Sparking an Early Interest in Reading
A class of 4th graders in Kent Island, Maryland, in 1986 changed Janice Almasi’s life. Almasi, now the Carol Lee Robertson Endowed Professor of Literacy in the UK College of Education, had been reading about the benefits of peer book discussions, so she tried that approach in her classroom.
“As I witnessed the outcome—nine year olds debating the interpretation of a line in a book and actually listening intently to each other’s understanding of the text—a chill shot down my spine,” Almasi recalls. After teaching that class, she knew she would go into full-time doctoral study and knew exactly what her work would focus on.
For the past 17 years, she has been studying the learning environments of elementary classrooms and the discussions that follow when students read. She created a model where students interact as if they’re members of Oprah’s Book Club, rather than answering questions directed to them from the teacher, the traditional approach almost all of us experienced.
In her most recent study of this peer-dicussion model, Almasi selected schools where kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and third graders were divided into experimental and comparison groups. A Tennessee school served as the rural site, and schools in New York as an urban site and a suburban site. Around 860 children were a part of this study, which followed them from kindergarten through third grade. The experimental group practiced peer discussion; the comparison group read and discussed texts in the more traditional way—responding to teacher-directed questions.
One goal was to measure any difference in attitude toward reading and motivation to read of children in the two study groups. To determine this, Almasi used two different measures—an attitude survey and a motivation-to-read profile. Although she found only a modest change in students’attitudes in the two groups at the end of the study, she saw significant differences in their motivation to read. “The children in the peer discussion group viewed reading as significantly more important and valuable,” Almasi says.
Another intriguing facet of this study was the socialization patterns of the children in the two groups. “Before we started the study, we confidentially asked the students who in class they would choose to work, play or read with. Usually there were a handful of ‘social stars’ in the class that almost all of the other children wanted to do things with. Then there were several whom nobody picked—the ‘isolates.’ There was a pattern of elitism. Would our program impact these patterns? That’s what we wanted to find out.”
At the beginning of the study, Almasi says, the patterns in the experimental and control group were very similar in terms of social stars and isolates. But by the end of the three-year study, there were almost no isolates in the experimental group and even fewer social stars. “The reading discussion groups became more egalitarian. The children listened to and respected the opinions of all of the other children,” Almasi says. She adds that if peer discussion of text continues, a longer-range effect of this change in socialization might be an extended sense of equality among students and less of a tendency toward forming cliques.
“The peer discussion model, based on democratic principles of discussion, breaks the mold of teacher-centered education.”
Almasi’s work in reading methods, reading theory and reading research design has recently been nationally recognized. Later this year she will join the board of directors for both the National Reading Conference and the International Reading Association.