A Gallimaufry of Literacy Questions and Answers

  • 04 April, 2020

A Gallimaufry of Literacy Questions and Answers

Hello, Reading World! As with most of you, I’m sheltering in place… biding my time until the Great Pandemic Pandemonium subsides. Although despite being at what is currently an awkward (and apparently dangerous) age, I feel pretty safe locked down here in Chicago. Nevertheless, like all of you, I'm worried about family members who are on the front line in this fight, my students and colleagues, and all the people who are taking care of us. 

I’ve been traveling less but spending more time on Zoom and other telecommunications outlets. Talking to teachers I can’t see.

This week alone, I supposedly spoke to thousands of educators (I’m never sure I believe those numbers when I can’t look my audience in the eye).

Those online talks spawned a basket of questions, and much of Thursday was devoted to trying to answer some of them. Accordingly, this week instead of addressing a single literacy teaching topic, I’m providing an assortment of questions and answers dealing with amount of instruction, complex text, readability motivation, misbehavior, and so on.

Hope you find something useful in here and, please, be safe.

How early can you teach students in complex text?

There are good theoretical reasons not to place kids in “complex text” too early (though we have no data to go on with that). The thing that makes early texts complex for kids are the decoding demands. Making beginning reading texts complex means providing less phonemic regularity (making it harder to recognize patterns) and less repetition (which would reduce memory for words and patterns). That’s not a good idea when kids are first figuring out decoding. However, the studies are quite clear, by the time kids are in second grade, it is safe to move them to grade level texts instead of reading level texts at least for a portion of their teaching. Given that, I’d recommend complex text in Grade 2.

How much time should be spent on morphology and vocabulary in high school?

There are no data to go on with regard to the amount of time to spend on different aspects of reading with older students so I can’t give you a research-based answer to your question. However, as Director of Reading for the Chicago Public Schools where I was responsible for 90 high schools, I required our teachers to spend 30 minutes per day on that kind of word work (vocabulary, morphology, etc.) and another 30 minutes per day on oral reading fluency. Our teachers raised reading achievement markedly district wide, and unlike most reforms, our older students gained more than our younger ones.

How much phonics instruction should students do in the elementary grades?

I’ve been looking at the phonics studies that the National Reading Panel meta-analyzed. For the most part, these studies indicated that the students were getting 30 minutes per day of phonics (in a couple of instances it was 40 or 45 minutes). I think it is important for teachers to know that. Often, even when they have a phonics component in the reading program, phonics can get short shrift because the teacher glides through the lessons so quickly little is learned. Remember, the point isn’t just to teach some sounds and pronunciations, but to teach students to decode – that means engaging them in trying to recognize patterns or sound out words or spell words or to write accurately from teacher dictation. Those take time.

Our state says that teaching students at the instructional level is a research-based idea. Is it?

Of the studies that have directly tested the effects of teaching students to read with books at their “instructional level,” not one has found any benefit to the practice. There are several studies that have found no benefit to doing this and there are some that have found it to be harmful (that is, it reduces the students’ opportunity to learn). There is no set level at which texts need to be for students to learn from them, but if the texts are too easy (and traditional instructional level criteria are apparently too easy) learning is going to be limited. This has been found across a variety of grades from Grade 2 through high school and both with regular classroom students and learning-disabled students. When you are told that something is research-based you should ask which research they are referring to; you might be surprised that the citations will be for opinion pieces or studies that didn’t actually evaluate the effectiveness of the practice.

When we are selecting books for kids should we use qualitative or quantitative criteria?

If you are trying to find a text for a particular audience or grade level (such as following your state standards), I would definitely start with the quantitative measures. Those are scientifically derived prediction formulas that indicate who is most likely to be able to read the text with comprehension. Of course, there is error in any prediction, so if there are qualitative features of a text that would lead you to believe it is harder or easier than the prediction suggests you might either adjust the placement of that text or simply not use it for your intended purpose. Situations where a prediction might over- or under-rate a book might include things like frequent repetition of particularly rare words (one thinks of pandemic or coronavirus these days, a couple of words that might make a chapter appear like it would be very hard, when it probably wouldn’t be for today’s students).

You encourage the teaching of grade level text. Don’t you believe in differentiation of instruction?

You are thinking of differentiation in reading meaning that each student or each group works with a different book and that those books would be at different levels of difficulty. Instead of thinking of differentiation in terms of choosing different books, what if you had all of the third graders working with a single grade level text some of the time and varied what you did – the level of support that you provided. Some kids could probably read the book with reasonably high levels of comprehension and the teacher might have to do little more to facilitate this than to preteach a few vocabulary words and lead a discussion that focused kids’ attention on particular content issues. With some other kids, they might need to read it twice and the teacher might have to provide some specific support to help them to make sense of certain sentences, or to connect particular cohesive links, or to make use of the text structure. A third group might need all of those, plus some oral reading fluency work to ensure that they could read the words sufficiently well. There is more than one way to differentiate instruction.

What’s the right amount of time to devote to reading instruction? Our district requires a 90-minute block.

There is no research that has identified an optimum amount of time to spend on reading instruction at any grade level. As with your district, most schools I visit these days tend to be wedded to a 90-minute reading block. I’m not a big fan of that. For decades, surveys and observational studies usually reported that the average amount of time spent on reading instruction in the elementary grades was about 90 minutes (usually more than 90 minutes time in the primary grades, and less in the upper grades). If everyone spends that average 90-minute time, then first grade teachers must spend less time on reading than they have traditionally. While there is no optimum amount of reading instruction time, more is generally better than less, so 90 minutes might be a plus for fifth grade, but it is a impediment for first grade.

Should gifted readers be reading more challenging books?

This depends on whether you are trying to help gifted readers to increase their advantage and improve their reading or are just trying to engage them in practice while teaching everyone else. If you are trying to extend their abilities, then indeed, I would recommend putting them in books that would give them an opportunity for exposure to language, content, and text features that they haven’t already mastered.

Why do you think students would learn more from harder books?

The reason why students learn more from harder than easier texts is that there is more opportunity to learn. When you place students in a book that they are already comfortable reading there is little for them to learn… they can already recognize most of the words, they can understand a substantial amount of the text without teacher support. That doesn’t allow much opportunity for learning. When I have to take on a text that I can’t already read well, there is a possibility of growth. One interesting study (Powell & Dunkeld, 1971) done with second graders found that the kids who made the greatest gains during the year had started in books that they could read with about 80-85% accuracy (much lower than the 95-98% recommended as an instructional level) and with lower than 50% comprehension (again, much lower than the 75-89% recommended). Opportunity to learn is important.

I don’t see how kids can learn anything from books they can’t read. Why do you think that makes sense? 

Placing students in challenging text creates an opportunity to learn since such texts will include content, language, and text features that the students haven’t yet mastered. But the text only creates an opportunity. That’s where teaching comes in. The teacher needs to know the text and what is likely to be challenging and needs to monitor the students to see what trips them up (and you teach the students to negotiate those barriers).

If you teach with frustration level texts, won’t the students get frustrated and misbehave?

This has long been claimed, but there is only one study of it. Linda Gambrell and her colleagues conducted classroom observations in primary grade classrooms and found that, indeed, certain students did misbehave during silent reading time, and they were the worst readers in what were relative to their abilities the hardest books (just what you expected). Gambrell and company then intervened; they adjusted these children’s book placements so that they would no longer be in frustration level texts. and saw zero improvement (it wasn’t the text levels that was leading to the misbehavior). The outcome? No improvement in their classroom behavior; it wasn’t book placement that was the culprit.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Hanora Broderick Apr 04, 2020 05:45 PM

What views do you have on digital programs that teach and practice phonics? I’m thinking of programs such as Lexia, Amplify Reading and eSPIRE but there’s a plethora of them out there.
Thank you,

Timothy Shanahan Apr 04, 2020 05:55 PM


I don't know many of those programs. Some of them have positive research support indicating that they can be made to work. I would suggest looking up specific programs of that type in the What Works Clearinghouse database to see which.


kate Collins-Carney Apr 04, 2020 06:05 PM

I am a high school teacher of refugee students who are not literate in their 1st language. What advice or suggestions do you have for teaching them to read?

Zach W. Apr 04, 2020 06:08 PM

I wonder what you think of the Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) program. One of the features of PALS is that higher performing students are paired with lower performing students and they engage in partner reading using texts at the instructional level of the lower performing reader. PALS is considered an evidence-based program. Do you think instructional level text has a place when students are working in pairs like this?

Ann Leon Apr 04, 2020 06:08 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
This is the first time I'm leaving a comment on your blogs, because I felt compelled to thank you for taking on the myriad of questions that seemed to challenge what the reading research has been saying all along. My guess is that most of these questions followed your recent presentation on SAP's webinar on "Comparing Reading Research to Program Design: An Examination of Teachers College Units of Study", which is totally relevant to the instruction of reading. I plan to read the report as well.

Most of your responses here sum up to: 1) many state "mandates" are not related to what the science of reading indicates students need to learn. 2) Leveled book placement does not teach children. Teachers teach students. Teachers have to know how to navigate students through the barriers to provide opportunities to learn. 3) Your answer to differentiated instruction is another breath of fresh air to expose the mainstream misconception of differentiation. Jan Hasbrouck also addressed the same misconception: do not differentiate the text (lower the content), but differentiate the instruction. This is more difficult to execute because it's about adjusting the instruction - not the book.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Your responses provide the rationale to the direction and guidance I provide as a literacy consultant to teachers, schools, and districts. I look forward to seeing your blog notifications appear in my in-box.

Carrie Andalman Apr 04, 2020 06:36 PM

I agree that limiting your teaching to only using instructional level books is limiting and can be detrimental. Far too often, I have seen really curious kids who struggle to read lose their motivation because we limit their exposure to texts that fall in their instructional reading level. It squelches the joy in reading to be told that something is off limits because it is "too hard."

On the other hand, there are limits to what you can successfully teach a struggling read with a text that is too challenging. Having kids read text that is too difficult can be harmful to their reading because it can promote ineffective reading behaviors like looking at the picture, skipping lines, or completely guessing words. If a child is reading a book with 85% accuracy, isn't it kind of like biting off more than you can chew? Is there any more recent research on this topic? Thanks for posting something that is so thought-provoking and important to the practice of teaching reading.

Judy O'Halloran Apr 04, 2020 07:04 PM

Remember, the point isn’t just to teach some sounds and pronunciations, but to teach students to decode – that means engaging them in trying to recognize patterns or sound out words or spell words or to write accurately from teacher dictation. Those take time.

Exactly! If a teacher spends 30 minutes teaching "phonics" by having students 'decode' words one letter at a time, it is not only a waste of time, it will be proof for the nay-sayers that phonics doesn't work. If one uses one letter/one sound correspondence, then the word 'eight' will never be sounded out correctly. (Thus explaining why 220 sight words are necessary!). However, when teachers use an Orton-Gillingham approach, and students learn that "'eigh' says a," they can easily blend the TWO sounds and read eight.

Likewise, drilling 'word families' is also a flawed strategy. If all the student encounters is "The fat cat sat on a mat," it works. But whAT if that fAT cAT went in the wATer on a boAT with fATher? This is especially detrimental to students who, for instance, have Down syndrome. These students, typically, once drilled and drilled and drilled on a certain pattern, will repeat that pattern without discrimination. How unfair is that???

Aliv Faizal M Apr 04, 2020 09:45 PM

It's a great opportunity that I am finally able to Interact with Shanahan online. When I was in college, about 12 years ayo, I read much of your articles. They are about reading writing connection. My college final project was about improving students' writing ability through reading activities.

Now, I am teaching in a politechnics. It's PENS, the #1 politechnics in Indonesia. I found it difficult to implement reading writing strategis in my classes. I am teaching English for specific purposes. May it be that English is only a supplementary subject here? Or may be because they are too busy creating robot?

Thank you

Missy Kowalchyk Apr 05, 2020 03:34 PM

Hello Tim,
I am the middle school reading interventionist/specialist for my district. I am wondering if you can speak more to what 30 minutes per day on oral reading fluency or simply oral reading fluency looks like and should hope to gain at the middle and high school level. If you have any further reading on this practice, I would be quite appreciative of getting my hands on those materials! Thanks so much!!!

Gilbert Haisman Apr 05, 2020 10:18 PM

I am a former adviser in Reading Across the Curriculum in New Zealand high schools (albeit somewhat badly trained thanks to Frank Smith's lingering heyday) and, later, I spent 20 part-time years as a university teacher of academic writing.
I would love your response to my belief that “fill the blanks” note-making?despite being perilously close to the sort of dumbed-down keep-busy work that can calm down adolescents and create illusions of progress?can scaffold some of the analytical thinking needed to read and produce complex texts (aka notes) at levels of intellectual challenge higher than most students can manage if unaided. I am writing a book on content teaching that includes this hypothesis.
Your readers might like to imagine, for example, asking 101-level undergraduates to summarize key points in a Steven Pinker commentary on the human condition written for, say, the New York Times. Common experience tells us that the resultant writing would, in too many cases, be a disorganized shambles strewn with basic errors of content, reasoning, grammar, spelling and punctuation, plus ample evidence (especially misconceptions) of poor reading comprehension, much of it due to weak prior knowledge of the subject and terminology.
My experience (plus wishful thinking based on bold extrapolations from ideas in the learning-related sciences) suggests that almost all students would do better if the initial note-making was guided by the following:

Pinker’s view of the current world disorder seems to be that humanity is thriving its way to possible extinction: thriving because longevity has increased dramatically in almost all nations, and because …………….. , …………………, and ………….. …………….. ; and headed for possible extinction because of existential threats that include …………………, ……………….. and …………………….

Umpteen variations on that and many other syntactical-type frames are widely available and easily-created, and can be dovetailed into a rich mix of other procedures, and progressively withdrawn. Still, the processing needed to fill the gaps is often, in itself, quite shallow. Like, one could analyze the Jabberwocky poem helped by a sentence such as “Slithy toves are known to be capable of ……… and ………. in the wabe, an ecological context that includes other phenomena that include . ……………. ……………, and ……………..” Similarly, meaningless procedures could help novices complete correct sentences about, say, neuroscience, but with little or no comprehension.
One positive comment I can offer is that greater time on task is not a potential to be left unexamined. A large, stimulating and sustained but way-less-than rigorous study of my own found that almost all of some 400 leading content teachers in high schools in New Zealand self-reported that the technique was great for getting adolescents to work happily and at length, that their peer assistance was far less vulnerable to conversational drift, and that their grades improved, especially among low-ability kids. There was also enthusiastic support for the way the technique can result in notes whose content looks (a carefully-chosen word) impressively accurate, and which display cause-and-effect and other reasoning rather well. Even the punctuation can be (wow!) not too bad. Still, feelings and appearances have a habit deceiving us, and I know of no experimental evidence for or against this line of thinking.
Thanks for responding! And, btw, your blog is fantastic. Thank you so much for it. Best wishes for your current covid-defying work.
Gilbert Haisman

Frank Apr 06, 2020 06:16 PM

Some clarification on this question: "How much time should be spent on morphology and vocabulary in high school?" Did the 30 minutes on vocabulary and 30 minutes on oral reading fluency happen just in their ELA class or was it spread across all subjects? Also, was the high school ELA class 90 minutes? Finally, how did you have them do the oral reading fluency practice at the high school level?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 07, 2020 02:58 AM


The 30 minutes was across departments... might be better to think of it as 2.5 hours per week... what will the science department contribute to that? how about social studies? etc.


Lynn Goodnough Apr 08, 2020 01:10 PM

Love the title of today's blog. What might 30 minutes of oral reading fluency look like at the high school level? I agree with the point you make frequently when answering questions: we must know the purpose of what we are trying to accomplish in order to pick out the right texts for our students. Thank you.

Christy Feldman Apr 13, 2020 06:01 PM

Thank you for this!!! Quick sound bites that make complete and total sense. Now if you could just come and convince all my teachers of them... Especially the instructional level piece. Just can't get them to use the hard text in their small groups and the leveled text for independent work. Someday...

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A Gallimaufry of Literacy Questions and Answers


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.