Few people would disagree that improving children’s reading ability would make a good thing. Not only would it open up greater opportunities in life, it would boost their cognitive development and increase the likelihood of them being able to access an academic curriculum.

One barrier to children being able to comprehend what they read is the finding that an estimated 20% of children leave primary phase each year unable to decode with sufficient fluency to read the kinds of texts they will encounter at secondary school. Essentially, the more slowly you read, the more working memory capacity is taken up by decoding, leaving fewer cognitive resources available for comprehension. If children cannot decode fluently then it follows that would be unable to understand a written text even if they could understand the same information given verbally!

Recent evidence suggests that the speed required for fluent reading may be somewhat slower than previously thought. A new meta-analysis and systematic review by Marc Brysbaert (preprint available here) has revised the previous estimate for fluent reading of 300 words per minute down to an average of 240 wpm. If true, this could be good news – maybe the target at which we need to aim to make sure children can comprehend text just got a little bit lower!

Apart from improving the fluency of decoding, I’ve struggled to find effective, evidence -informed approaches to improving students’ reading comprehension. As as I can see, there’s no such thing as ‘reading comprehension,’ there’s just comprehension.* Once children can decode fluently, comprehension is a language problem rather than a reading problem per se. If this is right, it’s hard to see how teaching comprehension skills such as inference and analysis can be worthwhile as comprehension depends on knowing more about the subject one is reading (or hearing) about.

For some time now I’ve been of the belief that one of the best uses of an English teacher’s time is to ‘just read’ to their classes. The more children are read to, the greater the range of vocabulary they will encounter and the more knowledge of the world they will pick up, allowing them to make sense of unfamiliar texts. Whilst this has been a logical conclusion, I didn’t have much in the way or empirical evidence to support advising teachers to scrap inference training and other comprehension lessons in favour of ‘just reading’ interesting, high quality texts to their students.

Happily, such evidence is now available. A new study by Jo Westbrook, Julia Sutherland, Jane Oakhill and Susan Sullivan suggests that ‘just reading’ made a significant difference to students’ standardised reading comprehension scores.

Although this a pretty small scale study, its findings are fascinating.

20 English teachers in the South of England changed their current practice to read two whole challenging novels at a faster pace than usual in 12 weeks with their average and poorer readers ages 12–13. Ten teachers received additional training in teaching comprehension. Students in both groups made 8.5 months’ mean progress on standardised tests of reading comprehension, but the poorer readers made a surprising 16 months progress but with no difference made by the training programme.

Let’s just recap the key points:

  1. Both groups read two ‘challenging novels’ over 12 weeks and children made eight and a half months worth of progress (such novels included The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Now is the Time for Running.)
  2. Teachers receiving training in how to teach reading comprehension made no difference to students’ progress. What seemed to make the difference was listening to engaging, cognitively demanding narratives.
  3. The rate of progress was doubled for the most disadvantaged students.

This last point makes intuitive sense; on average the most disadvantaged students are likely to have had less access to the vocabulary and background knowledge available in cognitively demanding stories and so, with more to gain, it stands to reason that they’d make the most progress. In addition, the researchers argue the following points:

  1. The selected texts challenged teachers’ assumptions of students were capable of and the questions they asked were more cognitively demanding.
  2. Reading aloud interspersed with deft questioning supported poorer readers to read effortlessly over longer chunks without getting stuck, their energies directed towards comprehension
  3. Because the text was read quickly, students were more likely to enjoy the novel and were more invested in what was happening.

So, to sum up, the key points in the success of this intervention seemed to be:

  • Teachers reading aloud (I written about this before here and here)
  • Abandoning written response and focussing on fast paced questioning in between sustained bouts of reading aloud
  • Selecting texts that are sufficiently demanding
  • Reading whole texts back to back

This is, I think, hugely exciting. If we want to help children improve their reading we should read to them. If we care about closing the advantage gap, then reading to students is even more important – all students will benefit but the most disadvantaged will benefit most. The message is clear: stop teaching reading and just read.

* I do realise it’s a little more complicated than that: the type of language we encounter in writing tends to be way more structurally complex than that we meet in speech. If children don’t read then they unlikely to acquire the orthographic familiarity required to make sense of unusual syntax and more complex vocabulary.