An Argument about Independent Reading Time During the School Day

  • alphabet amount of instruction amount of reading
  • 10 October, 2016

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.)


See what others have to say about this topic.

Farrell Sharkey Mar 24, 2017 05:53 PM

Hi Tim,

I'm in the thick of the research surrounding the value of in class independent reading and am struggling to make sense of conflicting findings. I would love to know your take on the finding's of Stephen Krashen from The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research and his blog post in response to yours: I'm assuming you disagree with his findings or methods and would love to know why.

I'd also love to know if you've looked at research on more supportive independent reading - not simply SSR or DEAR but IR that includes the teacher conferring or pulling skill groups to provide additional skill based or comprehension instruction, support with book choice or reading habits, or accompanied by a minilesson and output ala readers workshop. Do you reject ALL independent reading as a poor use of time during the instructional day, or find value in more supportive independent reading (accompanied by other types of instruction such as work in complex texts, interactive read aloud, etc.)


Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 06:51 PM

I'm cautious about Krashen's work on this because so often I have found it to be misleading. He does not separate out correlational studies and experimental studies (thus, he makes a big deal out of the fact that better readers read better, but sets it aside when experimental work doesn't find increasing independent reading improves achievement), he throws together first language research and second language research (studies have found that independent reading time in a second language is helpful in learning that language, but that has generally not been the case with first language research), and he tends to be selective (cherry-picking studies that seem supportive of his claims). That's all problematic and potentially misleading.

I know of no studies on the practices that you talk about, which is interesting in its own right. What I find is that the more like school reading an independent reading practice is, the more likely it will lead to reading achievement gains. Thus, when teachers guide the text selection, provide supports to the reader, holds the reader accountable for comprehension, etc., the better kids read. But, of course, as each of those things is done, the less like independent reading the practice is.

Kids need to read in school, but they will make bigger gains if that text is challenging enough to teach kids something--and if there is enough support and guidance to help kids to learn from it. I've argue for spending substantial amounts of time in science, social studies, reading comprehension etc. with kids reading. I also think teachers can encourage kids to read on their own beyond their school day.



Anonymous Apr 05, 2017 06:54 PM

I am glad to see a further response in regards to your original blog. In sharing with my grad students, it got some of the same reactions as this person. As someone's whose day job is to work with students who are struggling in learning how to be efficient and successful readers, I have witnessed how ineffective this practice is (along with seeing what it did to my own son many many years ago).

I have never seen my own children or my students love something because I forced them to do it...I have seen them grow to love learning when I fostered something that they themselves wanted to learn...I have talked to children about what they thought about independent reading time and to be honest, most have not been too keen on it. Why? Because they think its a waste of time...of course, they are not the most proficient readers so for them, its not fun being forced to do something they aren't really good at anyway.

When I was in the classroom, I tried to foster the magic of reading by doing a lot more read aloud to my young students. I choose books and series that could bring things alive for them and hoped that they would want to read because of how much I loved reading to them. I knew that I was being somewhat successful when I saw some of those same books being brought back from their library class.

So, thank you for making us think about our instructional practices and being honest about what does and does not happen during these times. As you said, just because we want kids to love reading, doesn't mean forcing them to is the best way to go about doing it! 10/10/16

Anonymous Apr 05, 2017 06:55 PM

I have read all the posts and responses on independent reading time. I am writing to ask for some clarification. I do not have my student do DEAR time. However, our district mandates the Reader's Workshop approach for reading instruction (I am assuming you are well versed in the Reader's Workshop approach). We do not have a basal series, so my 2nd graders are reading books they have chosen. We start with the mini-lesson which has a very clear direct teaching point with learning target. After the mini-lesson, the students are to go back to their seats and read their books independently with a purpose. They are working on the learning target. During this time, I am meeting with groups for guided reading instruction. Then there is partner time and sharing out time. My question to you is, do you lump this independent reading during workshop in the same category with DEAR/SSR time? If so, then how would you structure this reading time? I would like to hear your opinion on this topic. Thank you so much! 10/11/17

Peggy Semingson Apr 05, 2017 06:56 PM

I enjoyed reading the response from Tim! When I was a reading specialist in the public schools (I am currently a literacy professor) I also have found value in assisted reading (hearing text on audio while reading at the right level of text) to help students who faced challenges in reading! -Peggy Semingson 10/11/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 06:56 PM

I would not count that as SSR. Although reader's workshop has been around a long time there is no research evidence on it at all.


Anonymous Apr 05, 2017 06:57 PM

Perhaps you did not yet see Steve Krashen's response link on Twitter...


Anonymous Apr 05, 2017 06:57 PM

What are your thoughts on the research done by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher? They advocate choice reading for students and having the majority of your class time with those students dedicated to independent reading.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 06:58 PM

Neither Penny Kittle or Kelly Gallagher conduct research. Research entails the collection and analysis of data. That's not their thing apparently. 10/11/2016

Elizabeth Lietz Apr 05, 2017 06:58 PM

Mr. Shanahan, if you do not consider these authors 'researchers', do you dispute the research cited in Kittle's and Gallagher's books on reading (such as Book Love and Readicide)?

Sandra Otley Apr 05, 2017 06:59 PM

Mr. Shanahan,

Thank you so much for your blog. I was one who did DEAR time and from my own conclusion, I totally agree with you. I found I spent much of the DEAR time trying to motivate some of my students to read. My low readers were always just skimming through books and not actually reading. So I changed up what we do at DEAR time. We still call it DEAR time, but now my students are independently reading from a text or passage I have assigned and everyone is reading they same thing. We use this book or passage during group instruction, reading responses, and as a vehicle for learning reading strategies. As they read they have reading journals to write constructed responses, etc. This is only a 15-minute block of my day. I go around the room and check in with each student during this time, so it gives me time to know my students one-on-one, because the others are reading. I find that since my students are all reading the same text, I can easier differentiate my instruction, both for the high achieving students and the low. Everyone benefits and I no longer have students skimming the text, because they know they will be accountable for what they are reading. Thanks for reinforcing through your blog and research what I already have experienced in my own classroom.


Aimee Apr 05, 2017 06:59 PM

This comment is unprofessional. 10/11/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 07:01 PM

It is not just I who don't consider Kittle or Gallagher to be researcher... they themselves make no such claims. I have conducted a quick scan of the scientific literature and can find NO research on Book Love or Readicide, so not sure what studies they (or you) might be alluding to.

Something that should help you to understand this: just because somebody writes/publishes does not mean that they are part of the scientific community or that they conduct empirical research. In this case, these two individuals--at least in their on-line information--are careful not to pretend that they are researchers. Their writing states their opinions and those opinions are more likely the result of personal experience or second-hand knowledge of research. Quite often, when someone cites another publication teachers assume the citation is to research, when it is often just to another opinion of someone else. That is not what I mean by research, it is not what the National Academies mean by research, it is not what IES and NICHD and the Department of Education mean by research. 11/12/16

Anonymous Apr 05, 2017 07:02 PM

When you state that "there is no research evidence" for Reader's Workshop (mini-lessons/conferences/independent reading), are you equating a lack of scientific research with ineffectuality? 10/13/16

Elizabeth Lietz Apr 05, 2017 07:03 PM

Mr. Shanahan, I appreciate your detailed, if condescending, clarification. However to say that these teachers do not base the writing they do about their teaching on the research of others is incorrect. For example, in "Readicide" Gallagher cites the research study conducted by Jeff McQuillian that did show an increase in academic performance when an independent reading program was implemented. That study is listed in his text as an example of several studies that DID show a causal relationship. Another research study cited in the same book was the work of Yi-Chen Wu and S. Jay Samuels out of the University of Minnesota. If you will allow me to make an assumption based on your reply, I believe we might both agree that Gallagher and Kittle are adding their classroom experiences to the academic conversation that surrounds secondary reading and writing. I have seen ELA programs show measurable improvement in student achievement after thoughtfully incorporating independent reading into their curriculum; when I see a respected literacy researcher, like yourself, put an end to the conversation around the possibility that independent reading may have positive results, I am concerned. I hope that when educators read what you have to say about independent reading, they might do further research just as you have, and draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, I do appreciate your point that a decision to implement an independent reading curriculum, like any curricular decision, should be based in research.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 07:06 PM


At the risk of being condescending, I'd have to say either that the Gallagher book misrepresents McQuillan's research studies or you drew an incorrect inference. It is correlational work and it has all the limitations already discussed (in fact, he himself noted those limitations. The Wu and Samuels study was conducted for Accelerated Reader and it was too flawed to publish.

I don't know how you can tell that a school that adopts any new program does better as a result without some systematic way of comparing results--that a school did better or worse this year than last is a comparison of different cohorts of children and you get that kind of up and down performance on tests (and the smaller the school, the greater that movement is).

Finally, please think about what you are arguing. You are saying that when kids read on their own, they learn more than when they read with you or any other teacher. I find that to be an amazing claim. When I teach students I make sure they get more out of a book than they could ever get on their own and I would encourage you to strive for that. I am surprised that so many teachers believe that children would do better without their involvement. If that is really the case, then the key to improving literacy is to reduce the amount of time that students work with teachers. I'm glad the research doesn't actually support that odd idea. In my experience, teachers add a great deal to the reading experience for children--through their questions, guidance, assignments, discussion, requests for rereading, and other assistance. Good luck.

tim 10/13/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 07:06 PM


No I don't assume that because there is no research on Reader's and Wrter's Workshop that it doesn't work. However, I do have serious concerns about dealing with decoding needs in the primary grades through mini-lessons (since that is clearly in conflict with the best research findings--that kids are better served by systematic instruction in that area). I also am concerned that most examples of Reader's Workshop that I observe in classrooms is so far afield from the version that Lucy Calkins showed me in her schools (where the team curriculum development efforts of the teachers are extensive).

tim 10/14/16

Leah Picanco Apr 05, 2017 07:07 PM

One of the standards I am required to help my students master is to read at the top end of the complexity level for their age/grade independently. I have been basing my instruction on teaching my students reading skills, applying those skills together with shared texts, and then requiring them to apply those skills to reading their own texts independently. Without that practice, how will they master that standard? Without requiring them to do so, how will I know if they are able to read on their own and apply the strategies and process of literary analysis they have been taught? 10/15/2016

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 07:08 PM


First, no one is saying that students shouldn't read within instruction... but given your goal, I have several questions for you: (1) what skills do you teach that help your students to negotiate the features of text/content that are making them complex? (it would help to know the grade level)? If kids are selecting books to read on their own, how do you know they are selecting books of the appropriate levels of complexity or that possess features that would match the skills that you are teaching? How do you know that the kids are successful?

If you are teaching skills, assigning texts, and holding kids accountable, then you are not engaging kids in recreational reading or independent reading.

tim 10/16/2016

Ann Apr 05, 2017 07:08 PM

Hello, passionate teachers of reading!

Whether a student has independent reading time or not, if they can't read fluently, they probably will not be highly motivated to read, right? Here's the latest brain research:

Children who cannot keep a steady beat usually struggle with reading and poor readers usually have inefficient auditory processing. Making music improves the brain's ability to process sound and this correlates with higher reading achievement and ability to focus in noisy environments. (See numerous studies at Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Lab Children with dyslexia have a rhythmic processing problem in the brain that can be remediated through singing and moving with a steady beat(see Dr. Usha Goswami's studies at Cambridge University

The Rock ā€˜nā€™ Read Project is now helping children read at grade level through singing and technology.

Teachers using a singing strategy called Affirming Parallel Concepts have seen dramatic boosts in students' letter sound acquisition, sight word retention, and fluency. (See APC pages on 10/17/16

Teach Kate Apr 05, 2017 07:09 PM

I am totally fascinated with this debate, and am working on a project that fuses some of the best (in my opinion and from what I have gathered from my second hand research) work of both whole class novel teaching and readers workshop. I both see your point and also see what feels like needless conflict and confusion in the discussion here: I think you are saying that only unguided, totally free range independent reading is ineffective for unmotivated readers. Is that true? Because I think many people would agree with that, certainly many if not most of the Readers Workshop people I count as mentors and friends. It seems like part of the angst being thrown your way is that this is not what most people are talking about in response to your post. It seems as though most commentators think you are against all independent reading and all choice in reading, whereas many here seem to be in a more Readers Workshop structure (which has plenty to debate in and of itself but is very different from DEAR). Perhaps you are against independent reading even in the context of strategy instruction, but I don't see you arguing that point here. You seem misunderstood, and yet you also seem to fuel that misunderstanding a bit:)

Another question that is plaguing me: it seems like all sides have loads of research to defend their position, and yet all sides also admit that the research is flawed. You say it about both research that defends and destroys independent reading. I've heard it said continuously. I think many educators that are not researchers become fatigued by citations of research because of this fact - each study seems so spin-able. How do we wade through this muck? You are obviously able to read research fluently, and to judge it, a skill I am in awe of. Do you contend that all of the research studies cited by Allington, Miller, Kittle, Gallagher, and Calkins are all flawed and that the research you have read is sound? I am asking not tongue in cheek but sincerely, bc that is not my understanding, and I will need to work mightily (and am willing to do so) to shift my thinking if this is the case. 1/16/2017

Timothy Shanahan Apr 05, 2017 07:10 PM


I think I've been very clear about what I'm saying. I would not use school time to have kids reading independently (which I actually defined/explained in detail in the first article--couldn't be any clearer). There is no question that at least some of those arguing the point are claiming that I'm saying that kids should not read or that there is no benefit to kids reading. I definitely was talking about DEAR and SSR and SQUIRT time, and not to reading within instruction (in which the teacher plays a role in selecting the material--for content and demand level, holds kids accountable through questioning and conversation, has kids writing about the text; none of which is usually typical of reading on one's own).

I also disagree about the "spinnability" of the research evidence. There are widely agreed upon rules or principles to summarizing and synthesizing research in the scientific community. You are correct that those principles have not been followed by some of those arguing the point (who either use research on other issues or who try to selectively use the evidence). What I was depending upon were studies that directly attempted to evaluate the practice in question. I wasn't trying to generalize from studies that focus on what teachers like to do in their classroom, or how much the better readers read. The issue, the only issue, is whether or not there is a learning advantage to just having kids reading on their own during the school day.

The meta-analyses of that body of research--not just some of the selected studies that may line up with someone's point of view--show almost no learning payoff (the amount of payoff is usually treated as inconsequential). Some of the better individual studies (like the work of James Kim) do show that it is possible to get a learning payoff from such practices beyond the school day, but even then it isn't easy to get kids to improve their reading just by reading on their own (and, yes, that is especially hard the lower your reading ability). However, I don't take a summer study like Kim's and say that it proves that if you do that during the school day you'll get that payoff (both because it wasn't done during the school day when the reading had to compete with instructional reading, and because it is just one study among many. Nor do I look at studies that compare how much good and poor readers read on their own, and conclude that means class time would better be used for free reading than for instruction.

It comes down to whether you are trying to figure out what works (in which case you want to look at all of the direct evidence) or whether you are just looking for support for what you want to do (in which case you cherry pick any study that even remotely may be interpreted in your favor). I'm definitely interested in what works. Good luck.

tim 1/16/2017

MG Aug 14, 2018 04:08 PM

Thank you for writing about free reading time in schools. As a parent, I find it as a waste of time. I send kids to school who like to read and read well. During free reading time, they have observed kids who look like they are sleeping, a lot of kids being allowed to listen to the book who also look like they are sleeping, and kids not behaving while the teacher works at his/her desk. The good readers already read well above grade level, and the teachers are teaching below grade level so direct instruction where I live isn't much better.

A compliant student may read during free reading time. Another student who loves to read and is a good reader may choose to skip free reading because "what's the point, I already read." The latter generally makes the free reading advocates angry and sometimes they behave in petty ways toward the student. The students who need to read better often don't seem to be doing much, if anything, with the free reading time except maybe closing their eyes or acting out. With some of what passes for English/Language Arts, and Literacy, I'm lucky my kids still read because some of them can't stand their classes where the teacher wrongly assumes the students know little and say they are teaching the students to love to read by giving them free reading time and teaching below grade level for at least some of the class.

I would have more respect for free reading time in school if everyone was honest and just said it was planning and work time for the teacher. English teachers have a lot of grading work if they are good teachers and deserve a lighter class load so they have time to get more of the grading work done during the day.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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An Argument about Independent Reading Time During the School Day


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