Is Amount of Reading Instruction a Panacea?

  • 08 March, 2014

Blast from the Past: This entry was first posted on March 8, 2014 and was re-posted on August 1, 2020. This posting dealt with perhaps the biggest issue facing all of us today: the amount of reading instruction that students receive. I've long been convinced that amount of teaching is one of the three major tools that we have to improve reading achievement. Now, under the limitations imposed by a pandemic, our kids and grandkids are having their reading instruction greatly reduced. Various school plans for the impending school year are suggesting reductions in teaching by as much as 50%. That certainly can't be good for kids, but that isn't being talked about enough. Parents need to recognize that their kids are going to lose a lot if this goes on very long and schools need to do things like send home books and make school libraries available. I heard from a first-grade teacher this week who said she isn't allowed to send the core reading book home. I get why an administrator may impose such a rule, but perhaps we need to send home a photocopy. Let's get the discussion going... our children are going to need more reading and reading instruction than they are likely to get from their schools at least for the next few months. What can we do to make that less damaging?

Recently, Education Week published an interesting piece about a Florida program aimed at extending the school days of children in the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. These schools were mandated to add an extra hour of reading instruction to their days. The result: 75% of the schools improved their reading scores, 70 of them coming off the lowest-performing list. Fla. Pushes Longer Day With More Reading in Struggling Schools


Those who know my work in the schools are aware that amount of instruction is always the first thing that I look at. When I was the director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools it was one of my major mandates. Research overwhelmingly shows that more instruction tends to lead to more learning, and many supposedly research-proven programs obtain their advantages from, you guessed it, offering more teaching than kids will get in the control group.  

But the Ed Week article went on to point out that most of these extra-hour schools were still underperforming demographically matched schools and that 30 of them were still low performing.

Why doesn’t added time always work if it is such a no-brainer?

There are at least a few reasons.

First, time is not a variable. It is a measure or a dosage. Scientists abhor the idea of treating time as a variable. Long ago, the best minds thought iron rusted because of time. Eventually, they figured out that rust is due to exposure to moisture, and that time was a measure of how much moisture the iron was touching. More time meant more moisture.

In education, time is a measure of the amount of curriculum—explanation and practice—that children exposed to. It is the curriculum and how it is taught that makes the difference; time is simply a measure of that.

What if a curriculum is not sound? That is, what if being exposed to it does not usually lead someone to read, or repeats valuable lessons students have already mastered or fails to offer sufficient practice. An hour extra of something that doesn’t work won’t improve things. Time is just a measure, right? An hour of low quality teaching is an hour wasted.

Another problem is whether a mandated hour is actually an hour. Reading First, a federal initiative under No Child Left Behind, required that teachers provide 90 minutes per day of reading instruction. But classroom observers found a lot less than that in Reading First classrooms. Kids in those classrooms spent a lot of time waiting for instruction rather than being instructed.

Teachers don’t always appreciate how powerful their time with kids can be, so they are wasteful of the minutes. Do some self-observation of this and you’ll see what I mean. Thus, the schools stay open. The buses pick kids up an hour later. The teachers and kids are in the classroom. But reading instruction, not so much.

Finally, an extra hour may not equalize performance simply because it may be insufficient. We don’t know how much instruction and practice in reading anyone is getting. How much time is devoted to teaching reading during the school day? How much reading do students do in math, social studies, and science classes? Research studies show big differences in amount of reading instruction in school-to-school and even classroom-to-classroom comparisons.

How much do students read at home? How much time do they spend on the kinds of homework that make a difference? How much language development opportunity do they get before they come to school? What kinds of activities do they engage in through their libraries, parks, churches, synagogues, scouts, etc.?

The fact is that some students receive thousands of hours of instruction and practice in language and literacy each year, while others receive considerably less. An extra hour per day is precious (thank you, Florida), but it simply may be insufficient to overcome the huge differences that exist.


See what others have to say about this topic.

I'm the Univerese Apr 03, 2017 02:09 AM

I so agree with you Mr. Shanahan that quality trumps quantity.
You mirrored my thoughts.
March 24, 2014 at 1:05 PM

tstory Apr 03, 2017 02:11 AM

tstory said...
First, to answer this question, the word "panacea" needs to be defined. Panacea is defined as "an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties" ( In other words, is the amount of reading instruction an answer or solution for low-performing schools? In my opinion, I believe that it is not a solution for low-performing schools. I agree with your statements, "an hour extra of something that doesn't work won't improve things; in addition, it may be insufficient to overcome the huge differences that exist" ( A possible solution may be one to one instruction with reading tutors, community reading programs and practice reading at homes. However, if students live in homes with parents or guardians who struggle with illiteracy; then a solution may be to provide after school programs or adult literacy programs to help with struggling readers. Sadly, mandating an extra hour of reading instruction may be overwhelming for some students and for some reading teachers. Also an extra hour of reading instruction may cause some students to act out or misbehave because they are overwhelmed or stressed out due to extended instruction. To answer the question, "is the amount of reading instruction a panacea?" In my opinion, it may not be the panacea for low-performing schools.

panacea. (n.d.). Retrieved from
April 11, 2014 at 4:44 PM

Timothy Shanahan Apr 03, 2017 02:12 AM

Tutoring doesn't usually do any better than small group instruction (3:1), so that is too expensive a solution, except for the most severely disabled readers. After school programs do not always work, but that is the same issue as in this entry (it depends on the curriculum). Children generally (whether an after school program works or not) are not "overwhelmed" by an extra hour of instruction. In fact, several research studies show them to feel safer and to be emotionally and socially better adjusted as a result of the participation.
April 12, 2014 at 1:32 AM

Sherrie Cole-Whitaker Aug 01, 2020 05:21 PM

Agree- TIME isn’t the best answer. Reading influences academics as well. Research continues to support that those students who read well, also speak well & write well. Literacy is a very complex concept, that quality teacher should have no trouble filling that precious TIME with integrated literacy skills that streams through all content learning. This pandemic will further distance the “HAVES” & “HAVE NOTS”. I believe the opportunity to build literacy is all around us, we just need to talk to each other to create personal plans to assist students (&parents) to engage in their desired opportunity.

Karl Androes Aug 01, 2020 05:47 PM

Time is necessary but not sufficient. The rest of the equation, in my view, goes like this: If we give every student the amount of instruction they need (time), in the right content, and using engaging methods (instructional quality), then every child can learn to read at grade level. I’m not saying this simple formula was ever easy (some students need lots more, etc...), but it’s even harder now in a pandemic with schools closed and so much at-home learning going on. I’m so glad to read your reminder to all that time is where we must still be looking for previewing the train wreck that is surely coming once we can measure student reading performance again, and to find the solution we need to be applying right now, especially for students in under-resourced neighborhoods and communities. All-remote plans, with one day per week of “live” instruction from a teacher and four days of online paperwork breaks two out of three of the ingredients in the equation above.

Catherine Clinger Aug 01, 2020 08:07 PM

I plan to supplement reading instruction through a group of volunteers at our local elementary school, and I've been researching best practices. A recent survey of successful programs found that they shared four components: student re-reading familiar texts, practicing letter-sound relationships, reading new texts, and writing. Successful programs also provided tutors with specific lessons and materials to cover, and delivered these lessons in an organized, predictable fashion. Can you help me find a reputable source for these lessons and materials? Thank you!

Kadesh International Aug 02, 2020 01:05 PM

Congratulations with the post, we are a NGO dealing with literacy competency, especially reading ability, in South Africa. You echo the same sentiment as we do with extra time and not dealing with the curriculum first. Ours is CAPS based but even the teachers complains the curriculum is to top heavy. Most of our learners are EL2 student and are spooked as phonics is not the same in English as in African languages. We currently runs a program amongst teachers called "Every teacher is a literacy teacher" apart from our main program Reader Rescue. Our children struggle because of a lack of background knowledge of words. So every teacher randomly gives a student a word and the learner gives the meaning of the word.
Good luck with your good work.

Dr. Kimberly Miles Aug 02, 2020 04:33 PM

Yes, definetly allocating the limited time we have with students during on-line synchronous and asynchronous learning with literacy instruction will be critical moving our learners forward as readers...and set as a priority by both the principal and the school's leadership team. Although can we start the conversation first with providing our teachers with ongoing evidence-informed professional learning on what distance learning literacy instruction should included for each of our students especially those students not meeting their goals...yet. Let's also include allocating time for teachers to collaborate and calibrate what instructional strategies is having a positive impact and what instructional practices do they need to fine-tune, do different,ly or throw out all together for more equitable outcomes in order for more students to be excited about and engaged in learning as readers.

Claire Aug 02, 2020 07:51 PM

Quality of instruction in conjunction with additional time on reading can prove effective! I agree with your post and wish that more administrators would consider that when looking at curricular resources, teacher capacity, and schedules.

Thank you for the diversity Mr. Shanahan! I love that an Asian reader is presented.

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Is Amount of Reading Instruction a Panacea?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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