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Teacher question: I saw you speak recently and you mentioned a few times that schools of high needs should receive more reading instruction compared to schools of low needs. Were you basing your comments on research or your opinion? Our buildings of high needs students receive fewer instructional reading minutes due to everyone wanting to get a piece of the student for their services (e.g., math needs, reading needs, social skills, specialty school curriculum).

Shanahan’s response:

There are no studies that reveal the amount of reading instruction that is necessary or sufficient to teach reading effectively to students at different levels of performance. However, there is an extensive body of literature showing the importance of amount of instruction in reading achievement (e.g., Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Denton, Foorman, & Mathes, 2003; Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliave, et al., 2015; Hoffman, 1991; Kent, Wanzek, & Al Otaiba, 2017; KIesling, 1977-1978; Puma, Darweit, Price, Ricciuti, et al., 1997; Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 2000; Weber, 1971).

The amount of instruction construct are being added. Recent findings are finding that all instruction is not equally potent. More time for certain teaching activities has a bigger payoff. And, this is also true when it comes to specific needs students have. If kids are struggling with decoding, for instance, devoting more instructional time to reading comprehension won’t be as likely to lead to big learning gains as more appropriately targeted instruction would (Connor, Spencer, Day, Giuliani, et al., 2014; Sonnenschein, Stapleton, & Benson, 2010).

The original impetus for this emphasis on time was a theory proposed by John Carroll in 1963. He suggested that we think of aptitude not as an IQ score or something like that, but as an amount of time one would need to learn something. He came up with an equation that included the amount of time that a particular student might need to learn something and the actual opportunity to learn that we were willing to provide, along with the student’s persistence (how much time he or she would be willing to work at it). I suspect the children that you work with need more learning time than average kids, so providing less time than average is sure to end in failure. 

More teaching leads to more learning — as long as the instruction is appropriate and everyone is paying attention. And, some kids — due to nature or nurture — require more time. 

When I was a school district administrator, I never made a decision without considering amount of teaching. When directed to implement some policy or to consider a policy direction, I always asked: Will this increase the amount of teaching our students will get? If the answer was yes, then whatever the action, I was for it. And, if it was going to reduce the amount of teaching, then I was adamantly opposed.

That should be every school administrators’ watchword.

Amount of teaching has a big impact on school achievement, and it is a major resource that you can control.

Your situation is a little different, of course. Your kids are lagging pretty much in all areas. Amount of instruction matters in reading, but it matters with other subjects and areas of development, too (e.g., Walberg, Harnish, & Tsai, 1986). If you try to escalate the amount of reading instruction, this likely will come at the expense of instruction in some other area.

Some of this tradeoff might be made up for by focusing reading lessons on content texts, but there are limits to that. A comprehension lesson can easily include science or social studies content, but a phonics lesson not so much.

Reading is important, but it isn’t the only thing that matters in student development. Your team needs to get together to set priorities, so that the areas of greatest need (and potential value) get the greatest time allotments. And, keep looking for ways of expanding the amounts of instruction that will be made available to these needy students.


Bentum, K.E., & Aaron, P.G. (2003). Does reading instruction in learning disability resource rooms really work?: A longitudinal study. Reading Psychology, 24(3-4), 361-382.  

Bryk, A.S., & Schneider, B. (2002).  Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage, NY.

Connor, C.M., Spencer, M., Day, S.L., Giuliani, S. et al. (2014). Capturing the complexity: Content, type, and amount of instruction and quality of the classroom learning environment synergistically predict third graders’ vocabulary and reading comprehension outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 762-778.

Denton, C., Foorman, B.R., & Mathes, P.G. (2003). Schools that “Beat the Odds”: Implications for reading instruction. Remedial and Special Education, 24, 258-261.

Fielding, L., Kerr, N., & Rosier, P. (2007). Annual growth for all students…Catch-up growth for those who are behind. Kennewick, WA: New Foundation Press.

Fisher, C., Berliner, D., Filby, N., Marliave, R., et al. (2015). Teaching behaviors, academic learning time, and student achievement: An overview. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 50(1), 6-24.

Hoffman, J.V. (1991). Teacher and school effects in learning to read. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (vol. 2, pp. 911-950). New York: Longman.

Kent, S.C., Wanzek, J., & Al Otaiba, S. (2017). Reading instruction for fourth-grade struggling readers and the relation to student outcomes. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 33(5), 395-411.

Kiesling, H. (1977-1978). Productivity of instructional time by mode of instruction for students at varying levels of reading skill. Reading Research Quarterly, 13(4), 554-582.

Puma, M.J., Darweit, N., Price, C., Ricciuti, A., et al., (1997). Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Planning and Evaluating Service. 

Shanahan, T., & Walberg, H.J. (1985). Productive influences on high school student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 78(6), 357-363.

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(20, 358-389.

Taylor, B.M., Pearson, P.D., Clark, K., & Walpole, S. (2000). Effective schools and accomplished teachers: Lessons about primary-grade reading instruction in low-income schools. Elementary School Journal, 101 (2000), pp. 121-165.

Walberg, H.J., Harnisch, D.L., & Tsai, S. (1986). Elementary school mathematics productivity in twelve countries. British Educational Research Journal, 12(3), 237-248.

Weber, G. (1971). Inner-city children can be taught to read: Four successful schools (CGE Occasional Paper No. 18). Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.


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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
December 10, 2018