Utilizing Snapstreaks to Encourage Recreational Reading Habits in Middle School Students
About Education Scientist Shane Smith
Shane is an 8th grade reading teacher in Western Maine. He graduated from Thomas College with a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education. Prior to working at Mountain Valley Middle School, Shane taught at the elementary level for 8 years. In addition to teaching literacy, he also coaches youth wrestling and soccer and is involved in scouting. He chose a career in education because he wants to make a positive impact on children’s lives.
All of my students in 8th grade that read everyday for 21 days continued to read daily throughout the data collection period. 18.7% of my students reported daily reading on the initial survey, while 39.7% of my students indicated that they read on a daily basis on the concluding survey, comprising a +21% change in the daily reading habits of my students. Additionally, the number of students who reported that they most often read recreationally at school dropped from 13.8% to 5.8%, a substantial change which implies that at least an additional eight percent of my students are choosing to read outside of the school day. The study uncovered the value of opening an additional line of communication with students, on a student preferred platform. This helped to build and foster relationships with many students. As an educator, I was able to dispense life advice, book recommendations, and address problems that students were facing.
In a culture of instant and constant gratification, where children are bombarded daily with movies and television, video games, youtube videos, social media, and memes, the question I asked is how do I encourage my students to read every day? Unfortunately, it’s hard to sell the idea of reading every day to a bunch of teenagers. How could I possibly convince them to put down their controllers, remotes, and cellphones, in favor of a book? Well, it occurred to me that the answer may lie inside their phones.
Besides the unique challenge of teaching reading to middle schoolers, the community I serve is a rural and impoverished one. Many of my students live in difficult circumstances. They often arrive at school tired, stressed, and anxious. The two towns that comprise the bulk of our students were recently ranked first and third in terms of the highest crime rate in the state. We also have high rates of drug abuse, unemployment, health problems, and single parent families. A lot of our students are food-insecure. Our school district provides three meals and fresh fruit daily to all of our students during the school year, and lunch throughout the summer. Many of our families either do not own vehicles, or aren’t able to afford gas, and insurance, which compounded with the fact that we are a relatively isolated community (about an hour away from the nearest small city), serves to severely limit the opportunities available to our students and their families.
Given all of these risk factors, I suppose it’s not surprising that my students do not consider recreational reading as a major priority. However, I believe that literacy, and education as a whole are the primary avenues out of poverty and I’m very motivated to find ways to encourage my students to make recreational reading a habit. I want to create a culture in my classroom (that can later transcend the limits of my classroom) where students enjoy, and celebrate reading.
In order to generate excitement and inspire my students to develop a daily reading habit I decided to challenge them to read and send me a picture or video of their reading daily via the Snapchat app for 21 days. The app, which is particularly popular with teens, provides a feature called a snapstreak, which is essentially a record of how many days in a row you’ve “snapped” back and forth with another person. Snapstreaks are held in a very high esteem, more so the longer they extend. I have many students that have 200+ day streaks. If these students can make the daily commitment to respond to someone for upwards of a year straight, what extend would they go to keep one active? Would they read for at least 15 minutes daily in order to maintain a streak? My hypothesis is that if I challenge my students to build a 21+ day read+snap streak they could develop a habit and continue to read beyond the 21 days of the challenge.
Step 1: Ask & Inquire
As I was contemplating the change I’d decided to make from the 4th grade classroom (that I had taught a familiar curriculum for the past 8 years) to an 8th grade reading class (at a level I had no previous experience with), I remembered a student that I’d taught a few years prior. This particular student, an impulsive and impetuous young man, rarely participate positively in our whole-class reading discussions and was disruptive in reading groups; yet, he read every single Goosebumps book on my shelf. So while I couldn’t truly claim credit when he jumped upwards of 30 RIT points (the equivalent of multiple years of academic growth) between his Fall and Spring NWEA assessments, it taught me an indelible lesson. I learned that the most important thing I could do to as a reading teacher was to keep books in students hands. I recalled this as I started to wrap my head around diving into teaching reading exclusively at the middle school level.
The question that I developed for this study was: if students read for at least 21 straight days will they develop the habit of daily recreational reading? As I was brainstorming ways to motivate my students, I remembered reading a Strategic EdTech blog about the stress and anxiety producing effect of maintaining Snapstreaks on teens. It occurred to me that there may be a way to tie recreational reading to what is, in my students’ minds, the imperative daily task of sending snaps to their friends. I wondered, if students are really placing so much value on these snapstreaks that they are losing friendships over them, would it be enough of a motivator to read everyday in order to keep it up? If they already have developed a habit of snapping at specific times, could they also use that time to read?
My hypothesis was that the majority of my students that built and maintained a“streak” (sending me snapchats about their personal reading) for a minimum of 21 days would continue to read independently (after this study was over). My consultant, Julia and I settled on 21 days as that’s the number of days most referred to in terms of how long it takes to form a habit (first roughly theorized by Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s in his book, Psycho-Cybernetics). Although, a good deal of conflicting research suggests that habit formation has a lot more to do with the individual than a set number of days, it seemed like a feasible target.
Of course, many variables came into play, including the fact that the study relied both on the integrity of my students’ reporting and on their willingness to read outside of school every day, regardless of the day of the week, the weather, or what was happening in their personal lives. The study was further limited to students whose parents allowed them to participate, and who also possessed a phone and the Snapchat app.
Step 2: Investigate & Incubate
The Positive Effects of Recreational Reading:
Various studies have shown recreational reading to improve reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, grammatical development, word recognition, understanding of syntax, verbal fluency, content knowledge, cognitive resilience, attention, empathy, and even mathematics. Recreational reading provides simply the most bang for its buck, educationally speaking, of any independent activity, and has been shown to be the most positive indicator of long-term academic success. “The common sense notion that students who do a substantial amount of voluntary reading demonstrate a positive attitude toward reading is upheld in both qualitative and quantitative research (Long and Henderson 1973; Greaney 1980; Hepler and Hickman 1982; Greaney and Hegarty 1987; Reutzel and Hollingsworth 1991; Shapiro and White 1991; Mathewson 1994; Barbieri 1995; Short 1995).” “Krashen’s meta-analysis showed that in-school free reading programs are related to vocabulary development, knowledge of grammar, writing, and oral language facility. Correlations between free voluntary reading and scores on literacy proficiency tests are not always highly significant statistically; however, they are consistent and show that free voluntary reading does make a difference.” “Students’ reading achievement has been shown to correlate with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do (Greaney 1980; Anderson, Fielding and Wilson 1988). This affirms the predictability of a success cycle: we become more proficient at what we practice (Cullinan 1992).”
The Adolescent Reader
Adolescents that choose to read independently are intrinsically motivated. However, recreational reading ranks lowest among independent activities among adolescents. Beyond activity preference, time availability, skill, ability to sit still (31% of readers), and access to engaging books (39% of readers) are all reasons for infrequent reading (Merga 2013). There is a marked decrease in recreational reading during the middle school years. Further issues are that children’s “insufficient attention to the deep and sustained cognitive process of reading could potentially be exacerbated by students’ engagement in recreational pursuits that require more shallow thinking and offer higher sensational rewards for lower effort. The potential impact of multi-tasking with technologies such as smartphones, televisions, and computers on students’ abilities to concentrate for the sustained periods required for book reading.” The internet, social media, and video games which rate at the top of teens preferred activities engage all senses, and our reward system, with constant stimuli. As a result, a majority of adolescent readers read solely for utilitarian purposes and practically cease to read anything not required or assigned. Furthermore, gendering of reading as a feminine activity is likely, due to comparative passivity juxtaposed with more active pursuits. Adolescent girls read to explore relationships, clarify beliefs, search for self-identity, and for answers to personal problems.
Teaching Strategies that Promote Recreational Reading
“The significance of social acceptability of recreational book reading highlights the importance of educator provision of an in-class environment where the social capital of recreational book reading is promoted and raised, making connections with individual students’ interests as well as youth popular culture” (Merga, Margaret Kristin; Moon, Brian). An effective strategy for encouraging students to read recreationally is “positive modelling and valuing by influential social agents such as parents, teachers, friends, and their peer groups.” In other words, students at the middle school level need to see that their teachers, parents, and friends value recreational reading. Adolescents are very cognizant of what their peers think and how they are perceived within their community. “The act of identifying as a “reader” may be a product of exposure to positive modelling and valuing by influential social agents such as parents, teachers, friends, and the peer group.” We need to do all that we can to promote a climate of literacy in school and at home; students need to see and hear their role models and peers both read, and talk about their reading. “Developing the lifetime reading habit must be embraced as one of the most basic skills to be fostered, and as literacy educators, we are obligated to demonstrate our successful efforts in this direction” (Sanacore 1994, 1997). Another way to promote the lifetime reading habit is to give students opportunities to observe successful readers, such as their teachers. By demonstrating a passionate love of reading as often as possible, the teacher increases the chances that early adolescents will emulate this positive behavior” (Sanacore 1994, 1997). Read alouds, which are typically considered more of an elementary-level teaching strategy are incredibly important both for promoting literacy, modeling fluency and intonation, and encouraging strong reading behaviors, including asking questions, making predictions, and checking for comprehension . “[Read alouds show students] (a) how appropriate use of intonational patterns-pitch, stress, and juncture-reveals implied meanings; (b) how sentences, paragraphs, and longer passages support the meaning of new words and concepts; © how longer selections may be interpreted even if the reader is not familiar with all the words; (d) how context serves as a support system for word structure and for other approaches to understanding new words independently; and (e) how schemata (or prior knowledge) must interact with vocabulary to promote comprehension” (Sanacore 1994, 1997). “According to Trelease (1989), read-alouds inform, assure, entertain, arouse curiosity, and inspire. All these “experiences create or strengthen a positive attitude about reading and attitude is the foundation stone upon which you build appetites”. In particular, frequent read-alouds that expose students to a variety of types of writing — narrative, poetic, descriptive, and expository — help students to develop flexibility and confidence with content area materials.”
A compounding issue, in terms of improving student recreational reading outcomes, are that “existing findings suggest that teachers potentially place the responsibility of encouraging recreational reading beyond the stage of skill acquisition firmly with parents [especially as students get older], whereas parents view teachers as responsible” (Bunbury, 1995). An emphasis on high-stakes testing may further exacerbate this issue, as high-stakes testing tends to lead to instructional focus on acquisition of reading skills. Camp (2007) asserted that “most teachers are effective at teaching their students how to read, but often neglect teaching them to want to read.” “Regrettably, this is being jeopardized by a number of national trends in education. The standards initiatives, the debate about creating a national curriculum, and the bashing of the whole-language approach are among the high-visibility trends that are causing teachers and administrators to focus on the kinds of learning outcomes that are more palatable to the media, boards of education, and parents. Such a limited perspective usually translates into basic-skills-dominated instruction — spelling, vocabulary, grammar — and a de-emphasis on more meaningful, interesting activities” (Sanacore 1994, 1997). “From 1972 to the present, my graduate students and I have observed several thousand students successfully connect the semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic cueing systems with materials that are interesting and meaningful. These efforts have led to a number of positive outcomes, including students reading and writing with impressive understanding and fluency and learners immersing themselves in a wide variety of topics and subject matter. In most cases, children and adolescents have made admirable progress with their literacy learning. Regrettably, these are not the kinds of big-picture outcomes that are being embraced by the media, legislators, moderately informed parents, and local boards of education. Instead, these forces have reverted to reductionist approaches that highlight the teaching of skills as dominant aspects of the instructional program.” “Krashen (1989, 1993, 1995a 1995b) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of forty-one studies on in-school free reading, sustained silent reading, and self-selected reading programs. In thirty-eight of forty-one studies, students who engaged in free reading did as well or better on standardized tests of reading comprehension than students who were given direct instruction in reading.”
One essential element of building a climate of literacy is providing access to attractive, diverse, and engaging books, and directly teaching “choosing” strategies, introducing students to sources for book recommendations such as Goodreads.com, and giving students time to sample, select, read, and talk about books during the school day. Universally, individual choice is paramount. “Teachers should also demonstrate how interesting it can be to browse through a variety of resources from the classroom library/resource center and the school library/media center. By exploring different materials and thinking aloud about their personal value, teachers help students realize that browsing and reading for pleasure will help them find books and periodicals that match their individual interests and needs” (Sanacore). “For middle-level learners to consider reading as a serious part of their lifestyles, they need exposure to a variety of reading materials, including short story anthologies, novels, plays, poetry collections, biographies, “how-to” manuals, illustrated books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, comics, audio-books, large-print books, and computer software” (Sacacore). Children need topical reading material that matches their interests and reflects what they are passionate about, and the time to share and talk about them. “Middle school students are also immensely diversified, and they need educators who are sensitive to their special patterns of growth and development. Not surprisingly, such students benefit from teachers who are responsive to their social needs and high energy levels and who provide them with a range of options to meet their many interests” (Preisser, Anders, and Glider 1990). “Successful middle school teachers understand the dynamic and diverse nature of these early adolescents and connect curricular offerings to their lives” (Sanacore). “Attention to provision of engaging and diverse books, as well as equipping students with both in-class time and choosing strategies, may potentially increase frequency of recreational book reading” (Merga, 2014). “Many teachers of language arts, recognizing the value of independent reading, immerse students in real literature from their earliest encounters with print and establish sustained silent reading time in their classrooms. According to Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988), students who begin reading a book in school are more likely to continue to read outside of school than students who do not begin a book in school. However, research also suggests that some teachers are not knowledgeable about children’s literature; they are not able to introduce students to the wealth of books available, and they may not recognize the effects of their teaching methods on students’ attitude toward reading” (Short and Pierce 1990).
In addition to providing students with a wide variety of reading material, it’s imperative that teachers provide their students with time to read independently during the school day. “Setting aside part of the school day for recreational reading is essential because of today’s demographic trends. Specifically, a high divorce rate, an increase in homes with two working parents, and a rise in the number of single parents who must work have resulted in households with minimal adult supervision” (Sanacore). “In-class Silent Reading opportunities provide invaluable reading time for students with a high volume of external commitments such as sibling care, homework, and employment” (Merga, Margaret, Moon). “By building recreational reading time into the school day, we demonstrate sensitivity to demographic trends and send the message that developing a lifetime reading habit is an important instructional goal” (Sanacore). “Teaching practices have a lasting effect on students’ ability and willingness to read. Ozburn (1995) described a sustained silent reading program in a ninth-grade reading class of sixty, most of whom were at-risk students. Students gained an average of 3.9 year levels on their reading achievement test scores during a one-year program.” In addition to silent reading, students need opportunities to talk about their reading. An important provision of a silent reading program is providing “opportunities to break the silence and talk about books at an appropriate time also seemed to be important for raising the social capital of recreational book reading and to provide suggestions to facilitate student choice” (Merga, 2013). “Middle school students also profit from reading and responding to messages via e-mail and the Internet” (Merga, 2013).
Finally, “Students need to understand the implications of the recreational choices they make. If they are aware of the continued benefits of recreational book reading for their literacy outcomes, some students might be more inclined to read with greater regularity” (Merga, Margaret, Moon). In other words, we need to be sure that students are clear that reading for recreation is a valued, and essential part of their education. “Teachers and parents must express a continued expectation that students read for recreation, as well as provide ongoing encouragement and support.” (Merga, Margaret, Moon) “English teachers in high school were generally perceived to provide less encouragement to support recreational reading than did primary school teachers” (Merga, 2015). “Some parents also withdraw their support and encouragement after the skill of reading is acquired” (Merga, 2014). “If support significantly reduces at home and at school, it is possible that this may be a key factor in students’ reduction in book reading as they transition into high school” (Nieuwenhuizen, 2001).
To summarize, in order to increase reading frequency, and promote a positive culture around recreational reading, teachers must demonstrate a “personal enjoyment of reading; [a] willingness to instigate and support discussion around books that is student-generated; [possess a] broad knowledge of both Young Adult (YA) texts and youth popular culture, [as well as] the interests and aspirations of their students, [effectively communicate] expectations that students will read at school and at home, and [be allowed and willing to] use in-class practices that encourage reading for pleasure, such as reading aloud to students and silent reading” (Merga, 2015). “Some common features of effective programs cited for primary and intermediate students remain the same for programs for middle school students and young adults, for example, active parental involvement in student learning, partnerships among community institutions, and collaboration among school and public librarians and teachers. The added freedom of middle school and young adult students makes it imperative to give adequate time for independent, self-chosen reading, to demonstrate the value and pleasure of reading and writing, and to make technology available in the search for information” (Cullinan, 1992).
In the study, Habit Formation in Children: Evidence from Incentives for Healthy Eating, George Loewenstein, Joseph Price, Kevin Volpp conducted a field experiment “at 40 elementary schools involving 8,000 children and 400,000 child-day observations, which tested whether providing short-run incentives [the equivalent value of a quarter a day] can create habit formation in children. Over a three or five week period, students received an incentive for eating a serving of fruits or vegetables during lunch. Relative to an average baseline rate of 39%, providing small incentives doubled the fraction of children eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. Two months after the end of the intervention, the consumption rate at schools remained 21% above baseline for the three-week treatment and 44% above baseline for the five week treatment, a significant difference. These findings indicate that short-run incentives can produce changes in behavior that persist after incentives are removed and support the natural intuition that longer interventions produce more persistent habits.”
This study demonstrated that the “effects of incentives did not fade out as they were left in place longer.” “Incentives produced a very large change in the fraction of children eating fruits or vegetables during lunch (almost doubling the fraction eating at least one serving) and that “the use of small incentives is an effective way [to induce] changes in behavior [that will] persist after the incentives are no longer being offered (Belot et al 2013; List and Samek 2013). In other words, Loewenstein, Price, and Volpp showed that small incentives can have a major, long-term, effect in terms of promoting a desired behavior in children. “One question raised by this and other related studies is the mechanism that led to the behavior persistence once incentives were removed. At least three mechanisms are possible. One which would be considered ‘classic’ habit formation suggests that students become used to eating fruits and vegetables during lunch and this became an automatic pattern of behavior. A second mechanism is that consuming the fruits and vegetables may have led to a discovery of pre-existing tastes or changes in tastes, the latter consistent with prior research which shows that repeated exposure to specific items can influence an individual’s food preferences (Birch & Marlin 1982). The third mechanism is that making fruit and vegetable consumption more ‘popular’ (albeit with the help of an incentive) may have shifted social norms around fruit and vegetable consumption such that students would be less likely to cast aspersions on other students who ate fruit and vegetables at lunch.” “An observation related to why habit formation seems more likely in some settings than others in previous studies (smoking, food choice as opposed to losing weight) is that there are some settings where new routines develop and where the environmental setting reinforces the behavior choice (smoking or eating healthy food in a cafeteria) in contrast to settings where environment is generally stacked against the behavior change (weight loss).” “A daily routine around a specific task such as getting a tray each day at the same time and changing one component of what is on the tray is also far simpler than trying to change a whole host of elements required to lose weight” (Birch & Marlin 1982).
Among the research referenced in this experiment was a study where “Charness and Gneezy (2009) randomly assigned college students to one of three conditions: no incentives for gym attendance, $25 to attend the gym one time, or $25 to attend the gym one time plus $100 to attend the gym another 8 times. Their key finding was that, consistent with habit formation, subjects in the high incentive treatment group had higher gym attendance (about .6 more visits per week) during the post-incentive period than those in the low incentive and no incentive groups.” While “Royer, Stehr and Sydnor (2012) also tested a similar intervention using adult workers at a Fortune 500 company and additionally tested the impact of giving workers access to a self-funded commitment contract. They found a weak persistence of gym use after the incentive was withdrawn among those provided with an incentive alone (16% of the increase in attendance during the incentive period), but substantially greater persistence (47%) among those who were provided access to the commitment contract.”
Section 3: Develop
Students that chose to participate in my study were required to read daily for at least fifteen minutes, and to send me a snap of what they were reading, as well as to answer any questions I posed to assure that they had, in fact, read. All students were required to provide answers about their reading habits via a pre- and post- survey, report daily whether they had read the day before, and to rate various reading activities on a reading attitude scale prior to and upon completion of the study. In exchange, I offered relatively small but unique incentives, that I’d designed specifically to draw attention to them, and their success. Examples of these surveys and incentives included:
Section 4: Launch
The launch phase of my study was the 21 day read+snap challenge. The following images, photos, and screenshots demonstrate the various snaps and rewards that were part of my study during this phase.
My ultimate goal was to engage students about their reading, but part of my strategy was to try to make my snap story must-see-TV, in order to draw views and build a connection.
Step 5: Analyze & Evaluate
Of the 91 students on my roster at the start of this study, 48 students started streaks (53%), 12 completed the 21-day challenge (13%) and, 3 students were dropped from our roster. Of the 12 students that completed the challenge 11 reported that they’d continued to read each day of the two week following the conclusion of the 21-days while the 12th student, who’d had his streak interrupted, continued to read throughout vacation until he hit 21 days. Therefore, in a sense, my hypothesis was supported; however, there are many more potentially impactful conclusions to be drawn from the data collected.
For one, while a much smaller portion of my students completed all 21 days of the reading challenge than I had hoped for or anticipated (70% of my students answered that they intended to start a streak) the number of students who answered that they read daily jumped from 18.7% to 39.7% of respondents. This begs the question, why did nearly 40% of students report reading daily while only 13% completed the challenge? Although 48 of my students started streaks, 36 failed to complete the entire 21-days, possibly implying that upon “losing a streak” (which is as simple as not snapping within a 24-hour window) students felt that it was futile to restart one given the length of the study, but that perhaps a daily habit reading habit was already ingrained. That could suggest that far less than 21 days (in a row) is enough to form a habit of recreational reading. One could also infer, as Loewenstein, Price, Volppas proposed in their study, Habit Formation in Children: Evidence from Incentives for Healthy Eating that beyond crediting classic habit formation — whereas these students continued to respond the same way to a trigger, such as reading before bed, even after incentives were removed — that starting to read daily may have led students to discover, or rediscover, that they actually enjoy reading for pleasure. After all, the number of students that indicated that they enjoy reading recreationally grew from 17.5% on the initial survey to 23.5% on the final survey. Another potential explanation is that by implementing this study in my classroom, reading became ‘popular’ (albeit with the help of incentives) and may have shifted social norms around recreational reading such that students would be less likely to cast disapproval on other students who chose to read in their free time.
Another indicator that the increase in recreational reading was much more broad than the number of students that completed the challenge alone suggests, is that between the pre- and post-surveys, on the question “When do you most often read for pleasure?”, the amount of students that reported that school was the number one place that they read recreationally dropped from 13.8% to 5.8%. In addition, the answers “When I get home from school” and “Just before bed” rose by 7.6% and 3.8% respectively. This could be attributed to the fact that at least 53% of my students decided to read (and snap me) at least once. Maybe just picking up and starting a book provided enough motivation to continue reading. It’s also reasonable to assume that this study affected a culture shift around reading due to the increased conversation around recreational reading, and the fact that anyone subscribed to my snapchat received daily reminders to read. In addition, I also purchased books for several reluctant students that have indicated specific interests (such as one particular girl who has repeatedly claimed to hate reading, yet just finished a 600+ page biography on Michael Jackson).
Additional information gleaned from these pre- and post-surveys correlates with what my initial research suggested. For instance, the reasons my students gave for not reading independently directly mirrored what Dr. Margaret K. Merga’s research provided, “Preference was the most substantial factor in reasons for infrequency. Time availability (and perhaps allocation, skill, access and choice, and physical and cognitive factors, were all potential reasons for infrequent engagement.” She also learned that, “31% of students unable to sit still for the period required for reading.” and “39% of infrequent readers struggled to find “interesting books.” The most prevalent answers my students gave for the question: Describe yourself as a reader, fit neatly into these defined themes.
For instance, several students identified “Time Availability” as the main detractor of their reading frequency. Among their responses were, “I would like to read more, I just can’t find time”; “I usually don’t read a lot recreationally because I’m super busy with sports, homework, family and friends and it’s hard to balance all of it. So I don’t really read often”; and, “Usually I read when I’m finished with classwork or a test in class. It’s not very likely for me to read at home because of my busy schedule, and I cannot read in the car or on the bus because I get very bad motion sickness.”
Also in line with Merga’s research was that several of my students admitted poor confidence in their reading ability as a hindrance to reading more often: “I am a very slow reader. I stutter a lot unless I’m reading in my head. I read at a 4th grade level”; “I’m not that much of a good reader”; “I am a slow reader. I don’t really understand the concept of the book”; and, “I’m kinda trash at it so I don’t try as much as I should.”
Another reason given common credence by my students for their reluctance to read was their inability to focus. Some of the answers they gave include, “I don’t really read but when I do it’s super difficult for me to focus and stay reading. I mostly space out the whole time”; “Sometimes (most of the time) I can’t pay attention to what I’m reading”; and, “I can never remember what I read even if I’m really into it. I get distracted very easily.”
As all of the research I’ve read about recreational reading indicated, my students clearly confirmed that choice is indeed paramount. Among their answers were “I will only read it if it is something I know I will enjoy”; “I’m very picky when it comes to a book”; “I read basically anything, except horror and romance, and assigned books”; “I usually read books that have something I’m missing in my life. Like, I’ll read dramas when my life is boring. I’ll read different books to distract from other emotions too”; and finally, “Well, I read all the time but I only enjoy reading if I pick the book and read it at my own pace.”
An additional piece of research that was corroborated by my students answers were the ways in which they preferred to spend their time. As expected, social media, video games, and TV/Youtube consistently outranked reading by a wide-margin, demonstrating that my students do tend to prefer activities that require lower cognitive effort while providing higher sensory rewards. Youtube and social media took a hit in the post-survey while video games soared — a trend I’m willing to attribute to the rise of the game Fortnite which is very popular among my students.
A final area of the survey I’d like to address has to do with student motivation. First, what motivated students to join the challenge? On the pre-survey, 70% of my students responded that they intended to take part. Of that initial pool, 46% stated that the prizes were their primary motivation. Answers included: “What motivated me was all of it. Reading responses aren’t fun, so definitely a big factor, but the pizza party… uh yes please… and the crown whoop whoop”; “What motivated me to join is the prizes and the stickers”; “The prizes duh”; and, “I like crowns and food.” I believe this supports, as the study Habit Formation in Children: Evidence from Incentives for Healthy Eating suggested, the idea that relatively small extrinsic rewards can be highly motivating for students. Evidence includes the number of students that continued to read beyond the end of the study, and/or their streak. Furthermore, I saw no indication of any negative impact on long-term reading outcomes, or in the short term such as a dip below base levels of reading frequency. I had hoped that offering prizes that potentially offered social capital either by way of “flair”such as stickers and crowns, opportunities to share such as a pizza party, a pair of movie tickets, allowing students an exclusive privilege such as decorating a prominent whiteboard in my classroom, or sitting in a special seat would be particularly desirable. It was an attempt to meet the students where they are developmentally.
Surprisingly, 21% of students were motivated by the prospect of starting another snap streak as the number of streaks one possesses is an indicator of popularity at this age. To quote my students, “I just want more streaks,” “To get more streaks and it’s cool to have my teacher on snap,” “Need to get my Snapscore up,” “Snapchat is basically my life, so why not? Also, combining snap and reading sounds pretty lit,” “To start a streak with the best teacher,“ and, “Uh I want at least one streak.” I think those answers go to show what a powerful pull social media has on our society, and our children in particular. I hadn’t considered that having another streak would be a motivating factor.
Finally, 20% of respondents indicated that they were interested in participating because they knew that they should read more. Some of the responses that contribute to this theme are: “I need to read more and this will give me a chance to,” The motivation to read everyday is what motivated me to join the challenge,” “It will probably help to get me back into reading the way I used to,” “[It will] give me an excuse to read and actually do something”; and, “What motivated me was the fact that it will get me reading more so hopefully I’ll get better at it.” On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the idea that my students know that they ought to read more but on the other hand it sounds exactly like what I tell myself about eating better, hours before I order a pizza.
70% of the potential participants in this study indicated that they wanted to join, 53% started streaks, and 13% successfully finished the 21 day challenge. What does this data mean? Of the students that successfully completed the challenge, I infer that those students were the most intrinsically motivated; however, at least two of the dozen successful students told me that they continued because they wanted a crown: “I’ve read everyday. I kept my streak because I want a crown.”
Perhaps, that goes to show just how differently people respond to extrinsic rewards and that the motivating factors that dictated whether or not a student started, restarted, quit, or completed are just as varied and unique as the people that took part in this study.
The data collected from this study leads me to conclude that there is no simple solution in helping students get into the habit of reading recreationally. While some of my strategies worked for some students, the same strategies didn’t work for others.
Of the students that were unable to complete all 21-days of the reading streak challenge, many had fairly valid reasons or at least plausible excuses for breaking them. Among them, “I read every day, but then went to a friend’s house and lost it, then never tried getting it back,” “I tried to restart but it didn’t work,” “I started a streak but then I had a busy couple of days and it lost and I didn’t feel like starting again,” “I lost my streak because I didn’t have wifi in New Hampshire,” “I started a streak, lost it because of a wrestling thing. But started it back up because it’s fun and makes me read,” and finally, “I had a streak but we lost it the day after Easter and for some reason we didn’t get it back.” There were certainly days this Spring, due to a scheduling conflict, another commitment, or a lack of inspiration where I too had a very hard time making sure that I wrote and responded to all of my streaks. Beyond these answers, several other students lost or broke their phones, got grounded, ran out of data on their plans, had to share phones with siblings, could only snap at specific times which meant responding just beyond 24-hours, or simply didn’t have consistent access to a phone. Also, at least a few times streaks seemed to end despite snaps being exchanged. I believe that there was a far greater number of students that participated in good faith and could have been successful in slightly altered circumstances than the final numbers indicate.
The last subset, students that didn’t start a streak typically fell into one of four categories. Either they didn’t have access to a phone, they or there parents were opposed to snapchat, they were “too busy” or they just didn’t want to read and/or snap their teacher. Again, I think it’s clear that I either didn’t strike the right motivational chord with this group of students or this study just wasn’t inclusive enough.
Finally, I’d be remiss in not including what I found to be the most unexpectedly rewarding piece of this entire experience. A completely unanticipated consequence of opening this line of communication was that we used it for far more than talking about reading. I had several students snap me about entirely unrelated topics, start streaks with me that had nothing to do with reading, and reach out to me when they needed a friend or advice. As of today, I am still receiving snaps from many students who aren’t in my reading class nor in 8th grade. What I’d failed to consider before beginning this study was that Snapchat (and social media as a whole) is the preferred method of communication for this entire generation of students. It allowed students to reach me when they had a question, a concern, or simply wanted to say hi. I’ve done everything from conversing with students that need a safe adult to talk to, provided book recommendations, offered life advice, and made students laugh when they’re unhappy. I’ve been able to effective help students who have reported bullying or harassment. I was invited into a group chat set-up by students to communicate about our wrestling team. In short, it gave me another avenue for letting my students know that I care about them and that I’m there for them.
Beyond, the percentage of students that read for 21 straight days, my biggest takeaways are: a) that students without a doubt read more than they would have without the Snapchat challenge, b) the research I conducted about recreational reading supports what I knew intuitively about adolescent reading habits, c) students are much more likely to engage with their teachers when we find tools and avenues for them to communicate with us.
The F Word
We were plagued by the consistently inconsistent nature of public education. First, the weather did its best to kill our momentum right out of the gate, and ultimately pushed me to discount a data collection system that I’d intended to use to track my students’ recreational reading.
My plan was to take attendance every day of the week prior to kicking-off our streaks in order to establish a baseline of how often each student read in a week. Then I’d planned to keep track throughout the duration of the challenge, and for the two following weeks, to see if students kept reading once incentives were removed. As luck would have it, we lost a day in the first week due to snow (see chart above). Then, we had two back-to-back snow days the first two days of the challenge! The next week we had three days of mandatory testing where I didn’t have classes with my students, and a teacher workshop day which effectively removed eight of the 30 school days the study spanned! Compounding the issue was that the study abutted April break so there was no way to move or expand the timeframe.
Aside from not consulting a meteorologist and failing to realize the implications of the looming testing window, I didn’t give enough credence to “the Sunday effect.” In other words, 21 weekdays would not have been challenging for my students to maintain a habit; however, regardless of schedule, if a students missed a single snap in a 24 hour window over the span of 21 straight days (which included for me personally twenty-three wrestling practices, five tournaments and three meets, three Sundays, Easter, family visits, etc.) you weren’t able to complete the challenge. We also were forced to add an additional hour of school three days a week through May to accommodate for snow days, which I’m sure didn’t inspire anyone to go home and start reading. Perhaps a model with greater flexibility would have been more considerate of other obligations, especially given that one of the top reasons for not reading is not having enough time.
The Snapchat app itself can also fairly rigid and silly. For instance, if you just send a message through Snapchat it doesn’t count as a “snap” towards your streak. So despite the fact that you’ve communicated with the other party, your streak could be in jeopardy. This is a lesson I learned after being berated by a 14 year old student for losing a streak that we had started prior to the challenge kick-off (to make sure I knew how to use Snapchat and keep snap streaks).
Also, the very fact that you have to have a phone and the Snapchat app, is exclusive by nature. I tried to design an alternative for students that didn’t have access to Snapchat (such as setting up an answering machine) but the follow through did not happen.
Another issue I failed to address was to provide an option for students that slipped and lost their streak. At times students had reached over two weeks worth of daily reading only to lose their streak. While losing a streak didn’t appear to have a negative effect on daily reading habits, my intention was surely not to demoralize my students who had put time in, and would have prefered to continue. I think that in a future model, I’d either greatly expand the window that students could obtain the set goal of 21 days, or allow for streaks multiple streaks to accumulate toward a larger goal (maybe even implementing a grand prize for the student with the longest active streak).
Finally, I think that the data collection devices I chose could have been improved. For one, they depended on the reliability of my students answers. While I did my best to ascertain whether or not students actually read by asking them pointed, clear comprehension questions, there was room for (intended or unintended) manipulation. Lastly, I think that the questions I asked my students in hindsight, could’ve better reflected what I hoped to learn in this study. For instance, there were 41 questions on the reading attitude survey that I gave my students. The mere sight of it is a bit overwhelming. Students circled a number on a scale that reflected their attitude toward a specific reading task or genre and I took these numbers and sorted them into the categories shown here. I added them up in order to determine an overall picture of their attitude toward say recreational print, as opposed to academic digital reading (see below).
Around the 140th attitude scale that I analyzed, I realized that both me and the students no longer cared about the questions due to the shear volume of answering/reading them. As I was beating myself up and trying to make sense of the fact that these scales showed that my students’ attitude toward reading had become increasingly negative, I decided that it wasn’t fair to judge my efficacy as a teacher on questions like, “Do you like to use online dictionaries?” or “Do you like to read manga?” These questions didn’t reflect what I’d done with this study. I had chosen it because of its intention to gauge students attitude toward types of reading, but it was far too broad in its scope for this study. I asked several of my students whether or not their attitude toward reading had changed for the negative as the scales indicated and their answers fell broadly into three categories: 1) students just didn’t want to do the scale attached to the post-survey on the Friday before vacation, 2) students were just more honest and simply circled what they thought I’d want to see when they did the survey in the fall term:“I never liked using an encyclopedia, I just said I did,” and 3) a few students were able to articulate that the answers they selected just prior to kick-off were probably motivated by their excitement to start the challenge, which, I think is supported by the fact the 70% of students initially planned to take part, while 53% actually did.
Finally, while I’m happy with the outcomes and will utilize what I learned from participating in this study in the future, I’m not satisfied that only 13% of my students completed the challenge. I’m not sure if the bar was set too high or if I wasn’t able to push the right buttons. To clarify, I’m not sorry that I put this challenge in front of my students; I just believe that if that many students weren’t able to complete it than I need to shoulder a majority of the responsibility for the other 87% of students that didn’t make it.
Step 6: Ideate & Call for Action
I had the privilege of making a move professionally (to teach 8th grade) that allowed me to take part in this study. While students may or may not perform better on standardized tests utilizing this pedagogy, I do not believe that the answer to long-term student success lies in strict adherence to a particular program or in limiting instruction to what is present on today’s standardized tests. I try everyday to be creative, meet my students where they are at, and inspire them to want to learn, read, and ask questions.
I talk about books with students, buy books for students, and do my best to excite students about literacy. I make time to visit the library, and teach students how to find books they’ll enjoy. I hold debates over relevant high-interest articles, such as net neutrality or universal basic income and my students come back to school talking about connections they’d made in the news. I host Friday free reads where I bake cookies and make hot cocoa in my coffee pot for students. This year we held the first annual MVMS book trailer film festival with spray painted gold plates and movie tickets for the winners of several categories. My students get to act out exciting parts in books, engage in reader’s theater, and dress up like Greasers and Socs when we watch the outsiders. If you want to encourage students to be creative and innovative, you need to model that for them, by creating and innovating in your methods of instruction.
My plan is to continue to improve my practice through research especially in the field of recreational reading by reflecting on personal successes as well as failures, by experimenting, taking risks, improvising when inspired, and by remaining excited and enthusiastic about my work and students.
I’m constantly I’m experimenting with new ideas, trying to refine them and ultimately decide whether or not they’re worth using. An initiative that I have thought of through this study that i would like to implement is a read-a-thon. I read an article about a church in Maine that held uninterrupted prayer within its walls for 23 straight years and I started thinking that it might be fun to try that with reading for a day or a week. Students could take turns or shifts. Maybe I could find a throne for them to read on and place it somewhere prominent like the lobby. They’d certainly enjoy being excused from class. Maybe I could incorporate a March of Dimes style fundraiser so that the community could sponsor the number of pages read.
Another idea that I thought of for my students is for them to create a “speed read” which would be creating a book in the course of a class period by having students designated to read and summarize a single chapter and putting them together to create our own Cliff notes (or Smith notes).
I heard about another program where in addition to penalizing people that broke traffic laws, the government introduced a lottery where people that followed the speed limit could win the money that others had paid in, in fines and speeding dropped drastically. I wonder if that idea could be implemented to encourage reading. I can’t fine my students, but could they start with some desirable resource and either lose it or gain it over time based on their adherence to reading daily?
I believe that all students can be helped, that it’s well worth my time, and that my students value the effort I put in. As teachers, it’s easy to forget that we don’t actually operate in a tight, synchronized, little vacuum. If our goal is to help foster curiosity and encourage our students to continue to learn beyond the walls of our schools than we need to think bigger than our classrooms and incorporate the larger world. We need to speak to students’ interests, values, and beliefs, and be mindful and sensitive to the fact that we are not the only voice they’re listening to. We need to recognize that each of our students need something different from us, and that our goal should be constant improvement.
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