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Independent Reading in Rural China's Elementary Schools: A Mixed-Methods Analysis
Working Paper


There is consensus in the international literature that independent reading leads to improvements in both traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes. Countries throughout the world invest heavily in independent reading programs. However, little research has been done about independent reading in rural China, where students are falling behind their urban counterparts in academic subjects at alarming rates. This article seeks to explore the prevalence of independent reading and its associations with test scores. It brings together data from a survey of 13,232 students and findings from 745 interviews with students, teachers, principals, and heads of household. Using a mixed methods approach, we try to probe more deeply into the ways that investments into libraries and book resources as well as reading programs in school and at home can serve to help (or not help) students develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills. According to our quantitative findings, although independent reading is correlated with higher test scores, only 16% of students typically read for more than 60 minutes per day. Furthermore, school libraries in Chinese schools—as they are currently designed and managed—do not appear to be affecting student performance. Extensive qualitative interviews provide a range of possible explanations for why reading programs and investments into books by schools and families play such a minimal role in rural schools in China. In short, the qualitative analysis finds that inaccessible bookstores, curriculum constraints, and unsupportive home environments may explain the low levels of reading presented in the quantitative data. The poor quality of school libraries and insufficient school investment also may be contributing to the nonexistent relationship between libraries and academic achievement. We also interviewed principals, teachers, parents and students from schools which have NGO-funded libraries, book corners and reading classes. When these facilities and programs are fully accessible to students, the perception of our interviewees is that reading is highly correlated with more interest in school and better performance at school.
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