Study Links Book Giveaways to Literacy Gains

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 21, 2010 2 min read
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Students in poverty who receive regular shipments of books and other reading materials show positive effects on reading performance on standardized and other reading tests, as well as motivation towards and attitudes about reading, according to a new analysis by Learning Point Associates, an affiliate of the American Institutes for Research. Yet how and whether book programs actually improve student reading remains up for grabs.

In what might be the most exhaustive research analysis to date of school and community book-distribution programs, Jim Lindsay, Learning Point senior research associate, pared down roughly 11,000 research studies to 27 of the most rigorous. Of those studies, 68 percent dealt with students in preschool and kindergarten, with another 15 percent in elementary grades. As previous research has shown, children in poverty often enter school less ready than their wealthier classmates, and the gap often grows throughout school.

The review, contracted by the Washington-based book distribution group Reading Is Fundamental, found students who participated in book distribution programs by and large were significantly more motivated to read, and also had better attitudes toward reading, such as enjoyment, and tended to read more frequently. The students also had higher emerging literacy skills, like phonemic awareness, and for students old enough to be tested in reading, higher performance in those tests. Finally, students on average had slightly better basic language skills, such as the ability to express themselves verbally and understand spoken language; however, Mr. Lindsay said that the effects for basic language skills may fall within the range of error.

“I think the takeaway for schools is the message they present to parents and caregivers should be that it’s extremely important to provide their children with books and to read with their children,” Mr. Lindsay said. “It’s also extremely important to allow students to visit the school library and check out as many books as they like.”

Generally, the reviewed studies found programs that sent books or magazines more frequently and provided more guidance to parents on how to read with their children were associated with stronger effects. However, Mr. Lindsay found little causal evidence that specific features of the book distribution programs actually caused these behavior changes or reading improvements.

“It seems like we’ve got point A and point C, and what we really want is to disentangle what’s going on within children and with parents and schools that’s causing these impacts,” Mr. Lindsay said.

Carol Hampton Rasco, the president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, agreed that a causal study would be a next step. “We are currently working with Learning Point to really dive deeper into it to find where we can make improvements or where there are gaps in the research,” Ms. Rasco said. “Of course research like this is expensive and we’re not going to be able to come up with the money overnight, but we’re hoping this base review will help guide us to spend that next research money most effectively.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.