A new study shows that increasing teaching hours significantly improves students’ reading skills, but only when teachers are allowed to plan the curriculum for the extra hours themselves. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Students’ reading improves with longer school days

Longer school days where teachers are free to plan extra sessions can improve students’ reading skills.

A new study finds that longer school hours improves students reading abilities.

“The effect of extra teaching time has been very unclear, but we have now obtained good evidence that there is a positive effect on students reading,” says lead-author Simon Calmar Andersen, Professor at the Institute for Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark.

The results are published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Three extra hours a week make a difference

Andersen and colleagues enlisted 1,934 high school students. At least ten per cent of the students were bilingual.

The students took part in three hours of extra teaching a week for 16 weeks, which represented a 15 per cent increase in their teaching hours.

28 schools introduced a detailed teaching program developed by an expert teacher, while 31 schools allowed the teachers free reign over what they could teach within the three additional hours, and 31 schools had no extra teaching hours and acted as a control group.

Students then took a national reading test and Andersen compared their new results with the results of a previous test taken two years earlier.

Free reign produced better results

They discovered that students performed better in reading tests when the teacher planned the sessions, while the pupils who attended sessions planned by experts improved by a very small and statistically insignificant amount.

“It’s really interesting and surprising that there was a better effect when the teachers had freedom to use the time as they wished. This is a good argument that teachers can manage their teaching programs themselves,” says Andersen.

“Teachers can adapt their teaching but there’s no room to manoeuvre with a detailed program, which will be effective for some students and ineffective for others,” he says.

Colleague: The result is random

Peter Allerup from the Danish Institute of Education and Training disagrees. He was not involved in the new research, but has previously published an international report on the effect of longer school days on student grades in mathematics and natural sciences.

“A number of studies, both national and international, have shown that increasing or decreasing teaching hours has no effect on student achievements,” says Allerup.

His own report reached the same conclusion.

As for Andersen’s conclusions, says Allerup, they are random.

“They find a significant effect by increasing teaching hours, but without controlling what the teachers should do in that time. By definition the results are random, because they can never control what the teachers do in the classroom,” says Allerup.

“But they can control it in the other model, where they give the teacher a detailed teaching program. And here, there is no significant effect, which suggests that increasing teaching hours doesn’t help,” he says.

According to Allerup, not knowing what the teachers did with the extra time prevents them from making any scientifically based recommendations about the length of school days and what should be done within that time.

Andersen calls the criticism misguided.

“The strength of the study is just that we show that increasing teaching hours has a significant effect without the need to establish firm teaching guidelines. This shows that teachers can help to improve student reading skills,” says Andersen.

“And our results have a significance level of five per cent, which means that there is just a five per cent probability that it's a coincidence," he says.

Read the Danish version of this story on Videnskab.dk

Translated by: Catherine Jex

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