I recently received an email from ReadWorks with the subject line, “Build Reading Stamina With Longer Passages.” My next email was from the Fantastic Mr. Fox advertising newly designed chicken coops. This blog is not a specific attack on the website ReadWorks, or other sites offering passages for reading instruction, but an examination of reading stamina and its place as a goal of reading instruction. I will argue that focusing reading instruction on passages, because they emulate what students encounter on high stakes tests, is a mistake. Making reading stamina a primary goal in your classroom is also a mistake. The solution to the problem is not more or longer passages, but books, yes books, poems, articles, newspapers, and websites that incite the imagination and stimulate curiosity.
Hiebert (2014) defines reading stamina as “the ability to sustain mental effort without scaffolding or adult support,” and there are students who lack reading stamina. The data from a then and now study, using the same passages and the same procedures reports that students today are less efficient readers than their 1960 counterparts reading significantly slower (with comprehension) in fourth grade and up (Spichtig, Hiebert, Vorstius, Pascoe, Pearson & Radach, 2016). Ask elementary students to read several passages and answer multiple-choice questions, many students will finish the task working at a steady pace.
Twenty-seven percent will quit or engage in fake reading after success on the first one or two passages. Another six percent simply engage in fake reading and never successfully read any of the passages (Hiebert, 2014). Reading stamina is a real problem, but we should not equate our concern with test taking behavior to the larger goals of literacy instruction.
Unfortunately we have used a sports metaphor to understand reading stamina and this is the wrong analogy. Consider the title of a KIPP Blog: “How to get better at push-ups and reading.” In sports, stamina means the physical or mental energy to endure a tiring and difficult activity. While this analogy might be apt for slogging through the Smarter Balanced or PARRC assessments, daily reading should be more than endurance in the face of difficulty, it must be the pleasure and insight gained from the successful journey through a novel or the excitement of new knowledge acquired while reading about a famous person and understanding a new scientific concept. What should drive reading are personal goals that range from escape to excitement to enlightenment. The goal of reading instruction is not to endure fatigue and privation.
Most educators who are writing about reading stamina suggest the same instructional guidelines: set goals for how long students can sit on their bottom and read. Gradually build up reading time from ten minutes to thirty, have teachers, parents and the students themselves provide rewards for sitting still and reading. This is reading as a physical training program. What is striking about all of these recommendations is the absence of concepts like motivation, interest, pleasure or purpose. In most of our literate history, and especially since the advent of the novel in the 18th century, pleasure, insight, intrigue, and the pleasure of the lived through experience were the goals of reading. We may be concerned that students lack reading stamina, but what we have failed to do is ignite within the child a love of reading and a knowledge of books, authors, and genres that foster a rich reading life.
Many students struggle in the upper elementary grades and avoid reading because they fail to develop, in the primary grades, proficient reading skills (Mol & Bus, 2011). Twenty-seven percent of our students report that they like reading but half say they read only when they have to (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2013). Among older students a third say they rarely or never read (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013). For these students it is unlikely that we will improve their reading ability by stressing determination and persistence free from any intrinsic rewards.
Reading stamina is an appropriate goal for the five hours that all third through eighth graders are stuck in front of a computer taking a complex text. We should address the concept of stamina as a test-taking skill, not the goal of day-to-day reading of fiction and non-fiction. The lack of stamina is a symptom; the problem is the third of our students who say they rarely read. We need to find a way to make reading a rewarding experience. Therefore consider the following suggestions for building the love of reading, reading proficiency and as a by-product, stamina.
- Build your own knowledge of children’s and adolescent literature. You can’t sell a product that you don’t know.
- Regularly talk to your student about exciting books and authors. Knowledge of books and authors stimulates interest and demand. Adult readers find books because of a friend’s suggestion, a book review, or a recommendation on National Public Radio. Children will do the same.
- Regularly have your students share what they are reading and why they like it. Peer recommendations are the only way to explain the success of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the Lightning Thief.
- Select a reading program that pushes the volume of reading. In the typical core program a student reads 2,000 to 3,000 words a week. That is one chapter in a novel or non-fiction book and not enough reading to build fluency.
- Teach your student how to read long complex texts stressing text structure, making interpretations and reaching for themes and main ideas (Collinge, 2014). The C.I.A. approach will meet your goals (www.readsidebyside.com).
Stamina is not a reading goal, but it may be a test-taking goal. A few students who lack stamina have difficulties with print skills, fluency or comprehension. Most students who lack stamina are not motivated and engaged readers. To improve stamina we need to help children love books and see them as a source of pleasure and enlightenment.
Written by Peter Dewitz
Director of Research
Read Side by Side Publications, LLC.
Lightsail (2016) http://lightsailed.com/literacy-strategies/five-ways-to-create-a-class-of-stamina-superstars/