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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.

Is Amount of Reading Instruction a Panacea?

August 6, 2020

This entry was first posted on March 8, 2014 and was re-posted on August 1, 2020. This posting dealt with perhaps the biggest issue facing all of us today: the amount of reading instruction that students receive. I've long been convinced that amount of teaching is one of the three major tools that we have to improve reading achievement.

Now, under the limitations imposed by a pandemic, our kids and grandkids are having their reading instruction greatly reduced. Various school plans for the impending school year are suggesting reductions in teaching by as much as 50%. That certainly can't be good for kids, but that isn't being talked about enough. Parents need to recognize that their kids are going to lose a lot if this goes on very long and schools need to do things like send home books and make school libraries available.

I heard from a first-grade teacher this week who said she isn't allowed to send the core reading book home. I get why an administrator may impose such a rule, but perhaps we need to send home a photocopy. Let's get the discussion going ... our children are going to need more reading and reading instruction than they are likely to get from their schools at least for the next few months. What can we do to make that less damaging?

Recently, Education Week published an interesting piece about a Florida program aimed at extending the school days of children in the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. These schools were mandated to add an extra hour of reading instruction to their days. The result: 75% of the schools improved their reading scores, 70 of them coming off the lowest-performing list. Fla. Pushes Longer Day With More Reading in Struggling Schools

Duh!

Those who know my work in the schools are aware that amount of instruction is always the first thing that I look at. When I was the director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools it was one of my major mandates. Research overwhelmingly shows that more instruction tends to lead to more learning, and many supposedly research-proven programs obtain their advantages from, you guessed it, offering more teaching than kids will get in the control group.  

But the Ed Week article went on to point out that most of these extra-hour schools were still underperforming demographically matched schools and that 30 of them were still low performing.

Why doesn’t added time always work if it is such a no-brainer?

There are at least a few reasons.

First, time is not a variable. It is a measure or a dosage. Scientists abhor the idea of treating time as a variable. Long ago, the best minds thought iron rusted because of time. Eventually, they figured out that rust is due to exposure to moisture, and that time was a measure of how much moisture the iron was touching. More time meant more moisture.

In education, time is a measure of the amount of curriculum — explanation and practice — that children exposed to. It is the curriculum and how it is taught that makes the difference; time is simply a measure of that.

What if a curriculum is not sound? That is, what if being exposed to it does not usually lead someone to read, or repeats valuable lessons students have already mastered or fails to offer sufficient practice. An hour extra of something that doesn’t work won’t improve things. Time is just a measure, right? An hour of low-quality teaching is an hour wasted.

Another problem is whether a mandated hour is actually an hour. Reading First, a federal initiative under No Child Left Behind, required that teachers provide 90 minutes per day of reading instruction. But classroom observers found a lot less than that in Reading First classrooms. Kids in those classrooms spent a lot of time waiting for instruction rather than being instructed.

Teachers don’t always appreciate how powerful their time with kids can be, so they are wasteful of the minutes. Do some self-observation of this and you’ll see what I mean. Thus, the schools stay open. The buses pick kids up an hour later. The teachers and kids are in the classroom. But reading instruction, not so much.

Finally, an extra hour may not equalize performance simply because it may be insufficient. We don’t know how much instruction and practice in reading anyone is getting. How much time is devoted to teaching reading during the school day? How much reading do students do in math, social studies, and science classes? Research studies show big differences in amount of reading instruction in school-to-school and even classroom-to-classroom comparisons.

How much do students read at home? How much time do they spend on the kinds of homework that make a difference? How much language development opportunity do they get before they come to school? What kinds of activities do they engage in through their libraries, parks, churches, synagogues, scouts, etc.?

The fact is that some students receive thousands of hours of instruction and practice in language and literacy each year, while others receive considerably less. An extra hour per day is precious (thank you, Florida), but it simply may be insufficient to overcome the huge differences that exist.

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