Greetings from the Research Department at Reading Plus!
There is so much to share about all the exciting research going on in our department, but in this post I want to tell you about our latest publication in the April/May/June 2016 issue Reading Research Quarterly.
1960: Establishing the Standard
The story actually begins over half a century ago, when Stanford Taylor (Reading Plus CEO Mark Taylor’s dad), followed in the footsteps of his own dad and uncles and conducted a national study of silent reading efficiency in US students in various grades from grade 2 through college. Importantly, after students read standardized grade-level passages, Stan required them to demonstrate comprehension in order for their data to count. For this reason, what he measured is now referred to as “comprehension-based silent reading efficiency.” The study was first published in 1960, and came to be regarded as providing the most useful standard for national norms for reading rates in US students.
I first met Stan about 20 years ago when I was a student in New Mexico. He introduced me to the importance of reading efficiency and the significance of eye movements during reading. This resonated with me because of my past experience teaching 3rd and 4th graders in Switzerland, and I wanted to learn more. Lucky for me, Stan was the president of Reading Plus at the time and he hired me on as a project editor. That’s where it all started.
Through the years, one of my longstanding goals was to replicate Stan’s 1960 study. I wondered how reading efficiency might have evolved in US students. In 2011 I was able to fulfill my goal.
We signed up dozens of schools in 16 states and obtained eye movement recordings during silent reading from more than 2,200 students in grades 2 through 12. We used the same basic procedure as Stan had used 52 years before, including having students read the same standardized grade-level passages, and using the same comprehension questions.
US Students Today: Our Key Findings
Our new publication in Reading Research Quarterly describes what we found, and compares the results to Stan’s 1960 study. Here are some key results:
First, students in both studies had similar comprehension-based silent reading rates in second grade. By fourth grade, however, the students in 2011 were reading 12 words per minute (wpm) more slowly than students in 1960. This gap continued to widen across grades. By grade 12, students in 2011 were reading at only 192 wpm, while grade 11 students in 1960 were already reading at 237 wpm. That means students in 2011 were reading on average 45 wpm more slowly than their 1960 counterparts. This represents a 19% decline in comprehension-based silent reading rate.
Second, grade 11 students in 1960 seemed better able to recognize words with a single glance; that is, they averaged just under one eye-fixation per word. This suggests that they rarely had to stop and figure out words, instead recognizing most of them almost automatically. This is an ability that comes naturally with frequent silent reading practice, and it tends to make reading easier and more enjoyable. Grade 12 students in 2011 seemed to have more difficulty, however, averaging more than 1.3 eye-fixations per word. That would certainly tend to slow down their reading, and could make it more difficult to concentrate on meaning.
Third, the top 25% of students in 2011 continued to increase their reading rates during high school and by grade 12 were reading at rates averaging nearly 280 wpm, well above the average student in 1960. The lowest 50% of students, however, barely increased their reading rates at all beyond tenth grade, gaining just 1 wpm in the last two years of high school. These students completed their high school careers with reading rates that were well below or at best comparable to typical conversational speaking rates. At these rates, reading would probably be rather laborious and not a lot of fun.
The Role of Silent Reading Instruction
Why are today’s students not as skilled at reading as they were 50 years ago? There are many possible reasons, but given all the social, economic, and educational changes in American society over the years, who can say for sure?
What we can say for sure is that, at the end of the day, we have to consider whether many students don’t develop their reading skills simply because they are not reading enough. National data suggest that one third of 13-year- olds and 45% of 17-year- olds rarely or never engage in recreational reading. How can we expect them to become better readers if they don’t read?
This is where structured silent reading instruction comes in. Students who receive such instruction and become efficient readers typically come to like reading more, and then they read more, and then they become better still. This is often referred to as the “Matthew Effect;” i.e., the rich get richer…
Want to read the full study?