Monday, October 10, 2016

An Argument about Independent Reading Time During the School Day

Last week I answered a teacher’s question about free reading time during the school day and its relationship to reading motivation (e.g., making kids like reading). I pointed out that such reading time has a rather weak relationship with learning (various kinds of instruction exert about an 800% greater influence on learning than on having kids reading on their own during the school day) and that the connection with motivation appears to be even more tenuous. I then compared the DEAR/SSR practice unfavorably with theories and research on what motivates human beings.
Not surprisingly that generated much comment. Although the following was not sent to me, it was so addressed and posted at the blog site of Gwen Flaskamp, a practicing teacher. She is evidently passionate about this practice, and I think her posting deserves a response. I have quoted liberally from her posting below in italics—and have interspersed my responses throughout. To read her complete statement in its entirety, please follow this link Blog Post on Independent Reading Time

Flaskamp blog:

“My Letter to Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

“Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful. Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece…. I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day. Thus, I crafted this letter. I'm hoping he reads it.  

“But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

“Dear Mr. Shanahan,

“I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one. You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

“You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small. By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

“Some major problems exist with this claim.

“Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously. Those who score at the lower end usually read less.”

Shanahan response:

Dear Ms. Flaskamp.,
Thanks for writing. There are several problems with your claims up to this point.
That good readers read more than poor readers is true, but has no bearing on my response to that teacher’s question. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. That good readers read more does not mean that it was reading more that made them good readers. Maybe good readers choose to read more because they can do it well. You are making a good argument for teaching everyone to read well, not for sending kids off to read on their own during the school day.
You are citing very selectively here. You refer to the correlational studies that can’t answer the question, while ignoring the experimental ones that have directly tested your theory. Studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets!
You seem to be claiming that since reading on one’s own leads to improved achievement--then any and all approaches to encouraging reading must be effective. Following that logic, then telling kids to read on their own, buying books for them, rewarding them with pizzas, or employing electric cattle prods… all must work, too. Remember I wasn’t saying kids shouldn’t read, only that requiring “independent reading” during the school day has not been effective. Only one study bothered to check its impact on amount of reading, and it found that middle school kids read less as a result of the practice—since it reduced the amount of reading they did on their own.
As a parent and grandparent, I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than “viscerally” to questions about instructional practices. Similarly, I hope my physician will be visceral about my health and well-being, but not about his pills and scalpels.

Flaskamp blog:

“Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?”   

Shanahan response:

Indeed, that is a great question. Given that we know this method hasn’t improved achievement or made kids like reading, then why cling so tightly to it? Or, given that DEAR time has been so ubiquitous in elementary classrooms for the past generation, how is it possible that middle school students are reading so little? If this practice so powerfully fosters “a love of reading” among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?

 Flaskamp blog:
“I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning. Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.”

Shanahan response: 

That makes sense to me, and yet studies show that this particular approach accomplishes neither. That might mean that what you are so certain must be motivational for all kids, maybe isn’t.      


Flaskamp blog:  

“You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning." This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy. Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning. Can we not focus on both?...” 

 Shanahan response: 

Your analysis of my argument is flawed. We are in agreement that we can focus on motivation and learning simultaneously. Where we disagree is whether you can do that with a procedure that has failed to successfully foster either motivation or learning.


Flaskamp blog: 

“Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots?”

Shanahan response:  

Yikes. There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. If that is a model of what is now being taught students about productive argument, then it might be better that kids go read during such lessons. (Sometimes disagreements arise from different analyses or  different evidence—not necessarily because the one you are arguing with is bad.)

Richardson TX Powerpoint on Writing October 17, 2016

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Does Independent Reading Time During the School Day Create Lifelong Readers

Teacher question:
You have attacked DEAR time [Drop Everything and Read] because you say it does little to raise reading achievement. But what about having kids read on their own as a way to motivate them to be readers? As a teacher I want my kids to be lifelong readers so I provide 20 minutes of daily independent reading time. What do you think?

Shanahan response: 
     I think you sound like a nice teacher, but perhaps an ineffective one.

     As you remind me, the effects of DEAR, SSR, SQUIRT or any of the other “independent reading time” schemes are tiny when it comes to reading achievement. Many of those studies have not been particularly well done, but even when they have been the learning payoffs have been rather small.

     Surprising to me is that it has even been true with that kind of summer reading program—when the reading clearly isn’t replacing other academic procedures. James Kim has studied that kind of thing a lot and while he concludes that some very small learning benefits can be derived from such programs, he has had a lot of difficulty obtaining even that result from study to study.

     Unfortunately, the motivational impact of such procedures has been studied less—and with even less payoff. In my experience, the better readers enjoy the free reading time—so they continue to like reading even within the DEAR time framework—but the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well. Yikes!

     I definitely understand the logic that you are working with—I shared it when I was a classroom teacher. The idea that kids practicing independent reading would make them want to be independent readers in the future is compelling. But when you think deeply about the practice, its problems become more evident.
     How do kids interpret our approach? What determines whether reading is independent—as opposed to just being another classroom assignment?

1. Whether the reading is going to be done or not.
     If the teacher makes me read for the next half hour, that doesn’t seem very “independent.” She might let me choose the text I read, but what if I’d rather not read at all or would prefer reading during math? Now that would be independent. Required reading time—even when it does not include teaching or other teacher involvement—is not inherently motivational. Making somebody do something may accomplish compliance, but it won’t make him/her like it. (As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take a bath.)

2. Whether the reader picks the text.
     This one is a bit easier. In fact, many experts talk about “self selected” reading rather than independent reading, since that is usually the only real choice students are allowed in these routines. Lots of times the unmotivated kids still can’t find anything they want to read, and, of course, there are complications. Many teachers/schools constrain these “free choices,” like only allowing students to read books at particular levels (a la Accelerated Reader). If I can choose only books with blue dots, then I’m not really choosing; and if I’m not particularly interested in reading about any topic, then choice is not a motivator. (Someone I know is fascinated with tennis. I once bought him a book about tennis sure he’d love it. Instead he was a real pill: “I love playing tennis, not reading about it.” There is an important motivational lesson there.)   

3. How accountable is the reading? Do I have to answer the teachers’ questions? Or write a summary to be evaluated? Or read a segment aloud so the teacher can check on my fluency? Or discuss this with the book club group and not look like an idiot?

     As it became obvious and research accumulated showing the lack of learning from unaccountable reading (e.g., DEAR, SSR), teachers started adopting procedures for conferencing with kids about their books. In other words, we try to make independent reading more like reading lessons—we’ll set the level of the text and you have to prove you read the material and understood it; not exactly how free choice activity works. My point isn’t that this kind of accountability is bad—I suspect it makes “independent reading” more like instructional reading in its payoff, but let’s face it, it is no longer the independent motivational choice that we started with.

     Given all of that, the initial logic doesn’t seem as smart as it did on first blush. What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire. But neither is being sent off on one’s own to do something on their own. Nor is doing something that doesn’t give us any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. If you are a low reader or a beginning reader, how would you get success out of such activity?

     If you want kids to love reading, set up opportunities for kids to work together and with you around books. If you want them to be lifelong readers, work with them to encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school. If you want them to care about books, give them a chance to take on books that might be too hard for them. Give them ways to gain social rewards for using the knowledge that they gain from such reading.

     If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning. Or, use reading to isolate kids. Or, treat instructional methodology (asking kids questions in individual conferences instead of in group or class) as a motivator.

     Sadly, research doesn’t provide us with methods proven to increase the likelihood kids will become lifelong readers. But it does give us insights into what does motivate people. SSR and DEAR do not match well with those insights.

     I appreciate how much you evidently care for your students. I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Doug Lemov Interviews Tim Shanahan

          Usually these blog entries are replies to educators questions. Recently Doug Lemov interviewed me about reading instruction and posted it on his blog. We got into issues like reading strategy instruction, vocabulary assessment, close reading, and guided reading. Many of you know Doug's books, Teach Like a Champion and Reading Revisited. I was honored to talk to him and this will serve as a good introduction to Doug and his site as well as to useful info about these hot literacy topics.

Teach Like A Champion/

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why How Many Minutes of Teaching Something Isn't the First Thing to Ask of Research

I am now director of literacy in my district. I am advocating for interactive read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and similar activities in our primary grades (K-3). Is there a research base that would allow me to determine how many minutes of these activities I should prescribe? Could you provide me with a copy of that research?

Shanahan response:
Yikes, Madam, I suspect that your cart has gotten before your horse.

If research says a particular activity provides kids with a clear learning benefit, then wondering how much of a good thing is appropriate is a smart question, and one not asked often enough. But before you get there, you should first ask: Does the research show that these activities are beneficial at all?

I assume by “interactive read alouds” and “shared reading” that you want your primary grade teachers reading texts aloud to kids in a dialogic manner… that is interspersing and following up these read alouds with questions and discussion.

I am a big fan of reading to kids (did so every day I taught school and read a huge amount to my own kids). But I’m also a big fan of teaching kids to read, and while these two propositions are not contradictory, they are not the same either.

Research on reading aloud to preschoolers and kindergartners is quite supportive (Bus, & van IJzendoorn, 1995; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Scarborough, & Dobrich, 1994), though none of those studies show any impact on reading achievement. In fact, it is rare that shared reading studies even attempt to measure reading. That should not be surprising given the children’s ages, but it should give pause to those who want to prescribe shared reading in grades 1-3, at least if improved reading achievement is the purpose.

The NELP meta-analyses, the most rigorous and recent of the three, should provide a clear picture of what is known. It found that across 16 studies, reading aloud to young kids led to clear improvements in oral language (mainly better receptive vocabulary—a measure not closely aligned to reading achievement during the primary grade years), and across 4 studies, it led to improvements in print awareness (like recognizing proper directionality). That’s it.

Studies of shared reading with kids in Grades 1 to 3 have been rare, but what is there is not particularly promising. Studies generally report no benefits with regard to reading achievement (e.g., Baker, Mackler, Sonneschein, & Serpell, 2001; Senechal, & Young, 2008). Replacing reading instruction with teacher read alouds is simply not a good idea in the primary grades.

(Note: I mentioned that I have always read a lot to kids, and I’d continue to do so if in the classroom today. But not because I purport that it improves reading. It is a way of building relationships between the reader and listener, for setting a tone in a classroom environment, and for exposing students to aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating language and ideas.)

The same could be said about “guided reading,” but here it depends greatly upon what one means by the term. It was originally coined by basal reader publishers to describe their lesson plans; I think Dick and Jane got there first, but by the 1950s several programs had “guided reading” lessons or “directed reading” lessons. However, these days due to the popularity of Fountas & Pinnell’s practical advice many think of guided reading as small group instruction or teaching students to read with texts at “their levels.” I would give different amounts for these two very different practices.

Essentially, guided reading has long meant that kids were going to read a story, chapter, or article under teacher supervision. For instance, the teacher might preteach some of the vocabulary to ease the children’s way. Reading purposes might be set (“read to find out what this family did on their vacation”), and questions might be asked at key points.

I cannot imagine teaching reading without some kind of guided reading practice, but we don’t have studies of the general practice.

Of course, some guided reading features have been studied. We know something about the kinds of questions that are most productive, and preteaching of vocabulary gets good marks.

However, for those to whom guided reading refers to grouping kids by reading levels, I would suggest reading up on the impact of such practices. Teaching kids grouped by reading level has been ineffective in improving reading achievement and damaging in terms of equity (Gamoran, 1992).

So, if you are asking how many minutes teachers should guide kids in the reading of stories or social studies chapters, I don’t have a research-based answer. It seems clear that such practices can be beneficial, but any guidance on amount would have to be practical rather than empirical.

But if you are asking about how much of this kind of reading should be done in reading level groups, then the answer would be as little as possible given the lack of benefit and potential damage of the practice.

Your question about how many minutes is a good one. Educators too rarely interrogate the research to find out how much of something is worth doing.

But, before you can get to that question, you need to ask whether a practice is really a good one in the first place. This is especially important if you prefer a practice, since such affection can elbow aside evidence. ‘

If you are truly dedicated to following evidence, rather than using it as a cudgel to get teachers to adopt your preferred practices, then you should be wary of mandating these specific approaches.


Baker, L., Mackler, K., Sonneschein, S., & Serpell, R. (2001). Parents’ interactions with their first-grade children during storybook reading and relations with subsequent home reading activity and reading achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 39, 415-438.

Bus, A.G., & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65, 1-21.

Gamoran, A. (1992). Untracking for equity. Educational Leadership, 50, 11-17.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Scarborough, H.S., & Dobrich, W. (1994). On the efficacy of reading to preschoolers. Developmental Review, 14, 145-302.

Senechal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children’s Acquisition of Reading From Kindergarten to Grade 3: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 880-907.