In an increasingly assessment-focused school system, we want to propose an alternative: what if students focused on reading for fun?
Though educators often feel pressure to use assessment-based systems and push canonical texts, studies have shown that encouraging students to read for pleasure is a more effective method to boost fluency and comprehension in young readers.
Why is reading for pleasure more effective than standardized reading comprehension programs? And why did we stop reading for fun in the first place? Read on to learn more about the long-term benefits of independent reading.
In the late 1980s, when schools moved from phonics to whole-language literacy instruction, they also began to shift their attention to reading comprehension and fluency. To do so, schools implemented programs like Accelerated Reader, which uses short reading quizzes to test comprehension, determine student reading levels, and recommend new books. Though initially these programs seemed like a great, tech savvy solution, they had several fatal flaws – the worst of which was the lack of focus on the intrinsic value of reading.
A recent study by Scholastic shows that there is a significant drop in students’ desire to read for pleasure between the ages of eight and nine years old. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that literacy instruction becomes less of a priority around the third grade, and that students participate in fewer read-alouds. But although the Scholastic study doesn’t directly address testing, third grade is also the year that most districts begin standardized testing for reading comprehension.
Between assessment-based reading models and a focus on standardized testing, reading begins to feel like a chore for many students, particularly if they don’t have parents or teachers who promote reading for fun. As a growing number of studies show that assessment-based reading models aren’t working nearly as well as they should be, many educators are turning back to reading for pleasure. This shift doesn’t just improve academic outcomes—it supports the growth of the whole student.
Reading for pleasure does improve test scores – but it also brings a host of other benefits, including encouraging personal and community growth. Here are five important reasons to encourage your students to read for fun:
Getting lost in a book allows students to do inner work – including challenging themselves to understand new perspectives and consider where they stand on important subjects like personal values. Students also connect on a deep, personal level to the characters in books, and that cultivates empathy. When students bond with characters as if they were their friends, they consider the characters’ unique social and emotional positioning. The more students read, the more they can empathize with others.
In a recent study by the National Literacy Trust, independent reading was shown to improve academic outcomes for vocabulary, grammar, and reading fluency. Reading for pleasure also increased positive reading attitudes, which correlate with greater overall reading achievement and lifetime reading habits. Promoting independent reading is a great way to cultivate natural curiosity and a culture of lifelong learning.
The same National Literacy Trust study found evidence that reading for pleasure provides a better understanding of other cultures. Encouraging students to read stories about other ways of life allows them to escape into these new worlds and consider other ways of being. In a 2003 Nestle Family Monitor study of children aged 11–18, 55% of participants stated that books help them understand different people and cultures.
In an increasingly chaotic world, educators are relying more frequently on mindfulness practices to support student well-being and manage their classrooms. Studies show that reading reduces symptoms of stress and depression in students – reading even physically reduces your heart rate.
Mindfulness studies also show that a relaxed brain can more easily take in and retain information. That means reading not only supports students’ physical and mental health, it also makes them better able to learn.
We often overlook a huge benefit of reading for students: community development. When students read the same books and bond over shared stories, they engage in discussion, challenge each other, and support each other’s learning. According to one study from 2008, reading out loud with children can lead to stronger emotional bonds and a greater sense of security. Encouraging students to discuss their independent reading or participate in book clubs can be a fun way to promote both reading comprehension and social interaction.
Teaching kids to read – including the underlying mechanics, spelling, and grammar – is important. But teaching them to love to read might be even more important. Learning to love reading opens a world of learning, curiosity, enrichment, and joy that can truly become a lifelong relationship. Join us for a demo to see how Zoobean is helping thousands of schools and libraries motivate their communities to read for fun with its Beanstack app and Badge Books.
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