What Inspires Students to Love Reading? (Part 1)

How Volume of Reading Can Accelerate Students' Literacy Skills

By David Liben


shelves on left wallWhat exactly is a volume of reading? If you put the day’s schedule on the board for students to read, is that a volume of reading? Is reading a paragraph a volume of reading? What about two 40–50 minute-periods of close reading of a one- or one-and-a-half-page text? Is that a volume of reading?

None of these examples has many words or pages on its own, but how do we decide what is enough to constitute a volume?

The answer to this has to do with the purpose for increasing students’ reading volume. The purpose of increasing students’ volume of reading is to maximize the growth of vocabulary and knowledge.

In this blog series, we’ll address the following: why volume of reading—more than any other practice—best serves growing vocabulary and knowledge; the different ways one can approach volume of reading and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each; and the potential of blended and personalized learning to enhance volume of reading.

What is volume of reading, and why is it important in teaching vocabulary and other literacy skills?

In a 1993 synthesis of vocabulary research, Richard Anderson and William Nagy concluded that the average student learns between 2,000 and 3,000 words a year. Taking the absolute lowest estimate of 2,000 words and a 180-day school year, students would need to learn more than 50 words a week to reach grade-level proficiency. The higher estimate would be more than 80 words a week. Either of these is a tall order for direct instruction of vocabulary words through any form of direct instruction (e.g., lessons, games, or puzzles). Students can learn this many words only by indirect instruction through reading and—especially in the younger grades—being read to.

To learn this many words, students need to read a lot. And they need to understand most of what they read if they are to determine the meaning of unknown words from context. But if they are understanding what they are reading, then they know most of the words! There’s a bit of irony here, but the takeaway is clear: Students need to read a lot of text that they understand. In this way, students will learn many of the unknown words on the page.

Few would argue that reading a lot is essential to proficiency and is in general a very good thing. But is all reading the same? Does it matter what students read, as long as they read a great deal and understand it? Or do some types of reading grow more vocabulary and knowledge than other types of reading?


How does volume of reading allow students to make connections to the world around them?

In 1997, Tom Landauer and Susan Dumais developed models, or algorithms, for how the human mind learns words. These models predicted that reading a series of texts on a topic would expand a student’s vocabulary as much as four times greater than any other type of reading. In 2016, Gina Cervetti, Tanya Wright, and Hye Jin Hwang tested this notion with real children (Cervetti, et al. 761–779). Fourth-graders were divideHS_girl_reading_facing_leftd into two groups: One group read six conceptually coherent texts about birds, and the other group read one text about birds and five other texts about different topics—glaciers, wolves, coral reefs, thunderstorms, and the sun. Each set of texts, however, contained five tier two/academic words that could appear in any text: attribute, dependent, safeguard, simulation, and terrain.

After reading independently, students were tested on how many of the tier two/academic words they had learned. Students who read the set of texts about birds clearly learned more of the tier two/academic words, and the difference was statistically significant.

This makes sense, and I’ve seen it in several units that have taken this approach. In a fourth-grade unit on sea mammals, one text discusses how dolphins ascend to the surface and then descend to look for food. Students more readily learned the meaning of ascend, descend, and surface because they knew from the unit that dolphins were mammals with lungs instead of gills, and that they fed underwater but had to come up to breathe. Students gained three powerful tier two/academic words in a couple pages because of the knowledge provided by the series of texts. 

It is important to understand that these were only six texts read over a period of days. The difference in the number of words learned over the course of a year when this approach is used would be, of course, far more substantial than the results from just a few days—and vastly more so over the course of the years students are in school. The more words a student knows, the better the comprehension. The better the comprehension, the more words the student learns. It is a virtuous cycle.

If reading a series of conceptually coherent texts on a topic accelerates vocabulary growth, what if the entire curriculum were topic-based? What if all writing, discussions, art study, readings, group work, Socratic Seminars, language study, and drama were connected to the topic? Vocabulary and comprehension would grow even more. This is just what John Guthrie showed to be the case in 2004 with Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). Classes using this approach, such as that of Wit & Wisdom® from Great Minds®, consistently outscored similar classes on standardized tests.

In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll explore the different types of volume of reading, their relative advantages and disadvantages, and how educators can best implement them in their classrooms.




David Liben

Senior Fellow at Student Achievement Partners

David Liben is a senior fellow in the area of literacy and English language arts (ELA) at Student Achievement Partners. David has taught elementary, middle, and high school students in public and private schools as well as community college and has taught teacher preparation courses in New York City and Vermont. Together with Meredith Liben, David founded two innovative model schools in New York City: New York Prep, a junior high school in East Harlem, and, in 1991, the Family Academy, where he served as principal and lead curriculum designer. David synthesized the research behind the Common Core State Standards in ELA, and, with his wife Meredith, was part of the research team that determined the complexity levels for the standards. David holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree in school administration from Teachers College, Columbia University. 



Works Cited

Anderson, Richard C. and William E. Nagy. “The Vocabulary Conundrum.” Center for the Study of Reading, Technical Report No. 570. College of Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, March 1993, www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/18019/ctrstreadtechrepv01993i00570_ opt.pdf. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.

Cervetti, Gina N., et al. “Conceptual Coherence, Comprehension, and Vocabulary Acquisition: A Knowledge Effect?” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 29, no. 4, Apr. 2016, pp. 761–779. ERIC, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1094210. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.

Guthrie, John T., et al. “Increasing Reading Comprehension and Engagement Through Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 96, no. 4, 2004, pp. 403–423. www.cori.umd.edu/research-publications/2004-guthrie-wigfield-etal.pdf. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.

Landauer, Thomas K. and Susan T. Dumais. “A Solution to Plato’s Problem: The Latent Semantic Analysis Theory of Acquisition, Induction, and Representation of Knowledge.” Psychological Review, April 1997. www.researchgate.net/publication/200045221_A_solution_to_Plato's_problem_The_latent_semantic_analysis_theory_of_acquisition_induction_and_representation_of_knowledge. Accessed 20 Aug 2018. 

“National Reading Panel Reports Combination of Teaching Phonics, Word Sounds, Giving Feedback on Oral Reading Most Effective Way to Teach Reading.” National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 13 Apr. 2000, www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/nrp. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.