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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.

Reading Stamina and Dividing Reading Texts for Classroom Discussion

July 22, 2021

Teacher question: I’m curious. What does the research say about the lengths of text segments in a guided reading lesson? How many pages should kids read prior to our discussions? I teach third grade.

Shanahan's response:

Great question. Unfortunately, in this era of the “science of reading” there is no research-based answer. No one, as far as I can tell, has bothered to study the question though it has been an issue for at least a century.

What do we know?

Studies of how kids do on reading tests show that there are real differences in the reading stamina they exhibit. Some readers start out fine, but as a test goes on, they wear down. They simply can’t sustain the attention and energy required to read well for the full length of the test. Kids from different countries differ in their psychological endurance during reading (Borgonovi & Biecek, 2016). Another study found that text complexity and length interacted to impact reading comprehension — longer texts were harder than shorter texts and length multiplied the impact of complexity factors (Mesmer & Hiebert, 2012).

Why would that be?

Apparently, longer stretches of text can be more complex linguistically. For example, the longer a written argument the more elaborate can be its premises and the interconnections among parts. A slew of linguistic studies has looked at longer versus shorter texts and there is a tendency for greater linguistic sophistication, complexity, and subtlety in the longer ones.

That’s cool. But it doesn’t really help. The reason is that it has nothing to do with the role that length may place in teaching. It provides no clue about how best to chunk those instructional texts. A long text that is cut into three pieces wouldn’t be linguistically simpler than it was originally, but such dividing might play an important role in learning.

There are also those studies showing that length impacts reading comprehension itself — how well the students understand the texts. All things being equal, comprehending a long text poses greater psychological demands on readers than shorter texts. Text length may affect memory, reasoning, inferencing, and even motivation.

But again, that doesn’t help. That text length affects comprehension says nothing about how to enable students to do better with longer texts.

Back in the 1920s, when basal readers introduced teacher’s editions with prefabbed lesson plans, the idea of dividing stories for discussion became a thing.

They didn’t rely much on research in those days. I found a couple of old studies on dividing texts for discussion and found conflicting results. One study said that asking questions throughout led to higher comprehension and another said it was better to group the questions at the end. The differences weren’t great either way. Nevertheless, the basals broke stories into parts – with kids reading longer segments of text as they proceeded.

First grade stories were shorter than those aimed at older kids. And, the discussion segments were graduated, too. Beginners would read a page (perhaps 1 or 2 sentences) and then discuss. Older students might be asked to read 2-4 pages at a time, with considerably more words on each.

Does that “gradual increase” approach work? Does it “stretch” kids out?

I suspect that it does and that we could do that better, but could find no evidence either way.

Some authorities claim it is best to have kids read books rather than selection because of the need to build stamina. There is no question that reading 100 pages instead of 10 should increase the stamina building opportunity. However, it is kind of like working on somebody’s running by starting with a marathon. The well-developed runners may love the challenge, but the beginners may be intimidated.

The idea here — as with other well-known endurance tasks — is that stamina is learned, and rarely results without intentional effort. The focus of the advice provided here is on the silent reading of students in Grades 2-3 and up.

Consistency

If you want kids to build reading stamina, they must read.

They must read pretty much every day.

However, this need be “accountable” reading. Developing the ability to sustain reading focus depends on more than just reading a lot of words. I’m not talking so much about kids read on their own as I am about having kids read in reading class, social studies, science, and so on.

Start with rather short sections of text: a sentence, a paragraph, a page. Monitor student success with these brief reads (I encourage kids to write answers to questions so I can determine who is comprehending well and who is not).

I often visit classrooms where kids aren’t expected to read. Text is there, but it is read aloud round robin fashion with the teacher telling kids what it means. Or, even when a text is read silently by the kids, there may be little real effort to determine how well they understood what the text and what barriers to understanding may have existed. It is a task, it gets completed, but it probably contributes little to learning.

It’s great if you can get kids to read on their own beyond this sanctioned reading. Have kids keep a book available for any down time in the classroom, such as when an assignment has been completed and they must wait. Certainly, encourage and support kids’ reading at home, too, making it a regular part of their personal lives.

Increasing demands

The amounts of text that students are asked to read should increase gradually.

This increase should take place in two ways. First, the text segments that students are asked to read prior to any discussion or other activity should be lengthened. Second, the amount of classroom reading expected each week should go up, too.

I’d suggest having a spring goal for second graders of about 400 words per segment. Early in the year, you might start out having kids read a paragraph and then discuss. Over the following 30 weeks you’d increase the amounts of text that students would be expected to read a little at a time.

My goal for Grade 3 would be 500-600 words at a time, and for Grade 4 perhaps 700 or 750.

Those would be good targets since they would enable most students to meet the demands of accountability testing (think of those text lengths as your end-of-year goals).

Remember the students must comprehend well. Let’s say that your students read one paragraph at a time, and they’ve nailed it with good comprehension. It would make sense to increase the segments to 2-3 paragraphs. If they comprehend those, terrific. But if they don’t, then you might have to drop back a bit and increase more slowly.

I would also strongly recommend that you let the kids in on what you are up to and talk about the importance of sustained concentration. Give them some guidance (it can help to say the words in your head, or it can help if you stop at the end of each sentence/paragraph and think about what that meant, then read some more). Encourage the students to talk about issues like mind wandering and how to resist that or what to do when they are not understanding.

Lengthening the segments doesn’t change the amount of reading. A separate consideration is how to increase the amounts of reading expected each week.

Marathon runners in training increase their distances about 5-10% each week. Increasing the amounts of reading by 4-5% weekly across a school year would be almost imperceptible initially, but like compound interest, it would pay off in the long run. If students are in school 30 hours each week, then expecting 1-2 hours per week of real accountable reading doesn’t seem onerous or out of line, even in the primary grades.

Harder, shorter sprints

Another trick of endurance runners is that they punctuate their longer, easier runs with shorter more demanding ones. These sprints make them stronger.

Speed isn’t our training issue in reading (though it can be a valuable outcome of this practice), but text difficulty levels are.

Let’s say your third graders are reading off and on throughout their school day and in reading class, they can handle 300-word grade-level text segments as well. I’d suggest once or twice a week having an exercise in which the students read one or two 50–100-word text segments from a fourth- or fifth-grade book.

I wouldn’t just spring this on the kids, I’d tell them what I’m up to. Their speed is not the issue, but high comprehension is, so they should slow down as much as they need to and work hard to make sense of the text.

These “crunches” provide wonderful opportunities for learning. I’m certain the kids will want to talk about new vocabulary, or the sentences that really slowed them down, and what to do about those.

The challenge level of these exercises will provide students with a renewed confidence when they get back to more appropriately level texts.

There are lots of ways to organize these challenge exercises, but however you do it, think of the marathoner’s mantra, “longer/easier, shorter/harder.” When you are going to do a distance run or a long read, you want the workload to be relatively easy. Conversely, when you are trying to build strength — like taking on a much harder text — you want the amount of sustained work to be lessened.

Take a break

If you want to build stamina in your students, then you must create an environment in which pressure and maximum effort is intermittent, not constant. Runners and cyclists work hard, but they also do cross training and take days off. The body can only take so much punishment.

But what is true for the body is true for the mind. Students need to be expected to work hard — sometimes. But they also need breaks and opportunities to engage less intensely.

There are lots of ways of organizing a school day. One that I would suggest is to look for those periods of time in the day that take the kids’ heads a whole different direction — like art, music, or physical education. If your students are going to play active games in the gymnasium at 11:00 a.m., then why not schedule an intensive reading session just before that?

Or, after several weeks of increasingly demanding text segments punctuated with challenge drills, what if you just did a week in which kids were expected to manage their own reading with few educational demands?

Good readers can read significantly lengthy texts while sustaining attention and holding key information in memory. They manage to do this not just with texts that they find easy or that they enjoy reading, but with those they will need to read to succeed academically and in other social and professional venues. Teachers should operate more like strength and conditioning coaches, helping students not only to know more, but to develop the stamina needed for success. Researchers also need to come up with better ways of accomplishing the stamina goal than the suggestions provided here.

References

Borgonovi, F., & Biecek, P. (2016). An international comparison of students' ability to endure fatigue and maintain motivation during a low-stakes test. Learning and Individual Differences, 49, 128–137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2016.06.001

Mesmer, H. A., & Hiebert, E. H. (2015). Third graders’ reading proficiency reading texts varying in complexity and length: Responses of students in an urban, high-needs school. Journal of Literacy Research, 47(4), 473–504. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086296X16631923

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