Research Spotlight

Study of reading development: “Segregated” schools hinder reading skills

Children in families with low incomes, who attend schools where the minority population exceeds 75 percent of the student enrollment, under-perform in reading, even after accounting for the quality of the literacy instruction, literary experiences at home, gender, race and other variables, according to a new study.

The majority of black and Hispanic children in the United States attend such “minority segregated” schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The study examined reading development from kindergarten to third grade for 1,913 economically disadvantaged children. The children were part of the Children from Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample of more than 22,000 children enrolled in approximately 1,000 kindergarten programs.

“Good instruction is essential, but it’s not enough,” said Kirsten Kainz, a senior research associate in the School of Education, an investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) and author of the study.

“Most current reading instruction initiatives and policies are aimed at improving classroom instruction,” Kainz said. “This research shows that characteristics of the child, the home, the classroom and the school influence reading development, and that maximally effective reading policy should address all four systems simultaneously.” 

Kainz and her colleagues found that classroom and school characteristics had a larger effect on low-income students’ long-term reading abilities than the method of instruction or a child’s background, such as the parents’ employment patterns or size of the household.

The study also showed that the percentage of struggling readers in a classroom negatively influenced every student’s reading performance, erasing any benefits of comprehensive literacy instruction. Children attending kindergarten classrooms with higher percentages of students reading below grade level demonstrated constrained performance in reading at the end of kindergarten. The same was true for children in first grade.

Children were assessed in basic reading skills, vocabulary and comprehension. Researchers then considered how four levels of variables – child, family, classroom and school – affected reading skills. Data was collected as part of a survey via telephone interviews and written questionnaires with caregivers, teachers and administrators in 48 states and Washington D.C.

“These findings support policies that promote comprehensive reading instruction, but indicate that just as much attention needs to be paid to ensuring that schools are integrated and to reducing classroom concentrations of children reading below grade level,” said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Early Childhood, Families and Literacy and Professor at the School of Education and co-author of the study.