stories. Conjunctions make pupils aware of how the sentences relate to each other. As a result, they can process these more quickly, actively revisit the text and save cognitive energy (otherwise used for generating inferences) (Van Silfhout, 2014).

Pupils in preparatory secondary education, general secondary education and pre-university education benefit from linking words (Van Silfhout, 2014). Strong readers at all these levels benefit more than poor readers. They have a greater need for the conjunctions in order to understand the text (Van Dooren, Van den Bergh & Evers-Vermeul, 2012). Readers with little reading experience and readers with limited prior knowledge of the topic benefit in particular (Bos-Aanen, Sanders & Lentz, 2001).

A fragmented layout offers as little support. The comprehension of pupils who read a textbook in which each sentence begins on a new line is not improved and reading is even slower (Van Silfhout, 2014).

Narrative elements are distracting because they burden the working memory unnecessarily. Pupils have to switch between streams: the information (the economic crisis in the 1930s) and the narrative context (about a prominent politician of the time). As a result, they integrate the parts of the text less well, are able to filter out the relevant details less well and remember precisely that which they are allowed to forget (the narrative details). Pupils in preparatory secondary vocational education, irrespective of whether they are strong or poor/disadvantaged readers, benefit most from textbooks which are to the point and in which information is presented without too much embellishment (Van Silfhout, 2014).

Investment in the teacher increases reading proficiency

What can government bodies, policy institutions and schools do to improve reading proficiency? More contact hours and more time for homework do not have a particularly positive effect (Scheerens et al., 2013). Investing more money in education helps to a certain degree. Above an invested amount of USD 35,000 per pupil between the ages of 6 and 15 years—approximately half of what is invested in the Netherlands—reading performance improve proportionally (PISA in Focus, 2012).

In the case of prosperous countries, such as the Netherlands, it makes more sense to invest in the attractiveness of the profession. This can be done through better teacher education and offering teachers higher salaries (PISA in Focus, 2012). Many schools in the Netherlands are faced with a lack of qualified teachers. Almost half say that this is at least the case to some degree, as opposed to almost 3 out of 10 internationally (Kordes et al., 2013). The salaries of teachers in the Netherlands are almost the same level as those of  employees in other sectors with a similar level of education. From an international perspective, the salaries of teachers in the Netherlands are above average (OECD, 2015).