Why WITS Measures Attitudes Toward Reading

Elizabeth KristoffOutcomes, Programs

How would you describe your relationship with reading?

For some of us, reading is a requirement – a task to complete for a school or work assignment. Sometimes reading is a way to fill time on the morning commute or in a waiting room. For myself and the staff at WITS, reading is among our favorite things to do. Curling up with a compelling book is a way to relax, wind down – or, conversely – a way to learn and challenge our thinking. I often have multiple books going at a time (one fiction, one non-fiction) that complement one another but offer different perspectives. There is always a book in my bag so that no matter where I am, I can always sneak in a page or two.

In a word, my relationship with reading is alive.

Helping Students Identify as Readers
WITS Kindergarten at Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy

As a former WITS Program Manager, I frequently met students who weren’t interested in reading, who thought reading was boring, or considered themselves “bad” readers. What a joy! No really – it was one of the greatest thrills of my job to stand with a frowning student at the book bin, have a conversation, and find out what interested them most. To find that perfect book. To see that frown twist upward into a sign of excitement. To see them share the book with their mentor, and then come back to me asking, “can you please bring more books on lizards?”

It’s not always lizards, and it’s not always immediate. Sometimes, it takes the entire school year to help a student identify as a reader, or it may not click until the student is much older. This is why WITS programs focus on improving student attitudes toward reading, and it’s more than asking if a student likes reading or not. As it turns out, our attitude toward reading plays a significant role in how we develop reading habits, reading identity, and reading skills.

Over the past three years, an average of 65% of WITS students demonstrate an improved attitude toward reading.

Motivation Matters

A study completed by the Journal of Educational Psychology explored how student motivation might influence reading performance. The study measured autonomous and controlled motivation – one in which students choose how, when, and what they read – and the other being told by a teacher. The study found that “autonomous reading motivation, as compared to…controlled reading motivation, was associated with higher leisure-time reading frequency, more reading engagement, and better reading comprehension.” The report added that students “must also feel motivated to read based on their own intrinsic motivation or the many initiatives designed to increase reading [behavior] will not be successful.”

Positive attitudes toward reading

It makes sense. The more you enjoy doing something, the more frequently you will do it; the more frequently you do it, the more skilled you will become – thereby increasing overall enjoyment. WITS understands that positive attitudes toward reading is an indicator of an array of possible benefits, and works with students on an individual basis to shape their motivation.

How WITS Influences Attitudes Toward Reading
Mid-Day Mentoring at Manierre Elementary

The key is student choice. In school, students are often told what to read, at what pace, and then must answer questions or complete projects, regardless of their interest or enjoyment level. WITS removes these constraints. Students not only select what books they read, but are given the option to have their mentor read to them; to read Go, Dog, Do five times in a row; or read for 20 minutes and then spend time writing in their journal about how they connect personally to a character or story.

In addition to encouraging student agency, WITS staff regularly accepts book requests, ensuring that every book bin at program is filled with titles that directly reflect student interests. When a student is particularly reluctant, WITS staff coordinates with teachers for insight on what kinds of books and activities could improve engagement. To promote reading for pleasure at home, WITS Workplace Mentoring students select and check-out books from the WITS library, providing easy, free access to high-interest books whenever they like.

Active Literacy, Active Living

According to the Literature Review, reading for pleasure has significant academic benefits, including stronger comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, and writing ability. The National Endowment for the Arts agrees, adding that “regular readers are more than three times as likely as non-readers to visit museums, attend plays or concerts, and create artworks of their own. They are more likely to play sports, attend sporting events, or do outdoor activities. They are also more than twice as likely as non-readers to volunteer or do charity work.”

All WITS students receive brand-new books to take home throughout the year

In short, active literacy leads to active living. This is what we want for every single one of our students, and what we know is possible for them.

I’m reminded of a moment at Mid-Day Mentoring at Manierre Elementary, when a student asked me the definition of motivation. I posed the question to the entire group, and one student raised her hand to answer, “Motivation is the motor inside you that tells you to keep going.”

Attitude toward reading is much more than whether a student likes to read or not. It is about giving that motor a little nudge for a lifetime of moving forward.

WITS provides literacy programming at no cost to over 90 Chicago neighborhood elementary schools.

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