In education, we’re always looking for the magic bullet – that one thing that will help children to succeed, that will help eliminate the achievement gap once and for all. If we lengthen the school day, will that increase scores? If we provide our students with better-trained teachers, will they learn more? Will more or less recess time help students focus on academics?
There are many things that have a positive effect on achievement: family income level, enriching early childhood experiences, warm and positive relationships with caring adults, even daily family meals. It seems obvious that a child who is not having his basic needs met (a safe and nurturing home environment, a healthy body and mind, food security) will have a more difficult time in school.
All of these factors are important, and as a society, we need to prioritize them. But there is one thing that we can do, as parents and as educators, to help every student achieve more in school right now. Bryan Caplan, noted author and professor of Economics at George Mason University, recently revisited a study of how American students spend their time.
In the study published in 2001, researchers measured the time students ages birth to twelve spent on various activities such as eating, sleeping, playing sports, watching television, reading, studying, etc. After controlling for family and child background, the researchers found that there were few significant activities that were correlated with student scores on the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Tests.
In fact, the amount of time spent studying had almost no correlation with high test scores; similarly, students who spent a great deal of time watching television did not have significantly lower test scores. Out of nineteen activities, there were only two that predicted greater academic success across the board: visiting (which includes time spent in youth groups) and reading. Visiting had a small positive correlation, but reading had a large positive correlation.
Children who spent time reading for pleasure scored significantly higher on tests of cognitive ability, regardless of their age. In addition, the researchers found that time spent eating and sleeping was positively linked to good behavior in school. In other words, if parents are looking for things to do at home to give their children the best chance at success, they should make sure that they are eating and sleeping well and spending time reading for pleasure.
The UK’s Institute of Education published a study in 2013 confirming that children who read for pleasure perform significantly better than their non-reading peers in mathematics, vocabulary and spelling. From ages 10 – 16, reading for pleasure was found to be even more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of educational attainment.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that activities like playing outside, talking with friends, and participating in organized sports have no value. Children need lots of different experiences to become well-rounded, empathetic individuals. However, if there is one activity we can encourage our children to do that impacts their academic achievement, it is reading for pleasure.
Every teacher in every school should have one assignment each night: for students to read. Time spent reading – regardless of the reading material, whether classic literature or graphic novels or comic books – will have a greater positive effect on achievement than a page full of computation problems. Parents should ensure that their children have time to read every evening.
Although public libraries have had dramatic decreases in their funding over the past decade, they play a vital role in our communities. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 61% of Americans ages 16 and older had a library card and that 48% of them had visited a library in the past 12 months. Libraries are valuable because, as the Charles H. Revson Foundation states, “Libraries do more to fight inequality than anything else in the city — for they provide universal access to the world of words.”
There is not one magic bullet that will fix our education system and ensure that all children succeed. But reading for pleasure is positively correlated with academic achievement at all ages and grade levels, regardless of parental income or background. Reading is a means of acquiring knowledge and traveling beyond our own experiences. Raising a generation of citizens who love to read will help us to achieve our potential as a nation.
This post was also published at GoLocalProv.