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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.

Shared Reading in the Structured Literacy Era

November 16, 2022

Teacher question: Can you provide clarification on how to promote shared reading in the structured literacy era and how that differs from shared reading in the balanced literacy era. I would think a teacher could certainly initially read the text aloud to students to model fluency and expression, but then must ensure students can get the words off the page and reread by decoding the words, rather than parroting the teacher or memorizing the shared reading text that may be a rhyme/song that is catchy.

Shanahan's response:

There are many reasons to read to children. Most of them are pretty sensible.

Some are more problematic.

One that should be avoided is what you describe — reading a text aloud so kids can mimic the teacher. That’s not a particularly effective way of teaching reading so I’d leave that out of my lesson plans.

Teach kids how to read the words themselves rather than subjecting them to this weird listen-remember-pretend-to-read sequence.

I would love to have the proverbial nickel for every time a parent has asked if their kids should be able to read anything that their teacher has not already read to them.

Children need to learn how to read more independently than that. Even a semester or two of such empty practice is woefully inefficient and will often be unsuccessful.

Sadly, a variation on this failed practice often appears in the upper grades, too. Many teachers read texts aloud (or play recordings of a text) so student reading won’t “interfere” with their comprehension. The kids are exposed to some literature and practice answering questions, without all that messy reading getting in the way. That students need to learn literature through reading — rather than going around it — seems not to have occurred to these teachers.

I’d rule out such practices.

Despite how strenuously some educators recommend reading to kids, there is still no research showing that it leads to higher reading achievement. That’s why my friend, Chris Lonigan refers to it as the “chicken soup of reading.” You know, it couldn’t hurt.

Children who experience a lot of book sharing at home do better in school than those who don’t, but those kids are also raised by parents with the greatest amounts of education, are more advantaged economically, and are most likely to receive direct reading instruction at home, too (Silinskas, Lerkkanen, Tolvanen, Niemi, Poikkeus, & Nurmi, 2012; Silinskas, Sénéchal, Torppa, & Lerkkanen, 2020). It may not be the shared reading that provides the learning payoff.

That doesn’t mean there is no value to reading to kids, but it shouldn’t be the panacea turned to whenever there is a reading problem, nor should it be the devil blamed for all those problems (“How can we teach this child to read, his parents don’t read to him?”)

What makes sense with shared reading?

1. Reading to primary grade kids can be part of an effective effort for increasing vocabulary knowledge. Reading to the students exposes them to academic vocabulary that may go beyond what they are likely to hear in daily conversation or in the media. Supplementing this exposure with direct instruction and supportive teacher-student interactions increases the chances of this vocabulary sticking. Dialogic reading in which the reader asks questions about the text and gets kids talking about the ideas is effective (Barone, Chambuleyron, Vonnak, & Assirelli, 2019; Pillinger & Wood, 2014; Whitehurst, 2002) as are techniques like “Text Talk” in which you focus attention on selected words from the texts (Beck & McKeown, 2001). In Text Talk the teacher reads the story, explains a word when it appears, then after reading reintroduces the word recontextualized in the story, has the students say the word, explains meaning more generally and provides other examples, has the children provide their own examples, and they repeat the word again. These words then are reviewed throughout the school year.

This kind of thing makes sense given what research has to say about the impact of shared reading. The National Early Literacy Panel (2008) reviewed 19 published studies that evaluated its effects on the learning of preschoolers. The preschoolers who were read to saw gains in their vocabulary knowledge and more recent studies have found this as well (Towson, Akemoglu, Watkins, & Zeng, 2021). Other studies have found the same thing with kindergartners and first graders (Neuman & Kaefer, 2018).

For the most part studies have found that reading aloud to kids increases their vocabulary, which is a good thing, and it works even better with supplemental teaching (Requa, Chen, Irey, & Cunningham, 2021). We hope that knowledge transfers to reading and is sufficient to make kids better readers, but that hope is not yet buttressed with empirical evidence.

2. There is a small amount of evidence indicating that reading to children can increase their understanding of how print works (e.g., where to begin reading on a page, directionality, what to do at the end of a line). Experience tells me that such skills are easily developed in preschool, kindergarten, and at the beginning of grade 1, and that most kids can develop those skills through observation.

The National Early Literacy Panel (2008) found four studies in which students who were read to showed greater understanding of print concepts.

With parents, facilitating such observation takes little more than seating the child so he/she can see the print and drawing attention to print by pointing at words and tracking. With my own daughters, when they’d put their young hands on the print I would stop reading when I couldn’t see the words. That fascinated them because it revealed that I wasn’t reading the pictures but was focused on the rows of letters.

Newer research has focused on how children’s attention can be effectively focused on print during shared reading (Piasta, Justice, McGinty, & Kaderavek, 2012).

For teachers, when working with kids who haven’t yet figured out those print basics, big books and projections of books are quite useful. In those cases, the teacher does the same thing I described for parents… drawing attention to how one moves through a text, what happens at the end of a page, and so on. Again, kids don’t usually need much of this kind of guidance.

3. You mention “modeling” for fluency work. There’s a bit of evidence on this, but not enough to insist on that as a potent feature of fluency teaching. Such instruction seems to work equally well with modeling and without it (Young, Bowers, & MacKinnon, 1996).

I think modeling has a place, but it is of limited value in terms of fostering learning and, therefore, its use shouldn’t take up much real estate.

I often visit classrooms in which teachers devote inordinate amounts of time to reading aloud to kids under the guise of “modeling.” At least that’s how it is labeled in the lesson plans. As if listening to the reading of a proficient adult transfers to fluent student reading.  

The benefits of modeling appear to be more specific and immediate. When I teach fluency, I ask kids to try reading the text first try first. If they do a reasonably good job of it — even if I think they need some word work or to read the text again, I probably won’t do any modeling at all. However, in cases where the reading doesn’t sound right — you know, especially choppy, word-by word or with odd pauses that disrupt the prosody — I will step in and demonstrate how to read that phrase or sentence.

That surprises some teachers, but human memory is limited. Reading an entire paragraph or page doesn’t provide much prosody guidance because no one — even adults — can remember all that information long enough to apply it when it is their turn to do the reading. Keep modeling focused and specific. Techniques like “reading-while-listening” can work too; in those the teacher and students read the text chorally.

One more thing about fluency. Studies of kids in grades 1-3 have found that parents reading to their children has no impact on the kids’ reading achievement, but children reading to their parents does (Sénéchal & Young, 2008); that’s why it is so important to shift from reading to kids to getting them to do the reading.

4. Another possible use of shared reading is in the teaching of comprehension strategies to children who have yet to learn to read or as the initial way on introducing these comprehension-producing actions at any age. Teacher read alouds can be a good way of allowing kids to develop listening comprehension strategies that can later be applied to their reading (e.g., Roberts, 2013; Williams, Hall, Lauer, Stafford, DeSisto, & deCani, 2005). Success with listening strategies may not transfer directly to reading, but the ability to implement these during listening should be more easily taught on the reading side of the house. Essentially, the listening efforts are to provide a leg up on the later reading efforts.

In this kind of teaching, the teacher does the reading for the students — but remember, this replacement is brief, just until the kids can either do the reading themselves or once they have accomplished some proficiency with the strategy. Then the kids need to take over the reading duties themselves.

5. Most of the evidence on reading to kids focuses on vocabulary learning. But recent research has shown that kids can gain other information from being read to, and these benefits have been found in Kindergarten and Grade 1 (Gibbs, & Reed, 2021; Neuman & Kaefer, 2018; Neuman, Samudra, & Danielson, 2021) — though I suspect they would be just as true for adults or for watching content rich videos. If you want young children to know more about science, social studies, literature, or the arts, reading texts to them about those topics can be helpful.

This kind of thing would not be expected to have much impact on reading ability itself, except for how well students might be able to read about the specific topics the shared reading focused on.

Reading some texts to the kids in the contexts of content classes makes some sense. However, as kids progress through the grades — certainly by grade two — reading instruction should be focused on making sure the students are able to learn about those topics independently, through their own reading.

6. Finally, reading books aloud to kids can be a great way to establish a warm tone or positive environment in a classroom. Personally, I’d do some of that kind of reading every day with young kids (to age 8 or grade 3). Such reading may or may not directly support the curriculum and the vocabulary or informational learning from it may go unmonitored.

However, given that this kind of “pure joy” book sharing has no specific instructional goals, it should not be considered part of reading instruction. Don’t reduce the amount of reading instruction to accommodate this activity, though, again, I’d find a place for it.

Reading to children is not a particularly effective way of teaching reading. However, there are several ways that shared reading can be used as a mechanism to accomplish some specific goals in the primary grades. It can both be an extracurricular activity aimed at warming up a classroom or it may be a tool aimed at teaching or familiarizing students with some very specific aspects of reading ability. What it should not be is the way students learn to read a particular text, nor should it replace instruction in which students would usually be expected to do the reading.  

Selected comments

Comment from Marie

Thank you for always writing about such relevant subjects! Your blog is always very thought provoking and informative!

I am a little confused about this latest blog entry as I was under the impression that echo reading, choral reading, repeated readings, etc. of passages were supportive ways to increase fluency in first grade. This does not take the place of decoding instruction in my classroom, but is one small aspect of fluency instruction along with partner reading. Can you please help clarify?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Marie —

Those can be good ways to build oral reading fluency for the children (though the choral reading one probably isn't particularly productive). Techniques like listening-while-reading and echo reading do involve teachers reading to kids, but the kids are also reading simultaneously, so I wouldn't put it in the shared reading category (though you could I guess). The difference of course has to do with what the children's role is.

Tim

Comment from Joanne

So there are many teachers out there teaching 3rd-5th grade, for example, using a mandated core program with texts that far exceed their students' ability to decode. Other than choral reading of the text, what else do you recommend for the teacher and the students in terms of "getting through the text." I so appreciate your blog and learn so much from it.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Joanne —

If the students cannot decode at about a second grade level or higher, they definitely should be shifted to an easier set of texts and they should be receiving explicit teaching in decoding. However, if they can read at a second grade level or higher then engaging students in fluency work with those texts, providing some of the language supports that I have written about extensively here (vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, text structure), engaging students in the use of comprehension strategies, and so on are the way to go.

Tim

Comment from Sarah

I’d love to hear Sharon Walpole’s take on this post. I know shared reading is an important part of her Bookworms program. I also know she knows her stuff. I’d love to hear her take on how the shared reading portion of her program is, indeed, very effective.

Reply from Sharon Walpole

Sarah, thanks for the invite. I agree wholeheartedly with Tim that reading aloud to students is not reading instruction. Reading aloud CAN be many things, but only if it is planned — I use it as a context for vocabulary instruction, grammar instruction, discussion, text-structure instruction, brief comprehension strategy modeling, and for modeling text-based on demand writing. (And it still builds a warm community, even with ALL of those other goals.)

Shared reading means different things to different people. Tim has mentioned many of them. Here's how I use the term. For young (PK-K) children, it is a print-referencing and dialogic opportunity, and for those emergent readers, memorizing and finger-point reading a text can build concept of word. And I agree with Tim that print concepts can be built really quickly with explicit instruction.

Beginning in grade 1, it is scaffolded repeated reading to build both fluency and comprehension. For me, it is never a practice on its own. It is always complemented by grade-specific phonics and spelling instruction. There is no route to fluency (or literacy) without words.

It's possible to build literacy instruction to distribute opportunities across contexts — to take advantage of the specific affordances of read alouds and of shared repeated reading without neglecting word recognition and writing. But it would be hard to do all of that AND have just-for-fun read alouds under the guise of modeling fluent reading. Maybe use while students are waiting or packing up?

And some of us have always lived in the structured literacy era.

See all comments 

References

Barone, C., Chambuleyron, E., Vonnak, R., & Assirelli, G. (2019). Home-based shared book reading interventions and children’s language skills: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Educational Research and Evaluation, 25(5-6), 270-298. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2020.1814820

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G. (2001). Text Talk: Capturing the benefits of read-aloud experiences for young children. Reading Teacher, 55(1), 10-20.

Gibbs, A. S., & Reed, D. K. (2021). Shared reading and science vocabulary for kindergarten students. Early Childhood Education Journal. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-021-01288-w

Kurasawa, E. (1962). Reading instruction in Japan. Reading Teacher, 16(1), 13-17.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Neuman, S. B., & Kaefer, T. (2018). Developing low-income children’s vocabulary and content knowledge through a shared book reading program. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 52, 15-24. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2017.12.001

Neuman, S. B., Samudra, P., & Danielson, K. (2021). Effectiveness of scaling up a vocabulary intervention for low-income children, pre-K through first grade. Elementary School Journal, 121(3), 385-409. doi:https://doi.org/10.1086/712492

Piasta, S. B., Justice, L. M., McGinty, A. S., & Kaderavek, J. N. (2012). Increasing young children’s contact with print during shared reading: Longitudinal effects on literacy achievement. Child Development, 83(3), 810-820. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01754.x

Pillinger, C., & Wood, C. (2014). Pilot study evaluating the impact of dialogic reading and shared reading at transition to primary school: Early literacy skills and parental attitudes. Literacy, 48(3), 155-163. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/lit.12018

Requa, M. K., Chen, Y. I., Irey, R., & Cunningham, A. E. (2021). Teaching parents of at-risk preschoolers to employ elaborated and non-elaborated vocabulary instruction during shared storybook reading. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/02568543.2021.1931579

Roberts, K. L. (2013). Comprehension strategy instruction during parent–child shared reading: An intervention study. Literacy Research and Instruction, 52(2), 106-129. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2012.754521

Sénéchal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The effect of family literacy interventions on children’s acquisition of reading from kindergarten to grade 3: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 880-907. doi:https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654308320319

Silinskas, G., Lerkkanen, M., Tolvanen, A., Niemi, P., Poikkeus, A., & Nurmi, J. (2012). The frequency of parents’ reading-related activities at home and children’s reading skills during kindergarten and grade 1. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 302-310. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2012.07.004

Silinskas, G., Sénéchal, M., Torppa, M., & Lerkkanen, M. (2020). Home literacy activities and children’s reading skills, independent reading, and interest in literacy activities from kindergarten to grade 2. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 15. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01508

Towson, J. A., Akemoglu, Y., Watkins, L., & Zeng, S. (2021). Shared interactive book reading interventions for young children with disabilities: A systematic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 30(6), 2700-2715.

Whitehurst, R. G. (2002). Dialogic reading: An effective way to read aloud with young children. (Reprinted on Reading Rockets)

Williams, J. P., Hall, K. M., Lauer, K. D., Stafford, K. B., DeSisto, L. A., & deCani, J. S. (2005). Expository text comprehension in the primary grade classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 538-550. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.97.4.538

Young, A. R., Bowers, P. G., & MacKinnon, G. E. (1996). Effects of prosodic modeling and repeated reading on poor readers' fluency and comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics, 17(1), 59-84. doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S0142716400009462

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers