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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Would You Schedule the Reading Instruction?

January 30, 2019

Teacher question:

If you were teaching second-grade what would your schedule look like?

Shanahan's response:

This question — in various forms — came up a lot this week in response to last week’s posting. Here is my thinking on this.

I start from the premise that I want kids to get between 120-180 minutes per day of reading/writing instruction. The more challenged the kids are, or the greater the learning gains we are seeking, the more time I will devote to literacy.

Given the ambitious learning goals that we are striving for, I see no way of accomplishing them with fewer than two hours per day (or 360 hours per year). And, no matter how great the needs, I can think of no situation where I would devote more than three hours per day to these goals because of the importance of math, science, social studies, the arts, etc.

If you look at the various surveys and observational studies reported since the early 1960s, it appears that English language arts (which has long been dominated by reading) usually has received about 90 minutes of attention per day on average. This has worked out to something like two hours per day in the primary grades and one in upper elementary — with 90 minutes as the average.

Most schools that I visit these days are proud of their 90-minute reading block. In other words, they’ve institutionalized an average effort. I insist on two to three hours with the idea of ensuring that the average amount of literacy learning increases.

Another basic idea is that students will need instruction in multiple areas: word knowledge, oral reading fluency, writing, and reading comprehension. In some situations, I might be persuaded to add explicit oral language instruction to the mix (and then divide the total into five), but that would not be universal, so let’s not do that here. I would give roughly equal amounts of teaching in each of these four aspects of literacy which means that kids each year would receive about 90 hours of teaching about words, comprehension, fluency, and writing. 

A final basic. I’m purposefully proposing a schedule that is not a “block.” I’m not a big fan of the reading block because it can make it very difficult to schedule the complexity of an elementary school day. There is no learning benefit to having reading organized in a block — and often I see kids getting less than the scheduled time because of questionable assumptions about the sanctity of the block.

If your school day begins at 8:00 a.m., and your literacy block goes from 8:00-9:30 … what are the chances kids will receive 90 minutes of instruction? My bet (and past observations) would say that the first 10 or 15 minutes of the day (and sometimes even more) are not devoted to teaching. Pledge of allegiance, morning announcements, lunch money collection, attendance, pencil sharpening, circle time, and so on are not reading instruction.  

Okay with those basics out of the way, let’s start with a fairly simple scheme.

8:10-9:00        Reading comprehension instruction

9:00-9:15        Oral reading fluency

9:15-10:15      Math

10:15-10:45    Word knowledge

10:45-11:15    Writing

11:15-12:15    Lunch/recess

12:15-12:30    Oral reading fluency

12:30-3:30      [Social studies, science, music, art, physical education, library/computer center]

Let’s take it line by line.

Reading comprehension instruction

Although I said I’d provide equal amounts of instruction for each of the four literacy components, but here I’ve provided almost double the time for comprehension. The reason for this is because the classroom that I’ve imagined is pretty diverse and, while all the children can read, there are big level differences. I thought it best to divide them into two groups today. The extra time will be needed to provide both of the these groups with 30 minutes of instruction.

Some days this might not be necessary. Some days I might schedule it differently. This particular plan would allow me to have the two comprehension groups engaged in some kind of guided reading activity (e.g., Directed Reading Activity, Directed-Reading Thinking Activity, Close Reading, strategy lesson) simultaneously, with me rotating myself across the groups. I might be able to do that in less than double the time, but I certainly can’t do it in 30 minutes.

Approximately half this reading comprehension time would engage the students in text reading—rather than just discussion or explicit instruction from me. Over time, that means kids will be reading a lot under my guidance.

Oral reading fluency

I’ve set aside 30 minutes for fluency teaching, and my thoughts here would be to engage kids in supervised paired-reading practice. There are lots of other choices, but that’s my usual go-to for fluency. That means the whole class would be divided into pairs, they’d be taking turns reading pages to each other and giving feedback to each other, and I’d be moving from pair to pair to help with the feedback, to collect data on student performance, and to keep kids on task.

The tricky move here was dividing this time in two. The reason why you might want to do that is to keep it from getting boring or to engage kids in interval training—practice, take a break, practice some more—which can enhance this kind of skills learning. It also illustrates how flexible my schedule could be.

Math

Are you kidding, math in the middle of the reading block? Remember, blocks aren’t necessary — research doesn’t find that structure to be any more (or less) effective than this. In this schedule I’m able to address math in the morning. I’ve written before that morning instruction is no more effective than afternoon instruction, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is here. Our math consultant hasn’t read that research and he’s sure that morning teaching is more effective, so I’m willing to keep him happy by providing that math teaching early on, even if it means some of the literacy teaching might have to be provided in the PM.

Word knowledge

This part of the curriculum emphasizes both decoding (e.g., phonics, phonemic awareness, sight words, spelling) and word meaning (including morphology). Although my hunch is that my varied class will be diverse here, too, I think I can provide the needed instruction in 30 minutes (give or take 5-10 minutes).

I could deliver a single phonics lesson — aimed especially at my less advanced readers (which will provide a review for the more advanced ones), or I could deliver two different lessons, one on phonics and one on vocabulary possibly. In either event, the kids will be spending at least half the time decoding words or encoding words, not just listening to me.

Writing

This time would be devoted to teaching writing and includes everything from prewriting, composition, revision, editing, printing/cursive or keyboarding work, and so on. On this day, I’m imagining that all the kids have been working on their compositions and we’d spend the half hour sharing the compositions, receiving revision feedback from peers and me, and perhaps even beginning some light revision. That’s why I put the time here. After the intensity of the phonics work in the previous lesson, I thought the sharing and interaction here would allow more movement and would add some needed variation in activity at this point.

On other days, if the kids were starting to compose, I might have interspersed this with the reading comprehension time — with one group writing and one working with me on comprehension and then reversing. I didn’t think that would work so well with the revision activity so added the extra comprehension time to facilitate my choice.

Flexibility

There are other ways this could be done, as well. Perhaps on Tuesdays my kids have physical education at 10:30, so I might make some different choices and could push more reading into the afternoon. Or, I might do what many upper grade teachers do which is to teach reading comprehension every other day (alternated with writing), which provides me with a full hour of teaching of writing or comprehension. I don’t like that as much with 7-year-olds, but with the older kids it can prevent the need for splitting up a chapter or story across two days, and the more extended writing time is welcome, too.

Another variant of this can provide a bit more time elasticity. What if today’s reading comprehension lesson was to be taught to the whole class? That would buy me back 20 minutes. What if that lesson were being taught not with the core reading program, but with the social studies or science book? That also would reduce the amount of time needed to cover the ground of an ambitious elementary curriculum.

The schedule itself can’t show the possibilities of interconnections among these parts either. Perhaps the kids are writing about the text they read for reading comprehension work. The vocabulary that they studied might be connected to that text too, as could the fluency work. Or, maybe the class is working on some kind of project or report and the texts being used for reading comprehension are part of topical text sets. The schedule might look largely the same, but the degree of integration could still be quite high.

This, of course, was a two-hours of instruction schedule; a three-hour schedule would eat up more of the day. What might that look like? Lots of choices there.

One choice might be to simply increase the time devoted to each of these subjects by another 15 minutes (45 minutes per day, instead of 30 for each). That makes it harder to address all the other subjects, but in fact, in most cases it is still very doable.

Another popular approach is to supplement the two-hours of teaching with up to an hour of additional intervention time, which creates reteaching opportunities for some kids.

At least one school district that I know committed to this two-hour teaching commitment but added an additional 30 minutes a day to try to teach love of reading (e.g., reading to the kids, independent reading, computer games, book club). I’m not a big fan of that because it is not likely to be as effective as teaching, but I’d not oppose it as long as it isn’t stealing the children’s reading instruction. It did give the teachers some additional scheduling flexibility and that’s a plus.

Key points

Like any example, this one is limited, but it does highlight a number of key points:

  • Amount of instruction needs to be maximized and varied on the basis of student need — down time or activities with low learning payoffs (though sometimes necessary) should be minimized
  • Actual amount of instruction is more important than the numbers of minutes scheduled.
  • Schedules should be based on the outcomes one is seeking more than on the activities one might want to use for teaching.
  • There are many different activities that can be used to accomplish particular learning goals (that is, there is more than one way to teach something). Effectiveness is what matters.
  • Literacy instruction should include a lot of oral and silent reading, writing, decoding, spelling. Kids need explicit instruction and guided practice in which they are engaged in trying to do these things. 
  • Schedules need to be dynamic and flexible — allowing teachers to better meet the needs of students rather than honoring traditional, but unsubstantiated claims, like kids learn more in the morning or small groups are always better than whole class.
  • Integration across the language arts and content areas can have a multiplier effect.

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