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Teacher question:

What makes good readers? What are kids lacking making them not so good readers?

Shanahan’s response:

I love this question because it cuts to the heart of everything we do. If teachers don’t have clear purchase on what it takes to become a good reader, and what some kids might be missing, then their instructional successes will be fortunate accidents. The same can be said for the professors who prepare teachers and for the principals and coaches who supervise them.

So what is the answer?

Let’s start with something pretty self-evident, but that is worth mentioning … the only thing that matters in kids’ learning — in anybody’s learning — is their own experience. What I mean by that is that no one can learn something for you; and what adults do when the kids aren’t around — adopting textbooks, talking about teaching, participating in professional development, and so on — can’t either lead to or interfere with learning.

To learn anything you have to put your mind on something. You might use your eyes or ears or hands to explore that thing that you want to learn or to collect information about it, but ultimately it is the mind that has to do the work with that information. Nothing is learned without thinking about it, and we only think about things that are in our own experience. (My point isn’t that if you want kids to learn about the Serengeti Plain that you have to take them to Tanzania so they can experience it themselves — though there would obviously be some value in that; however, vicarious experience counts too including books, films, audiotapes, teacher descriptions, and so on.) 

I think that is a pretty simple premise to accept, but it leads to another question … if a child learns to read through his or her experience, then how does one describe or define experience in a useful way?           

Again, let’s stay to simple conceptions and straightforward principles: There are three fundamental components of academic experience that we as teachers can influence in any powerful way.

First, there is the amount of experience, second, there is the content or skill that is the focus of the experience; and, third, there is the quality of the experience.    

Amount of experience

Children differ greatly in how much experience they get with literacy and language. Studies show, for instance, significant differences in vocabulary knowledge by the time kids are two — differences that are not surprising to those who have read studies on the differences in the amounts that babies are spoken to by parents.

We are usually pretty blithe about the amounts of literacy instruction that we provide to kids in school. I think that is because most teachers assume the amounts of time are the same from class to class. Observational studies — and my own experience in visiting classrooms — reveal that not to be the case. Studies often find as much as a 100% difference in the amount of potentially productive reading instruction that is offered to kids, even in different classrooms within a school.

If two teachers schedule the same 90 minutes of reading instruction each day, and one manages to actually use all that time for teaching and the other only can manage about 45 minutes of teaching (the rest of the time lost to management problems, poor planning, replacing potentially effective instruction with things that we know don’t work, etc.) … Guess which class does best on the end of year reading test?            

Of course, kids have relevant experiences beyond the school day. That’s why — even if a teacher fails to provide sufficient literacy learning time to kids — it might not matter much if the home is managing to replace this time. Some kids get lots of literacy experience at home and school and they tend to outshine the rest. And, some are almost totally dependent on the school for literacy learning, and so, for those kids, getting a teacher who is cavalier about learning time can be a deathblow to their reading progress.

Teachers lose a lot of time. Kids spend too much time just waiting for things to happen.

One reason why some kids struggle with reading is that they have so little opportunity to learn and to practice their literacy ability.  

Content of experience

What I wrote above about time is kind of a trick. I believe all of my claims to be true, but there is something important that I didn’t explain.

In science, time alone never can be a variable. It can only be a measure of something.

An example: it takes time for iron to rust, but iron does not rust because of time. Iron rusts because of exposure to moisture; moisture combines with the iron molecules to form rust. Time can be a measure of the amount of moisture the iron will be exposed to, but it is the moisture that causes the change — not the amount of time.

I failed to mention it, but it is true with learning as well. Time is important because it is a measure of how much exposure to the literacy curriculum children receive. Ultimately, it is the engagement with particular aspects of literacy and text that lead to learning — and time just tells us how much opportunity to engage with these components.

If we were talking about content subjects — science, social studies, literature, health, and so on — then we would need to engage in a consideration of what content we wanted to expose kids to. Is it more important that they learn U.S. history or world history? Do we prefer greater knowledge about physical science or life science? Do we want kids to study the classics (Huckleberry Finn) or contemporary literature (Hunger Games)? In each of these examples, our choices as educators will determine what kids can learn about — what will be the focus of their learning experience — but these are all values choices. They come down to what do we want kids to know.

However, reading — like cooking, cycling, and dancing — is a skill. To gain skills there are things that one has to know and know how to do. These aren’t values choices as in the previous examples. Do I prefer that kids be able to recognize what an author has written explicitly or that they make inferences based on a text? It should be pretty obvious that both of these actions need to be part of a reader’s repertoire.

Which is more important decoding or knowing word meanings? Again, not really a choice — good readers will excel in both or they won’t be good readers.

What all that means is that what we teach to make kids literate is not arbitrary. The content of experience in literacy learning should not be a choice!

Research has identified particular skills that students need to know to be readers. Studies have done this many ways: they have shown that teaching a particular things improves not just that skill, but overall reading ability (like the impact of teaching fluency on reading comprehension); they have shown that poor readers are relatively weak in particular skills but not in others when compared to better readers (poor readers struggle with decoding tasks, but they tend to guess from context as well as better readers); and there are studies of kids who are particularly good with particular skills (like studies that identify kids who can write well, but who don’t read well).

These kinds of studies indicate that kids need to learn particular things:

1. They need to learn to hear the sounds within words (phonemic awareness)

2. They need to know their letters (recognition, letter names, letter sounds)

3. They need to know how to decode words quickly and easily (sound-symbol relationships, spelling patterns and how to use these pronounce and spell words)

4. They need to be able to read text accurately (reading the authors’ words), quickly (not speed reading, but reading fast enough that it approaches oral language production), and prosodically (it has to sound like language — none of that “read as fast as you can, Henry”)

5. They need to know about language: the meaning of words and parts of words, how sentences convey meaning, how ideas cohere across language (e.g., “My sister Mary and I like to go to the movies. We eat popcorn”, readers have to connect “sister” with “Mary”, and “Mary and I” with “we” to get the meaning)

6. They need to be able to comprehend text (that means, both being able to read a text and to retell it or answer questions about it or use the information to do something, but it also means having some tools available that can be applied when one isn’t understanding — like summarizing as one reads, or making mental images of what is being described — to improve attention or memory); to be able to evaluate the information that they read — to determine quality or value.

7. They need to be able to compose their own texts — using all of those elements noted above to convey meaning to others through their writing.

Time devoted to those aspects of literacy has been found repeatedly, across a wide range of studies, to lead to literacy learning. If teachers teach those things, then kids have a greater opportunity to become readers. If kids fail to learn any of those — with or without instruction — then they tend not to be very good at literacy.     

Quality of experience

The final aspect of what is essential has to do with quality. Unfortunately, I only have a negative definition of that, but I think you’ll get the point of why this is pretty quickly.

Imagine a situation in which two teachers are trying to teach identical skills or information to two equivalent groups of kids. They are given a set amount of time to deliver this teaching, and student learning is evaluated at the end of the lessons. One group learns more than the other.

These learning differences obviously cannot be due to amount of instruction — both groups received the same amount of teaching; nor can the differences be due to the coverage of different skills, since they were both taught the same skills; and the differences can’t be due to one group being smarter or more motivated or better supported at home (because we made sure the groups were equivalent). 


What could have led to the learning difference here?

The only possibility is the quality of instruction or quality of experience.

Studies show that some teachers explain ideas better than others (and that it is possible to train teachers to provide better explanations), and some manage to motivate better.

Some teachers present lessons in which one student gets to answer a question and others make sure all of the kids are answering all of the questions (such as using writing).

Some teachers are better able to make on-the-fly adjustments to student responses: this group needs an extra example, this one can skip the next exercise, and so on.

Some teachers find ways to evaluate what their kids know — without a lot of formal testing (since that takes instructional time).

You asked what it takes for kids to become literate? It takes large amounts of time devoted to learning key things about reading and writing, and that the instructional support given for this experience be of high quality; allowing more kids to learn what is essential more quickly and surely so that time can either be devoted to scaling more challenging aspects of literacy or to building extensive bodies of knowledge about the social and natural world through their literacy.


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
May 28, 2017