Monday, August 27, 2012

Reading Research Monday: Exercise and Reading Achievement


With No Child Left Behind's push for increased test scores and the mandate of a 100% proficiency rate in all tested academic subjects by the 2013-2014 school year, many districts have been sacrificing physical education and recess to increase time in their limited schedules for expanded math and reading instruction.  The results of these practices have been mixed.  Certainly increasing the time a child spends on a given subject will offer more opportunities to learn, but at what cost?  Is removing exercise and play an effective way to improve test scores?

Research Findings

As this rising trend of sacrificing physical activity and movement continues, an increasing amount of research is being conducted on the topic, but more is still needed.  However, the current research available shows the positive effects of exercise and play on academic achievement.

In the research journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, Dagli's 2012 study "Recess and Reading Achievement of Early Childhood Students in Public Schools" compares the amount of time spent at recess and the frequency of recess with reading achievement in kindergarteners.  While there are some mixed results, the study finds that students who have recess three days a week for over forty-five minutes (broken up into three or more sessions) have the highest reading scores.  Dagli also suggests that students who are "exposed to both academic tasks and recess seem to do better than those who may be exposed to uninterrupted" academic tasks.  Dagli concludes that "providing daily and longer than 15 minutes [of] recess for students does not hurt their reading scores, nor does eliminating recess increase their reading scores."

A 2009 study led by Charles Hillman and published in ScienceDaily tests whether a single session of moderate exercise can increase student performance.  This is done by comparing results of students after resting for 20 minutes verses walking for 20 minutes.  The study finds "a positive outcome linking physical activity, attention and academic achievement" in the three areas tested: reading, math, and spelling.  The correlation between physical activity and achievement is largest in reading comprehension.  However, this can be due to the fact that the reading test was administered first.  Regardless, a positive correlation is seen in all tested areas.  This shows a positive relationship between student achievement and exercise.

Another 2009 study titled "Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance" from Active Living Research finds that:
  • Physically active and fit children tend to have better academic achievement, better school attendance and fewer disciplinary problems.
  • Allocating time for daily physical education does not hurt academic performance, and regular exercise may improve students’ concentration and cognitive functioning.
  • In some cases, more time in physical education leads to improved grades and standardized test scores.
  • Physical activity breaks can improve cognitive performance and classroom behavior.


From Dagli's research educators can see that eliminating recess and thus spending more time on academic subjects does not increase students reading skills.  This could be partially due to what activities actually take place in that extra time, and it could also be due to students' waning attentions spans when they receive no break from academics. 

While Dagli focuses on recess, Hillman's study centered on exercise revealing that a positive correlation between increased reading, math, and spelling scores and exercise.  Similarly, an analysis of studies from Active Living Research finds that physical activity can increase academic achievement, cognitive performance, and improve classroom behavior.

While teachers, parents, and even some administrators may not be able to change the amount or frequency of recess and physical education, they can support children by providing them with opportunists to exercise or at least move more throughout the day.  Take a one minute "brain break" where students stand, stretch, and walk around a bit.  Have students stand and even dance as they sing the ABCs in early elementary grades or "De Colores" in Spanish class.  Get creative and get students moving.

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