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Man, I hate to see so many frustrated teachers.

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been hearing from teachers who use Daily 5. They’re mad because I criticized the idea of organizing their day around activities instead of outcomes. Many have been surprised that I said there isn’t any research on Daily 5 or the activities it promotes. Some complain that I just haven’t seen it well implemented. But that really isn’t the problem.

The fact is teachers find it difficult to stay focused on learning. They become consumed by classroom activities and daily routines. And because of that, any scheme that encourages them focus on activities over outcome is a really bad idea.

The point of Daily 5 is a good one: teachers should routinize the use of classroom time. Reducing the sheer number of daily scheduling decisions for teachers is smart.

But routinizing a day is not the same thing as ensuring learning. Especially when the activities you are including aren’t certain to instill learning. There has to be a better way.

Let’s take it a step at a time.

First, decide how much time will be devoted to literacy. In many schools, 90 minutes is the standard, but I’d argue for 2-3 hours per day. Provide more literacy work when kids are especially challenged, and less otherwise.

Second, decide which learning categories require attention? Put the time into aspects of literacy prove to help kids become better readers and writers. There is substantial research showing that if you teach young children to hear the sounds within words (phonemic awareness), then they end up doing better with decoding and comprehension. I would definitely teach that. There is similar evidence concerning the systematic teaching of letters and sounds, so phonics is in, too. And, there is a substantial body of work indicating the value of teaching word meaning (vocabulary), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. They all deserve some time within your schedule.

You can be a bit arbitrary in dividing the time across these categories. For instance, I group all the word skills—phonics, phonological awareness, sight vocabulary, meaning vocabulary—into a single set, and they share 25% of my ELA teaching time. That means kids would get a lot of decoding instruction early on, and less vocabulary support; but as they went through the grades they would get less and less phonics, and more and more focus on word meaning. Fluency, comprehension, and writing, would get the other portions of time.

Third, these categorical divisions then need to be expressed in terms of specific learning goals. Let’s say 15 minutes per day of the word time in my kindergarten this semester is focused on letter names and phonological awareness. My goal for the kids is to make sure they can recognize all the alphabet letters and can fully segment words (that is divide spoken words into all of their separate phonemes). Or, perhaps, the fluency goal this report-card-marking in second grade is to make sure students can read texts at 75 words correct per minute, with pausing that reflects the punctuation and meaning.

In reading comprehension my goal may be for students to be able to read and summarize 3 text pages without teacher input or support. Or perhaps I’d want them to be able to read a social studies chapter and explain the connections among the subsections.

Such goals do not have to be singular or simple. Either or both of these comprehension goals could be a point of focus of my lessons, or the teacher could emphasize additional—and very different—goals, like wanting students to develop a rich knowledge of their literary heritage. That means I could teach the above goals, and simultaneously expect kids to gain an understanding of the significance of a particular cast of characters or plot elements from fairy tales or Shakespeare.

None of these are activities. They are all measurable learning outcomes and my days should be organized around these kinds of goals.

Fourth, once I know what I am trying to accomplish, then I must select activities and texts consistent with those learning goals. Sometimes these choices will be highly constrained by the goal itself: if you want students to know the characters and plot of Romeo and Juliet, it is probably wise to focus heavily on that play. If you want kids to distinguish Little Red Riding Hood from the Wicked Stepmother, and the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs from the one who devours Grandma, then this probably dictates a Fairy Tales Unit.

In other cases, there are choices. Should the student read the selection in parts or all the way through? Will the teacher ask questions or will the students take over this role as in Book Club? Will the analysis be through discussion or writing? Will the phonics practice be synthetic (focusing on the individual sounds within words) or analytic (using known words as analogies)? Will students reread a fluency text a set number of times or until a particular performance criterion is met?

Such decisions should be shaped by research considerations and learning considerations—not routine. Research is pretty clear that students do better in decoding when taught systematically from a sequential program than when teachers try to be diagnostic and individualized. That likely means the phonics portion of primary grade reading instruction is best spent delivering lessons from a high quality phonics program. Or, studies show that oral reading fluency practice leads to the most learning when the texts are at students’ frustration levels. That means that having students read texts aloud to each other (partner reading) might be a good choice (though so is echo reading), but teachers should assign frustration level texts to either of these activities.

Last point: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require the teaching of all of the topics that I have mentioned in this entry. But CCSS does not specify how to organize time around that instruction. The plan put forth here should help teachers to consider the whole set of standards, not just particular activities (e.g., close reading).

Similarly, core reading programs (e.g., basal readers, literature anthologies), provide teachers with lots of texts and activities; usually more than can be delivered in a typical school schedule. This plan can help teachers to decide what to include and what to delete. Many teachers that I know routinely omit the writing activities. If writing outcomes were their focus 25% of the time, many of them would not make this bad decision. Or, teachers often complain that there are just too many decoding lessons. That may or may not be true, but if I had decided to devote 30 minutes a day to phonics teaching, I could determine pretty quickly what to omit and what to teach.

Next time I’ll explore issues of flexibility and the applicability of this scheme in upper grade levels, including high school. 

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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
March 13, 2014