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Students Spend Little Time Reading Or Writing in School, NAEP

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By Robert Rothman

Washington--Reports released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that students at all grade levels spend little time reading or writing, whether in or out of school.

But they also show that those who read and write more frequently perform best in those subjects.

The reports, based on a 1988 assessment of 13,000 students in reading and 20,000 students in writing in grades 4, 8, and 12, also draw on data from surveys of teachers and students. They provide, NAEP officials said, the first data linking classroom practices to performance in these subjects.

The data make "a powerful statement about literacy education in America today," said Ina V.S. Mullis, NAEP's deputy director.

According to the reading report, about half the students in all grades reported reading 10 or fewer pages each day for schoolwork. And students' interest in books, it says, appears to decline as they progress through school.

Most of the reading instruction that takes place, moreover, is at a relatively low level, according to the report. Such instruction for most students is based on a single basal reader, it says, and few students reported discussing, analyzing, or writing about what they read.

The report on writing reveals that, despite the growing interest in teaching that subject across the curriculum, only half of the 12th graders reported writing more than two papers in the previous six weeks, and most said their writing consisted of a few paragraphs.

Overall performance in both subjects, particularly in writing, was relatively poor, the report notes, and the achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and advantaged areas was substantial. In writing, black 12th graders barely outperformed white 4th graders, the report notes.

Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, said that the results "highlight the need for a lot more attention to staff development on how to teach reading and writing."

He added that efforts to restructure schools should focus on ways to enable teachers to spend more time developing students' reading and writing abilities.

"A secondary teacher in the country today faces 150 students a day,'' he said. "How can you obtain higher levels of literacy when you have schools structured in this way?"

Reading Proficiency

A Congressionally mandated project currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department, NAEP has for 20 years measured the performance of national samples of students in a variety of subject areas.

In January, the department released reports, based on data from the 1988 assessment, showing trends in reading and writing achievement since the early 1970's. Those data compared the results of a relatively smaller sample of students with those from previous years on identical test items. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1990.)

The new findings, based on results from a slightly larger sample of test-takers on a test developed for the 1988 assessment, also include information from background questionnaires and teacher surveys, to gain an understanding of factors that might influence performance.

The reading study found, as expected, that students' proficiency increases as they progress through school, and that the gap between whites' and minorities' scores narrows over time.

However, it also found that the increase in performance from 8th grade to 12th grade was smaller than that recorded in the middle-school years, and that minorities' performance lagged considerably behind that of whites. By the 12th grade, the report notes, "the average performance of black and Hispanic students only reaches the level of 8th-grade white students."

The report also confirms the widely held impression that reading proficiency is related to the amount of homework and classroom reading students perform.

But it notes that nearly a fifth of high-school seniors report that they have no homework or do not do it, and that nearly three-fifths of the high-school students tested said they read fewer than 10 pages a day for school and homework.

Such results are particularly surprising, Ms. Mullis noted, since students in past NAEP assessments had indicated that the primary mode of instruction in most subjects was reading from textbooks.

"They must read a page a day," she observed.

Reading 'At Risk'?

The report also confirmed the view that the more often students read outside of class, the higher their reading proficiency is likely to be.

"Although NAEP data cannot be used to determine whether better readers simply enjoy reading more and, therefore, read more for fun, or whether more frequent reading for enjoyment increases proficiency," the report states, "conventional wisdom suggests that it is probably a combination of the two phenomena."

Those who read more fiction than nonfiction materials, it adds, also outperformed those who read mostly nonfiction.

Not all such students, however, remain "hooked on books," according to the report, which notes that the frequency with which students read outside of class declines as they get older. In contrast, it adds, nearly half the 12th graders said they watched three or more hours of television a day; almost a third of this group reported spending little or no time reading for pleasure.

"There are those in the council who think reading may be at risk," warned Mr. Myers of the ncte "As students turn to television and other visual media for information, the whole habit of reading is not as central in the population as it once was."

The NAEP report notes that, while two-thirds of the 4th graders reported taking books out of the library on a weekly basis, only 12 percent of the high-school students checked books out that often. Although library usage tended to be related to proficiency, it says, those among the small percentage of students who took books from the library each day tended to perform less well than those who used the library less frequently.

"It may be the case," the report suggests, "that students who are less successful readers are encouraged to take books out of the library as part of special instructional efforts to improve their reading ability."

'Traditional' Instruction

In analyzing beginning-reading instruction, one of the most contentious issues in education, the study found that most 4th-grade teachers report that their pupils spend about an hour a day on reading.

But much of that instruction is fairly "traditional," according to the report. The vast majority of teachers said their students learned to read with phonics or eclectic approaches, rather than with methods than emphasize the use of language and literature.

In addition, although teachers of half the 4th graders tested said they focused on developing comprehension skills, few employed methods that are aimed at fostering in-depth understanding of texts, such as discussing reading in small groups or having students write about what they read.

"Reading specialists say discussing and writing about what you read helps students make connections and understand text in a global way and in more depth," Ms. Mullis said. "But students aren't asked to do those activities as frequently as they are asked to work on workbooks."

Nearly all teachers said 4th graders were asked to complete workbook or skill-sheet exercises at least weekly, and 95 percent of teachers said they relied on at least one basal textbook.

Carl Braun, presaident of the International Reading Association, called these findings "mindboggling," but added that he questioned whether they reflected a true picture of American schools.

"I certainly do not see these kinds of teachers at ira conferences,'' he said.

Perhaps as a result of such instructional practices, Ms. Mullis said, students tended to perform best on reading tasks that asked them to pick out facts from texts, and least well on open-ended questions that required them to write about what they had read.

"They may be used to skill sheets that ask them to pick out facts from texts," she said. "They had more difficulty picking out the overall message from the text, and most difficulty when asked to analyze [passages] or compare them to their personal experiences."

Short Writing Assignments

The writing assessment, like previous NAEP tests in the subject, asked students to perform a variety of informative, persuasive, and narrative writing tasks, such as describing a favorite story, trying to persuade a legislator to cut or increase funds for the space program, and writing a ghost story.

As with the reading test, students performed better as they progressed through school, but overall performance for all students hovered around the "minimal" level.

These results generally reflect the amount and quality of writing instruction in school, the report notes. Although those who reported using the writing process--planning, revising, and editing, as well as drafting--outperformed those who used such methods less frequently, few students appeared to employ these methods while taking the NAEP test.

When asked which instructional approach they used in teaching the subject, teachers of 52 percent of the 8th graders said they emphasized the writing process. But while researchers consider the process approach and skills-based methods incompatible, 80 percent of the students said they were in classes that placed at least some emphasis on both.

The study also determined that students write relatively seldom in class, and that what they write tends to be very short.

Only 45 percent of the 8th-grade students had teachers who said they had assigned at least four paragraph-length writing assignments in the previous month, and only 14 percent had teachers who assigned that many one- to two-page papers during that period.

Teachers in classes other than English were also unlikely to assign frequent or long writing exercises, the report notes. Some two-thirds of the 8th graders and three-fourths of the 12th graders, it points out, said they were almost never assigned papers of three or more pages in length in history classes.

In examining the results of the tasks on the writing assessment, the report notes that more than three-fourths of the students at all grade levels were able to write at the "minimal" level on informative tasks, and between 80 percent and 95 percent could perform at that level on the narrative assignments.

But the results on the persuasive tasks were much poorer, suggesting, the report says, that "many students do not possess well-developed persuasive-writing abilities--skills that are likely to be important to students in their personal and work lives."

Time To Write

The assessment also included a special study that measured the effects of additional time for writing assignments. Critics have suggested that the 15 minutes allotted for students to complete the NAEP writing tasks was too short to allow them to develop adequate responses.

The results indicate that doubling the amount of time allowed appeared to benefit some students, particularly the better writers.

These findings suggest that the added time "raised the ceiling" for pupils who know how to write well, said Ms. Mullis.

"For students who don't know how to accomplish a task, giving them 15 minutes or all day is not going to help," she said. "But if they do know, the extra time does permit them to do a better job."

Copies of "Learning To Read in Our Nation's Schools," and "Learning To Write in Our Nation's Schools," are available for $14 each from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

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