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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.

A Gallimaufry of Literacy Questions and Answers

April 6, 2020

Hello, Reading World! As with most of you, I’m sheltering in place … biding my time until the Great Pandemic Pandemonium subsides. Although despite being at what is currently an awkward (and apparently dangerous) age, I feel pretty safe locked down here in Chicago. Nevertheless, like all of you, I'm worried about family members who are on the front line in this fight, my students and colleagues, and all the people who are taking care of us. 

I’ve been traveling less but spending more time on Zoom and other telecommunications outlets. Talking to teachers I can’t see.

This week alone, I supposedly spoke to thousands of educators (I’m never sure I believe those numbers when I can’t look my audience in the eye).

Those online talks spawned a basket of questions, and much of my time was then devoted to trying to answer some of them. Accordingly, this week, instead of addressing a single literacy teaching topic, I’m providing an assortment of questions and answers dealing with amount of instruction, complex text, readability motivation, misbehavior, and so on.

Hope you find something useful in here and, please, be safe.

How early can you teach students in complex text?

There are good theoretical reasons not to place kids in “complex text” too early (though we have no data to go on with that). The thing that makes early texts complex for kids are the decoding demands. Making beginning reading texts complex means providing less phonemic regularity (making it harder to recognize patterns) and less repetition (which would reduce memory for words and patterns). That’s not a good idea when kids are first figuring out decoding. However, the studies are quite clear, by the time kids are in second grade, it is safe to move them to grade level texts instead of reading level texts at least for a portion of their teaching. Given that, I’d recommend complex text in Grade 2.

How much time should be spent on morphology and vocabulary in high school?

There are no data to go on with regard to the amount of time to spend on different aspects of reading with older students so I can’t give you a research-based answer to your question. However, as Director of Reading for the Chicago Public Schools where I was responsible for 90 high schools, I required our teachers to spend 30 minutes per day on that kind of word work (vocabulary, morphology, etc.) and another 30 minutes per day on oral reading fluency. Our teachers raised reading achievement markedly district wide, and unlike most reforms, our older students gained more than our younger ones.

How much phonics instruction should students do in the elementary grades?

I’ve been looking at the phonics studies that the National Reading Panel meta-analyzed. For the most part, these studies indicated that the students were getting 30 minutes per day of phonics (in a couple of instances it was 40 or 45 minutes). I think it is important for teachers to know that. Often, even when they have a phonics component in the reading program, phonics can get short shrift because the teacher glides through the lessons so quickly little is learned. Remember, the point isn’t just to teach some sounds and pronunciations, but to teach students to decode — that means engaging them in trying to recognize patterns or sound out words or spell words or to write accurately from teacher dictation. Those take time.

Our state says that teaching students at the instructional level is a research-based idea. Is it?

Of the studies that have directly tested the effects of teaching students to read with books at their “instructional level,” not one has found any benefit to the practice. There are several studies that have found no benefit to doing this and there are some that have found it to be harmful (that is, it reduces the students’ opportunity to learn). There is no set level at which texts need to be for students to learn from them, but if the texts are too easy (and traditional instructional level criteria are apparently too easy) learning is going to be limited. This has been found across a variety of grades from grade 2 through high school and both with regular classroom students and learning-disabled students. When you are told that something is research-based you should ask which research they are referring to; you might be surprised that the citations will be for opinion pieces or studies that didn’t actually evaluate the effectiveness of the practice.

When we are selecting books for kids should we use qualitative or quantitative criteria?

If you are trying to find a text for a particular audience or grade level (such as following your state standards), I would definitely start with the quantitative measures. Those are scientifically derived prediction formulas that indicate who is most likely to be able to read the text with comprehension. Of course, there is error in any prediction, so if there are qualitative features of a text that would lead you to believe it is harder or easier than the prediction suggests you might either adjust the placement of that text or simply not use it for your intended purpose. Situations where a prediction might over- or under-rate a book might include things like frequent repetition of particularly rare words (one thinks of pandemic or coronavirus these days, a couple of words that might make a chapter appear like it would be very hard, when it probably wouldn’t be for today’s students).

You encourage the teaching of grade level text. Don’t you believe in differentiation of instruction?

You are thinking of differentiation in reading meaning that each student or each group works with a different book and that those books would be at different levels of difficulty. Instead of thinking of differentiation in terms of choosing different books, what if you had all of the third graders working with a single grade level text some of the time and varied what you did — the level of support that you provided. Some kids could probably read the book with reasonably high levels of comprehension and the teacher might have to do little more to facilitate this than to preteach a few vocabulary words and lead a discussion that focused kids’ attention on particular content issues. With some other kids, they might need to read it twice and the teacher might have to provide some specific support to help them to make sense of certain sentences, or to connect particular cohesive links, or to make use of the text structure. A third group might need all of those, plus some oral reading fluency work to ensure that they could read the words sufficiently well. There is more than one way to differentiate instruction.

What’s the right amount of time to devote to reading instruction? Our district requires a 90-minute block.

There is no research that has identified an optimum amount of time to spend on reading instruction at any grade level. As with your district, most schools I visit these days tend to be wedded to a 90-minute reading block. I’m not a big fan of that. For decades, surveys and observational studies usually reported that the average amount of time spent on reading instruction in the elementary grades was about 90 minutes (usually more than 90 minutes time in the primary grades, and less in the upper grades). If everyone spends that average 90-minute time, then first grade teachers must spend less time on reading than they have traditionally. While there is no optimum amount of reading instruction time, more is generally better than less, so 90 minutes might be a plus for fifth grade, but it is a impediment for first grade.

Should gifted readers be reading more challenging books?

This depends on whether you are trying to help gifted readers to increase their advantage and improve their reading or are just trying to engage them in practice while teaching everyone else. If you are trying to extend their abilities, then indeed, I would recommend putting them in books that would give them an opportunity for exposure to language, content, and text features that they haven’t already mastered.

Why do you think students would learn more from harder books?

The reason why students learn more from harder than easier texts is that there is more opportunity to learn. When you place students in a book that they are already comfortable reading there is little for them to learn… they can already recognize most of the words, they can understand a substantial amount of the text without teacher support. That doesn’t allow much opportunity for learning. When I have to take on a text that I can’t already read well, there is a possibility of growth. One interesting study (Powell & Dunkeld, 1971) done with second graders found that the kids who made the greatest gains during the year had started in books that they could read with about 80-85% accuracy (much lower than the 95-98% recommended as an instructional level) and with lower than 50% comprehension (again, much lower than the 75-89% recommended). Opportunity to learn is important.

I don’t see how kids can learn anything from books they can’t read. Why do you think that makes sense? 

Placing students in challenging text creates an opportunity to learn since such texts will include content, language, and text features that the students haven’t yet mastered. But the text only creates an opportunity. That’s where teaching comes in. The teacher needs to know the text and what is likely to be challenging and needs to monitor the students to see what trips them up (and you teach the students to negotiate those barriers).

If you teach with frustration level texts, won’t the students get frustrated and misbehave?

This has long been claimed, but there is only one study of it. Linda Gambrell and her colleagues conducted classroom observations in primary grade classrooms and found that, indeed, certain students did misbehave during silent reading time, and they were the worst readers in what were relative to their abilities the hardest books (just what you expected). Gambrell and company then intervened; they adjusted these children’s book placements so that they would no longer be in frustration level texts. and saw zero improvement (it wasn’t the text levels that was leading to the misbehavior). The outcome? No improvement in their classroom behavior; it wasn’t book placement that was the culprit.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio