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Teacher questions: I am an elementary literacy coach. A trend I am seeing in our K-2 classrooms are center activities not aligned to measurable outcomes. My question is, in a room of 24 first graders, when the teacher is pulling a small group to deliver targeted instruction, what does research say is best for what the other students to be doing? I’m struggling to find a model that we can confidently start driving towards.  

I am often asked about what the “other students” should be doing while teachers meet with small groups. I refer to What Works Clearinghouse studies to see gains for different programs and approaches. I can’t find anything that quantifies students’ reading improvement for independent reading vs. a computer program. For example, teachers will tell me they “put” students on a computer program daily for 20 minutes while they work with a small group because the teacher likes the program and thinks it is effective. Some of these programs do show decent gains on the studies on What Works Clearinghouse, yet I’m not a fan of computer-assisted reading programs. I struggle to respond to that because I can’t find research support that refutes it over gains from independent reading. Can you help me to explain to teachers the difference or benefit to having students read independently over being put on a computer program if there is one?

Shanahan’s response:

Wow! Thanks a lot, ladies.

You’ve used up my weekend in researching an answer to these questions.

No, I don’t mean I’ve been reading the research on seatwork (okay, I did a bit of that).

But there are an amazing number of websites that promise they can teach you how to say, “I don’t know” and still sound intelligent.

Unfortunately, they counsel that the dummy who doesn’t know should offer to research the question.

My problem is that I’ve researched it and still don’t know the answer. (Do I still sound intelligent?)

There isn’t much research on this topic.

But go to Amazon, type in “learning centers,” and an plethora of books pops up. They are all great — apparently; their blurbs describe them as “effective” and say they “really work.” (What they “work at” is not clear from the blurbs.)

There are some studies on seatwork, particularly in mathematics. This neglect is surprising given the vast amounts of classroom time devoted to seatwork. One study found that kids spend as much as 70% of their instructional time on their own, which varied by subject area (Fisher, et al., 1978); and more recent studies have produced similar results (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Vaughn, et al., 2002).

The studies that do exist tend to evaluate the effectiveness of seatwork, rather than pointing out successful seatwork routines that increase learning.

For example, back in the 1980s the late Paul Sindelar and his colleagues tested different amounts of direct teacher guidance and seatwork activities. They devoted 25%, 50%, and 75% of the time to teacher-led instruction and found that the more time with the teacher the better the kids did at learning math. And, the opposite — the more seatwork, the less learning.

Is it a good idea to have kids spending so much time working away from the teacher?

According to the studies, no.

Studies report that kids are less likely to be engaged in learning when working on their own (Cohen, 1994; Cowen, 2016; Gump, 1967; Kouno, 1970); and amount of seatwork has been found to be negatively related to learning (Seifert & Beck, 1984).

One study even reported that the best readers did reasonably well with seatwork and other independent activities, but lower readers learned substantially less from such activities (Connor, Morrison, & Petrella, 2004). They needed the teacher time.

The remaining research on seatwork focuses less on what kinds of assignments, centers, or programs lead to the most learning, and more to how teachers might manage seatwork better so that the kids won’t be as disruptive. In other words, their goal is identifying which routines keep kids busiest, not which ones teach best.

What these studies are all saying is that seatwork should be thought of not as a productive part of the school day, but as a necessary evil.

When it comes to academics, kids simply don’t learn that much on their own — except perhaps for the ones who are really good learners anyway — in which case, seatwork could be characterized as an effective way to make sure the lower kids don’t catch up!

The second questioner above hoped that I could point out research showing that independent reading was better than computer work. I know of no studies that make that comparison, but generally independent reading tends to have a pretty small impact on reading achievement. Seatwork studies suggest that the more learning comes when kids are interacting with others; not working by themselves — even when that self-time might be reading on their own.

It is possible that there are benefits to working with digital programs, since they provide some interaction (and some do have supporting research). However, even the best of those programs tend to require lots of teacher involvement if they are to make a learning difference — though that isn’t always how they are used in classrooms.

I do like the idea of having kids read during their downtime, but I would link this closely with their reading instruction. Thus, I might have the kids reading something silently prior to coming to group, so that they are ready to discuss; or I might have kids follow up their reading with me, by practicing fluency with a partner (which can help if the texts are hard enough and the kids stay on task). And, either of these activities could involve a social studies or science book, not just the “reading books,” which might take advantage of some of the slack time in those classes.

Research is very supportive of cooperative learning groups, so you might have some luck combining that with project learning activities, but cooperative learning requires some real knowledge. You’d have to study up on that if you wanted to really be successful.

Writing is another activity that can fill such space. Perhaps doing a writing lesson prior to meeting with reading groups, and then having kids working on their compositions while you work with groups would be useful (again, as long as they stay on task).

Overall, my message would be to minimize this kind of independent work, seatwork, center time, or on-one’s-own computer assignments. It’s better for the kids to work with the teacher and to work with each other.

Brush up your skills in working with larger groups including how to maximize student-to-student and student-teacher interactions and choral or every-student-responds responses.

Seatwork is like homework; it is best focused on applying what students already have learned.

When you do meet with small groups, try staggering the schedules — talking with one while the other reads, then moving to the other group to interact with them, while the first group is annotating. Or, if you meet with groups in a particular order, always give yourself 5-10 minutes between groups to interact with the kids who have been doing seatwork on their own.

I’d love to tell you that there are terrific research-supported workbooks, seatwork activities, computer programs, stations, or learning centers. There just aren’t. Given that practitioners need to be experimental, trying out various routines to evaluate their impact on learning and behavior.

Those books I noted earlier might be a good place to start. But wherever the ideas come from for your seatwork routines, you should be skeptical and data-oriented in evaluating their effectiveness and usefulness, and willing to try lots of alternatives.

Or, I could just say, “That’s a really interesting question.”


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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 18, 2018