Schramm's 'Fraction
of Selection' in Reading

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Do the math!

Explaining why some read a lot
and others read very little

By Jim Trelease © 2007

"I"t's a fact: some people—including highly educated ones—read very little, and some — including those with or without higher education — read a great deal. Why?

Since we know that those who read the most, read the best, if we could find the answer to that question we might find clues to solving some student reading woes.

What is it that prevents some students from reading outside school? Is it the same thing that prevents adults from reading in their free time?

Wilbur Schramm

Wilbur Schramm

The answer may very well lie in the work of a man named Wilbur Schramm (1907-1987), the founder of mass communication as a science. I must confess to discovering Schramm's work only recently and am chagrined that it is not included in every edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook. Schramm's research had led him at one point to explain why some people read certain items in a newspaper or magazine and not other items. Exploring why we read what we read, he created a formula he called the Fraction of Selection. As I read it, it was as though I'd had a sudden epiphany. Here was a simple explanation of human reading behavior that is largely unknown and unexplored by professors and reading teachers, to say nothing of Secretaries of Education. It also helps us understand some of the nation's reading woes and what we can do about them.

math equation

First, a quick math review for those of you who have spent a little too much time reading and not enough time doing math. In the equation on the right, the Quotient, arrived at by dividing the Dividend by the Divisor. Increase the Dividend and you increase the Quotient. Conversely, increase the Divisor and you lower the Quotient.

Expectation of Reward divided by Effort Required equals Frequency of Activity

In Schramm's Fraction of Selection, the Dividend consists of all the Rewards we expect to receive from something we do; The Divisor is whatever Effort or Difficulty we might have to endure to get the Reward. And the Quotient is the Frequency --that is, how often we end up doing this action. Thus, if there's a restaurant where you'll get a great meal but it' a 200-mile drive and the price is high, chances are that you don't eat there frequently. On the other hand, if it's not too far away and not too expensive, you'll eat there a lot more often. That's how the fraction of selection works.

Now let's apply all of this to reading.


  • Escape
  • Information
  • Prestige
  • Salary

We'll start with the Dividend—the rewards that some people might expect from reading: Pleasure is right at the top but it includes various subcategories of pleasure. For example, some people enjoy reading anything they can escape into, others find satisfaction in gathering information, some expect pleasure from the grades or diplomas they'll earn from the reading, the prestige they'll have with peers in class, book club members they meet with every month or a boss or teacher they want to impress; and for some it's the pleasure that comes with higher pay scales associated with those diplomas they earned with the reading. Different people expect different rewards —or NO rewards—from reading. But anyone who reads expects to get something out of it.

Now to the Divisor —that is, the Difficulties or Effort Required for reading:

  • Distractions
  • Lack of print
  • Lack of time
  • Disabilities
  • Negative peers
  • Noise level
  • Distractions are a major problem in some homes—too many TV 's, DVD's, phones, video games; or just the general state of chaos in the home or school;
  • For others there's a lack of print—no newspapers, magazines, or books to read. This is most true in poverty situations;
  • For some folks it's a lack of time—working too many hours, raising too many kids, rushing to too many games or malls, or too much homework;
  • For some people it's a case of not being able to read easily; they're plagued by learning disabilities or decoding woes;
  • Other people are surrounded by family or peers who have negative attitudes toward school and reading. "Hey! Nicky -- get your head out of the book and get in here and watch TV with us! Who you tryin' to impress with the readin'?"
  • And finally there can be a lack of quiet space; they're surrounded by too much noise at home or too many tests and demands in the classroom.

A perfect example of how the number of distractions impedes the amount of reading in a culture can be found here at Distractions, where I describe the decline in reading among citizens in the country which has long led the world in per-capita readership of books, magazines, and newspapers — Japan.

teen reading


ll of these factors are going to determine how often someone actually reads. Where you maintain strong REWARD factors and lower the EFFORT factors, the stronger will be the frequency of reading. And the higher that number is for students, the higher will be their chances of success in school. Those who read the most, read the best.

Since most of the damaging factors occur in homes — where students spend the bulk of their time — we sure could use a national awareness campaign to eliminate as many of those damaging EFFORT factors as possible. Just think: if we did it with smoking, we can do it with reading. Forty years ago, every other adult in America was a daily smoker. Today, only one in four is. Wouldn't it be something to see a similar public awareness campaign created to instill a love of reading in every home? Wilbur Schramm's Fraction of Selection shows us what we need to work on — what needs to be improved and what needs to be eliminated. As you'll see below, some of the best-placed people to carry this struggle forward have given up the struggle.

One of Schramm's successors in the field, Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and director of the university's Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab, recently completed a study on the impact of interactive media on student achievement. His public radio interview on the findings can be heard at KQED-Interview.

 More on Schramm's Fraction of Selection


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