More classroom time increases reading skills

Just three extra hours a week raised reading test scores in fourth grade students

class time

Three extra hours in the classroom per week increased student reading scores, a new study shows. 


School’s in. Students may groan, but three extra hours of classroom time raises reading comprehension scores, a new study reports. The results suggest a little extra time with teacher could help learning. But increased instruction time comes with a cost that schools may not be willing to pay.

Education improvements in the United States and other countries often include increases in class time. But does this increased class time actually do any good? To find out, Simon Andersen at Aarhus University in Denmark worked with the Danish government to recruit fourth grade classes from 90 schools across the country. Andersen is a political scientist — someone who studies how governments work. Studying governments can include studying things the government pays for, such as public education.

Andersen divided the 90 schools (and the 1,931 fourth-grade students in them) into three groups. Two had their students stay for an extra three hours per week of teaching time over 16 weeks. The third didn’t have to stay and served as the control.

It might seem like a challenge to make students spend extra time in school, but in Denmark, that’s not so hard. Many students stay at school after class, in after-school programs, Andersen explains. This time, they scientists just kept them in class. One group of those staying in class got to work on whatever the teacher wanted. The other got a specially designed educational program to help them read.

The scientists looked at reading test scores before and after the 16-week program. The extra classroom time improved students’ test scores. But the teaching program didn’t matter. “The teaching program was developed by experts…we thought it would be effective,” says Andersen. This could mean that schools don’t need structured teaching programs, they just need more time in class. “You don’t need to control what’s happening in the classroom,” he says.

Kids who got the special teaching program did show fewer behavioral problems — such as not paying attention or being overly active. But this could just be because the teaching program was something new, Andersen notes. “They aren’t used to it, so they weren’t getting bored,” he says.

The study shows that classroom hours matter when it comes to learning, says Vibeke Jensen. She studies the economics of education at the Danish National Center for Social Research in Copenhagen. “Their study certainly supports the existing evidence,” she says.

But Jensen is not sure how well these effects might apply to students overall. Children in Denmark have higher reading skills than do kids in many other countries to begin with. “Perhaps we would find no effects,” she cautions, “for countries with very low reading skills because the intervention is simply not big enough to have any effect.” For countries with a lot of educational difficulties, a mere three hours might not be enough.

While many schools might not mind increased instruction time, they probably would mind how much it costs. Andersen calculated the cost for the 16-week program at $182 per student. That money would go to paying for the teacher’s time. And that cost, he worries, would be the main barrier to launching such trials elsewhere.

Longer classroom hours might be helpful for some, but “one size doesn’t fit all,” Jensen notes. “There might be other types of interventions out there that could be just as effective for lower cost and perhaps a better fit for some groups.”

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Power Words

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control    A part of an experiment where there is no change from normal conditions. The control is essential to scientific experiments. It shows that any new effect is likely due only to the part of the test that a researcher has altered. For example, if scientists were testing different types of fertilizer in a garden, they would want one section of it to remain unfertilized, as the control. Its area would show how plants in this garden grow under normal conditions. And that give scientists something against which they can compare their experimental data.

political science  The study of governments and how they function. This study can also extend to systems that the government funds, such as public education. 

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.