Across the United States students are struggling and failing in their classes and having problems with reading. Many students continue to drop out of school despite huge dollars spent on educational materials.
District wide, basal reader programs could be part of the problem. Dewitz and Jones (2012) state “basal reading programs can be ‘handy’ for teachers but are ‘not the best of tools for educating avid readers or those who struggle with the basics.”
Current research shows us that reading is an ‘effortful’ activity that requires student motivation. Motivation is essential to reading and student choice, regarding what they read, is essential to motivation (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).
Social Learning Theory: Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling. The theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.
Keywords: Social Learning Theory, motivation, self-selection, basal readers.
Social cognitive theory is founded on an agentic perspective (Bandura, 2006d, 2008a). To be an agent is to exert intentional influence over one’s functioning and the course of events by one’s actions. Bandura advanced a comprehensive theory of human motivation and action in his social learning theory. Because intrapersonal influences, in which self-efficacy is a constituent, are part of the determining conditions of behavior, people have a hand in shaping events and the course their lives take.
Bandura’s theory states that the self-efficacy begins to materialize within students as they gain successful mastery of the subject. As they are, step by step, able to do a thing, their view of themselves and their own abilities starts to increase and they become willing to tackle more difficult tasks (Bandura, 2012). As students start to gradually improve their reading skills, they become more confident in their abilities and more able to take on new challenges.
However; every student starts with schema beliefs about the world and about themselves. Schema beliefs are very real for the person who has them (Piaget, 2007). As teachers, we have to evaluate what the schema beliefs are for the students walking into the class. We have to start, not where we are, but where they are and then work up from there in every subject.
Additionally, we have to deal with student emotions that they bring to the table as they approach reading or any subject. If they walk in with negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities (I don’t like to read) teachers need to deal with those emotions also. The more negative beliefs the student or group of students have about the subject, the more we have to deal with the emotional content of the setting first and then, slowly, move into the academic context.
Emotions are the primary motivational system for behavior to include perception, cognition and actions. The function of fear (“I don’t do math”) is to motivate flight from a dangerous situation. Fear can disengage the motor system resulting in an emotionally paralyzing response when the individual is facing threats to self-concept or psychological well-being (Izard & Ackerman, 2000). Emotions, schemas, and self-beliefs therefore all become part of a student’s ‘reading ability.’ Motivation, as we shall see, is a key emotional factor in a student’s commitment to reading.
What are Basal Readers and what effect do they have on reading?
Basal readers are anthologies of stories published by the big publishing houses and usually sold, en masse, to school districts across the nation. An example is Reading Street (Afflerbach, 2010) where various authors have submitted stories on a variety of subjects. Frequently, these books seek to teach grammar, parts of speech, proper sentence structure plus reasoning and logic skills. The contention being, that if we break the language down into its various parts, this deconstruction process is going to teach reading. Conversely, the books are frequently large, intimidating, complicated to understand and boring to the extreme. Some research indicates students go backward in their abilities to read instead of forward (Dewitz, 2012).
Conversely, reading with authentic materials such as books, magazines and newspapers is being shown to increase student interest, engagement, involvement and academic progress. Dewitz and Jones explore the effects of basal readers on student reading levels. They have determined that certain districts require their teachers to use basal readers ‘with fidelity’ meaning that the package programs from the publisher must be followed exactly regardless of teacher preferences. The results are frequently unsuccessful. In one study, 25% of third graders in programs like this, failed to past their state assessments (Dewitz, 2012).
What are the basics that students need to improve reading?
In his article, Torgesen (1998) indicates that one of the most compelling findings from recent reading research is that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. As several studies have now documented, the poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998).
And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time. As Stanovich (1986) pointed out in his well-known paper on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) associated with failure to acquire early word reading skills, these consequences range from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).
The best solution to the problem of reading failure is to allocate resources for early identification and prevention. School-based preventive efforts should be engineered to maintain growth in critical word reading skills at roughly normal levels throughout the early elementary school period. Although adequate development of these skills in first grade does not guarantee that children will continue to maintain normal growth in second grade without extra help, to the extent that we allow children to fall seriously behind at any point during early elementary school, we are moving to a “remedial” rather than a “preventive” model of intervention.
Adequate reading comprehension is the most important ultimate outcome of effective instruction in reading. The ultimate purpose of reading instruction is to help children acquire the skills that enable learning from, understanding, and enjoyment of written language.
Two general types of skill and knowledge are required for good reading comprehension. Consistent with Gough’s “simple view of reading” (1996), comprehension of written material requires: 1) general language comprehension ability, and 2) the ability to accurately and fluently identify the words in print. That is, good general language comprehension and good word reading skills are the most critical skills required for effective comprehension of written material. Most children who become poor readers experience early and continuing difficulties in learning how to accurately identify printed words.
First, children destined to be poor readers at the end of elementary school almost invariably have trouble “sounding out” unknown words (Siegel, 1989).
Second, poor readers at all grade levels are characterized by slower than normal development of a “sight vocabulary” of words they can read fluently and automatically (Adams, 1990).
The most common cause of difficulties acquiring early word reading skills is weakness in the ability to process the phonological features of language. This is perhaps the most important discovery about reading difficulties in the last twenty years (Lundberg, Frost, & Peterson, 1988; Wagner, et al., 1997) and (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989).
On the one hand, many children enter school with adequate general verbal ability and cognitive weaknesses limited to the phonological/ language domain. Their primary problem in learning to read involves learning to translate between printed and oral language. On the other hand, another significant group of poor readers, composed largely of children from families of lower socioeconomic or minority status, enter school significantly delayed in a much broader range of pre-reading skills (Whitehurst & Lonigan, in press). Since these children are delayed not only in phonological but also in general oral language skills, they are deficient in both of the critical kinds of knowledge and skill required for good reading comprehension. Even if these children can acquire adequate word reading skill, their ability to comprehend the meaning of what they read may be limited by their weak general verbal abilities.
To summarize, adequate monitoring of the growth of children’s word reading abilities should include out-of-context measures of word reading ability, phonetic decoding ability (as measured by ability to read non-words), and word reading fluency.
Moving Away from Basal Readers, where do we go from here?
So, now we have identified some of the problems which contribute to reading problems in young children. In addition to early intervention strategies, what else can be done to improve student reading and comprehension? In the last 15 years, researchers who have studied third-grade children’s reading, have become interested in their motivation to read, along with the cognitive skills required to read well (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Because reading is an effortful activity that often involves choice, motivation is crucial to reading engagement. Motivation theorists attempt to understand the choices that individuals make among different activities available to them and their effort and persistence at the activities they choose (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002a). Even the reader with the strongest cognitive skills may not spend much time reading if he or she is not motivated to read (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).
Students’ self-concepts and the value they place on reading are critical to their success. . The motivational research of the last decade supports what good classroom teachers have known for a long time. Supporting children in their literacy learning is not an exact science, nor is it a simple matter. Teachers can make a difference in the literacy lives of young children when they serve as reading models and motivators and create classroom cultures that are book-rich, provide opportunities for choice, encourage social interactions about books, build on the familiar, and reflect the view that books are the best reward (Gambrell, 2015).
These researchers found that though third grade boys were equally as self-confident as girls about their reading, they self-report valuing reading less than girls. In addition, they found that third grade boys and girls valued reading newspapers and magazines as well as books (Marinak and Gambrell, 2007). Also, choice is widely acknowledged as a method for enhancing motivation. Allowing young children to make even a minimal task choice increased learning from the task and enhanced subsequent interest in the activity (Lepper, 2005).
Research shows that allowing students to make choices about their reading material increases the likelihood that they will engage more in reading. Moreover, many schools have limited resources for the students for their self-selection process in reading, (McKool, 2007). Lastly, the subject of interest is gaining momentum in the field of research as an emotion unto itself. Interest has clear motivational and goal components, particularly for exploration, information seeking, and learning. To illustrate, people spend more time reading interesting text (Ainley, Hidi, & Berndorff, 2002) and process the text more deeply, resulting in enhanced learning (Silva, 2005).
I created the attached survey to administer, anonymously, to 4th and 5th grade students in the Clovis Unified School District. The list was composed of books from the Fresno Library ‘Novel-List for K-8 students’. The books are selected by professional librarians and have usually won a number of awards by the time they are included on the list.
Embedded within the list are books that are regularly used in 4th and 5th grade classes and are assigned as whole-class reading assignments. Those books are Chronicles of Narnia, The Giver, The Island of the Blue Dolphin and Holes. The survey was to provide students a short list of books to select from and asks them to choose which books they would ‘like’ to read. The purpose of this list is to discern which books students would choose for enjoyment purposes. Enjoyment of reading is heavily linked to continued commitment to reading as a lifestyle and further engagement academically (Gambrell, 2015).
I approached the GIS (Vice-Principal) of an elementary school where I frequently work and asked if I could give the survey to students in my class. Although the answer was not exactly no, his response was that all requests for research have to go through the District office and a response takes at least 60 days, with no guarantees of a yes answer. Additionally, the principal at the school strongly discourages any teachers from requesting such permission.
Since it seemed unlikely I would be able to administer my survey at Clovis Unified, my second stop was Betty Rodriquez Library where I volunteer. I presented the list to two librarians and was able to get some but not all data from them because this is ‘classified’ information. However; they were able to tell me how many books Fresno County has for each selection and that is a significant indicator of public interest. Clearly, the library orders more copies of books based on customer demand. I had to reorganize my list starting with the most library volumes to the least number. This is the new list:
- The Giver –Lowry – 36 copies
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Rowling – 35 copies (series)
- The Last Olympian – Ricordan – 20 copies (series)
- Holes – Sachar – 17 copies
- Esperanza Rising – Munoz-Ryan – 17 copies
- Chronicles of Narnia – Lewis – 14 copies (series)
- Island of the Blue Dolphins – O’Dell – 9 copies
- Tomas and the Library Lady – Mora – 7
- Elsewhere Chronicles – Nykko – 6 (series)
- Spirit Animals – Blood Ties – Nix – 9 (series)
- Ella Enchanted – Levine – 6
- We are the Ship – Nelson – 5
- Nnewts – TenNapel – 5 (series)
- Brixton Brothers – Mysterious Case of Cases – Barnett – 5 (series)
- Goblin Secrets – Alexander – 4 (series)
- The Jumping Tree -Saldana – 1
Of the books on the list; The Giver, Holes, Chronicles and Island are all required reading and that contributes to their higher numbers. Students come into the library to get copies and finish their homework.
However; there is a significant trend that shows up in the other books. Students consistently pick fantasy books and books that are part of a series. It appears they are selecting the books based on the name of the author and then going back and getting more books in the series by that same author. They might have picked up the first book originally by the title or the cover, however later, they determine what they are comfortable with and go and find more books like that first one. Of the group above; seven of the selection are books from a series. This finding is significant because it gives us insight into what ‘hooks’ are effective to keep students returning again and again to the library or the bookstore.
As a child, I read all the Nancy Drew series, and then moved to Charlotte Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and others. I found the authors I liked and then went back over and over again for more of their books. That is exactly how books are sold to adults; people select the author of their choice be it John Grisham or J. K. Rowling, Clive Cussler or Janet Evanovich. That author becomes so popular that the author’s next book is often sold before it is published!!
The most effective reading programs for kids should, then, focus on a popular author, tell the students some interesting author facts and then list author books and allow the students to pick their ‘choice’ of these books. For example Chris Van Allsburg, a very popular novelist, has written a number of children’s books that have been made into movies (Jumanji, Zathura.) These movies can be incorporated into a lesson plan to introduce students to the author and help develop author interest. Students can pick their choice of his books, read aloud to each other, write up a report on the book and make a presentation to the class to talk about their book. Many teachers have utilized just such a plan for their English Language Arts programs with great success (Nickerson, 2015.)
“Series books provided a great hook to get…reluctant readers engaged and reading (Szymasiak and Sibberson, 2001). …using series books was a successful technique for improving fluency …students became familiar with the main characters and text structure, making comprehension…easier…Having students hook into a series was (a great way) to improve reading rates and ultimately their stamina…for longer books,” (Allen, 2005).
To go back for a moment to basal readers and ‘why’ they don’t work. The authors in most basal reader books are not professional writers. They are usually teachers who have been assigned to write an essay on a specific topic that the school (or publishers) want to cover. They write the ‘story’ (essay) and incorporate the required facts and vocabulary, add some pictures and nice colored captions and viola, there is the ‘story’. These submissions are understandably boring and command no long-term or sustained interest in the students. No student is going to want to hold on to a copy of his or her basal reader because they want to reread those great stories. Whereas, with a really great author, (Mark Twain for instance) how many times will an average reader reread one of his books? (Dewitz, 2012).
Teachers need to look at long-term reading goals and incorporate repeat reading as one of their objectives. If students get ‘hooked’ on a series or a magazine or a newspaper, the chances are they will read that same publication over and over again and/or move onto another similar publication.
The Role of Libraries
Stephen Krashen (2011), an expert on literacy writes “Children of poverty have very little access to books at home and in their communities, with less access to good public libraries and bookstores (Neuman and Celano, 2001). Once again, school is not helping: children of poverty attend schools with poorly supported classroom libraries and school libraries (Duke, 2000; Neuman and Celano, 2001). Studies confirm that increased access to books is related to increased reading achievement ( Krashen, 2004, Lindsay, 2010), which makes sense in view of findings that show that self-selected reading is a powerful predictor of reading achievement (Krashen, 2004).
Library, means the percentage of school libraries in each country with over 500 books. This was a strong predictor of reading achievement (beta = .34). … the library predictor was nearly as strong as social class (as a predictor of reading level) (Krashen, 2011).
The four studies reviewed … show that predictors related to access to reading material are strong and consistent predictors of reading test scores. … a great deal of previous research, … strongly suggest that providing access to books can, to at least some extent, make up for the effects of poverty on reading. As noted above, several studies confirm that children of poverty have little access to books at home or in their community; the school library may be the only source of books for these children,” (Krashen, 2011).
Libraries are an invaluable link to literacy in general and higher reading scores in particular. We need to support and help libraries and they can help our students. Libraries want repeat customers. Teaching students about authors and also genres will teach them how to find reading material that is good for them. Students may be overwhelmed with the volume they find in the library and they need to be taught how to find their own personal choices through the maze of books and materials found there.
“… the role of academic libraries in contributing to student engagement and better institutional retention rates, George Kuh ( National Survey of Student Engagement) said that academic librarians may indirectly affect student success through their interactions with students and by helping them acquire needed research and information literacy skills and competencies. By establishing rapport with students, librarians can help foster a supportive campus environment which has salutary effects on student engagement and achievement. …” (Bell, 2008). Librarians can teach student how to use the library resources; both for content and enjoyment.
As Hiebert (2009) states, “the measure of whether we are successful as literacy educators is whether individuals turn to texts for information, restoration, inspiration and enjoyment” (p. xii). Encouraging the love of reading habit…..requires thoughtful ….reading instruction that is built upon principles of motivation (Gambrell, et al., 2011).
It is impossible to separate student motivation with student results in reading.
Providing balanced book collections at all grade levels is vital to engagement during both reading instruction and self-selection. A balanced collection includes a broad range of informational titles and a variety of print materials. These resources include fiction, non-fiction materials, books, magazines and newspapers (Gambrell, 2011).
Teachers need to refocus their selection of classroom reading materials to be current with student interests. Books written in the last decade will have more appeal to modern students. We need to focus on developing author interest and genre interest so that students learn their personal comfort zone. They will revisit what they are familiar with again and again (Gambrell, 2011).
Teachers should try to incorporate known authors who write a book series. Once the student indentifies with the author, it is easy to go back to the library, find the author and then get the next book. Also, once all those books have been read, if the student has an understanding of their genre (science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, manga,) it is easy to find other authors in the same genre (Allen, 2005).
Although children are not ‘little adults’, we need to recognize that their preferred style of reading may be very similar to that of adult readers; we like to read what we are most comfortable reading. As parents and teachers we need to give children avenues to discover their own personal reading ‘comfort zone’ so that continued reading will become a life-long habit (Allen, 2005). The best readers will be the ones who can and will read for enjoyment as well as content (Krashen, 2011).
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