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Teacher question:

I am a reading specialist at a K-5 elementary school and I am working with classroom teachers to implement a book buddy program where older students (2nd and 3rd grade) will read to younger students (K and 1st grade). I am planning to spend some time with the older students to coach them on selecting appropriate books and engaging their buddies by reading with prosody and stopping to ask questions, make observations, etc. I would love to hear if you have done any research on the effectiveness of such programs or if you have any tips on how to make book buddies beneficial for all involved. Our primary goal is to inspire kids to read and share books together, and in the process, we hope our students will become better readers. Thanks so much!

Shanahan’s response:

If what you do motivates kids to read more on their own that would be great. Unfortunately, we don’t know an awful lot about that.

There isn’t an extensive research base that reveals effective ways of getting kids to like reading or do more independent reading. We have lots of opinions, of course, but not lots of knowledge.

Researchers have usually ignored these issues. When they have taken these issues on, they’ve usually been so ensorcelled with the reading achievement gains they’re so certain are going to result from their efforts that they don’t pay much attention to whether their wonderful encouragement scheme is … well, encouraging.

Few studies on reading motivation even consider whether the free pizzas, book floods, extra reading time, mentoring, and so on will entice kids to read more. Or, if there is more reading, whether it persists.

Thus, when their wonderful handy dandy motivational regime fails to raise reading ability — and in most cases that is the outcome — we can’t tell whether it even should have. Let’s face it, if your book buddy program fails to instigate more reading, then there’d be no reason to think it would make better readers.

An unfortunate research exception was the Summers & McClelland study (1982) that looked at the impact of a sustained silent reading (SSR) program on a large sample of Canadian middle schoolers. The idea was to give kids free reading time regularly within the school day to allure them into a love of reading. The kids would pick books that they’d get to read independently during the school day.

Summers and McClelland not only found no evident learning payoff from this, but the kids’ reading diaries (a rarity in such research) revealed that the practice led to less reading, not more. Gadzooks!

What you’re planning to do is so much better — both pedagogically and motivationally.

And, instead of buying into the automatic motivation fallacy (the idea that however we encourage reading will automatically increase the amount of reading that kids do), you are starting out trying to find ways of ensuring success.  

One of the real pluses of your plan is its social nature. I know this will surprise some teachers, but requiring someone to read for fun may be anything but.

Studies of motivation typically do not find that people are inspired or incented by isolation — but children, especially poor readers, often remark on the aloneness of reading.

A big motivator for most people is the social connection and your plan is rich in that. What you’re trying to do might be fun for the kids, either because it allows the older ones to feel like big shots since they get to be model readers for the younger ones, or because it’s cool for the youngers to get to hobnob with the older ones.  

So far, so good.

My concerns are two-fold. One, will the reading activities provide any real opportunities to learn (we are talking about school time here)? Two, will the kids make a motivational connection between the fun activity that you are providing and the idea of reading more on their own when they are away from school?

It would be great to have both of these, but I’d settle for one.

Let’s think about the learning opportunities first.

Research hasn’t found much payoff — in terms of reading improvement — from being read to at these ages. There are several studies at a variety of ages showing some oral vocabulary growth, however.

Most of the studies of reading to kids have been done with preschoolers and kindergartners (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). Those studies have consistently found improvements in oral vocabulary on measures like the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). It’s possible that PPVT gains would translate into better reading, but performance on the PPVT is only modestly connected to reading ability.

There are few studies of the impacts of reading to kids once they enter school. But those haven’t found reading gains either (Senechal, 2006).

That means that I wouldn’t bet on reading improvement for the younger students from book buddies, though there is a reason to think that they could become familiar with unknown vocabulary or valuable content.

What about the elders?

Things are more promising on that end. Studies do show that oral reading fluency practice can make for better readers. For that to work, the texts must be hard enough initially that there is room for improvement. Then, the students should read the texts aloud multiple times — in this case, rehearsing for their performance for the youngers. I like the purposefulness of that.

The most certain payoff will come from texts that the younger kids would be able to learn from (e.g., unknown vocabulary, valuable but unknown content) and enjoy (to keep the activity itself fun and to advertise reading effectively). But those same texts need to be demanding enough that the elders can’t read them well on a first try — though not so hard that they can’t read them fluently and well eventually.

I’d suggest you guide the elders to texts that are sufficiently challenging in terms of their current reading ability, but that have rich content and language that will push the youngers a bit. Then let the elders select from those the ones they think would be the most enjoyable.

Then the older readers must practice reading these texts aloud — that’s the fluency work. That practice, reading and rereading the texts until they can read them well enough that the youngers would enjoy the experience is where the learning will come for the elders.

Several years ago we helped out with a program in which children read to dogs (SitStayRead). It was just goofy enough an idea to be intriguing. The kids loved reading to the dogs, but their learning payoff came from their willingness to practice prior to sharing with the canines. Without that practice — rereading a book until they could read it well — they would not have improved their ability to read.

The idea of having the elders question or discuss the texts with the youngers is a good one. Make sure some of that emphasizes unknown vocabulary in the texts. Perhaps you and the teachers could help the elders to identify some keywords worth teaching. The learning payoffs to the youngsters are most likely to result from their increasing knowledge of the text content and vocabulary.   

You might consider providing partner training for the youngers, too. What does it mean to be a good book buddy who is being read to? Paying attention, showing gratitude, asking questions about the book that connects with the reader, etc. Maybe the younger readers could participate in the reading, too, trying to read a page or paragraph to the older partner?

Another idea might be occasional meetings of both groups along with the teachers. These meetings may be useful for connecting reading with the children’s lives outside of school. Does being a book buddy make you want to read more on your own? Instead of just assuming that the paired reading experience will lead to more outside reading, you might want to try to salt that mine a bit. (The idea that the read alouds might tip one off to a particular reading interest, or that aspiring to be a book buddy by going home and reading to a younger sibling or teddy bear might not occur to everyone on their own).         

Finally, I know I’m recommending a lot of teaching here, and yet, I’d stress the importance of keeping it fun.

I see three potential sources of motivation here:

  1. Curiosity — kids can work with cool texts that they will enjoy or learn from. Content should be king.
  2. Collaboration — kids get the payoff of working with other kids: The book buddies get to hang with each other of course, but you could also build in some collaborative work for the older ones for their preparation time. Maybe partner them up to practice their fluency or to come up with their text questions.
  3. It is possible that the fluency and vocabulary work will have a positive impact on the kids’ reading achievement. It is easier to like reading if you can read well.

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
October 6, 2017