Kids learn to read faster with individualized schedules, more challenges in the classroom

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Reading is a fundamental skill, but many children struggle with it. However, a new individualized learning approach brings promise for changing this, according to researchers in Norway. Their study finds that giving children, and especially boys, proper challenges provide them with the learning environment they need to succeed.

Hermundur Sigmundsson, a professor at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology, has focused his efforts on reading education for years. He’s now expanding that research to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland to offer a new way for first-graders to both learn and master reading.

“We’ve developed a procedure called READ. It emphasizes the most important methods for learning, psychology, motivation theory and targeted practice,” Sigmundsson says in a university release. “The key is to survey children’s skills at the start of the school year, in September, and in January and May, which enables us to provide the right challenges in relation to skills.”

To do this, researchers placed the children on a stringent school schedule. In the mornings before lunch, the children learned basic reading, writing, and math. They also had to be physically active within the first two to three hours of the day. After lunch, they focused on practice. The students received targeted practice and learned how to draw connections between letters and the sounds that follow them. Near the end of the day, the students had their “passion” class, which focuses on a subject each child personally selects from a choice of home economics, music, carpentry, sewing, or painting/drawing.

Reading results significantly improved. Only 58 percent of first-graders could read single words in September. By May, this jumped up to 100 percent. Only 28 percent could read full sentences in September, which jumped to 96 percent by May. Connected text reading follow similar patterns, with only around eight percent being able to do this in September, compared to 88 percent in May.

There’s a notable difference in skill between boys and girls

“In Iceland, we have particular challenges with reading among boys and immigrants,” Sigmundsson says.

According to a 2018 survey, 34 percent of 15-year-old boys in Iceland and 26 percent in Norway struggle to understand what they’re reading.

“These children don’t have the reading skills that enable them to understand the text. This has been the case for 18 years. In Norway, the percentage varies from 21 to 26 percent of boys,” the researcher explains.

On the other hand, just five to nine percent of girls struggle with their reading skills.

“We don’t find this acceptable. Biologically, the proportion should be around 2 to 4 percent,” Sigmundsson adds.

Hanne S. Finstad, PhD, the founder of Forskerfabrikken, a social enterprise that engages children in hands-on learning and discovery, fully supports Sigmundsson’s program. It not only suits their academic needs, but biological needs as well.

“Time is set aside for repetition and deepening skills, and that is something our memory needs to really learn. Students also have the opportunity to develop creatively and musically, in addition to having physical activity every day. The school day is arranged to develop both body and soul,” says Finstad.

Sigmundsson even factored in the prevalence of ADHD among young kids, specifically boys, in the research. Currently, close to 15 percent of boys in Iceland and 4.9 percent of boys in Norway take medication for the disorder. These kids tend to struggle with sitting still for long periods of time, which isn’t a worry with this program. The READ school day structures classes to not exceed 40 minutes and includes 72 hours more movement during the year. The passion lesson is also critical for this population to give them an outlet and bring joy. Sigmundsson is confident that his model can greatly improve learning and reading outcomes for children.

The findings are published in the journal Brain Sciences.

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