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Learning Through Reading

Evaluating the Impact of Extracurricular Reading Programs on Student Learning


Reading is the heart of the education mission in most countries in the world. In North America and Europe, reading is considered one of the key skills that forms the foundation of learning and performance for almost every other subject, including math, writing and science. In fact, reading skill levels—especially in grades K to 9—are often used to measure basic levels of overall educational competency.

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Chinese teachers and parents actually believe reading could hurt academic performance, which in China's competitive school system is often measured by a single test score.

This emphasis on reading is not without academic foundation.  Research has demonstrated that higher reading skill levels and more time spent on reading lead to improvements in both traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes. For example, programs that promote reading among elementary school children have been shown to improve math and writing skills. Beyond traditional academic indicators, reading programs have been correlated with higher levels of creativity, increased interest in school, and higher self-reported happiness among children.

However, this emphasis on reading--which is so prominent in other countries--is absent in China.  Reading programs and library facilities do not have a central role in the education system.  In fact, many (though not all) educators and parents--and by default children--are suspicious that reading programs and libraries may have a negative influence on educational performance.  While there are some policies mandating school libraries, these are generally considered boxes to tick off when investing in schools, and rules on required number of books per students often undermine efforts to use libraries, since lost books might put the school in danger of not meeting bureaucratic rules.

The low priority given to reading in China is partly due to the nature of China’s school system.  An extremely competitive system, Chinese education has been transformed into a process with a singular goal: getting students to perform well on tests.  Testing stakes are so high that few are willing to risk time or effort on other programs, regardless of international research on the value of reading.

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The international literature is at complete odds with the idea that reading hurts academic performance. In contrast, good reading has been repeatedly shown to be correlated with higher levels of educational performance.

There is almost a complete absence of research in China that establishes a link between reading programs and libraries, reading skill levels, and traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes.  Therefore, there is little basis to convince educators and education officials that reading needs to play a larger role in the education system.  Reading may also be causally associated with other academic outcomes, such as creativity, improved writing skills, better problem solving abilities, and even higher levels of happiness.  If evidence could be collected proving the potential impact of reading, it would provide more impetus to programs designed to improve reading across China.


REAP’s overall goal with this project is to assess the role of reading programs (and library-based programs) in educating students and producing non-traditional outcomes in children. To meet this goal, we have three specific objectives:

1) Create a set of scales to measure baseline levels of traditional academic subjects (reading, writing, math, etc.) and nontraditional academic factors (creativity, problem solving, self-esteem, anxiety, liking school, etc.).  REAP also created tools to track the fidelity of the reading programs.

2) Measure the impact of reading programs on the time allocation of students and the amount of time that students spend reading compared to time spent on other activities, including homework on other subjects.

3) Analyze the effect of reading programs on traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes.

Evidence from this project will help education organizations to better design and execute reading programs and to operate them in a more sustainable way.  Furthermore, this project is also aimed at motivating more fundamental policy changes in China’s school system, and bringing libraries and reading programs to the heart of the educational process.


In the initial year of this project, REAP will conduct an evaluation of ongoing reading programs that are currently being implemented by two reading-focused non-profit organizations in China--Shoulder Action and 6H.

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REAP will evaluate the impact of two reading programs on academic performance, including both traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes.

REAP will conduct an “ex-post” evaluation of Shoulder Action's work. We will randomly select 32 program schools to be “treatment schools,” and conduct a canvass survey of the treatment schools to collect basic information on the schools, teachers, and students.  We will then select 32 schools in a neighboring county that are statistically similar to the treatment group to use as a comparison group.

REAP will conduct a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) to evaluate the intervention with 6H. We will randomly select 60 treatment schools and 60 control schools.  REAP will then carry out a baseline survey of all schools, testing students on both traditional and nontraditional academic outcomes and collecting information on schools, teachers, students, and parents.  Then, the non-profit will implement their standard reading program, including the introduction of reading corners and training teachers in maintaining the reading corners for the students.  Finally, REAP will conduct an endline survey of the treatment and control schools, and analyze the impact the reading program during the project period.

REAP will also organize a series of stakeholder meetings between REAP researchers and our implementation partners to ensure that we receive full input from and collaborate fully with all parties involved.  We will organize a policymaking academic workshop in Beijing and/or Xi’an to involve government leadership in the project.  Following completion of the impact evaluation, REAP will submit a policy brief to central and/or provincial departments of education.


This summer, interns joined the REAP team to dig deeper behind the underlying causes driving low reading rates in China. Through interviews with teachers, school officials, students, and parents, we found that fewer than one in six students in rural China reads for 60 minutes or more per day. However, we found a strong positive correlation between independent reading and student test scores. Inaccessible bookstores, curriculum constraints, and unsupportive home environments may explain low levels of reading, and insufficient school investment and poor quality school libraries are not improving the situation.

Stay tuned for results from our ex-post evaluation of Shoulder Action and RCT of 6H!


Funding for this project has been provided by the XinPing Foundation.