Case Study – social intervention

How and to what extent can social intervention make a difference in boy’s reading motivation and skills at primary level?

1.    Introduction and Context

1.1      Context of the case study report

This case study is a post-hoc and ongoing action research analysis of an apparently successful reading club for primary school boys in an international school in Singapore. After the first year of operation – 2015/6, the club received positive feedback from teachers, parents and the members themselves. Drawing on the academic context of reading motivation, reading skills, and the role of social belonging in motivation and academic achievement, the study attempts to unpack whether the perceived success is grounded in verifiable data and if further analysis in combination with peer reviewed academic research can further improve practice and allow generalisation to other groups.

The importance of reading to academic achievement and the reciprocal relationship between reading motivation, ability, self-efficacy and skill is well documented (De Naeghel, Van Keer, Vansteenkiste, & Rosseel, 2012; Förster & Souvignier, 2014; Retelsdorf, Köller, & Möller, 2014). Alas, so too is the fact that boys persistently lag girls in reading level at every grade and are more likely to be reluctant readers or aliterate – able to read but not willing to do so (Hamston & Love, 2005; Loveless, 2015; Maynard, 2011; OECD, 2014; Retelsdorf, Schwartz, & Asbrock, 2015).

According to motivational research, belonging, or relatedness, along with autonomy and competence are considered basic essential ongoing needs. In the school context, belongingness correlates with student success, as students have a more positive academic attitude and are more engaged. But boys are less likely to have a sense of belonging (Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014; Goodenow, 1993; Osterman, 2000).

The substantial body of literature on reading motivation, particularly as related to reluctant male readers can be summarized briefly as follows:

  • Extrinsic motivation in the form of physical, achievement or emotional rewards for reading is considered less effective in the long term than intrinsic motivation where reading is its own reward (Guthrie et al., 2007; Logan, Medford, & Hughes, 2011; Schaffner, Schiefele, & Ulferts, 2013; Stutz, Schaffner, & Schiefele, 2016).
  • Young students can gain social currency by “knowing stuff”, sharing books and reading however this diminishes around grade five as a result of peer devaluation of reading (Proctor, Daley, Louick, Leider, & Gardner, 2014).
  • Self-concept/efficacy – the belief in one’s own ability is usually overstated in boys and understated in girls and changes over time (De Naeghel et al., 2012; Förster & Souvignier, 2014; Klauda & Guthrie, 2015; Marinak & Gambrell, 2010; Retelsdorf et al., 2014). There are critical moments in this respect such as when students switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” (mid primary) and when reading load increases (upper primary) and low reading self-concept may result in work avoidance when students begin to avoid reading tasks due to low motivation and/or reading difficulties (Lee & Zentall, 2015).

1.2      School Context

The case study takes place at the primary school campus of an international school in Singapore with 620 students from Kindergarten to Grade 6. Up to a quarter of the students may be English Language Learners (ELL) and more than 40% of the students are bilingual. Student turnover in an international school can be up to 25% a year, making individualized longitudinal data collection difficult. The schools’ MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing, a computerised adaptive test of reading and mathematics (NWEA, 2016) mirrored global data (Loveless, 2015; Mullis et al., 2012; National Literacy Trust, 2012; OECD, 2014) in that boys lag girls in literacy at every grade while outperforming in mathematics.

At the beginning of the 2015/6 school year, the teacher librarian (TL) identified a number of ‘lost’ boys in grades 3-6 with little interest in borrowing books or reading. In response, a social club “Blokes with Books” (BWB) reading club was formed with voluntary membership led by a young male digital literacy coach with support in the background by the TL.

1.3      Case Study Purpose

The expected outcomes of this project are to reach a better understanding of a group of students as readers and to inform best practice going forward.  The label of “reluctant” by teachers, parents or librarians may mask a more complex interplay of factors including motivation, gender or other attitudes towards reading, (Love & Hamston, 2003; Martino, 2001; Mc Kenna, 1990) or underlying problems with reading skills, either as a result of teaching deficits or reading, learning or language issues (NEPS, 2012; Norton & Wolf, 2012; Scanlon, Gelzheiser, Vellutino, Schatschneider, & Sweeney, 2008; Silinskas et al., 2016; Zentall & Lee, 2012). The role of belonging to a social group as having a positive impact on boys at pivotal moments for reading and academic development is also a consideration (Osterman, 2000).

1.4      Case Study Questions

The main question is: “How and to what extent can social intervention make a difference in boy’s reading motivation and skills at primary level?” A number of sub-questions were designed:

  1. Is there any difference in reading progress between boys belonging to the BWB club and their peers?
  2. What is their attitude to reading and their self-concept as readers?
  3. Is there a difference in the number of books they read?
  4. Can digital technologies enhance reading experience or motivation for this group of students?
  5. How can the school best use data analytics to inform practice?

2. Methodology

2.1 Method and Participants

This was a qualitative, exploratory individual case study using data available from the school, supplemented by surveys, observations and interviews. The case study method is recommended where research is description, bounded, real-life with less control from the researcher and phenomena is studied in its context in order to develop theories or interventions and evaluate programs (Baxter & Jack, 2008; Gerring, 2004).

Participants were student members of the BWB club in September 2016 (n=24, ELL=3, all male, Modal age 10y0m, range 9y7m to 11y1m) and/or who had been members of the club since its inception in September 2015 (n=17). Where available, comparative data from all G5 students was used (n=71, ELL=9, male=36, female=35, Modal age 10y7m, Range 9y7m to 11y5m).

2.2  Data Collection and analysis

Prior to the study a consent form was provided to the BWB students’ parents (Appendix A, n=24), and the head of school was asked for permission do the case study and to use aggregated student data. Beside the survey and reading assessment data, comments of the BWB coordinator, teachers and parents were taken into account.

2.2.1   Reading ability

All mainstream (non-ELL) students from Grade one do in-class teacher-led reading assessments (RA) in September, January and April. A variety of benchmark tests are used so data were standardized to Lexile measures (Appendix E). Since the majority of the BWB students were currently in Grade 5 (n=24), it was decided to focus on the data of the 2015/6 Grade 4 cohort into Grade 5 in 2016/7 who were still at the school in September 2016. Students were coded as male (1) or female (2) and as being a member of BWB (BWB#) for the full year 2015/6 and start of 2016/7 (n=17) or just 2016/7 (n=6).

The second, comparative set of quantitative data came from the triannual NWEA MAP testing of all non-ELL students from Grades three to eight in mathematics and reading. The reading component includes a RIT (Rasch unit) score for the whole school by grade, by gender (Appendix G). Individual reports include an equivalent Lexile range and a growth rate compared to a growth projection.

Using both the RA and MAP test results, BWB students’ progress could be tracked over the years using two different test measures and also be compared to their peers.

2.2.2    Attitude and self-concept

The Elementary Reading Attitude (ERA) survey as adapted by Jung (2016) to measure effects of masculinity on motivation (Appendix B) was administered (n=23) during a BWB meeting by the coordinator. All G5 students took a reading self-concept survey “Me as a Reader” (MAAR) either in class or at home, using the nine self-concept questions from the MRP-R test (Malloy, Marinak, Gambrell, & Mazzoni, 2013) – Appendix D.

The ERA and MAAR survey results were rated on a Lickert scale with scores of one to four given for least positive to most positive responses. ERA questions were identified as either reading attitude or male reading attitude related (10 questions each). Statements were then ranked in order of most to least favourable to make inferences on student attitudes (Appendix C). Likewise, students were given a total “self-concept” score based on their responses.

2.2.3    Reading Volume and digital technologies

Library circulation statistics were downloaded from the Follett Destiny library system. Lesson plans and attendance sheets were available on a shared google drive and informal observation and documentation by photo and video was also done.

3.   Findings and Discussion

Parents and teachers were very enthusiastic about the effect of the club on students (Appendix L). It would appear that this school-wide club was more effective in meeting student social belonging needs and motivating them to read than efforts in individual classrooms. It is a non-threatening, non-pressurized environment that emphasizes books and reading as a pleasurable dynamic social activity rather than individual and silent (Studlo, 2016). According to the school counsellor, the BWB club complements the social-emotional work done with some of the students (Upston, 2016).

3.1      Reading Progress

According to a reading assessment data comparison between September 2015 (or first assessment date for new students) and September 2016 the following can be summarised:

RA Improvement All Girls Boys BWB 15/16
>15% 32 14 18 11
7-14% 4 2 2 0
0-6% 10 3 7 4
Negative 8 4 4 1
No Assessment / New 17 12 5 1
Total 69 31 38 17

Table 1: Reading Assessment Improvement September 2015-6

Although reading assessments are subjective, and results may depend on the individual teachers’ interpretation of the test and knowledge of the particular student being assessed, the data clearly shows that participation in a social reading club has a significant effect on reading progress. More than half of the boys showing improvement in reading were a member of BWB, most of them making a significant improvement (more than 15%). In the case of the BWB students who did not make an improvement, teachers thought further investigation needed to be undertaken to understand if there are underlying reading or language skill issues.

A longitudinal overview of the MAP RIT reading scores from Grade 3 to 5 for the whole school shows an interesting anomaly as the boys’ score exceeds that of the girls in September 2016.

  Gr 3 Gr 3 Gr 3 G4 G4 G4 G5
  Sep-14 Feb-15 May-15 Sep-15 Feb-16 May-16 Sep-16
All 196.1 202.4 204.6 206.0 209.9 213.4 214.4
Girls 197.0 202.7 204.0 206.8 210.7 213.9 213.7
Boys 195.3 202.1 205.1 205.3 209.1 212.9 215.0
BWB Average 197.3 207.5 204.4 206.4 213.4 214.2 214.5
NWEA 189.9 194.6 199.2 197.7 202.5 205.9 205.7

Table 2: MAP RIT scores 2014-2016

The average improvement of the BWB includes some individual variation:

MAP Improvement All BWB 15/16 BWB 16/17
7-14% 5 3 2
1-6% 11 7 4
0% 4 4 0
No Assessment / New 4 3 1
Total 24 17 7

Table 3: MAP score improvement

Although improvements are seen, they are not as substantial as those of the RA, so a detailed comparison was made for the BWB students, for whom all data was available.

# Students
Not tested 3
MAP ≅ RA 10
MAP < RA 4
MAP > RA 7

Table 4: MAP Lexile vs. RA Lexile for BWB students

As can be seen in Appendix I, compared to the MAP testing Lexile results, RA results varied with consistent bias. Discussion with individual teachers indicated lack of training and experience, time pressures and unreliable or absent data from prior years as significant factors impacting on the reliability of their data points.

3.2      Attitude, motivation and self-concept

Overall the students had a more positive attitude towards reading than to reading as a masculine activity. Drilling into the scores of specific students, struggling readers had a more negative attitude to reading than more successful readers, highlighting the importance of success in motivation (Allington, 2002).

Attitude score as % of 80 Overall Reading Masculine
Low < 65% 4 3 7
Medium 66-79% 13 7 7
High >80% 6 13 9
23 23 23

Table 5: Reading Attitude score

As can be seen below an analysis of the scores of individual questions yielded some interesting results. Students particularly liked it when a favourite author wrote a new book, and going to the library / bookstore was also highly ranked. In contrast, having to read in what they considered “their time” either during vacation, at playtime or in their free time at home was not appreciated. The results echo the findings of Martino (2001), that reading is devalued as a passive practice particularly when there are active hetero-masculine alternative activities (Frank, Kehler, Lovell, & Davison, 2003). The club focus on lively action related activities that increase exposure to books and genres (see lesson plans – Appendix K), rather than silent reading, to play into this need.

Since reading during the vacation ameliorates summer learning losses (Allington et al., 2010; Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004; Hilsmier et al., 2014), and volume of reading predicts success (see next section) ways need to be found to make this more enticing (Shapiro & Whitney, 1997). Because reading during school time, either in class, during silent reading or free school time appears more acceptable, and this is more controllable by the school, the onus is on making it as effective as possible (Allington, 2002; Damber, Samuelsson, & Taube, 2012; Scanlon et al., 2008).

Q # Topic – reading attitude Score
14 Favourite author writes a new book 88
6 Going to the library 81
10 Going to a bookstore 79
17 Time for reading at school reading 78
13 Going to the bookfair 77
1 Reading in your free time at school 76
9 Reading different kinds of books 71
2 Reading in your free time at home 70
18 Reading on vacation 59
5 Reading instead of playing 49

Table 6: Reading Attitude Ranking

Male leaders (the Obama effect?) and grown men were seen to have a positive attitude to reading; male athletes aren’t seen in the same light. Ironically students enjoy it when other boys do book talks and make suggestions, but are loath to do so themselves, or to be seen reading during their free time.

Q # Topic – masculine attitude Score
20 Male leaders feel about reading 77
16 Grown men feel about reading 76
4 Other boys tell you about books they’ve read 73
12 Other boys give you suggestions about what to read 70
8 Other boys your age feel about reading 67
19 Male celebrities feel about reading 67
11 Older boys feel about reading 64
7 Other boys see you reading in your free time 58
3 Telling other boys about books you’ve read 55
15 Male athletes feel about reading 53

Table 7: Masculine Attitude Ranking

This would appear to indicate that the current spontaneous trend of voluntary book talks at the start of the BWB sessions is a positive development, as are their virtual recommendations on the BWB page of the online learning platform (OLP).

Looking at students’ self-concept as a reader would appear to confirm the gender bias of ability over-estimation by boys and under-estimation by girls (Marinak & Gambrell, 2010). But four of the five boys with a low self-concept were members of the BWB club and merit further investigation. For detailed data see Appendix D.

Self-concept as a reader All Girls Boys BWB
Low:         20-25 14 9 5 4
Medium:   26-31 38 18 20 13
High:       32-36 17 7 10 6
Absent 2 1 1 1
Total 71 35 36 24

Table 8: Self-concept as a reader comparison

3.3      Reading volume

Reading volume is an important predictor of both reading success and motivation (Damber et al., 2012; De Naeghel et al., 2012; Lee & Zentall, 2015; Schaffner et al., 2013; Smith, Smith, Gilmore, & Jameson, 2012; Stutz et al., 2016). Looking at the circulation data of students that generally shows an increase, only shows part of the picture, as students may have access to books at home or through the classroom or public library and not need to rely on the school library. Also, borrowing a book doesn’t guarantee that it is read. From the available data we can see the following:

  2014/5 to 2015/6 2015/6 to 2016/7
New students 4 2
Increased borrowing 12 18
Decreased borrowing 7 5
Total 23 25

Table 9: Reading volume – number of students per category

Number of books borrowed is not always a good indicator of the quality of reading. Decreases in number of books borrowed in some cases were due to mainstream and ELL students tackling longer and more advanced books. More concerning, for a few students the decrease appears to be the result of reading difficulties related to skills rather than motivation that need to be addressed separately.

3.4      Use of data analytics

One of the strengths of data analytics is that the amalgamation of large number of data points can show broad trends in an entire population. However drilling down to individual cases, particularly where subjective input created data, threw up inconsistencies as was seen in the analysis above. The problem with the current form of reading assessments is that they are subjective, missing data, use different standards and benchmarks and are cumbersome to use to extract and compare longitudinal data (Kame’enui et al., 2006).

While each piece of data is interesting in itself, this research would suggest in the case of multivariate phenomena such as reading, the combination of different types of data would improve its predictive and signalling power. An attempt to do this and incorporate the use of ‘warning’ parameters is seen in an extract below (full data in Appendix J). Parameters could be weighted according to their predictive ability and action taken accordingly. For example, that students with the most tags are monitored carefully with the involvement of the school counselling team, while the next group are flagged to their class teachers and receive a form of reading recovery and an eye is kept on others.

BYB # ERAS R ERAS M MAP Lexile MAP Δ GvP* RA Lexile Ave Circ 15/16 Ave Circ Aug-Sep 16 Self Concept # Tags
1 18 19 522 1% > 550 7.4 1.3 20 7
2 21 26 612 4% > 650 1.4 2.7 5
13 33 29 738 0% > 750 4.1 2.0 29 4
9 29 30 846 3% > 700 2.0 2.7 29 4
24 856 6% < 750 4.1 4.7 25 4
16 33 30 882 0% < 750 4.7 8.0 28 4
21 37 35 594 6% < 750 4.9 9.3 30 3
11 28 33 702 0% > 750 11.0 10.7 26 3
22 39 35 720 0% > 700 9.0 8.0 27 3
23 225 2.9 4.0 27 2
Criteria ≤ 25 ≤ 25 <900 ≤ 1% < <900 ≤ 3 ≤ 3 < 25

Table 10: Criteria combined warning tags

3.5      Role of digital technologies

Although students generally do not appear to enjoy reading digital books, one form of digital integration that has had success is the combination of print and digital in one of the books read communally in the club in 2015/6: “Adventures of a Kid Magician” (Flom, Flom-Hill, & Blom, 2015). Careful reading of each chapter unlocked the key to access a video showing a magic trick. Both the students and teacher in charge thought this to be an ideal integration and expressed a wish for more books of this nature. Interactive eBooks show promise in motivating students in leisure reading (Colombo & Landoni, 2014).

Photo 1: BWB member book recommendations


Photo 2: October break reading Challenge


From September 2016 the club had its own page on the new OLP, and boys were encouraged to add book reviews. Between 9 September and 6 October, boys contributed ten reviews on the platform. Within two days of a 14 item vacation reading challenge being announced, (with a prize of an exclusive viewing and borrowing of all new books received after the autumn break) 11 students had attempted one or more of the items and two students had completed the whole challenge.

4. Recommendations

4.1      Reading Progress

Reading progress or growth is a function of initial reading status, velocity and acceleration (Williamson, Fitzgerald, & Stenner, 2014). Each of these can be influenced through deliberate policy and practice. Initial status by early-intervention reading programs, velocity by increased deliberate practice and velocity by ensuring all year reading exposure, i.e. including vacation time, and systematically anticipating and compensating for moments of decreased social motivation, self-concept and work-avoidance discussed in section 1 above. This would require buy-in and effort from the whole school learning ecology including leadership, teachers, students, and parents. Feedback from parents appeared to indicate lack of awareness of the respective roles of home and school, so further parent education seems to be in order.

4.2      Attitude and Motivation

Consideration should be given to annually administering a validated test that signals recreational and academic reading motivation incorporating self-determination theory to students from Grade 3. In this way students at risk of aliteracy can be identified. Activities that position reading as a fun, collaborative social activity outside the classroom should be encouraged. Ways to enhance the appeal of summer/vacation reading need to be investigated.

4.3      Reading Volume

A library / classroom based alert system needs to be set up to identify students who need more assistance with finding the right book. Further work can be done on comparing student reading levels with library / class library collection data as a tool for collection development to ensure provision of interesting, relevant materials in student’s proximal reading zone (Williamson, 2015). Successful reading should increase reading motivation, volume and progress further (Stenner, Burdick, Sanford, & Burdick, 2007).

4.4      Data Analytics

Data in the form of MAP tests and RA needs to be compared and correlated in order to identify trends on a school-wide scale, but also to drill down to specific classes, grades and individuals to find any inconsistencies and comparative bias between teachers or grades or benchmarks used, such as were identified in this study. Teachers need better training in the tools, and follow up on missing data or discrepancies should be made in a timely manner. Students identified as being at risk based on a combination of markers including reading motivation and self-concept, volume of reading and reading growth need to be closely monitored with action taken to increase the velocity of reading gains or avoid deceleration on time.

It is suggested that a system be put in place, with thresholds for each criteria as suggested in the analysis above. Students can then be given a score for number of “warning tags” and follow up arranged accordingly.

Finally, although the school is above NWEA norms, at each grade level, caution should be exercised as to what benchmark is used given the socio-economic and education level of the school community – for example, Williamson (2015) suggests a Lexile of L925 would be appropriate for beginning G5 students but at present only 28 out of 62 non-ELL students meet a benchmark of L900 – although some of the non-ELL students may have been ELL at some point in the previous years, and therefor had a lower initial status.

4.5      Digital

Instead of waiting for authors or other providers to create print and digitally integrated books, our students could be encouraged to supplement their favourite books with digital content on the OLP. This would transform students from being digital consumers, to digital creators – one of the learning goals of the 21st Century learner (Ito et al., 2013; Kalantzis & Cope, 2015; Rickard, 2014). Students with reading skills or learning difficulties should be encouraged to explore read-along and audio books to reap the benefits of audio such as improving comprehension, fluency, reading accuracy and motivation (Audio Publishers Association, 2016).

5.   Conclusion

For most participants, this specific social intervention made a difference in boy’s reading motivation through enhancing their sense of social belonging and “masculinizing” reading activities. For most of those in the club since September 2015, reading skills improved at a rate higher than predicted by Lexile growth rate models, and higher than their peers, probably due to higher quantity and quality of reading.

One of the issues with this intervention is its scalability and reliance on key-personnel. At the moment the club has grown to its limits of 30 students, an additional staff member is helping during the meetings, and there is a waiting list of students. Although it has helped a group of students, more integrated school-wide, permanent solutions will need to be sought that benefit all students that involve the predictive ability of combining various indicators of reading motivation, self-concept and skill with reading for pleasure as a social activity and allowing timely rehabilitation where necessary. The predictive ability of combining reading assessments, MAP testing, motivation and self-efficacy surveys to identify at risk students needs to be investigated further on larger populations.

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Not included in order to protect privacy of school and students

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