Promising Phase 1 Trial: Yes, You Can Triple a 12-year-old's Pleasure Reading

Hey Dan Willingham. I know you were bummed about Pew's mis-reporting on reading habits. So I have a sliver of news to cheer you up. Two months ago, I asked: Can you triple a 12-year-old's pleasure reading?

We were trying an intervention and wondered to what extent it would work.

Hey. It worked! At least so far.

Results Short Version: Pleasure reading out-of-school rose from 71 minutes/week to 252 minutes/week. We tripled. Sign this thing up for Red Sox.

In-school pleasure reading rose an additional 100 minutes/week (from the Club itself).

Lots of juicy caveats, mistakes, and details below. Warning Mom. Long blog ahead.

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As we were launching, I blogged:

We’re trying out a reading club. I have no idea if it will succeed. The goal is a big bump in student pleasure reading.

1. All our middle schoolers choose after-school clubs. They meet 2x/week. Usually an hour. So kids were able to choose this if they wanted.

2. What will happen in the book club?

a. Kids are in small groups with a tutor. 3 or 4 kids.

b. The tutors work to get each kid a book he likes.

c. Each kid is using a Kindle.

d. Simple club. If you enjoy what you’re reading, you just keep going. If not, tutors find out why. Probably need to get the kid a new book.

e. Some book discussion. Goal is to create some peer competition/pressure to keep reading the book. Tutors hype up what’s coming up in the book, kids talk about their favorite parts, etc.

That was the plan. Here's how it worked in real life. Ray:

4:20 kids start to come in, take out their Kindles, snacks, chat with each other.

4:30 kids get their data slip - asks which book they're reading. asks their minutes read each of the days since the last meeting. then has a place for them to record their 'locations.'

4:35 I ask who needs a new book and write kids' names on the board. then me or a tutor sits with them and helps them find a book. the rest of the kids read silently. Noam and Camilla (another MIT volunteer) and Alex Gecker (tutor) enter in the kid's data. They have to go back to roughly a third of the kids to clarify what they wrote.

If the data seemed off (if they reported way more minutes than actual 'locations' read, or vice versa, or if they forgot to complete any part of the survey) then Noam would go over and have them clarify.

5:15-5:25 kids would get in groups with a tutor and talk about their book. Informal - tutors would ask questions, kids would give book recs to other kids, etc.

We switched this for second month of the club. Kids just read until 5:25. Two reasons: when we asked, most kids said they were annoyed when we stopped them at 5:15 and that they'd rather just keep reading. Also, fewer tutors were able to attend. We started with about 12 tutors expressing interest in helping. By the end, only 3 were able to attend consistently to help with the 18 students. The rest had to tutor one or more of their students after school in regular academics.

5:25 - We announced the kids' reading time and points earned. Then they stack the chairs in Josh Rubin's room (where we met) and went home.

Q: The Club has ended for these kids. Now what?

Ray says:

A: Our hypothesis is that pleasure reading will decline quite a bit, but remain above the baseline level. The question is how much above the baseline level. We'll examine that in January.

Even if the 252 minutes declines back to, say, 100 minutes per week on average, that's 30 extra minutes per week of pleasure reading.

Since they'll be at Match from Grades 6 to 12, it would be 175 additional hours of reading before graduation. If it declines from 252 to 130 minutes per week, it'd be 350 additional hours of reading during. That's a lot of books.

Q: What was the Points Incentive?

Ray responds:

At the end of September I introduced a competition. Kids would receive points based on how much they read. We created a chart to show every kid's progress. The Y axis had all the kids' names, the X axis was numbered 1 - 40. Every kid had a colored dot that we moved every week based on how many points they earned. Kindles use a measurement they call 'locations.' Locations are the Kindle equivalent of pages, but they're pegged to roughly every 23 words: these were the best way for us to compare book to book, kid to kid reading volume. If a kid read 300 locations, they won 1 point. 600 locations was 2 points. 1000 or more was 3 points.

Usually 4 to 5 kids would earn 0 points, 3 to 4 kids would earn 1 point, 1 or 2 kids would earn 2 points, 7 or 8 kids would earn 3 points. If you earned 29 points in 12 sessions you won a college t-shirt. 5 kids won. We'd announce points at the end of every session and move kids' dots on the big chart.

Kids were always checking their dots after the club and asking about them. When we announced point winners kids would fist-pump, dance, look sassily at their friends, or do an NFL-style muscle-flex and look tough. I think this increased consumption - Noam and I will crunch numbers this weekend to see.

Q: Ray, was behavior an issue during all this silent reading?

No. We had almost no behavior problems. Of course kids had self-selected into this club. Still, as Lisa said, even the 'tougher' kids did great in the club.

Actually, I didn't even know certain kids had behavior issues in regular classes until about a month in, when I started looking at the Dean's Office reports. Example: Z. Big guy. Has some discipline issues with core classes. But was quiet and polite during the club. Liked to talk with his buddy sometimes, but 90% of the time would just pull his Kindle out and get to it without much prompting.

He read: Twisted (book about high school senior who gets busted for graffiti, spends his summer doing outdoor work to pay for it, then comes back muscular and gets lots of girls and has identity crisis), Fist Stick Knife Gun (Geoffrey Canada's book), STAT 1 and 2 (Standing Tall and Talented - series by Amar'e Stoudemire based on his life), and The Heat Reign (book accounting the Heat's NBA championship season). Z already knew he wanted to read Twisted and FSKG (I think his sister recommended them), then started asking for basketball books, so we found the STAT and Heat books for him.

Q: What were popular books?

The Hunger Games series was pretty popular, though most kids had already read at least the first book. 6 of the 18 read a Hunger Games book at some point. Also popular was the Percy Jackson series. Another 6 kids read one or more of the books from that series. Most kids who started them would read all of them, and in early October a new book by the Percy Jackson guy (Rick Riordan) and there were about four kids who were finding me in the hallway and telling me they needed to get that book asap.

A few of the girls read the Uglies series. Four boys read one or more of the Dork Diaries series (they settled for these after the Diary of a Wimpy Kid turned out to not be available on the Kindle). And another three or four boys got into the Series Of Unfortunate Events.

Beyond that there was not much overlap or common interest. Kids seemed to have either a series they were interested in, or a topic they liked. One kid liked basketball, another dragons/fantasy, one girl loved ghosts, then a couple kids got into video game books (anything with people shooting each other and lots of blood). Couple random interesting ones popped out: the book by the navy seal about Bin Laden's killing, an Isaac Asimov book (Caves of Steel), the Bible.

Funniest books: Vampirates. A British series of books about Pirates who turn into Vampires (not the other way around, btw. an important distinction, I learned.)

Q: How exactly did you help kids find books?

Kids usually knew what they wanted, mostly from what their friends or siblings told them was good.

But when we did help kid find a book we would usually go onto Amazon and type in a book they'd recently read and liked, then looked at the 'other also bought' section.

At first we'd push the first chapter of the book for free into the kid's kindle, but eventually that was too cumbersome and it was easier to just have the kid read a few pages on the computer though Amazon's site. After a couple pages they'd say confidently yes or no. If they said yes after only a couple pages they'd stick with it 9 times out of 10 - didn't need the full chapter.

Q: What's Whispercast?

Amazon has a new feature. It's called Whispercast. It's designed to help schools manage large numbers of Kindles.

They asked us if we wanted to try a beta version last August, when we ordered the bundle of 25. The goal is making it easier for schools/teachers to load books onto the Kindles by allowing one master account.

So I tried it. Seemed to make the registration easy, but the problem with this beta version was this: we wanted to completely lock the Kindle and not give kids access to any features (there's a primitive web browser, games, and the amazon store) other than the reading. But a glitch didn't allow me to register the Kindle to individual emails and separately lock each one. I don't think Amazon anticipated the notion that a school might want only the "book reading" function and to block everything else.

This may well be fixed. If so, Whispercast would be a big help. I look forward to trying it now that they've released the real version.

Q: How did you try to remind kids to read out of school?

11 of 18 kids had cell phones. We sent texts 2x per week reminding them to read. All the parents got calls at the beginning of the club. Then again within the first week and a half to see how they were doing at home and encourage them to have their kid set time aside to read. Parents were happy about the program. After that we started targeting the non-readers. Parents of kids who were reading a lot got called about once every three weeks. Parents of low readers were called weekly.

Q: The Club has ended after 8 weeks. Those kids will pick new clubs. How did you manage the Kindle "hand-off" to parents, in hopes that they'll continue to encourage pleasure reading?

We asked parents to come in yesterday when they came to pick their kid up. We said anytime after 5 pm (club ends normally at 5:30). About 4 of the 18 them came inside at 5pm, the rest drove up but didn't come in.

So we (me and Emily) went car door to car door with our smartphones and showed parents how to access the amazon store and the Boston Public Library Kindle checkout website. I think we got to all but 2 parents (of kids who walked or got carpools). We're calling them today to set up a time to meet with them asap.

Parents were very nice. I had a interesting conversation with M's mom. She said he used to be a big reader, but then once he got to middle school it stopped being the 'cool' thing to do, so M read less. She was happy about this program because she thought it made reading less 'uncool.'

She also said he didn't always read as much as she'd like because he was so tired. The transition to Match Grade 6 has been hard. He used to get home from his former school at around 2:30. "He's just not used to these long days. I tell him, this is what working people have to do. But he's often really tired at the end of the day."

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The Kids

Ray interviewed 135 middle school kids last August. He was trying to learn a lot about their pleasure reading habits.

For this intervention, we didn't want any kids who either hated reading or loved reading. We wanted those kids in the "middle."

So first Ray asked all 135 kids if they were even interested in the club. 70 or so were.

Then he pared down 13 kids who already read a lot (more than 200 minutes/week). So that left 57 kids.

Then he offered spots to 25 randomly selected kids, with names drawn out of a hat.

Of those 25 students, Ray writes:

--18 completed

--3 chose to do other clubs (1 student government, 2 athletic conditioning) and didn't accept our offer.

--1 student dropped the club in order to get "regular academic tutoring" during that time.

--3 kids came to a few sessions, but there were some outside issues which made coming to ANY club challenging.

Statistically speaking, a true randomized trial includes ANY kid selected for the club, EVEN those kids who didn't actually participate in the club. I.e., you're measuring the effect of the "offer" of the club.

A. Of the 18 who fully participated, they had reported a mean of 71 minutes of outside-of-school pleasure reading pre-reading club. By the end of our club those kids were reading a mean of 252 minutes per week. That's 3.6x more than their baseline.

Medians were very similar.

B. We don't yet have the data on the other 7, but Ray is tracking it down.

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In my earlier blog about this topic, 3 readers contributed good ideas in the comments section. So I'm re-printing them here.

Paul from Edward Brooke Charter writes:

We find that one thing that helps is getting lots of new books in front of kids and talking them up. And then, once the first wave of kids finish them, getting them to share what they love with their friends. In my time teaching, there have been a number of waves – Potter, Twilight, Pretties, Cirque du Freak, Bone, Hunger Games, etc. Those books were like crack.

I think book clubs are great. I led one last year. One of the books was a hit and the other was too hard for most of them – not the reading, per se, but rather the concepts – religion vs. science, etc. I think there are a couple of things to consider.

First, book clubs should be a team thing. Kids should be motivated to finish because they will be letting their team down otherwise because the discussion will suck.

Second, I think tutors should bring books that are like crack, at least at first. If the goal is to really get kids hooked, don’t pick Mockingbird, or Malcolm X. Broach those with high readers later, once they are hooked.

On an aside, this year we have 30-45 minutes per day for sacred reading time in all classes. No other interruptions are allowed. Kids having that amount of time to focus has lead to a lot more reading, it seems to me. And they are reading choice books.

One other thing, we are also ordering a ton of books. Each grade has a sizeable budget to buy books each month so continue stocking our libraries with fodder for reading.

Another thing to consider, that I didn’t know before last year, is that many new books have trailers like movies these days and you can get them online.

Sarah Tantillo of the Literacy Cookbook wrote:

Hi, Mike

Really glad to see y’all are pushing forward on the issue of reading for pleasure; I believe it could close the gap more quickly than many other things. There are some resources on The Literacy Cookbook “Independent Reading” page (, including a couple of fun, creative ways for students (esp. MS and HS) to check out books they might enjoy reading: “Speed Dating with a Book” and “Weekend Date with a Book,” contributed by my friend Allison Miller, who used to teach at North Star and now heads the English Dept. at Paterson CS for Science & Technology. Over the summer, Allison and I developed a “Strategic Reading” elective for struggling HS students, the primary goal of which is to help students fall in love with reading.

One other thought for the book club is to consider starting a blog where students can share their reviews; I humbly submit my blog, “Only Good Books” ( as a model. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

David writes:

Hi MG,

Over at Boston Prep, we’re actually doing a huge Independent Reading push this year as well. Our ELA Department created a whole new incentive system around IR. Each homeroom has an IR “mountain” with different benchmarks based upon the number of books that students have read. Each grade has a goal for how many books students should read by the end of the year to reach the “top” of the mountain, with litte prizes (pens, bookmarks) along the way as students hit their goals.

Students get credit for a book when they submit a book review that we place in a classroom binder so that students can see which books their friends did/did not like and what other options there are if they like a particular genre.

Our more valuble shift, I believe, however, is that we’re making independent reading a part of homework in 6-8 Reading classes.

Students are assigned to read a certain amount (usuallly 15, sometimes 30) of choice reading and they are required to write down the pages they read and a 3-4 sentence summary of what happened. As a result, at the beginning of the year, students are already finishing 2-3 books (as they also have IR time during the day). The downside is that this involves a lot of self-reporting and tracking by the teachers (both during IR time and when looking at HWs), so that some gaming of the system will probably happen. But we’re hoping that putting the emphasis on incentivizing and helping students find choice books will minimize it.

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In the comments section on my original blog, 60+ people predicted the effect. (I realize now I misreported the baseline in that blog. I wrote 50 minutes. But 50 described the pleasure reading of the 130 kids Ray had interviewed, not the baseline of the treatment/control groups who indicated interest in the club. Oh well).

Who came closest? The mean result was 3.9 hours per week. Alex J predicted 4 predicted hours per week. Props to Alex J.

Cheryl wrote:

I do predict some outliers of scholars who become hooked on pleasure reading and begin reading a weekly average of 5+ hours.

Ray, who were the highest readers?

I predicted: "Patriots will win 12 games this season." Pats now 5-3. Need to go 7-1 to win 12. Doesn't look good but I have faith.

Ray predicted: "Notre Dame will win 9 games this season." Wow. ND currently 9-0 with late win against Pitt yesterday.

Dylan predicted: "20% of kids lose/break/otherwise make useless their Kindles."

Ray says:

Actually, none lost, and one broke. Small crack on screen. We're returning it. Helped that we bought $5 "faux-leather" cases for each kindle. Kids like 'em, and they do protect well.

Alex J predicted: "City edges out United (again…errr) for the cup, Chelsea finishes 3rd, and Arsenal drops to 6th." Um, does anyone even follow soccer?

Chloe: "I predict that patriots fans will continue to be upset about the fact that we Giants fans live among them."

She was correct. Though I'm quite pleased that my Giants fan dad is coming up to our house for Thanksgiving. Hey Pop: Just easy on the trash talk!

Final Thoughts

1. Money.

Money is always tight. For this experiment, Ray and I used grant money that we got to design our blended learning school. But to expand an intervention like this to other Match students, our principals would have to decide to cut somewhere else.

In a weird way, district school principals I know have so little discretionary budget -- all the money is controlled downtown -- that they almost never have to make tough calls. Charter leaders I know have much more discretion, but that means they gotta make a lot more tough calls...hmm, do I cut this field trip for 200 kids to provide Kindles loaded with a bunch of books for 20 kids? Do I cut $3,000 from the science curriculum budget? Do I pull back the professional development trip for those two teachers? Etc. If you're a charter teacher, believe me, you should hug your leader for making all these tough judgment calls. I know "it's their jobs" but it doesn't make it easy.

2. Appreciation

Thanks to the kids for giving this a try, and having such enthusiasm!

Thanks to Ray, Noam, Camila, Emily, Alex, Micha, and the AWESOME Match Middle School team for doing the real work.

Thanks to Jeff Bezos and others who invented the Kindle.