How Much Time Should We Spend on Comprehension and Phonics?

  • 20 October, 2013

Blast from the Past: This timely piece is about time and how to spend it during language arts instruction. Many teachers spend too little time on some components of literacy--because they get wrapped up in doing particular activities rather than teaching particular things. The most effective classrooms have clear goals and they make sure the kids know what those are. If you really want kids to be fluent, having them read only a page or practicing with something that they can already read fluently won't help you to that goal. Likewise, a phonics lesson in which kids spend two minutes filling out a worksheet won't make them better decoders. Teachers need to devote enough time to the major goals of learning to read and write. 

Teacher question:

  I am a 2nd year Kindergarten teacher, and I have really known nothing else but Common Core.  I feel as though my understanding of the standards is good.  My teaching style is workshop-based, with an equal amount of time spent on foundational skills as comprehension. I teach all five areas of literacy (phonics, phonemic awareness, oral language, fluency, comprehension) in our half-day program.  My colleagues are veteran teachers, who teach mostly foundational skills with foundational skill-based centers.  My Kindergarten colleagues frown on the workshop approach, although it is used in other grade levels (2-8).  Our school and district has always been high-performing and considered exceptional.  Our common assessments are all foundational skills, and our benchmarking assessment is all foundational skills.  Because I teach in the workshop model, they continually tell me how 'I just don't understand Kindergarten' and I am shorting my kids on foundational skills.  I am beginning to think that my efforts to pay equal time to comprehension are fruitless on an immediate basis, as they are not being assessed or valued.  However, I personally feel that not teaching comprehension on a deep level has been a major mistake in the past.  I want to learn and be a great teacher, but I just don't understand what I see to be the inequity in teaching/assessing/valuing comprehension.  What are your thoughts on the comprehension standards for Kindergarten?  How much time should be spent on comprehension vs. foundational skills in K, and why does it seem like comprehension is an afterthought with many early elementary teachers?

Shanahan response: 

This is an interesting question. The biggest decisions teachers make have to do with how much time to spend on literacy and language and how to divide this time up among the components of literacy. I have long emphasized 2-3 hours of literacy instruction per day in grades K-5 (if you are teaching in a half-day kindergarten, then 60-90 minutes per day).

  To divide instruction appropriately, it is critical to determine what components to include. 

  Decoding is very important and needs to be mastered during these early years (preK through grade 2 or 3). Decoding includes phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, sight vocabulary, and phonics (and spelling).

  Oral reading fluency is very important, though in kindergarten what needs to be emphasized will depend on whether the children are engaged in conventional reading or not. Oral reading fluency requires students to read text so that it sounds like text. If they can read, then reading texts aloud with repetition is essential. If students can’t yet read, they need to engage in activities like finger-point reading (in which they listen to texts being read and try to follow along by pointing to the words as they are being read).

  Oral language includes vocabulary building, extended conversation (with multiple turns), listening comprehension (reading to children), and similar kinds of activities.

  Reading comprehension refers to participating in reading text and answering questions and learning strategies for thinking about text. As with oral reading fluency, this one can only be taught if the students can read text. If they can’t read, then you can’t teach reading comprehension. (Listening comprehension is not reading comprehension, talking about pictures is not reading comprehension. Those have a place—in building oral language.) When kids are not yet reading, I would not count comprehension as a component; when they are, it deserves a full share of time.

  And one more component that you do not mention: writing. It is critical that students be engaged in trying to express their ideas through written language. Initially, this might be done through dictation but very quickly should shift to kids trying to do their own technology.

  I would argue for dividing the total amount of literacy and language time equally across those five components (or four, if the students aren’t yet reading). Before they are reading, I would devote about a quarter of the instructional time to oral language development (including listening comprehension), a quarter to decoding, a quarter to oral reading fluency, and a quarter to writing. Once children are reading, then the time shifts so that each component gets 20% of the time.

  Thus, in a full-day kindergarten in which teachers are spending 2 hours per day on literacy and language, early in the year—before many children are capable of reading text—students would spend about 30 minutes per day working with letters and letter sounds; about 30 minutes engaging in finger-point reading, echo reading, and such; about 30 minutes being read to, talking about text, expanding vocabulary and about 30 minutes writing. Later in the year, when significant numbers of students can read text then there is a bit of time shift: the foundational skills (phonics and fluency) would drop back to a combined 50 minutes per day, reading comprehension, writing, and oral language would each come in at about 25 minutes. My preference would be that teachers would teach literacy and language for 3 hours per day at kindergarten (not two hours), and if that were the case, even more time would be available for all of these skills and abilities.

  When you say that you spend equal times on reading comprehension and the foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency), I think you are making a big mistake. That is not enough time for kids to develop those foundational skills in my opinion, and I think you'll slow their growth in reading. If your colleagues are devoting all of the time to foundational skills (because those are benchmarked), they may be doing long-term damage; foundational skills are necessary, but insufficient to make students capable readers. 

  A final word… these overall times are not a good description of a school day. When I say, there should be 30 or 48 or 60 minutes devoted to a particular aspect of literacy, that does not mean that teachers should teach phonics from 9:00AM-9:30AM. The reason I say that is that young children need lots of changes of activities and they need opportunities to move. I might read to kids with discussion for 10 or 15 minutes (covering half of my language time), but then could follow that up with a 10-minute writing activity, or a 15-minute phonics activity—or even an activity focused on some other aspect of the curriculum such as science or math. The point is that it is important to keep the day varied and engaging and the amounts of time can be accomplished in a variety of ways.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Russ Walsh Apr 02, 2017 07:10 PM

Russ Walsh said...

You said, "reading comprehension refers to participating in reading text and answering questions and learning strategies for thinking about text." Would you consider an interactive read aloud, in which the teacher engages the students in discussion of the text and answering questions about the text, to be reading comprehension instruction or is it just listening comprehension? As I read the literature on this it is generally purported to be reading comprehension instruction and appropriate for emergent readers.
October 21, 2013 at 10:04 AM

Timothy Shanahan Apr 02, 2017 07:10 PM

Reading comprehension and listening comprehension are different but related processes. For kids through about 8th grade, reading comprehension is the tougher of the two. It is certainly sensible to emphasize listening comprehension instead of reading comprehension when children cannot yet read (this is even true with older students who can't read), but I see no benefit to pretending that oral language work is the same thing as reading comprehension instruction (perhaps this confusion is why so many primary grade teachers stop working with oral language as soon as reading comprehension work begins?). I would encourage preschool and kindergarten teachers to focus heavily on vocabulary development, extended conversation, oral presentation, sentence elaboration, and listening comprehension, but I would discourage them from labeling those as reading comprehension.\
October 21, 2013 at 1:23 PM

BKNoll Apr 02, 2017 07:11 PM

I am a full-day kindergarten teacher, and I agree that using half of one's instructional time to discuss read-alouds (and calling this comprehension instruction) falls far short of a quality emergent reading program. I spend lots of time on phonics and phonemic awareness, including teaching kids how to spell the 40+ sounds of English (using a program called Jolly Phonics). Kids are sounding out and spelling words on slates by the time we've been in school a month. At first I segment the CVC words for them, but soon kids get the hang of how to stretch out and listen for sounds, recording them on boards and sometimes illustrating words for fun. Kids sound out and spell words daily...I never miss this part of literacy.

These lessons lead into writer's workshop, where I expect kids to listen for sounds and write what they hear. Writing gives meaning to phonics lessons, because students soon understand that sounds can be set down using letters. Writing is fundamental for developing good readers!

Another component of our program includes guided reading groups, using decodable text, and the accompanying centers that kids work on when not with me.

The final components of our literacy program include independent reading, a daily read-aloud and discussion (usually in a content area), and shared reading, using a big book or other easy text.

We are a Title 1 school, and at the end of last year only five out of 96 of our kinder students were labeled below grade level in literacy by our district. We consider students ending up at a DRA-2 Level 3 "at risk", because many students end up at levels far beyond that.

I understand the severe time constraints of a half-day program, but I'd rank phonics (including PA), writing, and decodable text reading to be non-negotiables!
October 21, 2013 at 8:10 PM

Anonymous Apr 02, 2017 07:12 PM

As the author of the original letter, I must clarify a few terms that I erroneously used: 'foundational skills' and 'comprehension'. I see that I am incorrect, but I grouped only phonological processes as 'foundational' (what Mr. Shanahan groups under decoding); and fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension (listening comprehension and reading comprehension for the readers) in the 'comprehension' group.

Also, I would like to correct the assumption that the term 'comprehension' (in my original letter) meant reading comprehension. I did not mention reading comprehension in my original letter, but Mr. Shanahan answered the query by responding as if I meant reading comprehension took up half of my instructional time. This is incorrect.

I got the impression by reading the responses that some believe there are no phonological systems being taught in this Kindergarten! I have a 90 minute literacy block, currently of which 35-45 minutes (approximately half the time) is spent on phonics and phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, sight vocabulary, and phonics. This is what I referred to as ‘foundational skills’.

The other 35-45 minutes is spent on 'comprehension': fluency, vocabulary, oral language and listening/reading comprehension. When possible (approximately 2-3x week), I use 20 minutes of this time for writing.

During the Reader's Workshop portion of the block, we do an interactive read-aloud with a mini-lesson, then students work independently doing literacy based tasks that support the mini-lesson (listening/responding to reading with writing/drawing; word work, independent reading/responding to reading). We then come together after this independent work to share what we’ve learned.

It is during the Reader's Workshop time that I meet with my small groups for guided reading and practice.

My colleagues use a different approach: the majority of the instructional time is spent on the phonological processes, and centers are phonics based. ‘Comprehension’ (oral language, vocabulary, fluency, listening/reading comprehension) is not emphasized.

I apologize for the incorrect terminology, and thank Mr. Shanahan for his very detailed response!
October 24, 2013 at 6:15 AM

Ashley Apr 09, 2018 12:40 AM

I believe reading comprehension to be the ultimate goal for any reader. As Tim mentioned, however, listening comprehension is different than reading comprehension. I teach third grade and most, if not all, of my students can comprehend read alouds. Reading comprehension issues come to fruition with students who are not strong readers. I agree with Tim in that if you are teaching kindergarten, it is important to focus on the foundational skills children need to read later in life, more so than the reading comprehension aspect. With that being said, I still think this teacher should fit in reading comprehension activities with those students who can read, whenever possible. For those who cannot read, place a strong focus on listening comprehension, as these skills will allow for students to grasp comprehension more easily and effectively in the future.

Julie ratzel Apr 29, 2019 11:55 PM

I have a teacher in the classroom who only works on listening comprehension absolutely no phonics or decoding. In our k-2 sped classroom... I finally turned her into the administration.

Christina Rodriguez Nov 06, 2023 11:04 AM

Do you still agree with your thoughts above now that 10 years has passed? Thank you!

Christina :)

P.S. I heard you present in Tampa, FL at the University of Tampa. I was the young lady with glasses asking all of the questions. Lol. I loved your presentation. Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Nov 07, 2023 01:45 AM


I do.


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How Much Time Should We Spend on Comprehension and Phonics?


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