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Teacher questions:

Can you point us to any research regarding the practice of Book In a Bag sending leveled readers home with students each night? What do you think of “Books on the Bus?”

Shanahan’s response:

I know of no research on either of these methods for increasing kids’ access to books. I checked both PscyInfo and Google for sources, and nada!

I’m not surprised, both of these schemes were local school district ideas that captured media attention—and then spread from one district to another.

I must admit I like both ideas. Generally.

In both cases, kids are encouraged to read. Can’t fault that.

In both, books are made available for kids to read. Books are good! Check.  

And there is at least some research on the importance of easy access to books — more on that later.

Both districts from whence these inquiries came were taking on these approaches in order to encourage reading while preserving instructional time during the school day.

I like that. We should all be trying to expand reading into the kids’ daily lives.

That sure beats the “drop everything and read” idea. I mean how many people can just drop their work or other responsibilities to read? “I know it’s time to place your catheter, Mrs. Mandelbaum, but I’m going to drop everything…” well, you see what I mean.

Instead of creating the mindset that reading, even reading for pleasure, is a school thing, and that if one gets that chore out of the way there, then home reading isn’t necessary, it would be better to teach kids that reading should be part of their lives—not their school lives — and that they have to learn how to manage that among the other myriad of things that they do. Smart.

If I were to quibble at all, I’d criticize the districts for committing to an idea before seeking research evidence. We need to change that sequence … first, look at the research, then make the decision.

But as I say, that’s a quibble in this instance, since these schemes both seem positive, reasonable, and even inexpensive. Whether or not they improve reading achievement or make kids like reading, they look like a lot of fun and could be affirmative ways to communicate to the kids (and their parents) that we think they should read more when not in school.

Sort of like chicken soup and colds … I don’t know if it really helps, but it couldn’t hurt! (Currently, I’m on the board of advisors of Reading is Fundamental (RIF) and in the past I’ve done that for Reach Out and Read (ROR); both are prominent organizations that work hard at increasing book access for kids.)

What can I tell you from the research?

Awhile back (2010), Jim Lindsay published a meta-analysis on access to print (opens in a new window) for Learning Point (commissioned by RIF).

Not surprisingly, most studies of increased access to books focus on less affluent kids. Since its inception the national assessment (NAEP) has reported fewer books available in the homes of poorer readers and various studies have shown that economically disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to be book deserts, particularly with regard to children’s books: fewer and more distant libraries, fewer and worse book choices, etc.

Basically, this report found that book access tended to have positive effects on a variety of outcomes including reading achievement, reading readiness, attitude, and amount of reading in which students engaged. Effects tended to be highest with the least rigorous studies and with the youngest children (prereading rather than reading outcomes).

Limiting my comments to rigorous studies conducted with elementary students that looked at reading achievement, it’s evident that average payoffs were small (and non-existent in some of the studies). In other words, you might see learning improvements from your new programs, but it’s unlikely — and if there are payoffs they are likely to be small and, perhaps, intangible.

Some of these programs did more than distribute books — and these other features may have figured in their success (or lack thereof). Some studies found that results varied based on whether the books were lent or given to the children (though it wasn’t consistently clear which was best). Most of the programs (75%) involved the kids in the book choices, and that seemed to be an important feature in whether learning gains happened. And, some of the programs provided books, but also encouragement and support for parents and others to be involved in the children’s reading — again a positive feature. (In the versions of Books on the Bus that I’ve read about, this is a key feature, with kids reading together and older kids helping younger ones).

Perhaps some of these findings will help you shape and improve your programs over time. In any event, please keep encouraging and supporting the reading habit beyond the school day. Hope it works for your communities.


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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
August 13, 2018

Related Topics

Children’s Books, Motivation