Can Humane Education Improve Student Reading Comprehension?
Achieving grade-level reading proficiency is of paramount importance in American schools today. Students are expected to interact with texts using comprehension strategies learned in class. Educational practitioners are always searching for ways to motivate children to read. Being a good reader is an essential life skill and helps enable social mobility. As such, the U.S. government mandates that students in correctional facilities receive reading instruction in a manner equal to students in traditional schools.
This study explored an opportunity for children to achieve better results when being assessed on their reading proficiency. Because of the positive connection between animals and children, stories about animal protection elicit student interest and attention. Accordingly, this research explored the premise that including content about being kind to animals in reading passages engages students.
Though humane education teaching pedagogy encompasses lessons promoting empathy toward humans, animals, and the environment, for the purpose of this study, passages solely targeted compassion toward animals. The experimental group assessments contained humane education themes and the control group assessments had non-animal related high-interest topics. Analyses of the results showed that not only did students who received humane education passages do better overall, but also did much better on questions addressing specific Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Reading for Information (RI) standards.
For my post-doctoral research, I embarked on a randomized control trial (with constraints) study of 192 12- and 13-year-old students from New Jersey. I asked students to complete five standards-aligned reading passages with text-based questions. Students were randomly assigned. Ninety-three students were in the control group and 99 were assigned to the experimental group. Approximately equal numbers of students of the same English as a Second Language (ESL) status, special education status, gender, and grade retention status were divided among the groups.
Both control and experimental students received CCSS aligned nonfiction passages with text-based questions. The passages in both groups were matched for equal reading level (i.e. Lexile level and Flesch Kincaid Grade Level) and length. Additionally, the passages had the same number of questions, the same font, and the same number of graphics.
This study explored the benefits to humane education being utilized in the schools that serve the juvenile justice population specifically. The students in the correctional system are expected to receive standards-aligned, rigorous instruction. Many times, they have higher educational needs than students in traditional public schools. Fighting academic failure with more humane education-infused curriculum has the potential to motivate these children, improve their literacy skills, and discourage anti-social behavior.
The United States Department of Education expects standards to be evident in the planning of school instruction and assessments, with the CCSS being the most widely adopted. The nonfiction CCSS RI standards were the focus of this study in that students were evaluated by their answers to text-based questions aligned to select standards. When the data was analyzed, students in the experimental group performed significantly better than the control group on questions related to the following standards: Standard RI 5.1, Standard RI 5.3, Standard RI 5.5, and Standard RI 5.8.
Research has established that, because of children’s interest in animals, there is a link between student motivation and humane education that explicitly includes animals. Therefore, the better performance on the assessment for the experimental group students may be explained by the increased motivation the students felt when reading about messages that promote kindness to animals. I also noted that students reading about real-world issues that impact non-human animals may have played a role in their improved comprehension scores.
Standard RI 5.1 requires students to answer questions that explain either the story’s explicit message or its inference. Standard RI 5.3 targets explaining the relationship or interaction between events or concepts in the text. Questions pertaining to Standard RI 5.5 address causes and effects or problems and solutions. Lastly, Standard RI 5.8 necessitates engaging with thinking about what reasons or evidence the author gives to support his or her purpose. All of these skills require students to have a deeper interaction with the text than answering surface, recall questions. The animal protection themes of the passages appear to have helped the students achieve more success on these reading tasks relative to their control group counterparts.
The topics covered in the reading passages of the study included proper planning for a companion animal when an emergency strikes, saving an animal from the cruelty involved in the entertainment or the food industry, and addressing animals’ emotional as well as physical needs when they are in a person’s care. The messages in the readings served to heighten students’ awareness of animal issues, as well as promote positive values more generally. According to other research, prejudicial attitudes that underlie being unkind to nonhuman animals correlate to other oppressions. My article further expands upon animal-focused humane education by exploring its intersectionality with social justice, i.e., infusing pro-animal humane education throughout the curriculum promotes a more just society overall.
My study explored the link between increased student performance on certain reading standards-aligned questions and animal protection humane education themes. My findings provide educators with evidence of humane education’s potential to improve student reading performance. Specifically, those who need academic motivation, such as students in the juvenile justice system, will benefit from the infusion of animal protection themes in their curriculum because of humane education’s ability to pique student interest. I hope this study contributes to an expanded use of animal-focused humane education in the classroom and serves to connect animal protection to other areas of social justice.