How Many Minutes to Devote to Instructional Activities is Not Where to to Start

  • 15 September, 2016

Blast from the Past: This entry first posted September 15, 2016 and was re-posted on July 23, 2022. Recently, someone told me that it was harmful to have kids reading during the first half of first grade since they might guess at some words. This authority explained that, at that age, reading to kids was more appropriate and that such shared reading improves reading achievement. I certainly concur that we shouldn't teach kids to guess words, but I know of no evidence that self-initiated guessing is damaging in any way. And, likewise, as noted in this blog,, there is still no research relating teacher read-alouds to improved reading ability. Over the past six years, more research has accumulated on the issue, but they reaffirm the claims here. Reading text aloud to children can have a positive impact on vocabulary knowledge, though probably only when the read alouds are accompanied by substantial additional direct instruction. The studies have not, however, found that this increased vocabulary translates to improved reading achievement, which isn't surprising since the benefits of vocabulary are not likely to be evident early on since the texts students read are not likely to require a depth of vocabulary knowledge. As this blog argued originally, I would still find time in my school day to read to primary grade kids, but I definitely would not replace or reduce the amount of student reading in deference to these read alouds. I have added two new references below -- both dated 2020. 


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.


August, D., Uccelli, P., Artzi, L., Barr, C., & Francis, D. J. (2020). English learners’ acquisition of academic vocabulary: Instruction matters, but so do word characteristics. Reading Research Quarterly, doi:
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.

Baker, D. L., Santoro, L., Biancarosa, G., Baker, S. K., Fien, H., & Otterstedt, J. (2020). Effects of a read aloud intervention on first grade student vocabulary, listening comprehension, and language proficiency. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, doi:

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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 12:29 AM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, Drawing on research, will you share with us how you would organize a 90 minute literacy block in grades 1-3? 11/16/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 12:30 AM

What a diplomatic answer! I may have to tape this to a few bathroom walls. (Not your intended goal, I'm sure, but effective)
Lisa Butler, MA, CCC-SLP 9/16/17

Amy Barnes Apr 06, 2017 12:31 AM

Thank you for your post. I enjoyed reading it. I do have 1 questions. You mentioned not grouping students for guided reading by levels. How do you suggest grouping students to see the most growth in reading achievement? 9/16/16

Julie Rehmer Apr 06, 2017 12:31 AM

Thank you for this post. It really has me thinking. However, I need some clarification. If you are saying that leveled guided reading groups should occur as little as possible due to the lack of evidence in reading gains then what instructional practice would you suggest ? I am asking because I teach small groups of 4th and 5th grade students, the lowest readers in our school, and I want to get the most bang for my buck when working with them for 30 minutes each day. 9/17/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 12:32 AM


If you have been doing guided reading groups in the way usually directed you have been working with groups supposedly all at the same reading levels. But what if you built your groups another way--aiming at diversity (such as not putting all the low kids together), workability (which kids work well together, can you get some of those helpful kids in each group?, etc.). Having mixed ability small groups taking on a difficult text together... now ask yourself, what kinds of things would be needed to help the kids to make sense of the text (without just telling them what it says or reading it to them). You, might for instance, preteach some of the vocabulary. Or, you might have the lowest readers practice fluency with that text ahead of time so that they approach the text more at the level of the better readers in the group. Perhaps you'd identify confusing parts (e.g., complex sentences or obscure pronoun links) and give the kids guidance with those. All of the kids would be working on this together. The low ones would have opportunities to learn from the higher readers or kids who caught on to your guidance more quickly. Give those kinds of activities a try and see where that gets you.

tim 9/17/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 12:32 AM


I think beyond beginning reading levels, the "guided reading" work should range between whole class readings and small heterogeneous (in terms of ability) groupings to allow for more intensive teacher/student interactions. I would group with the purpose of having a range of abilities represented in each group, and would pay attention to issues like who works well together, who is helpful (and who not so much), so that you have real working groups that allow you to maximize your teaching.

tim 9/17/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 12:33 AM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, Drawing on research, will you share with us how you would organize a 90 minute literacy block in grades 1-3? 9/17/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 12:33 AM


First, I would try to expand that block. 90 minutes is, in most circumstances, insufficient for guiding a class of kids to the literacy levels we are now trying to reach. But whether you have 90 minutes (or 120-180 like I would do), I would focus my time allocation on outcomes not activities, and I would devote instructional time to 4 or 5 outcomes. The outcomes would be word knowledge (PA, decoding, sight vocabulary), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, (and if you want a fifth, I would focus on oral language). So, if you only have 90 minutes for all of this, then I would spend a bit over 18-23 minutes on each of these components based upon your decisions.

good luck. 9/17/16

Lindsey Siglin Apr 06, 2017 12:34 AM

Hi Tim!
I am very intrigued by the research on how giving kids independent time reading does not lead to gains in reading achievement. My question a teacher, what exactly can I do to foster a more motivating environment for my students? Given this:

"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." you have any more specific ideas/scenarios? Thank you Tim! I love reading your blog.

Lindsey Siglin
Dallas, TX 10/12/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 12:34 AM


What a refreshing and professional question. I would suggest connecting with kids more through books than we usually do. Here are a couple of examples: (1) the teacher who sponsors an "after-lunch bunch" meeting each week with some of her charges. The kids stay in from lunch recess to eat lunch with their teacher over which they discuss books that they are reading. No loss of class time, the kids find out that their teacher loves reading, too, and they all get to connect with each other through what they read. OR (2) Parent-child book club: Here the teacher/school sponsors a monthly book club meeting at the school. In the version I've observed, the fathers and their sons read a book together each month and then the whole group gets together with the teacher over refreshments in the evening. A real winner.

How about using those minutes before the school day starts to talk with kids about what they are reading at home, and where they read, and when they read and who they talk to about it and what they are going to read next? I used to write letters to my students about that kind of thing--rather than sacrificing instructional time (though I admittedly did use class time for independent reading--I didn't know the research).


tim 10/14/16

Welia Dawson Mar 14, 2018 09:20 AM

I am learning that many of my practices as a 6th grade ELA teacher must begin to shift. I appreciate the research and your explanations of what it looks like in a classroom. This is my first read of your blogs,thank you for your insight.

SUZANNE SALZMAN Nov 02, 2021 03:06 AM

Hello. I’m curious about this response about how to setup a reading block.
“ But whether you have 90 minutes (or 120-180 like I would do), I would focus my time allocation on outcomes not activities, and I would devote instructional time to 4 or 5 outcomes. The outcomes would be word knowledge (PA, decoding, sight vocabulary), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, (and if you want a fifth, I would focus on oral language). So, if you only have 90 minutes for all of this, then I would spend a bit over 18-23 minutes on each of these components based upon your decisions. ”
I don’t understand what you mean by outcomes. Would you please provide examples?
Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Nov 08, 2021 07:57 PM


Outcomes are what we are trying to teach – we want kids to be able perceive the sounds in words to the point where they can easily fully segment the words (phonemic awareness; we want kids to be able to decode words – translating from print to pronunciations (phonics – so we teach letters, sounds, etc.); we want kids to read text accurately, with automaticity and with proper expression so we teach oral reading fluency; we want kids to understand what they read so we teach comprehension strategies and written language skills (vocabulary).

Contrast those outcomes – those things we want kids to learn, remember, be able to do – from the activities that we use to teach them: shared reading, guided reading, auditory discrimination exercises, sight vocabulary drills, gradual release of responsibility – those are the things that we do in a classroom to try to teach those things noted above. These teaching activities are options – there are lots of different ways of teaching those outcomes (I use a vocabulary program and guide kids through the lessons, your school also a program but it focuses not on words but on morphological elements, and in another school the teachers have agreed to teach vocabulary lessons focused on words that they select themselves from trade books used in their classrooms – those are teaching activities and instructional choices). Don’t organize around these, organize around what you teach.

Good luck.


Kathy Renfrew Jul 23, 2022 03:45 PM

Time is precious and primary and elementary teachers seem to be always counting minutes these days because of things well beyond their control.

I am thinking about the read aloud purposefully and intentionally chosen to assist student in obtaining additional evidence to support a claim they may have built after engaging in an investigation. I would read it aloud once fro students to get the big idea and begin to make connections to what they have figured out during their investigation. I would then definitely be engaging in an interactive read aloud which would include "stop and jot", "turn and learn" and other simliar strategies during the read aloud. I would follow with a close read of a piece of the text where students would think and annotate using the close reading guide I have developed. Now all of this is happening during science time not reading time ( but it could ). I am pretty sure their is emerging research that supports that this read aloud not only suppports science learning but also improves score on literacy assessments. One piece of research I am thinking about is something Nell Duke shared with the Board on Science Education at the National Academy Of Science Engineering and Medicine . There also is new research coming out that shows engaging multilingual students in science and then reading about science is helpful in language development.

I am just wondering if you have done any thinking or research along thess lines.

Pat Clark Jul 23, 2022 04:45 PM

These comments and questions beg to be explored and clarified - any chance you will be able to follow up?

Doreen Jul 23, 2022 04:45 PM


I am looking for clarification on a point you make in this blog post. You state:

“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.“

However I am currently reading Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers” by Louisa Cook Moats. In chapter 7; the chapter on semantics; she states

“Reading comprehension depends on vocabulary and language proficiencies that develop from infancy. Beginning in preschool, students with weaker language skills are at risk for reading difficulties.” pg 219

She sites studies by Catts, Adolf & Weisner, 2006 and Catts, Fey, Zhang & Tomblin, 1999. Are the key words “at risk for reading difficulties”? When I read Moats’ statement I feel there is the suggested call for reading aloud to students to help increase their vocabulary knowledge and give them access to vocabulary that they may not learn otherwise.

Thank you for your consideration , I always look forward to your blog posts!

Melanie Jul 23, 2022 05:46 PM

I'm moving to 1st grade this year. I taught K/1 for 22 years and have been in 3rd for 5. I LOVE shared reading. I loved it with my kindergarteners for so many reasons, including the academic instruction. I still see a place for shared reading in first grade for the reasons you expressed- to build community, as a springboard for social studies/science learning to come, for oral fluency. What do you think?

Timothy E Shanahan Jul 23, 2022 06:06 PM


I would strongly encourage that you continue reading to your boys and girls in grade 1. I wouldn't replace reading instruction for (though there are many who use it as part of their oral vocabulary instruction which is fine, but it is a low pay off approach in the short run). As busy as a school day can be, I'm sure teachers can find 15-20 minutes a day for something that so enriches classroom life.


Timothy E Shanahan Jul 23, 2022 06:13 PM


No the difference isn't whether the readers are struggling, but the role of vocabulary knowledge in learning to read. Reading aloud to kids can improve vocabulary (at least if the teacher makes a point of adding explicit instruction to the reading). However, vocabulary knowledge isn't terribly important in beginning reading instruction (because beginning reading texts rarely outstrip children's vocabulary). This changes a bit each year, with vocabulary gaining in importance (the correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary increases each year). It is assumed that reading to kids will eventually pay off in sufficient vocabulary gains that the results might become apparent by 4th or 5th grade -- but there are no studies actually showing that. Again, I would find a place for reading to kids in my daily routine with them (as I did as a teacher, parent, and now, grandparent), but I wouldn't replace reading instruction (or much reading instruction) to work that in. It would just be a part of our day -- exposing kids to new learning opportunities and building community in the classroom. If there is a longterm reading benefit, all the better.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 23, 2022 06:16 PM

I'm always happy to answer questions. What is your concern?


Timothy Shanahan Jul 23, 2022 06:20 PM

I'm talking specifically as "shared reading time" as signaled by the question. There are definitely times when teachers read something to the students as a part of instruction (such as rereading a portion of a text the students tried reading themselves to make a point, etc.). Nell wasn't talking about research on setting aside 15-30 minutes for teacher alouds, but I was.


Diane Snowball Jul 24, 2022 12:58 AM

Your definition of Shared Reading must be quite different from mine and I learned from the master of Shared Reading, Don Holdaway, in 1974, when he visited the literacy professional learning center where I was working in Melbourne (Australia). In Shared Reading an enlarged text allows for all eyes on the one text so that instruction in every aspect of reading is possible. Multiple demonstrations of reading the text, with children joining in whenever they can, and explicit instruction about an aspect of reading are all done in the context of enjoying reading and the children feeling successful as readers. The choice of the text is very important. It MUST be worth reading and rereading many times, just like children’s favorites in homes where the children have been lucky enough to be read to. It must also be a text that the children could join in with after a couple of demonstrations. For much more detail read Don’s book Foundations of Literacy (1979) or I would be willing to send you some articles. (Most articles available online have some information that is misleading, such as using a different big book every week.) When this type of Shared Reading is done it has a very high success rate. Don Holdaway and others such as Warwick Ellen conducted research studies to validate this.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 25, 2022 06:53 PM

I'm well aware of Holdaway's approach. Unfortunately, there aren't sound research studies showing its effectiveness. I try not to promote my opinions (or the opinions) of others but to stay to the research. Perhaps you haven't read Developing Early Reading (the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, 2008), which reviewed the research on shared reading (which includes all of the various approaches to reading to children). You can find that online, or I can send you a link if you need one.


Robin McConnell Aug 30, 2022 02:23 PM

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and guidance for reading instruction. I am a retired Middle School ELA teacher. I have been asked to come back 16 hours a week to help 7th and 8th grade students who have fallen behind due to the impact of Covid. I will have students placed in the MTSS groups ( 15-20 minutes twice a week) as well as students who were several points away from passing end of grade tests. ( 15-30 minutes once a week) Can you direct me to research or your own advice about how to approach reading instruction for these students within theses allotted time frames? Thank you.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 23, 2022 10:07 PM


That isn't much time. However, if I were in that situation, I would likely guide student silent reading of grade level passages. I would start out a sentence at a time. Have the kids read the sentence and then question them intensively about the content of the sentence (who was it about, what did they do, who did they do that to, how did they do it, etc.); then another sentence. If they have trouble with answering the questions, have them read it again and query them again. If they handle that well, increase the length of the text... now two sentences at a time, then four... etc. Increasing the demand on attention. If kids are having difficulty answering a question try to figure out why-- was it vocabulary (teach those words)? was the info in a sentence that was complicated (show them how to break down a sentence like that to figure out what it says), were students having trouble making links across the text (guide them to make those links). Essentially increase the amount of grade level text the students can read silently with a high degree of comprehension.

For the kids who are lower than that, I would generally devote my attention to oral reading fluency practice (that might be necessary with the first group as well, but given that they are close to grade level, I'm guessing that not to be the case). Have students taking turns reading grade level text -- trying to read it with accuracy, adequate rate, and making it sound like language. Have kids reread if it isn't fluent. The point is to build up those fluency skills to increase the possibility of them reading those texts with comprehension.

good luck.


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How Many Minutes to Devote to Instructional Activities is Not Where to to Start


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