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