How to Organize Daily Instruction Part I

  • Daily 5
  • 18 May, 2014

Blast from the Past: First issued May 18, 2014 and reposted on September 24, 2022. These days I'm often asked how I would organize my reading instruction. In this blog entry I provided that kind of description (and I followed it with two more over the subsequent weeks to expand upon those ideas). You can find those blogs by typing How to Organize Daily Instruction into the search function of my site. I think these entries provide some valuable guidance in how to make sure that you are successfully addressing educational standards and meeting students needs in ways consistent with relevant research. However, there are issues not throughly addressed in these entries dealing with differentiation. Those issues don't fit neatly into any scheme such as the one described here because classrooms differ greatly. As Rebecca Barr showed, the specific mix of children in terms of reading ability will dictate how much group work will be done, the size of groups, and so on. Teachers should never group for the sake of grouping, but only in response to student needs. The are other blog entries on this site that discuss some of the issues of differentiation. However, varying instruction on the basis of student needs should take place within some overall structure, and it is that that these three blogs address.

Twice this week I’ve been asked how to organize instructional time for literacy. Both inquiries noted my earlier objections to Daily 5 and CAFE.

They were right I am not a big fan of those approaches.

My reason (with these any similar, but less popular schemes): they distract teachers from an intense focus on what they are trying to teach students. Teachers must be focused on learning—not activities.

Of course, many teachers would point out that the idea is for kids to learn, and teachers address learning through those activities. I don’t disagree about the need for instructional activities as the means for increasing student knowledge and skills, but that doesn’t mean we should fetishize the activities.

There are many ways to accomplish learning goals and teachers should select among these as they help students to meet the required outcomes. Locking oneself into a particular daily activity is foolish.

Research has shown that teachers struggle to keep focused on kids’ learning; that they get so wrapped up in the activities that they often lose sight of their purpose. What do they say about alligators and swamp draining?

That’s why so many teachers and principals measure success in terms of how smoothly an activity went rather than on what it enabled kids to do.

Any scheme that focuses teachers on activities rather than outcomes is a non-starter for me.

However, I appreciate that teachers embrace such schemes because of their manageability. Some of the most onerous decisions for teachers concern how to parcel out their valuable instructional time, and schemes that help teachers to do that have some value.

The framework that I have long used is both like—and wildly different from—these schemes that I’m criticizing. My framework also gives teachers guidance with time use, but its emphasis is on the outcomes rather than the methods.

I start from the premise that students are going to need to spend a lot of time with literacy to become literate. Given that, I think kids should spend at least 2-3 hours per day dealing with literacy.

A second premise is that we have multiple goals in literacy and that they all compete for instructional time. I believe that it makes sense to divide the available instructional time among these different goals.

What are these goals? My reading of the research says that students need to learn words and word parts (to read them, to interpret them), they need to be able to read text fluently (with sufficient accuracy, speed, and prosody), they need to be able to understand and interpret the ideas in text, and they need to convey their own ideas through text (writing). These are all critically important goals, and each of them has many sub goals.

I would argue teachers should provide students with explicit instruction and lots of practice time in each of these four learning areas daily. Rather than focusing on four or five activities that kids should be engaged in everyday, I’d rather have teachers thinking about what activities they should encourage based on the learning goals in each of these areas. Thus, it would be very reasonable to spend 30 minutes on words, 30 minutes on fluency, 30 minutes on reading comprehension, and 30 minutes on writing everyday (on average)—even though the actual activities would vary.

A daily organizing plan that is focused on these outcomes makes greater sense than one based on activities such as read to self or read to someone.

And such a plan makes sense even when using “core reading programs” or “basal readers” because they help teachers to choose among the many options that such programs provide.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 01:59 PM

Honestly....this is quite vague. Teachers need specifics. Are you calling for whole group lessons?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 29, 2017 01:59 PM


Nothing vague about this. I have specified a range of instructional times (2-3 hours) that are acceptable (very specific). I have indicated 5 major things that have to be taught (very specific). I have indicated how to link these required areas that need to be taught with a share of the instructional time (very specific). And I have indicated that it is best to use approaches to teach each of these that have been found to be effective by research (again, very specific). Keep reading. The next entries will add additional specific details.

Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 02:00 PM

While I agree that the Daily 5 system can be poorly implemented if it is used simply to solve a management problem instead of providing purposeful practice, can you clarify how what you are describing is different from the Daily 5/Cafe System? I feel like you both are advocating for the same things--explicit instruction in literacy (comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, phonemic awareness), followed by ample time to practice these skills. If teachers are using the CAFE model in conjunction with the Daily 5 choices, and students are going to their independent practice with a goal in mind, it seems that they are practicing with purpose. I am a literacy coach in my district, so I appreciate hearing a variety of research and opinions.

School App Review Mar 29, 2017 02:00 PM

Interesting post. I also looked at your powerpoint on instructional levels and I really appreciate all the data and research you are bringing to these issues.

I have to teach CAFE and Daily 5 (hint: I agree with you) and I would also submit that an assumption the program (and possibly the previous commenter) have is that whole group instruction can't be effective.

Daily 5 and CAFE take this even farther with their focus on activities that allow teachers to meet individually with students. In their model, not even small group instruction is enough.This assumes, though, if you have multiple 5 minute conferences with one student that what other students are doing is productive and leading to learning.

That's why the guided reading model and CAFE (which is a variant of it) have to work with instructional levels - you can't have independent work without students being able to complete the task with minimal guidance. It begs the question, though, if minimal guidance leads to optimal learning.

Andy Mar 29, 2017 02:01 PM

My understanding of the shifts Common Core presents is that literacy should be approached by interweaving strategies to facilitate students reading, talking, and writing about text - to compartmentalize subjects (30 minutes for word study, 30 for comprehension, 30 for writing, etc.) makes sense when teaching necessary discreet skills, but what would you recommend as far as a structured opportunity for students to apply these skills to complex text? (starting at grade 3?) I'm looking forward to Part 2!
*sorry about the run-on sentences

Timothy Shanahan Mar 29, 2017 02:01 PM

There are definitely overlaps between Daily 5 and what I suggested in my recent post. The idea of organizing instructional time is important, and some of the categories in Daily 5 are outcomes. Unfortunately, not all of them are--so teachers focus their time on some good learning outcomes and various activities that may or may not be worthwhile. Explicit instruction and purposeful practice are both good things.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 29, 2017 02:02 PM

You are correct that there are various other problems with the Daily 5 scheme--including requiring or promoting some activities without evidence of effectiveness. This will unfold a bit in my next posts.

Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 02:02 PM

Did "differentiation" and "meet the needs of all learners" lead teachers to replace explicit whole-class instruction with (often-times) ineffective small group activities? This is all about balance - among other things - and it seems like the scales have tipped heavily in favor of small group activities (or "instruction", depending on who is talking), without much evidence to support the shift. Thoughts? -NYC AP

Timothy Shanahan Mar 29, 2017 02:03 PM

Grouping can be a tool for differentiation (e.g., the idea of teaching different groups different things because of what they know at this point). However, grouping and differentiation are not the same thing. The teacher that "proves" she differentiates because she has a bunch of groups does no such thing. Grouping has become a goal for a lot of teachers; it is not a goal, but a tool--and so is whole class instruction. Kids tend to learn more in small group work, but this appears to be offset by the fact they get less instruction (Sorenson & Hallinan, 1987).

Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 02:03 PM

So much time and expertise is needed to effectively plan and implement ONE great lesson in the classroom. Many elementary school teachers need to plan 5 or 6 for each school day. Is there research on the effectiveness of subject-specific teachers in upper elementary grades? Sometimes I wonder if a full-time 4th grade math teacher will be better prepared to teach 4th grade math day in and day out than a teacher who is expected to cover all subjects every day.

Even if teacher-preparation programs are not doing their part...

Are elementary school teachers expected to be instructional experts in too many fields at the same time?


Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 02:04 PM

So much time and expertise is needed to effectively plan and implement ONE great lesson in the classroom. Many elementary school teachers need to plan 5 or 6 for each school day. Is there research on the effectiveness of subject-specific teachers in upper elementary grades? Sometimes I wonder if a full-time 4th grade math teacher will be better prepared to teach 4th grade math day in and day out than a teacher who is expected to cover all subjects every day.

Even if teacher-preparation programs are not doing their part...

Are elementary school teachers expected to be instructional experts in too many fields at the same time?


Anonymous Mar 29, 2017 02:05 PM

I have been teaching for 25 years, have been a school and district literacy coach for 8 of those, and I appreciate everything Dr. Shanahan is saying here. I have used the Daily 5 model (not CAFE yet) during the last year. The time for direct, explicit, instruction that is differentiated for student learning needs is always at issue. Having students engaged in meaningful, focused learning activities, in all those areas of word work, etc. and time for individual conferring/guiding as well as small group instruction is always difficult. Daily 5 attempts to address everything Dr. Shanahan is identifies, yet I don't yet feel it does it at the level needed. I also believe in textbooks, provided they are well-designed and address the common core, however I don't believe textbooks can differentiate well enough in areas where academic needs are so diverse. In my district, 1st graders come in from a DRA 3 (and sometimes below), which is grade level appropriate, all the way to DRA 28 and above that, which would be the bulk of my class. No 1st grade language arts curriculum can address those needs, so I would still need to provide additional resources. Unfortunately, I don't have a current curriculum, so much of my time is spent designing lessons to meet this diverse need. Daily 5 allows me time to meet with those small groups, but I also plan additional time for language arts with more direct instruction, for a total of over 2 hours. It still is not enough.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 29, 2017 02:05 PM

Thanks for this. I appreciate it. However, I do not agree with your position on programs or packaged curriculum generally. Although I have no doubt that you may be able to develop instructional lessons that are as effective as those in a commercial program (the research says that teachers are capable of doing so), but I don't believe that every teacher needs to start every lesson from scratch (too much duplicative work to be truly productive) and I don't believe that it is possible to systematically improve instruction if every teacher is doing her own thing (even if those things aren't bad in themselves). I appreciate your position.

Heather Oct 15, 2017 03:35 PM

Can you recommend where a teacher (1st grade) would look for a program-like experience in a school that does not supply any sort of reading program? Are there any commercial products out there that a solo teacher could purchase? Are there resources online anywhere that support direct, systematic instruction?

Tamara Sep 24, 2022 05:11 PM

I wish we had 2-3 hours for literacy instruction! We have only have 90 minutes each day. Would you suggest still doing all four components everyday, or alternating between the days? Maybe word work and writing one day and fluency and comprehension the next day?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 24, 2022 05:38 PM

It kind of depends on the grade level. With the younger children -- let's say grades K-2, I would try to address those big components daily for roughly a quarter of the time... but by 3rd grade, I would do things like teach reading comprehension and writing for longer chunks of time, but would not do those daily (would you alternate them). Many of my teachers in Chicago did that and it worked quite well for the kids. I don't recommend that with the foundational skills, as it is better to keep those in shorter doses with daily coverage.

If you are trying to accomplish higher reading achievement, I would definitely take a hard look at the schedule to see how you might find those extra 30 minutes. Perhaps you could do some fluency work with the social studies book or some writing in pursuit of what they are studying in science, etc.

Good luck.


Kema Sep 25, 2022 12:53 PM

I’m grateful for this post. I am a literacy coach in NYC who is in a position to visit many classrooms and the areas that most likely need strengthening when I conduct snapshot visits and begin working in coaching cycles is “pedagogy and assessment”.

It is true that many teachers focus on the little activities but do not spend enough time focusing on how they will explicitly teach the lesson/skill, which is important. That is where most of my work is grounded.

Allowing for students to practice and paying close attention to whether or not the students have had a chance to grasp/use the concept that was taught is also key. Many times, concepts just need to be taught, but they aren’t. Instead time might be devoted to the activity that the students must complete, which many times is not modeled and many times not checked.

Grouping should benefit student needs not teacher observations or class management purposes. I like the 4 part breakdown of 30 minutes each that you describe. That is where I am in my coaching journey with the teachers I work with.

We are at a place where we think about the literacy goals for the students and how we will address them and make them visible.

I always remind them that programs and schemes are not my focus, the way lessons roll out, the content presented, and the checks for understanding throughout the lesson is where I see the most value for the students.

Mark Pennington Sep 25, 2022 02:28 PM


You suggest 5 minutes per day for sight words instruction. Many of us are confused about what you mean by "sight" words and how we should teach them, especially for grades 2 and 3 and reading intervention for older students. Specifically, would you suggest focusing on Fry's 300, heart words from that list, or? Would you suggest differentiating instruction based upon a sight words diagnostic? Should we blend through irregular sound-spellings, or? Should we group sight words by patterns? Thanks!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 25, 2022 05:40 PM

I definitely stay to the most frequent 300 words for that effort. Obviously this work makes great sense on the irregularly spelled words, but also I words I want the kids to have that we haven't quite gotten to those patterns in our decoding instruction. Teaching these words can depend heavily on decoding guidance since such a large percentage of these frequent words are either entirely or partially decodable with knowledge of the most usual spelling patterns and sound-symbol correspondences.

How to teach them? Getting students to try to visualize the word and all of its letters is helpful. Engaging them in oral spelling of the word (and trying to write it from memory) helps too. Getting students to use whatever decoding skills they may have at a given point to think about a word makes sense. Even those words that are regularly spelled gain some benefit from sight word attention -- I want students to be able to recognize these words easily without any obvious mediation of sounding.


Miriam Giskin Sep 25, 2022 05:58 PM

I am a retired reading teacher now tutoring online. I love it! You cannot get the kind of results I am getting in a school setting even in small groups because of the many inevitable constraints. Let's be honest, there is no substitute for one on one instruction tailored to the individual needs of the child. Helen Keller would not have been Helen Keller if Annie Sullivan had 5 other similar students in the group! So I am for any system that allows me to address individual needs. It is great if the students I do not happen to be working with at the moment are engaged in something productive, effective and meaningful but most importantly that enables them to leave me alone so I can engage in working with small groups and individuals!

Jan Sep 25, 2022 09:04 PM

I'm given 45 minutes, 5 days/week to work with high school students on literacy. These are students who are "bubble kids" who do not have IEPs, but they do struggle in the areas of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing. How would you structure this to make my students who attend my English intervention? Any advice is greatly appreciated; thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 25, 2022 09:21 PM


Your question is an important one. Structuring an intervention that is targeted on student needs is quite different than planning for regular daily classroom instruction for all. It is impossible for me to provide a meaningful plan for this because interventions like this need to be more targeted than what you describe. These students need to be evaluated in terms of what skills they have and don't have so that a targeted effort aimed at addressing their actual specific needs. No one has found that just lumping a bunch of remedial high school (or college) students together for extra reading instruction is especially helpful. Your school should invest your time in figuring out what they need and then targeting these needs. In a classroom, I try to teach everything. In an intervention, I try to limit what I teach to what will provide the biggest payoff.


Monique Platz Sep 26, 2022 04:07 AM

When you are required to have small groups, how do you develop activities for the kids that are not in small groups? Centers are a mainstay in many primary classrooms. What is the alternative?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2022 01:16 PM


That there aren't research supported ways to use that time is one of the reasons why it is foolish to require small group work when it isn't necessary. Kids who are doing well with reading can work well on their own and benefit from centers, cooperative projects, and various kinds of independent work. The other children need to work closely with the teacher if they are to progress (they don't benefit from the time away from the teacher).


Literacy Sep 26, 2022 04:21 PM

I appreciate the simplicity of your thinking for allocating instructional and learning time throughout the day. Could you break down the "words" and "fluency" a bit more? In particular, where would you put phonemic awareness work in PreK, K and 1?

In my mind, outside of word sorts, it is hard to separate "words" and "fluency". Sight words, sight word phrases, phonetic rules, decoding rules etc. could be taught/practiced/learned in either of these 30 minute blocks. Not a big deal, because 60 minutes a day for all these foundational reading components is reasonable, just not easy to compartmentalize in the emergent reader phase of development. The biggest deal is to hold primary teachers accountable for explicitly teaching/practicing comprehension at least 30 minutes a day. It's easy for them to get wrapped up in developing fluent readers and letting the comprehension piece be far less intentionally taught.

Also, are these times strictly for primary grades? I have always encouraged our teacher to greatly decrease time devoted fluency in grades 3 up and shift that time to more complex comprehension work. Word work also shifts more to meaning based work with Greek/Latin word parts and vocabulary. Just looking for affirmation this is still appropriate and instructional sound advice.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2022 04:37 PM

Well let's stay simple...

When I talk about teaching words, I mean focusing on words and their parts... that means that PA is a part of the word curriculum, as is the ABCs, decoding, morphology, and vocabulary (the word curriculum lasts all the way through high school, though the phonics part of that ends relatively early).

With regard to fluency, the focus is not on words but on the ability to read texts -- connected prose. For particularly young children, finger point reading (trying to match voice and print) is included. Then we get into issues of text reading accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. This is important given that reading words in this context have a closer relationship to reading comprehension than reading words in isolation.


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How to Organize Daily Instruction Part I


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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