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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.

Why Don’t You Encourage Reading Practice?

February 18, 2022

Teacher question: Why don’t you like independent reading? It only makes sense for students to practice reading if they’re going to get good at it. My students live in poverty. They won’t read at home, so I provide 20 minutes a day for them to just read. Practice makes perfect, you know.

Shanahan's response:

You’re right about the importance of practice. Practice has value in the development of any skilled activity.

I have no doubt that reading practice plays a role in making kids better readers. I don’t oppose encouraging students to practice their reading. However, I do believe in making instructional time as productive as possible. Just sending kids off to read is not likely to pay off as much as the other alternatives.

There has been a lot of research into the kinds of practice that improves performance. We now have a pretty good idea on what effective practice looks like (Ericcson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993).

Unfortunately, your 20 minutes of daily independent reading doesn’t resemble that picture to any degree.

Effective practice, for instance, is purposeful, intentional, or deliberate. It doesn't include just aimless engagement in an activity. Effective practice focuses on what it is the student is trying to improve.

My wife is a pianist. She practices a lot. By that I don’t mean she sits around playing the piano all day. No, she works on certain pieces of music — or even parts of those compositions. She selects music that places certain demands on her and then works on them over again and again to master their intricacies.

Similar examples can be drawn from athletics. The most effective hitters in baseball don’t just “take batting practice.” They practice trying to hit the fast ball up and in or the curve down and away. Much is made about how many swings some hitters take. Pete Rose reputedly took 500 swings per day. But amount of practice may distract from the purposefulness of the effort. Rose didn’t just swing — he took the swings that could improve his hitting in a particular way.

Free reading, independent reading, sustained silent reading, drop everything and read time… all emphasize the idea that kids should be reading. There is some doubt about how much students really read during these periods (Stahl, 2004), but even if they are reading, there is nothing deliberate about it. What are they working on? What is it that they are trying to learn? Which texts have they chosen that will allow them to work on whatever that may be?

Let’s face it. There is nothing purposeful or deliberate about free reading. There is nothing wrong with that, unless the reason for the practice is to make the students better readers.  

There are other features of productive practice, too. Perhaps your approach reflects some of those.

For instance, it helps if the skill to be practiced is broken into manageable parts. That allows a lot of repetition of key features or especially difficult parts of the skill. That seems logical for improving a skill, but it isn’t an accurate description of the kind of practice that free reading provides.

Another important feature of effective practice is feedback in the moment. Errors creep into any skilled performance, so having a knowledgeable coach or partner who can monitor the practice and provide guidance in how to improve makes a big difference.

But, again, the classroom practice that you ask about is notable because of its independence of that kind of teacher involvement. At best, a teacher might speak briefly to a child several minutes (or even days) after the practice. If the child is self-aware enough to recognize what he/she is struggling with, and open enough to share it with the teacher, and articulate enough that the teacher understands what happened, then possibly some productive feedback can be provided. That's unlikely, however.

When I look at the average effect size of various instructional routines for teaching decoding, fluency, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000), I come up with .40 approximately. The same kind of exercise within classroom independent reading is 0.05–0.10 (Yoon, 2003). That means that the payoff from teaching is 400–800% better than the payoff from having kids go it alone.

Similar imbalances exist between practice in music or athletics and practice in educational tasks like reading or math. The educational payoffs tend to be relatively tiny; about 4–5 times less effective than in those other activities (Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). (Evidently, we need be careful of those kinds of sports or music analogies since the nature of what needs to be practiced is so different).

What’s interesting is that those practice routines that research has identified as being powerful look a whole lot more like good reading instruction than free reading. Think about the kinds of reading that students engage in during guided/directed reading or repeated reading. There are clear purposes for the reading, the text is chosen for its appropriateness to those purposes, the reading takes place in relatively brief segments, the teacher monitors student success and provides feedback.

In those teaching contexts, a good deal of reading should take place. Not only in the reading class, but in social studies, science, and other subjects, too. Students should be reading at school throughout their day, week, and year. A 30-minute reading comprehension lesson should involve at least 15 minutes of reading; maybe more.

By all means, encourage your students to read for pleasure, too. Help them find books they might be interested in. Give them opportunities to share their reading experiences with other kids in class. Provide guidance to parents to support home reading. Offer advice on home reading routines (the wheres, the whens, the whys, the hows).

But cherish and protect your students’ instructional time. There isn’t enough of it. School is a good place to make kids stronger readers.

Don’t make the students’ independent reading part of your daily classroom schedule. Teach and guide your students so that it becomes part of theirs.

(Oh, and I don’t buy the idea that kids from low-income families won’t read. They will with the right guidance and support and if they can become proficient readers, which is why their instructional time is so precious. The argument that these kids will do better if you reduce their opportunities to learn just doesn’t bear scrutiny.)

Selected comments

Comment from Kay L.

You never gave an alternative for independent reading in the classroom. What do you use? Online readings, worksheets with questions?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Kay —

That would certainly depend on the grade level ... my preferences to that include writing, more distant guided reading (prepping a group and following up with teach led group discussion), and, these days, indeed, there are some computer programs that provide productive lessons. Vocabulary work can be valuable. It is possible to organize cooperative groups to work on projects. Good luck.

Comment from Lisa

I am a reading RtI teacher. My question is not necessarily related to SSR time, but how my students should be exploring reading during our time together. I am working from a specific phonics program with most groups that requires a reading of passages within each skill. Students are asked to highlight the particular letter/sound pattern they are studying and then read the passage silently. I don’t like having them read silently because I need to know if they are reading accurately, and I can’t do that if they are not reading aloud. However, if we take turns reading aloud, I’m worried about the Round Robin implications and the fact that they are only reading a few sentences and not the entire passage. (They are supposed to follow along as others read, but, in all honesty, few do). I have also tried having them read silently and then I listen in on a sentence or two. But in the end, the sentences they read to me are the only sentences they read. Suggestions as to what method would be best to promote best learning?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Lisa —

I'm a big fan of teacher supervised partner reading. You can have 15 pairs all reading at the same time (one student reading, the other monitoring). The teacher moves from pair to pair, engaging in observation, feedback to the reader or the partner, etc.

Comment from Donald P.

I was required to do 60 minutes daily Sustained Silent Reading with my West Texas second-grade class back in the late 1990s. They basically read library books and took Accelerated Readers tests. I was fortunate to be a Bilingual Teacher. My parents were vitally interested in their children's success in school. During that hour each day, I had mothers, aunts, grandparents, and friends of the students come to my classroom to listen to each student reading. Actually it turned out to be "Sustained Quiet-Oral Reading," not silent reading, but the kids got the necessary feedback to make enormous strides in their reading. Without their help, it would not have been nearly as profitable for the students.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Donald —

You raise an interesting point, the English learners. There isn't a lot of study of the issue with them, but the pattern is provocative. Having Spanish-speaking students doing free reading with Spanish texts had no impact on these children's reading ability in Spanish. However, free reading with English texts did have a positive impact on their English reading. These were students who had little exposure to English except during lessons. The tentative conclusion I draw from that is that free reading would have a bigger impact on learning if it was the sole exposure to the language. However, most children watch television, play games on tablets, hear radio, talk to friends and family, etc. — all in their own language (adding a small amount of text to that just doesn't have much opportunity to facilitate that kind of learning). There might be a value to such exposure — in English — with second language students (need for more research on that issue).

Comment from J. Meyer

Just to be clear, is their benefit to independent reading if teachers are conferencing with students about their books and listening to them read parts of the book? We are using a portion of our 4th and 5th grade 75 minute reading block to promote the love of reading. Many times the books we are using in our curriculum may or may not be interesting to all students. Helping students find books they love and share these books with other students could in fact foster the love of reading, build background, and possibly build stamina for those long boring text required with state testing. Do you see benefit in this practice considering some studies say there is a limit to the benefit from teaching reading strategies like finding the main idea or making inferences?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

J. Meyer —

This is certainly better than just having the kids read on their own totally. However, conferencing is only beneficial if the teacher knows the books (and that often is not the case with independent reading), and a short 2-4 minute conference per child provides very little depth of thought for the student. I think this is incredibly inefficient. Would make much more sense to have a group or class reading a text together under the supervision of a teacher who has read the text and thought about it (and was using her questioning, etc., to get the kids to think more deeply about what they were reading, rather than being satisfied with such a superficial read (the fact is, kids could do almost as well if they stayed home and read a bit on their own). This approach means the kids lose most of the benefit of having a teacher.

See all comments and replies here 

References

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363 

Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science 25(8), 1608-1618.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810

Stahl, S.A. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 187–211). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. 

Yoon, J. (2003). What a meta analytic review of three decades of SSR says about reading comprehension. Journal of Curriculum & Evaluation 6(2), 171-186.

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"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain