Planning Effective Reading Instruction When You're Up to Your Neck in 6-Year-Olds - ASCD
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February 1, 2020

Planning Effective Reading Instruction When You're Up to Your Neck in 6-Year-Olds

If we want students to get the maximum from reading instruction, let's reconsider how we schedule and focus that instruction—rather than just trying to manage the day.

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Instructional Strategies
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These days there is a great deal of attention paid to improving reading achievement. Over the past few decades, federal and state governments have published extensive reviews of reading research, raised the standards for student reading achievement, stepped up reading assessment, and invested in a plethora of initiatives aimed at increasing professional development and improving curriculum. Despite these extensive efforts, our ability to improve early elementary reading achievement (at least as measured by the NAEP test) has been fitful at best; with some gains seen during the 1990s and early 2000s, but flat results over the past decade or so. What are we missing?

If educators are going to improve reading achievement on scale, we're going to need to have a bigger impact on the in-school learning experiences of children. No matter how sophisticated the new curriculum may be, it will not impact kids' learning if it is implemented in ways that dissipate the amount or quality of instruction. We need to consider how to organize school days more effectively, so they support increased literacy learning rather than undermine it. Here are some thoughts on how to do so.

Making Time for Literacy

Certainly, the first issue in scheduling daily instruction is the need to determine how much real estate to devote to each part of the curriculum. Studies have long shown the importance of the amount of instruction in a particular area (Connor et al., 2014).

When I was director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools in the early 2000s, I ordered 2–3 hours per day of reading and writing at all grade levels. My reasoning was that since we were trying to reach higher levels of literacy, we needed to invest more time in this area than we had traditionally. This is particularly imperative for students in high-poverty schools, who often don't have as many academic-learning opportunities outside of school as other students.

Oodles of reading and writing instruction would likely be a powerful stimulant to additional learning. Of course, the same argument could be made by advocates of all subjects. We might ask, if we increase literacy time, what about our children's needs in other subjects? I could make a good argument that later success in math, science, and social studies depends on students' literacy attainment, but I won't make that argument here. Those subjects matter, too.

However, when I take a hard look at the average school day, I'm not satisfied that it's used especially well. I think we could devote more hours to reading. The average elementary day is about 6.5 hours long (excluding lunch and recess). If teachers devote one hour to math, one hour to social studies/science, one to physical education and the arts, that leaves 3.5 hours per day for other instruction (Snyder, de Brey, & Dillow, 2019).

In that context, two to three hours a day for reading isn't as crazy as it might sound. If our purpose is to enable kids to reach a grade level or two higher in reading than same-age students in past years, per current standards (NGA Center for Best Practices and CCSSO, 2010), then that's what it's going to take. If we want to raise literacy achievement, we must increase the amount of reading and writing instruction we provide (just not so much that math, science, social studies, PE, or the arts are compromised or even disadvantaged).

I hesitate, however, to set a specific amount of time for literacy teaching because schools vary in the levels of performance of their entering students. Mandating that all schools devote the same amount of time to literacy teaching guarantees that certain kids will remain behind. More disadvantaged schools need to devote more time to reading so their students will have a fairer chance to catch up.

What Needs to Be Taught

Over the years, I've spent substantial amounts of time in classrooms as an observer, consultant, supervisor, and the like. I recently completed a major observational study that collected data from more than 1,000 classrooms on how teachers use instructional time.

I'm often told by teachers that their 90-minute reading block is bursting at the seams. There is so much to do. But when they describe their instruction, much of what they include appears to be optional. Their emphases are neither supported by research nor encouraged by state education standards. In other words, the daily curriculum isn't dominated by those things that confer learning advantages to kids, but by discretionary activities that may enrich a curriculum but should never supplant that curriculum—activities like free reading, cut-and-paste activities for phonics, or just reading to students.

Authoritative research reviews provide a lucid picture of those elements that make a difference in literacy learning (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Elementary-age students need to learn various foundational skills that will allow them to perceive phonemes, decode print to pronunciation and encode from pronunciation to spelling, and read text fluently (that is, to read accurately, with the speed of language, and proper expression).

Studies have also identified two major beneficial dimensions of reading comprehension instruction. One of these, comprehension strategies, teaches students various ways of thinking about ideas or how to pay attention when reading. Strategies like summarizing as you're reading, self-questioning, and monitoring comprehension have all been found to be advantageous to learning. These strategies guide students to read intentionally, to try to understand or remember texts; they are particularly helpful when texts are challenging.

Research has also found various ways that we can enhance readers' ability to handle various components of written language, thus aiding comprehension. These include teaching vocabulary and morphology, syntax or sentence grammar, cohesion, and discourse structure. There is clear evidence that teaching each of these elements leads to improved reading comprehension (Hattie, 2009; National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Finally, kids need to learn to write their own texts effectively (Graham & Hebert, 2010).

There may be other skills or abilities we could recommend in literacy instruction—but no skills beyond those just mentioned are supported by substantial research showing they deliver clear learning benefits for students. Unfortunately, in too many classrooms, teachers fail to provide instruction in some of these key components.

Given the perception that there's never enough time, I strongly encourage teachers to dedicate their daily schedule specifically to accomplishing demanding learning goals in each of these components. Although many schools do deliver some explicit instruction toward these outcomes, it's common for them to divert significant amounts of instructional time toward other, more personal or locally set goals like developing a "love of reading." The value of the activities usually devoted to such school-specific purposes for improving reading achievement is, in my view, dubious at best.

Plan by Purpose, Not by Activity

Teaching is difficult. It requires a clear mind, patience, knowledge, insight, and many other qualities and abilities. As with any especially challenging task, practitioners benefit from routinization; it helps to organize one's efforts in ways that reduce the amount of decision making required. Not surprisingly, systems for routinizing the school day and organizing it around set activities are popular with many teachers.

Such schemes sweep away a raft of unnecessary daily decisions. I think that explains the attraction to approaches like the Daily 5 (Boushay & Moser, 2014), which organizes ELA instruction around five specific activities. However, research reveals that many teachers struggle to stay goal oriented (Doyle, 1983). They often manage complexity by stressing activities (such as watching videos, doing silent reading time, plowing through worksheets) over specific learning outcomes in terms of skills students need. A variation on the old saw about swamps and alligators might be appropriate here: If you're up to your neck in 6-year-olds, it can be hard to remember that your purpose was to teach them to read.

No wonder research shows that when teachers have clear ideas of what they are trying to teach—and convey those purposes explicitly to students—the greatest learning accrues (Hattie, 2009). I can't make this point much clearer: Don't organize school days around teaching activities such as reading to kids, independent reading time, or conferencing. Instead, organize by purpose. We want kids to be able to decode, so dedicating time to working with letters, sounds, and spelling patterns makes sense. We want them to comprehend better, so setting aside time to do things that explicitly improve reading comprehension also makes sense. It's not that activities like conferencing or free reading are bad, only that focusing on activities rather than purposes blunts instructional effectiveness and limits a teacher's options for how to accomplish particular goals. Reading to kids, for instance, can be an effective way to build vocabulary; but it is not the only way, and often such reading takes more time than a teacher would be willing to devote to vocabulary building if her focus were on the goals and not the activity.

It makes little sense for a teacher to set aside time for 4th graders to read on their own before she has determined what she's trying to accomplish. Sometimes reading alone might be a great choice, but surely it isn't always the best one. Starting with a favorite activity, and then trying to find a goal that activity might fit may be a good way to fill a day, but it's not a powerful approach to teaching.

Preserve Flexibility

Educators often have strong "gut" notions about how a day should be organized, but these beliefs sometimes supplant scheduling approaches that would be more productive. One example of a flexibility-stealer is the widespread belief that since reading is so important, it must be taught in the morning, since supposedly kids learn much more in the a.m. than the p.m. Yet some research shows that kids as a group don't learn any better at certain times of the day (Pope, 2016). If there is learning variance across the hours of the school day, what leads to these differences (such as circadian rhythms, sleep schedules, or age) is decidedly complicated, and any impact of time of day on learning is certainly tiny and inconsistent.

The morning-only prejudice can have a sclerotic impact on scheduling, limiting the amount of reading instruction that can be given. If, for instance, all the teachers in a school are teaching reading at the same time (and any extra interventions for struggling readers need to happen during this morning "reading time"), then we'll either have to pull strugglers out of Tier 1 reading instruction for helpful interventions or we'll be unable to deliver needed interventions to these struggling readers. Kids are better served by more flexibility. Flexibility would help accommodate "specials," too. If my Tuesday morning is interrupted by a music class, for instance, it'd make sense to teach reading in whole or part after lunch on Tuesday.

I'm also not the biggest fan of the 90-minute reading block approach, both because that time is less than what primary grade teachers traditionally devoted to reading and because, again, it rigidifies the scheduling process.

When I was an administrator in the Chicago schools, our school day began at 9:00 a.m. When principals mandated a reading block from 9:00 until 11:00 a.m., this looked like they were hewing to my prescribed minimum time, but that wasn't the case. No one's school day really starts when the bell rings. Keeping kids on task for two solid hours isn't likely either, and students sometimes need to attend "specials" like art or physical education during the morning.

Imposing a consistent daily instructional block devoted to literacy sounds rigorous. But what would really be rigorous is if we maximized the amount of daily reading instruction—not worrying too much about when it was delivered or whether it all took place at the same time of day.

Let's face it, life in an elementary school can be hectic. There are innumerable interruptions: fire drills, assemblies, the child who gets sick mid-lesson. These and other disruptions drain instructional minutes from the day. Minutes lost from a block tend to be lost forever, whereas without the block-scheduling rigidity, teachers may replenish these lost reading-related minutes at some later time.

Rethink Small-Group Instruction

Requirements around small-group instruction can also create instructional scheduling problems. I visited a school district recently that mandated daily "small-group" reading instruction. They were correct that small-group teaching can be an especially effective way to teach (Foorman & Torgesen, 2001). But the choice for teachers isn't just whether to teach small groups or the whole class. Teachers are really choosing between two more fraught alternatives: (1) teaching students in small groups, which also means teachers likely do less instruction overall (and kids have more seatwork and independent learning time) versus (2) doing mainly whole-class teaching, which also means they do more teaching overall (and students have less seatwork and learning independently).

Imagine a 90-minute reading block with three small groups. Say the teacher uses 30 minutes of that time for whole-class instruction and teaches each of the small groups for 20 minutes daily. In the best of circumstances, these kids would get the especially effective small-group teaching for 20 minutes, but much of the benefits of that would be dissipated by the less effective seatwork and independent learning time these kids (and all kids in the class at various times) would be doing in order to accommodate their classmates' small-group time.

Given the value of small-group teaching—and the special needs of some students—I definitely would not want this arrow taken from my instructional quiver. But, likewise, I wouldn't dictate certain amounts of small-group instruction with the idea that this approach will improve teaching and learning. Smaller groupings of students are not as powerful pedagogically as is often assumed (Okkinga et al., 2018). Often the purpose of such groups is to have students work with books at their supposed "reading levels," a widely used approach, but one that has, according to research, consistently failed to deliver results (Shanahan, 2013).

Instead, small-group teaching should be done strategically. It makes sense to address the needs of a small group that has not done particularly well with a lesson, but it might not be as wise to deliver the original instruction that way. Small-group instruction mandates often lead to delivering identical lessons multiple times, an approach that is neither efficient nor effective. Rather than delivering the same lesson multiple times to different small groups, I'd suggest providing a greater amount of teaching to everyone and arranging a whole-class lesson in the most productive ways possible, with techniques like altering seating arrangements or streamlining procedures for calling on students.

Time Well Spent

No matter how rigorous a set of standards, or how deftly formed a curriculum, students' literacy learning is dependent on their daily classroom experiences. Teachers need to provide substantial amounts of daily literacy instruction focused on key areas of learning if kids are to reach the levels of performance that we hope for.


Boushay, G., & Moser, J. (2014). Daily 5: Fostering literacy in the elementary grades (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Connor, C. M, Spencer, M., Day, S. L., Giuliani, S., Ingebrand, S. W., McLean, L., 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.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53(2), 155–199.

Foorman, B. R., & Torgesen, J. (2001). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16(4), 203–212.

Graham, S., & Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London, UK: Routledge.

NGA (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices) & CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, D.C.: Author.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Okkinga, M., van Steensel, R., van Gelderen, A., van Schooten, E., Sleegers, P. J. C., & Arends, L. R. (2018). Effectiveness of reading-strategy interventions in whole classrooms: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(4), 1215–1239.

Pope, N. G. (2016). How the time of day affects productivity: Evidence from school schedules. Review of Economics and Statistics, 98(1), 1–11.

Shanahan, T. (2013). Letting the text take center stage. American Educator, 37(3), 4–11, 43.

Snyder, T. D., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S. A. (2019). Digest of education statistics 2017. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S.

Timothy Shanahan (; is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.

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