Reading Matters — but let’s make it Critical Reading

I saw this graphic on a friend’s Facebook page recently.
But something about it didn’t look right to me:

20 min

Of course, the graphic’s overall point is correct — it’s crucial to have kids read.  More reading = more success.  No argument there.  But something seemed off.

The first two sets of numbers make sense to me — if you read 1 minute a day, that’s 180 minutes (assuming there are 180 days in a year, which is another oddity that I’ll leave alone for now — I hope curious students read every day, not just on school days).

If you read 5 minutes a day that’s 900 minutes, which is five times 180.  Makes sense.

And if you read 20 minutes a day, that’s 3600 minutes,which is four times 900.  All of that makes sense to me.

But the third set of numbers looked oddly exponential:

20 min circled

Hang with me here — we’re going to do some applied math:  If 180 minutes of reading means 8,000 words for “Student A,” that means “Student A” reads at a rate of about 44 words per minute.

Assuming that’s right, it would follow that 900 minutes of reading for “Student B” would be five times 180 minutes, or 40,000 words.  But in the graphic above, somehow the number of read words for “Student B” jumps to 282,000.

And even if 282,000 words were right (which I don’t think it is, because that means student B reads 313 words a minute), when you get up to “Student C” with 3600 minutes, that would be four times 900 minutes, so that would be 282,000 words times four, which is 1,128,000 words, not 1,800,000 words.

In order to read 1,800,000 words in 3,600 minutes, “Student C” would have to read 500 words per minute.

It may be that the graphic intends to say that people who read more end up reading quicker, because they practice more — but if that’s the case, it should make such assumptions explicit.

[For those interested in how fast people typically read, here’s an interesting web site that discusses how adults typically read 250-300 words per minute, with some speed readers reaching 400-800 words per minute.]

My point (and I do have a point here) is that a crucial skill to develop is not only reading, but reading, comprehending, and also reading with a critical eye and not believing everything you read.

So while it certainly makes more sense to read 20 minutes a day than to read 1 minute a day, it also matters *what* you read for your 20 minutes.  Is it a fluffy comic book, a deep graphic novel, or Shakespeare?  Reading an article on CNN is different from reading an article from the Wall Street Journal.

It also matters whether students are reading critically.  And “reading,” broadly defined, also means interpreting graphs and statistics people post on Facebook.  It’s important to do what I just did here — question the assumptions on which graphs and statistics are based.

For example, just because there’s a citation, that does not mean it’s a real scientific study.  Here’s that same chart, presented in verbal form, with some added context at the bottom:

20 min chart

Now this may be a real study — I don’t know.  Maybe Nagy & Herman are experts in the field of reading.  But I do know that it can’t be right that “Student B” is reading only 12 school days while “Student C” is reading 60 school days, because time-wise, “Student C” is only reading four times as much as “Student B” (20 minutes versus 5 minutes).

And just to complete the math here, if 3600 minutes is 60 school days, that means there are 60 minutes in a school day, which can’t be right either…

It’s not enough get students to read — we need to get them to think.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to Reading Matters — but let’s make it Critical Reading

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Hi Steve,

    Like you, I was a little confused about the numbers and I can’t find the actual study/article online anywhere. However, I did read somewhere else that when it says “By the end of 6th grade…” they’re referring to a student that starts reading 20 minutes a night in K or 1st grade. So, if a student reads for 20 minutes a night from K-6th grade, that ends up being 3600 (60 hrs) a year, times 7 school years, which would be 420 hours. Divide that by roughly 7 hrs at school and you’d get your 60 school days. Not sure who made the poster, but they didn’t really think it through that much.

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