Improving Academic Performance

The Indirect Effects of Independent Reading

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Mar 23, 2015 @ 12:25 PM

“The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to growth in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information.  Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not. - Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians

The indirect effects of independent reading are well documented and, in some ways, almost obvious.  You can split the effects into two categories: direct and indirect.

The direct effects are perhaps the most obvious. The more you read, the more information you’ll accumulate about a variety of topics.  If you read about finance, you’ll learn finance. If you read history, you’ll learn more history.  If you aren’t a great public speaker, obviously reading a public speaking book can help you improve. In addition, your vocabulary naturally expands, regardless of what you’re reading. Even if you are only reading fiction, you’ll still learn about people, places, concepts, ideas, etc. that apply in the real world.

The indirect effects of increased reading are less obvious, but perhaps more important.  By reading more, even more fiction, you naturally will improve your command of the English language (spelling, grammar, usage, etc.), reading comprehension skills, ability to apply logic, understanding of cause and effect, and more. In fact, the benefits of reading independently can be downright surprising.  According to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, there is a strong correlation between independent reading and mathematics achievement. Studies show reading and writing skills not only lead to general academic success, but are also directly valued by colleges and employers as high as almost any other factor. At the same time, we see the average 12th grade reading scores declining in the U.S. between 1992 and 2005.

The most surprising study I’ve found was conducted by Dr Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown, who analyzed the reading behavior of approximately 6,000 young people being followed by the 1970 British Cohort Study, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. According to the Institute of Education University of London’s review of that report, “reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children's cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents' level of education. The combined effect on children's progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.”

Interesting, and luckily or unluckily depending on your situation, the reading comprehension skills can be much more difficult to build quickly.  At MyGuru, when we’re helping students prepare for standardized tests, we tend to find that, paradoxically, the most stressed out students are those that are really struggling with the math section of the ACT, SAT, GRE, or GMAT, but those that are truly lacking basic math skills can be the easiest students to help.

“We can teach you how to solve quadratic equations by “completing the square” if you’ve forgotten most of the algebra you learned in high school. We can teach you any math that you once learned and have now forgotten. We can even teach you a lot of math that you never learned in the first place. Unfortunately, we cannot re-teach you how to read and comprehend…improving your reading comprehension skills takes time, persistence, and focused practice.”

John Easter - Senior GMAT, GRE, ACT, and SAT tutor for MyGuru (John holds a B.A. in English and B.A. in Mathematics, Indiana University-Bloomington, and M.A. in Mathematics)

What does it mean to read intentionally?

You’ll get the most benefit out of reading more if you do so intentionally.  There are actually two contexts in which to interpret what this means, and it goes back to the direct vs. indirect distinction we made above.  First, you are reading intentionally if you know you aren’t great at managing your schedule and being organized, and so you buy a book about personal productivity, making to-do lists, using calendar tools, etc. However, you are also reading intentionally if you know that, in 3, 6, 12, 24, or 48 months you’ll be taking a standardized test with a “verbal” component.  So, with that in mind, you stop yourself while reading and ask questions like:

  • What was the author’s main point?
  • What evidence does his use to support that point?
  • What type of evidence could be used to challenge the point?
  • Etc.

Or, on an even simpler level, I know that a magazine like the Economist is not always easy reading.  Even when I try to read it, I sometimes find myself losing the point, but continuing with the article, just trying to pick up whatever info I can, to say that I read it.  To read intentionally would always be to challenge yourself to stop, think critically about what you’ve read to ensure you understand the logic, and move on only once you’ve truly understood the paragraph, article, or chapter.

You can do this while sitting in a room with your parents, friends, girlfriend, or spouse. They don’t need to know that you’re not just reading, you’re reading intentionally to build your comprehension and critical thinking skills.

How to learn more?

I’d recommend reading the New York Times, Economist, or Wall Street Journal, anything non-fiction, that you’re interested in, and in particular, historical fiction.  Historical fiction is set in contexts which are real, but which involved characters and plots that are fictional.  So, they are the best of both worlds in a sense. You can learn a lot of real information, while also being highly entertained.

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