Reading Buddies: Its Effect on Emotional Intelligence and Reading Comprehension

Reading Buddies: Its Effect on Emotional Intelligence and Reading Comprehension

It is 8:15 on a Friday morning and half of my sixth grade students are preparing materials for their trek to Mrs. Stewart’s third grade classroom, while the other half prepares for their third grade visitors.  Mrs. Stewart and Mr. Alvarado have teamed to provide a little Reading Buddy program for their classes.  Every Friday morning Mr. Alvarado’s 6th grade students take their third grade reading buddy through the lesson plan that was created the day before.  The lesson plan outline consists of 5-10 minutes of phonics review/instruction, 15-20 minutes of basic sight word development, and 30 minutes of shared reading and comprehension strategies.  The hour is intensive with lots of conversation, laughter, and excitement about reading.  Mrs. Stewart and Mr. Alvarado frequently discuss the challenges of such a program, but on a larger scale celebrate the positive activities taking place.  Celebrations included the improvement in sight word development; a similar result was found in a study by Butler (1999), improvement in reading ability and confidence, improved self-confidence and empathy of our students, and an overall student excitement over this activity, to name a few.   In point of fact, research supports the informal observations of Mrs. Stewart and Mr. Alvarado.  For example, Bower (2001) suggests students gravitate towards reading with a buddy as opposed to reading by themselves.

As a reading teacher, I could not imagine operating my sixth grade classroom absent a Reading Buddy program for my students and the affect it could have on improving the reading ability of their little buddies.  The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001has the potential to exclude a program, such as reading buddies, from being a component to a rich literature environment.  In a study conducted by Bower (2001), third grade students, the experimental group, were paired and subjected to six weeks of reading buddy comprehension activities.  The control group, an equal number of students, read and completed the comprehension activities independently.  The findings, although not statistically significant, supported the researcher’s hypothesis that the experiment group would outperform the control group in improved comprehension skills.  Equally, Cazden (1988) found reading partners with an emphasis on literature discussions to be an effective component to a reading program.  Because NCLB is supported by the findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP) of which its research methodology is credentialed as Scientifically Based Reading Research (SBBR), the NCLB legislation has the support in place to potentially discourage, if not prohibit, teachers from using Reading Buddies.  Because of its influence on reading instruction, it’s important to understand the mission and the finding of the National Reading Panel.

National Reading Panel

In 1997, the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) was given the directive by congress to ascertain the state of reading instruction programs in the United States of America.  The request was adhered to, and as a result a National Reading Panel was convened.  The charge of the panel was to:

…assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.” The panel was charged with providing a report that “should present the panel’s conclusions, an indication of the readiness for application in the classroom of the results of this research, and, if

appropriate, a strategy for rapidly disseminating this information to facilitate effective reading instruction in the schools. (NICHD, 2000, p. 1-1)

One of the challenges that faced the NRP was the timeline to meet its directive.  When faced with the 100,000 studies, it devised methods to focus on what it considered to be the best.  Its solution was to establish a set of prerequisites in the form of focus topics and guiding questions to consider when identifying reading research studies that best fit the directive of congress.  The focus topics chosen were Alphabetics, Fluency, Comprehension, Teacher Education and Reading Instruction, and Computer Technology and Reading Instruction.  The guiding questions considered were as follows:

  1. 1. Does instruction in phonemic awareness improve reading? If so, how is this         instruction best provided?

2. Does phonics instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this instruction best provided?

  1. 3. Does guided repeated oral reading instruction improve fluency and reading   comprehension? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
  2. 4. Does vocabulary instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this   instruction best provided?

5. Does comprehension strategy instruction improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided?

6. Do programs that increase the amount of children’s independent reading improve reading achievement and motivation? If so, how is this instruction best


7. Does teacher education influence how effective teachers are at teaching children to read? If so, how is this instruction best provided?

In addition to the focus topics and guiding questions used to narrow the scope of the research, other characteristics were incorporated in the selecting of the research studies to be analyzed.  A concern that many should have about this process is that many research studies were not considered in the analysis of establishing the report to congress.  As an example, 364 potential studies were available for analysis in oral reading instruction, after inspection through the NRP’s research methodology criteria, only 16 studies were accepted and quantified to be a meta-analysis (NICHD, 2000, p. 12).  This example represents approximately 95% of the non-acceptance rate of the studies available for analysis to the NRP and should have been an indicator to the potential flaw inherent in the process.  Garan (2001) suggests that the NRP conducted a meta-analysis on so few studies because of the narrow model of research they included. 

Another key finding in my research as to the possible inconsistency of the NRP’s research methodology exists within guiding question number six.  This question focuses on whether independent reading improves reading achievement and motivation.  However, Yatvin (2003) reports that the NRP did not have enough time to follow through and research certain focus topics including motivational factors in learning to read.  Additionally, one of the more important focus topics considered in selecting the reading research studies to be analyzed was comprehension.  However, Garan (2001) stated “the panel did not include reading comprehension or the application of phonics skills in authentic literacy events as necessary criteria in establishing what it termed a “general literacy” outcome.” (p. 6).  These examples need to be considered as it establishes a question as to the accuracy of the report generated by the NRP and significantly draws the validity of the report into question.

NRP and Sound Research

A consideration that I wish to instill in this position paper is that a Reading Buddy program can improve Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and reading comprehension.  This position paper is given strength in that the NRP report did not specifically dismiss these concepts, but rather it is my contention that because the NRP failed to follow through with the original outline of areas to research, opportunities for activities that promote EQ and reading comprehension should be considered.  In addition, the many questions that challenge the consistency and integrity of the NRP are validated again when consideration of the response to the NRP’s lack of time to research areas of motivation and comprehension are weighed.  The NRP (Garan, 2001) acknowledged the studies that it used in its research to determine a general literacy outcome did not include reading comprehension.  In its investigation of key questions to consider in choosing research studies, the NRP identified the following as guiding question number six:  Do programs that increase the amount of children’s independent reading improve reading achievement and motivation? If so, how is this instruction best provided?

            According to the National Reading Panel summary (NRP, 2000, p. 19) a time limitation resulted in evaluating the research for purposes of meeting the congressional report deadline date.  As a result the NRP was unable to follow through with its commitment of researching topics that fell within the parameters of the guiding question regarding reading achievement and motivation.  This omission of this criterion does one of two things; first it has the potential of insinuating that motivation is not an important element of a sound reading program, or second, it can leave open an opportunity for research on this particular element.  The position of this paper will focus on the latter and provide research on the area of Reading Buddies. 

Reading Buddies

  1. Understanding the success that reading buddies can bring to a school makes it vitally important to understand how to incorporate such a program.

Incorporating a successful Reading Buddy Program

  1. In addition, lesson design instruction, in reference to amount of time available for the reading activity, was important to meeting the goal of the reading assignment (Friedland & Truesdell, 2004). 

The coaching big buddy’s to read to and with their little buddy is an important element of the Reading Buddy Program.  Big buddy’s were responsible to model and solicit responsible reading strategies of fluency and expression.  Others strategies required during this reading buddy program were prediction, discussion, and comprehension (Block & Dellamura, 2000/2001).   An important consideration to analyze here is that many different strategies are employed to the teaching of reading with comprehension being the winner.  As Garan and DeVoogd (2008) notes in their Sustained Silent Reading paper, the NRP had trouble finding research on SSR largely in part because it focused on research that relied on component-skills model of reading as well as its focus on fluency and not comprehension as an outcome (Paris, 2005).  The NRP specifically states that it ran out of time in identifying studies that researched comprehension.  It is my contention, based on the facts, the NRP was destined in finding inaccurate results in the role comprehension plays in reading instruction.

To further increase the opportunities of comprehension, the big buddy was provided with a list of guided questions that would act as a catalyst for comprehension strategies (Block & Dellamura, 2000/2001).  Theurer and Schmidt (2008) cite the following guided questions:

“Does this book remind you of another book you have read?

Who was your favorite character? Why?

What is the message in this book?

What was your favorite part of this story?

How would you change the ending of this story?

What character would you like to be? Why?

What is the problem in this story? How was it resolved?

Did you like this book? Why? Give two good reasons!” (p. 26)

Reading buddy programs have been shown to improve the reading ability of students with disabilities.  Garan (2001) cited findings from the Reports of the Subgroup, (pp. 2-96, 2-135) stating, “…effectiveness of systematic phonics instruction were derived from studies conducted in many classrooms with typical classroom teachers and typical American or English-speaking students from a variety of backgrounds. . .  Thus the results of the analysis are indicative of what can be accomplished when systematic phonics programs are implemented in today’s classrooms.”  This statement and the NRP’s research failed to demonstrate how students with disabilities would benefit from such programs.  Buter (1999) reported successful results on her Class-Wide Peer Tutoring (CWPT) program.  The program called for tutoring buddies to be paired with students of disabilities.   Findings included a one year growth in sight word development and academic and social growth as well.  Butler indicated that peer tutoring programs can be structured to benefit all students with additional successful components in the areas of academic and social development.  Butler’s findings, one research study that took me about  1 hour to locate, add value to the possibility of reading buddy programs and what they add to improving academic and social intelligences. 

The big buddy reading program’s goal of improving the reading potential of their little reading buddy was not the lone result that the director’s had in mind when venturing into this arena.  An additional element that reading buddies has the potential of improving is one’s emotional intelligence.  Goleman qualifies to be emotional intelligence: getting along with others, self-motivation, persistence, controlling impulses, empathizing, and regulating one’s moods (Goleman, 1996).  Theurer and Schmidt (2008) share an important focus of the training is the interacting with their buddy.  Big buddies were mentored in the importance of greeting their little buddy with a smile and to say goodbye when they left.  The big buddies also practiced encouragements that complimented their buddy as well as strategies on what to do when their buddy was not listening, cooperating, or behaving inappropriately. 

  1. Following are some of the flaws to the brain research used to posture the establishment of the NCLB act.

Flawed  Brain Research

The Reading First Program, a derivative of the NRP findings, was an initiative set forth by President George W. Bush based on scientific brain research. This research has some flaws in that its findings were, largely in part, due to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri), a process to measure differences in the brain activity (Willis, 2007).  . 

The issue with this fmri process is that the researcher only considered one portion of the brain’s complex reading network.  The study, favoring the NRP’s position, was that the study was conducted in a region of the brain that is known to be more active during phonics processing (Willis, 2007).  They say that when something looks and smells like a rat, it probably is a rat.  Well, an interesting fact is that this portion of the brain became more active when the students tested on phonics processing activities.  Again, if the goal is to learn constrained skills then fine, but reading involves comprehension and comprehension involves the development of unconstrained skills.  Willis (2007) suggests that, “we cannot generalization from these findings that all reading improves when the so-called phonics center becomes more active.” (p. 3).

Willis (2007) reports that the brain glitch theory treatment of reading as an isolated and independent cognitive process is counterproductive to the complex process connecting multiple learning and association centers in the brain.  Reading, at the minimum involves the limbic system, occipital cortex, associational subcortical frontal lobe centers, and medial temporal lobe and should really be aligned to instructional practices that stimulate multiple brain areas.

In addition, Willis (2007) cites (Brembs, Lorenzetti, Reyes, Baxter, & Byrne, 2002) having found interesting research on dopamine, brain proteins that are released and carry information throughout the brain.  Dopamine release has been found to increase during pleasurable and positive experiences.  Willis (2007) suggests that early studies show the amount of dopamine released by the brain increases during activities that involve playing, exercising, laughing, being read to, and recognizing personal achievements.  It is my contention, based on the reading buddy research, that opportunities like these are abundant.

The education literature has included theories about the effects of emotion on language acquisition for decades. Dulay and Burt (1977) and Krashen (1982) proposed that strong positive emotion reinforces learning, whereas excessive levels of stress and anxiety interfere with learning.

  1. Many are feeling that equally important is the educating of the “whole” child. (Rattigan, 2007).    

As an example of benefits in educating the whole child, Rattigan (2007) shares that educating the “whole” child includes social and emotional aspects of learning which are strengthened in resilience skills.  Henderson & Milstein (1996) define resilience to be “the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social, academic, and vocational competence despite exposure to severe stress or simply stress that is inherent in today’s world” (p.7).  This idea of resiliency is one that can be taught and learned via the building of one’s emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

In addition to successes noted in academics, reading buddy programs demonstrated equal amounts of success in the areas of emotional Intelligence.  Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a term coined by Yale psychologist Peter Salovey and University of New Hampshire’s John Mayer.  They describe EQ as the qualities one possesses to control one’s own emotions, empathize with the emotions of others, and regulate one’s feeling in times of crisis to improve the quality of life one lives (Gibbs,1995).  Goleman offers that all students need to be made aware of emotional intelligence characteristics within the educational environment (Pool, 1997).

Conventional wisdom asserts that IQ is the best predictor of future success. Current research is suggesting that IQ may only be responsible for 20% of a person’s success, leaving 80% to other forces.  Those forces are what Goleman suggests to be emotional intelligence: getting along with others, self-motivation, persistence, controlling impulses, empathizing, and regulating one’s moods (Goleman, 1996).  The challenge then becomes for school staffs to not only increase test scores, but also assist in increasing student’s emotional intelligence. 

            The dilemma many educators confront when wanting to incorporate social-emotional curricula into the school day is that it challenges the traditional core curriculums (Harrington-Lueker, 1995).  However, Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence has not come without criticism from his colleagues.  Margarita Muniz, principal at Raphael Hernandez school in Boston, feels that there is not enough evidence of what constitutes a sound emotional-development program or how to even measure emotional aptitude.  Other researchers argue that it is premature to insist that emotional intelligence can be

taught like polynomials or that these skills will help improve academic achievement.  Linda Baker, guidance counselor at West Mills Middle School, New Haven Connecticut, says, “Finding time to teach EQ in an already packed school schedule is tough.  It is equally difficult to find teachers who are adept at emotional skill building” (Harrington-

  1. It is not either-or, it is both” (Harrington-Lueker, 1995, p. 3).  

When considering what types of learning should be taking place inside of an educational institution, all stakeholders to the future leaders of our society should contemplate the function of the brain.  The brain is composed of three main parts; the neo-cortex, limbic system, and brain stem.  It is in the limbic system that all of our emotions are controlled.  Within the limbic system are found two amygdala’s, which are responsible for receiving and sending all emotional messages.  The amygdala’s are always communicating with the neo-cortex, which is responsible for analytical and verbal tasks.  Our analytical thinking is always controlled by our emotions (Pool, 1997).  Individuals who are mature and healthy have better connections with their amygdala’s, or emotional responses, therefore allowing the neo-cortex to make better decisions.  Children who are constantly angry, frustrated, or subjected to bad environments experience interference by the amygdala, therefore making it hard for them to concentrate and thus learn.  Because the amygdala doesn’t mature until a child is 15 or 16, we have

many opportunities to teach children how to handle their feelings (Pool, 1997).

Today’s children have created a new perspective for schools to consider when approaching the curricular and teaching strategies.  In addition to teaching reading, writing, and math curriculum, schools are now becoming a center for social learning as well.  Because children appear to be receiving less and less guidance and direction from their homes and communities, schools are having to commit themselves to creating an infrastructure that can address the student’s social and emotional deficiencies (Lantieri & Patti, 1996).  As educators begin to brainstorm how to handle this decline of social adeptness, they along with parents and administrators worry about tradition.  They are concerned that devoting class time to addressing this deficit will hurt traditional academics and ultimately create a decline in test scores (Elias & Butler, 1997).

There is still much to learn on how the brain learns and therefore, it is irresponsible to assume that any instructional strategy is best for learning to read.  For the present moment teachers of reading must be guided by their professional knowledge base and their never-ending study of scientific evidence on how the brain responds to stimuli.  There exists promising areas of research and practice.

Putting It All Together

I have often wondered what it would be like to not have been able to take my sixth grade students through our Little Buddy Reading Program.  I was witness to my students benefitting in both Emotional Intelligence and Academic Intelligence.  For several, the academic success came as a result of strengthening their emotional intelligence.  My third grade colleague would also share, and had data to support her findings, that her third grade students grew in reading levels which required comprehension to increase. 

The National Reading Panel having conducted its research with its interpretation of what constitutes sound SBBR, had a huge fan base in former President George W. Bush in creating reading instruction policy.  This support system, in all honesty, should have prevented me from practicing the reading buddy program, but I felt it important for reading improvement and emotional intelligence growth. 

In hindsight to the many flaws that have been discovered regarding the NRP, I find myself dancing in the rain, if you will, as to my decision in finding the time to make the reading buddy program work.  First, the NRP established, in its own definition, a meta-analysis of the reading research.  Its error was that it failed to recall that a meta-analysis is a comparison of results that encompass many and varied research studies; varied in the sense that it used relatively obscure methods in its study selection. In this weeding out process or selective process of research topics, the NRP failed to find research studies regarding comprehension.  This omission established a hole in its committed research of comprehension and thus could have possibly omitted the benefits of a reading buddy program.  One of the biggest blunders, if I may be so frank, of the NRP is its admission of running out of time to research studies on motivation and comprehension.  Reading Buddy programs have shown to strengthen motivation and comprehension skills.

A sound reading buddy program has been shown to include activities that involve peer to peer support in the area of reading.  The goal of my sixth grade reading buddy program was for the big buddy to assist his little buddy in reading and comprehending the story through strategies that support reading and comprehension.  Some of these activities involved spelling practice, phonemic awareness strategies, fluency practice, and reading comprehension strategies.  Many of these activities offer both constrained and unconstrained skill practice and development.  The NRP’s research was based on constrained skill research, which offers another reason as to why many research studies were omitted.  In addition to omitting research on comprehension, the NRP was selective in its brain research to support their findings on reading achievement.

A main poster child of the NRP findings was the establishment of The Reading First Program, an initiative enacted by former President George W. Bush.  I recall being a reading first school and many times was questioned about my reading buddy program and how it was not an approved NCLB practice that improved reading achievement.  This research was based on flawed scientific brain research that only considered one portion of the brain’s complex reading network.  In addition, this research favored the NRP’s purpose of finding research that showed reading achievement occurring in the brain region that is most active during phonics processing.  Again, we are reminded that The Reading First Program was a phonics based curriculum, and from first-hand experience it was a “sleeper,” but, it did however fit the NRP’s bill of identifying research that focused on constrained skills.   The NRP’s failure in this thought process is that comprehension is a crucial criterion for reading achievement.  The Reading Buddy Program has proven to be positive for comprehension and as an additional component has been positive for improving emotional intelligence.

            Reading Buddy Programs involve students working together for a common purpose of reading development.  Evidences have demonstrated that brain activity is intensified during this process that involves laughter, being read to, and receiving confirmation of good work.  All of these attributes of what a Reading Buddy Program has to offer is associated with Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence, as defined by Goleman, is the ability to get along with others, be self-motivated, empathize with others, control impulses, and regulate one’s moods.  A need for emotional intelligence to be taught in school is found in research that demonstrates the success of person amounts to 20% of academic intelligence and 80% to emotional intelligence.  Understanding this relationship of intelligences to success would prompt educators to planning their teaching on lessons that espouse these two types of intelligences.  Reading buddy programs can be a way to compliment the two intelligences.


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