Blogs About Reading
Shanahan on Literacy
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.
What’s the Role of Amount of Reading Instruction?
John Carroll (1963/1989) proposed an innovative model of academic learning. According to Carroll, learning was a function of five variables: student aptitude, opportunity to learn, perseverance, quality of teaching, and ability to understand.
It wasn’t the list of variables that was so provocative, but how Carroll defined each.
He operationalized all those in terms of instructional time.
For instance, aptitude — then usually a score on an IQ test — was, for Carroll, a matter of the how much time was needed to learn something. A young Einstein may be able to master a K-12 physics curriculum in 42 minutes, while it might take Tim Shanahan 42 years!
Opportunity referred to the amount of instructional time schools provided. If teachers devoted 100 hours to physics instruction, Einstein would have it made given his aptitude, while I might be better advised to become a reading teacher.
Even if schools allotted 42 years to physics, I still might not make it. What are the chances I’d sit still for all those laws of motion, electrons, and quarks? Perseverance, the time students are willing to be taught, figures in learning as well.
Even quality is a matter of time in this scheme. If the quality of teaching is low, then kids will need relatively more teaching to be successful.
No one has come up with ingenious ways to measure those time-based variables. However, the point it made about instructional time was invaluable.
In the 1970-1980s, researchers following Carroll’s lead explored time and its relationship to academic achievement, including in reading (e.g., Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliabe, Cahen, & Dishaw, 1981).
They learned a lot about instructional time. As a result, educational scientists now have a different conception of instructional time and how it should be considered in research studies.
In my opinion, reading educators don’t think enough about time and its importance.
Studies have, again and again, demonstrated the power of amount of instruction in determining student learning (Gay, Sonnenschein, Sun, & Baker, 2021; Sonnenschein, Stapleton, & Benson, 2010; Walberg, Fraser, & Welch, 1986).
Here are 7 key ideas about instructional time that every reading educator should know.
1. There’s a difference between allotted time and academic learning time
When scholars first looked at the amount of teaching, they were surprised to discover that there was not much connection.
That’s when they started distinguishing allotted time from what academic learning time (ALT). ALT refers to the amount of time students are engaged in academic tasks likely to lead to learning (Fisher, et al., 1981).
Observational studies reported big differences in ALT (Smith, Lee, & Newman, 2001). Sometimes as much as 100%!
Ms. Jones may provide 90 minutes a day of ALT, while Ms. Smith’s kids only get 45.
Year after year, the Jones’ kids test out higher than the Smith kids, and Ms. Smith concludes, “Yep, the principal always gives me the lowest kids.”
Scheduling 90 or 120 minutes of literacy instruction doesn’t mean kids get that much actual teaching.
Some teachers struggle with classroom management, or they may be pushed into grouping schemes they can’t handle. Big mistake.
Those kinds of things are time robbers. They prevent allotted time from being translated into ALT.
This can play out a couple of different ways. The obvious one has to do with unruliness, misbehavior, noisiness. Those problems threaten the learning of everyone.
But mismanagement is not always an issue of poor discipline. Some kids lose out to inattention, daydreaming, and obeying but not engaging ... the kids who sit politely and quietly but who fail to engage with the lesson. The page turners who don’t read.
Allocated time is not the important issue, ALT is!
2. Time is a value, not a variable
When researchers began looking at instructional time, they treated it as a variable. It was routinely included in lists of factors that influence learning (e.g., ability, motivation, quantity of instruction, quality of instruction, classroom climate, home environment, peer group, mass media exposure).
However, that isn’t the way scientists have learned to deal with time.
An example here may help.
We know that iron rusts when the metal molecules bond with the moisture in air. But scientists used to think that it was time that caused rust.
Modern scientists blanch at the thought of that now. For them, time can never be a causative factor, only a measure of such factors. With rust, oxidation (that bonding of molecules) is the cause and the time the iron is exposed to humidity, is a measure of the amount of oxidation exposure.
In education, time itself shouldn’t be the issue. No, it’s the kind of teaching, the kind of educational environment, or the kind of curriculum that are influencing learning. Time is a valuable way to estimate how much exposure kids are getting to those kinds of teaching and kinds curriculum.
Unfortunately, we tend to say things like, “phonics works,” or “research supports comprehension strategies.”
What we should be saying is, “kids benefited from 30 minutes of daily phonics instruction for a school year,” or “we had measurable comprehension improvement from 8 weeks of strategy teaching.”
Time should be seen as dosage. Too often we’re satisfied that teachers are teaching writing or teaching phonics. But we should be asking, “Are they teaching enough of those things?”
3. Think components, not overall time
Principals often proudly tell me that their teachers are required to teach reading/ language arts for two hours per day. That’s not nothing, but it’s not enough.
I think the lack of specific attention to time is why many teachers neglect certain aspects of reading, while overdoing others.
I’ve visited kindergarten classes with no phonemic awareness instruction, and third grade classes without writing (since their goal is higher reading scores). I have vivid memories of a second-grade class with an overwhelming 90 minutes per day of phonics and spelling. I’m often asked if having the kids read a paragraph for fluency practice is enough (no, I don’t think so).
None of that makes any sense.
In Chicago, we overcame that problem by portioning the literacy instruction time among word learning, text reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. That meant kids got a lot of attention to all the key components of reading development.
Making sure that enough time is accorded to each of those curricular components that research has identified as making a difference in reading achievement is not micromanaging.
What we found was that when teachers knew they were required to spend considerable time on fluency instruction or vocabulary, they got very interested in how best to teach those things. It’s easy enough to hide your weaknesses in a 90–120-minute block if no one is paying attention to how those minutes are being divided up. But when you find out you have 30 minutes of fluency instruction to provide, how to accomplish that becomes a much more important question to a teacher.
4. Aim at learning goals not instructional activities
Some time-based instructional schemes prescribe specific daily activities: student reading time, small group instruction time, writing, teacher read alouds, ABC Reading Program), etc.
Those schemes help teachers to fill their days.
But filling up a day’s schedule and curating a powerful set of learning experiences are not the same thing.
Organize your instructional time around what you are trying to accomplish, rather than on certain activities. If you have set aside time to teach kids to bring their prior knowledge to bear on the text that they are reading, then your minutes of reading comprehension this week should be focused on that. The texts and activities that you choose should be aimed at accomplishing that goal.
Focus on increasing kids’ vocabulary knowledge, not on teacher read alouds. You may decide to structure a teacher read aloud in a way that will help address that vocabulary knowledge goal, but there are other effective approaches to that too. When it comes to time, keep eyes on the learning prize, not the activity that might be used to address it.
5. Rate and time are not the same thing
Time has to do with the numbers of minutes or hours that we devote to a subject. Rate is more bound up in what happens within that time allotment.
For instance, research suggests that the number of interactions that take place between students and teachers (like how many questions they get to answer) makes a difference in learning (Allen, Gregory, Mikami, Lun, Hamre, & Pianta, 2013; Folmer-Annevelink, Doolaard, Mascareño, & Bosker, 2010). Often the amount of interaction is limited. The teacher asks a few questions and calls on a couple kids to answer them. No one must think about the information because they aren’t likely to be called upon.
That suggests a useful way of evaluating classroom instruction. How many opportunities do kids have to respond in an hour? The traditional teacher might end up with a very low rate of response – asking few questions, calling on few students. In another classroom, the teacher might provide slates and all students are expected to respond at least in writing to every question.
In decoding lessons, I’m often concerned about how many words kids get to segment, or sound out, or spell. Some teachers move those lessons along better, getting everyone to do those kinds of things multiple times in a lesson.
And what about the amount of writing that occurs in a writing lesson or the amount of reading in a comprehension lesson? (How many words are written or read in the time provided?)
We want substantial amounts of time devoted to key aspects of literacy learning. But these time allotments should be replete with reasonably high rates of action and response.
6. Not all learning time is equivalent
Too often teachers assume that all activities common to language arts lessons are equally valuable. That’s not the case. Some activities have higher payoffs — in terms of learning — than do others.
Some examples: studies of free or independent reading in which kids pick the texts and read on their own with little teacher involvement provide learning opportunities. However, studies show that the payoffs from using time in that way is markedly lower than when engaged in instructional activities with more teacher input (e.g., text selection, purpose, monitoring, feedback, direct instruction) (Shanahan, 2022).
Or, think about a phonics lesson. There is likely to be more learning payoff from a highly interactive lesson that provides opportunities to hear sounds matched to letters and words, and to sound out words with teacher guidance than would accrue from having students completing worksheets quietly at their desks. Kids need to learn to connect phonology (sounds) with orthography (spellings) and that is best done with audible lessons.
I understand that at times teachers need time fillers, but instructional planning should always be a quest for what kind of lesson is most likely to foster the learning that we’re aiming for.
7. Time and Tier 2 success
Some kids have trouble learning. They just don’t make the same progress as the other kids.
That’s why we have the so-called Tier 2 programs; additional opportunities for kids to catch up and keep up.
Tier 2 programs should focus on important reading skills that kids might lag in (that means having instruction available for supporting both the decoding and language gaps that might occur).
Tier 2 programs should provide enhanced learning opportunities — focused, purposeful, specific, well-presented lessons with minimal of distractions and minimal need for adjustments for student heterogeneity.
Tier 2 programs — and here is the time issue — should provide additional instruction, not replacement instruction. Pulling kids out of reading lessons, to get other reading lessons down the hall is unlikely to increase learning. Tier 2 gives kids a chance for a double dose of instruction, but that means that schools need to schedule Tier 2 teaching thoughtfully so that it adds to the teaching the children receive.
If you want to raise reading achievement, take a careful look at the amount of time allotted for reading, how that time is divided among key learning goals, how engaged children are in that time, and the amount of actual reading, writing, and interaction that is taking place. I think you might be sadly surprised at what you see. We can do better.
Allen, J., Gregory, A., Mikami, A., Lun, J., Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. (2013). Observations of effective teacher-student interactions in secondary school classrooms: Predicting student achievement with the Classroom Assessment Scoring System-Secondary. School Psychology Review, 42(1), 76–98.
Carroll, J. B. (1989). The Carroll Model: A 25-year retrospective and prospective view. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 26-31.
Fisher, C., Berliner, D., Filby, N., Marliave, R., Cahen, L., & Dishaw, M. (1981). Teaching behaviors, academic learning time, and student achievement: An overview. Journal of Classroom Instruction, 17(1), 2-15.
Folmer-Annevelink, E., Doolaard, S., Mascareño, M., & Bosker, R. J. (2010). Class size effects on the number and types of student-teacher interactions in primary classroom. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 45(2), 30-38.
Gay, B., Sonnenschein, S., Sun, S., & Baker, L. (2021). Poverty, parent involvement, and children’s reading skills: Testing the compensatory effect of the amount of classroom reading instruction. Early Education and Development, 32(7), 981-993. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2020.1829292
Shanahan, T. (2022, February 12). Why don’t you encourage reading practice? Shanahan on Literacy.
Smith, J. B., Lee, V. E., & Newmann, F. M. (2001). Instruction and achievement in Chicago elementary schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Sonnenschein, S., Stapleton, L. M., & Benson, A. (2010). The relation between the type and amount of instruction and growth in children’s reading competencies. American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 358-389. doi:https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831209349215
Walberg, H. J., Fraser, B. J., & Welch, W. W. (1986). A test of a model of educational productivity among senior high school students. Journal of Educational Research, 79(3), 133-139. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1986.1088566
Comment from Joan
Thinking about the time, and what we are trying to accomplish within it, speaks to the heart of what literacy teachers grapple with every day. This article has so many good discussion points centered on a simple but powerful premise, how best to use our precious instructional time to meet the instructional needs of all students in a given classroom. Thank you for this.
Comment from Lauren
Do you advocate Daily 5 or Workshop models where the students rotate between small teacher/adult led instruction and independent "centers" or online reading platforms for classroom management? I guess my question is a practical one about classroom management. What is the best way to manage a classroom to get the maximum reading instruction benefits for all students?
Reply from Tim Shanahan
No, I'm not a big fan of Daily 5 — though I think its focus on time is the right way to go. In any event, if you want to know more about that I wrote four blogs about classroom organization that digs in on Daily 5 and suggests some better alternatives. How to Organize Daily Instruction: Part 1, How to Organize Daily Literacy Instruction: Part 2, How to Organize Daily Literacy Instruction: Part 3, and How to Organize Daily Literacy Instruction: Part 4.
Comment from Lynn
Thank you for this informative and carefully thought out Blog. I do have a question about student reading. I taught R180 at the high school level and I actually changed the requirements to read the R180 books and was not super concerned with Lexile levels (except to not let kids always pick overly "easy" books). I did however spend way more time than the program allocated helping students connect with texts they enjoyed reading. I also held regular book talks where the students were able to engage with the rest of the class around what they were reading. It build interest and let me know if they were actually reading. Most of my students made substantial gains. Are these measures sufficient to make self-selected texts and independent reading effective for reading growth, at least in the upper grades with students who have at least 4th or 5th grade reading levels?
Reply from Tim Shanahan
No, research suggests that approach is not particularly effective. Reading instruction at that level should be enabling students to read texts more challenging than what they can read on their own. The point is to raise the level of texts that kids can handle and to deepen their understanding of text and how text works. I'd question the level of interpretation that you are getting students to accomplish. More effective schools get kids to do the kind of reading that you describe at home and they taken on more challenging works with the teacher. It is best, of course, if these two strands connect (topically or through genre study, etc.).
Comment from Sandie
Thank you for making this point: "Rate and time are not the same thing." (The dosage literature seems confused on this point as dosage is usually defined as seat time.)
Would you agree that instruction and practice are not the same thing and that the number of response opportunities is more about practice than instruction?
Would you agree that most students benefit from both instruction and practice but some students will need more practice than other to achieve mastery? (That can require a LOT of perseverance!)
Using our online structured literacy curriculum and practice system, we suggest a student should do 15 min. of practice a day, 4 days a week (so 60 min. a week). The system tracks time and rate including accuracy rates. ( e.g. "how many words"). There is INCREDIBLE variation in that rate and time data across individuals and settings (homes, home schools, private schools, public schools). Naturally, practice rate matters for a student's progress. But it seems that there are so many competing demands in homes and schools, it can be challenging to convince adults that it matters enough to prioritize it.
Good article. Thank you!
Reply from Tim Shanahan
Of course, some students require more practice (and/or more instruction) than others and perseverence can be an important part of either.
Comment from Mat
Another helpful blog post Tim!
You mention that there may be few benefits to students reading self-selected texts during independent reading time. I was wondering what you thought about a related recommendation in the IES document "Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grade 4-9". In their recommendation to use 'stretch texts' with students, they mention that stretch texts can also be used during independent reading using electronic supports which can help with difficult words (either by providing word definitions or read alouds). I'm curious about your view on this. You have often pointed out that challenging texts are good when a teacher can help students to unpack the complexity contained within. However, If students are trying to read these during independent reading time with limited scaffolding eg. a few hard words defined or the ability to hear the text read out, is that worth doing and better than students reading self selected just right texts?
Reply from Tim Shanahan
Generally, kids when they are reading on their own for their own purposes, they tend to select what we might call stretch texts. For the most part, the books students want to read tend to be beyond their independent reading levels. This is even true for your best readers. I know of no studies of it, but we assume students will be motivated to take on the challenge of such texts. Given that, I think having electronic supports can be really helpful (I know they are to me when I read). I think it's a good idea and one that has the possibility of paying off in terms of student learning in a way that traditional independent reading has not. Time will tell for sure.