START Reading for Success

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Photo by Steve Barrett

HOW MUCH DO STUDENTS REALLYneed to read? A lot, says educator Richard L. Allington, and he explains why in his book, What Really Matters For Struggling Readers?

“A potent relationship exists between the volume of reading students do, and reading achievement,” says Allington, pointing to a 1988 Department of Education study called The Reading Report Card for the Nation. “Researchers found that at every age, reading for longer periods of time is associated with higher achievement scores.”

That’s why students need to read at school—and at home, insists Lanier Middle School Principal Peter Noonan.

“There is so much data available that tells us students who read for more than 40 minutes a day do better on standardized tests, and have a larger vocabulary, than students who do not,” he says. “It seems only logical to make sure our children are reading for chunks of time throughout the day.”

To help students read more often, and more efficiently, Lanier’s reading specialist Gail Schwarz devised the S.T.A.R.T. chart (short for Strategies to Activate Reading and Thinking).

“We encourage parents to keep a copy of this chart close by, and refer to it regularly, so they can help their children improve reading comprehension,” Noonan says.

He also offers three simple ways for parents to help kids clock in more reading time:

• Keep books and magazines in the car for easy access during spare moments between appointments and practices.
• Turn off the TV one evening a week at home and insist students curl up with a book.
• One day each weekend, plan a 60-minute, “Family Read In.” “When families read together, everyone benefits,” Noonan says.

Before reading, active readers ask:

• What will this story be about?
• What do I already know about this topic?
• Active readers should also: preview and survey the text, connect what they are learning to their prior knowledge, question what they are reading, predict what will happen, and set a purpose for what they expect to learn from the book.

During reading, active readers ask:

• Does this make sense?
• How does this connect to what I already know?
• Active readers should also: reread portions of a book, especially if they don’t understand what they’ve read; use context clues to understand new works or ideas, analyze unfamiliar words to try and figure out the meaning. They should also self-monitor themselves as they read along, and confirm or revise their predictions as the plot unfolds.

After reading, active readers ask:

• What did I learn?
• What can I do with what I have learned?
• Active readers should also: review and reflect on what they’ve read, summarize the plot, themes and setting, organize their thoughts, and evaluate what they’ve read to make connections between the new material and previous ideas.


Noonan also points to research showing that reading wires the brain for excellence. So he created “Lanier Reads,” a new school-wide program designed to beef up the amount of time students spend reading.

“We know that reading helps students become better thinkers, better learners, and better communicators,” Noonan says. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs very well if we didn’t insist that students read as much as possible.”

Need proof that reading is fundamental? Consider research being conducted by Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist Lanier at the National Institute of Mental Health. He has found that teenagers who read a lot may actually make their brains work better.

Here’s why:

“By age 6, the brain is already 95 percent of its adult size,” Giedd says. “But the gray matter (the thinking of part of the brain) continues to thicken throughout childhood as the brain cells grow extra connections—much like a tree growing extra branches and roots.

In the frontal part of the brain—the part involved in judgment, organization, planning and strategizing—this thickening process peaks at puberty (around age 11 in girls, 12 in boys).

After that, however, the “use it or lose it” principle takes over. The gray matter thins as excess connections are eliminated or “pruned.” Those cells and connections that are used survive and flourish, while those that are not used wither and die. Because of this process, how teens choose to spend their time is especially crucial.

“If a teen is reading, doing academics, playing music or sports, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired,” explains Giedd—insisting that teens should not waste these developing years lying around on the couch watching MTV or playing video games. “The teenage years are a time of enormous opportunity—and enormous risk.”

For Noonan, the findings are—what else?—a no brainer. “Just pick up a book and read.”