Kids Need to Read Within Instruction

  • 04 January, 2016

Blast from Past: This blog entry first posted on January 4, 2016; and it was re-posted April 19, 2018. Recently, I got a lot of criticism on Twitter for arguing that school time should be used for teaching--rather than engaging kids in independent reading. Last week, I watched Doug Fisher argue for having kids reading on their own at home--rather than school (the kids whose teachers focus on independent reading instead of teaching reduce the school year by 14 days of teaching!). Despite the complaints of the critics, I'm a big supporter of having kids read at school--within instruction. This blog makes that case.

             If you have ever had surgery, you probably have had the weird experience of signing off on a bunch of medical paperwork. The oddest form is the one that gives the surgeon permission to assault you. Think about it. Usually we don’t want people poking at us with knives. Doctors can’t do that either, unless we give our permission. Otherwise, every tonsillectomy would lead to a 911 call.

           That means context matters. Stick a knife in someone in an OR and that is cool, do the same thing down at the local tap and you'll do 5-7 in the state pen.

           Over the years, I've challenged the notion of just having kids read on their own at school. (Or, maybe not so much challenged the notion as told people about the actual research findings on this topic which aren't so wonderful.) I’ve not been a friend to DEAR, SSR, SQUIRT, or similar schemes that set aside daily amounts of time for self selected reading in the classroom. 

             Most studies don’t find much pay off for this kind of reading—either in reading achievement or motivation to read. There are many better things to do if your goal is to encourage reading than to just tell kids to go read on their own (a directive that sounds a lot like, “go away and leave me alone").

            So, what's the topic of my first blog entry of 2016? You guessed it: the importance of having kids read at school.  That's the link to surgery. People shouldn’t stab you with a knife, except when they should. And, kids should not read at school--except when that is the smart thing to do.

            I certainly would like kids to read a lot, especially when they are on their own—at home in the evening, on weekends, and during summer. You know, the 87% of their childhood time that they are not in school with teachers.

            My reasoning on this is quite simple: the payoff from reading instruction is high (in terms of reading achievement), while the learning impact of just reading on one’s own is very low--especially for younger kids and struggling readers. If I have a $70,000 a year professional willing to work with my child for 6 hours a day, 185 days a year, then it would probably be better to use that time for reading instruction, and the other 87% of my child's time could be used for activities that don’t require a teacher.

            That doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t be reading in school. Of course, there are those lost minutes when kids have down time and having books available to fill the time with reading makes a lot of sense (I read when I'm waiting to see my doctor, but when she is available, I put the book aside).

            But the really big investment in reading time in school should not be filling lost minutes. It should be a prominent part of instruction. Kids should be reading throughout their school day—during literacy instruction, during science, social studies, mathematics, health, and the arts, too.

            I visit a lot of classrooms, and I can tell you that I don’t see much reading going on. A teacher might be teaching reading comprehension—but the reading experience is more of a round-robin oral reading activity. The same happens in a lot of subject matter textbooks, too. These activities seem to be arranged in such a way that nobody has to read much. Some kids read a few sentences or a paragraph, and then there is a lot of talking, and another kid reads for 20 seconds.

            I have long argued for 2-3 hours per day of written language instruction, with that time divided among word work (both decoding and word meaning—words and parts of words), fluency, reading comprehension, and writing). If a teacher did that, it would mean that kids would work on reading comprehension for 2.5 hours to 3.75 hours per week (similar times would be devoted to the other components).

            But how much of that time should be spent on reading and writing? Not talking about reading, not being told how to write, not doing anything but practicing reading and writing. The correct answer is that nobody knows. So, let’s get arbitrary about it, and decide that during the 150 minutes of reading comprehension work we are doing this week, my boys and girls will spend 75 minutes of that time reading text!

            I think we should do the same with fluency and writing… and even with word work. There is no way that you can teach phonics effectively if you are not giving kids substantial opportunity to sound out words and non-words; reading them and trying to spell them, both in isolation and context.

            Just as we put the clock on the “90-minute reading block,” I think we should be putting the clock on the amount of actual reading and writing that boys and girls do within that reading block (and in their other studies).

            Kids need to read and write, but they will do this most productively under the guidance and interaction of a skilled teacher. Unfortunately, I don’t see a sufficient amount of those kinds of reading minutes for kids to become good readers. I don’t know if 50% is the right estimate—maybe I’m undershooting. We won’t really know until we start futzing with that more intentionally than is typical in American classrooms.

            If we want high reading achievement, we need to have kids reading and writing a lot under the supervision of teachers. Teachers, while building lesson plans, should determine how many minutes the kids will be reading, and principals and coaches during walk throughs should be looking for whether these time devotions are sufficient. 

          So, I hope you'll make this New Year's resolution: Children, within their reading and writing lessons, will spend at least half that time actually reading and writing. This could be a wonderful year for a lot of girls and boys if we followed through on such a resolution.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Apr 03, 2017 02:25 AM

Thanks for tackling this "time" issue immediately in 2016.

" I visit a lot of classrooms, and I can tell you that I don’t see much reading going on. A teacher might be teaching reading comprehension—but the reading experience is more of a round-robin oral reading activity. The same happens in a lot of subject matter textbooks, too. These activities seem to be arranged in such a way that nobody has to read much. Some kids read a few sentences or a paragraph, and then there is a lot of talking, and another kid reads for 20 seconds."

Total amount of time that students read is an issue. You eloquently stated the case for 50% of the time for students to be reading and writing. I would suggest that the "student data" in the classroom might also be a source of information for amount of time that students need to be reading and writing. For example: if most students are being successful (however that is defined), the current amount of time may only need to be included for some. Yet if most students are not currently successful in reading and writing, then their classroom reading and writing time must be increased dramatically. School time must provide time for students to do the reading and writing time with a teacher at hand. This cannot be relegated to out-of-school assignments of reading and writing tasks.

You used an OR analogy. I'll switch to sports. The Super Bowl champions - do they only spend a few minutes drilling and scrimmaging each day? Or do they spend a great deal of time, together as a team, working towards a common goal? The first practice after a game may start with film time - watch our last game, determine what we did right, not-so-right, and maybe disasterously. Set a course of actions for the week. Begin to work on that list. Adjust the list as the week progresses. I see many similarities in teaching.

Reading and Writing don't improve when students are spectators. They must be in the game in order to provide evidence of learning. And at school, that game occurs all day long - not just in the reading or writing class!
January 6, 2016 at 7:17 AM

Randi Sondenshine Apr 03, 2017 02:25 AM

Randi Sonenshine said...
Thanks for the insightful post! As a middle school instructional literacy coach, my biggest challenge has been to get content teachers to integrate purposeful and appropriate reading opportunities in their classrooms. Through PD sessions, direct coaching, and modeling, I have made progress reducing the prevalence of "round robin" reading and increasing teachers' use of content-specific reading strategies. However, this is mostly whole class/teacher modeling/read aloud. My question is this: How can I move teachers toward providing and "supervising" purposeful and appropriate independent reading activities?

Thanks so much and happy New Year!
January 6, 2016 at 9:48 AM

Courtney Goddard Apr 03, 2017 02:25 AM

It’s interesting to me that I stumbled across this post. I am a teacher to students (mostly in second grade) who struggle with reading and writing. I have two children who thankfully read very well, and just before finding this post I told them to take a “technology break” and read for the next 30-45 minutes. I even said, “Stop everything and read.” When I visit the general education classroom, I see many teachers having students engage in independent reading time, and I must agree it does seem like a way to fill down time! I never really thought of it this way though, until reading this blog post! The school I work in also has the reading block set into each day, but it is a lot of instruction and teaching students how to comprehend or write using correct conventions. I think it would be a much better practice to have kids doing more of the actual reading and writing under the teacher supervision verses having silent reading time! I think the mindset for teachers is to give students a chance to read something for fun and to spark an interest in reading, but it ends up being a dreaded task! Another idea for this down time, would be having everyone in the class, including the teacher read a preferred text for the silent read time. I think many times, the students are expected to read, but they never see their teachers read for fun! Maybe if the whole class chose their preferred book and everyone sat in a big circle reading (with the teacher included), maybe it would make a better use of that time. Overall, I appreciate the insight and plan to share this blog with some of my coworkers!
January 18, 2016 at 1:27 PM

Timothy Shanahan Apr 03, 2017 02:26 AM


It is okay to have kids read when there is some down time (like when they have finished a lesson and the other kids and teacher are still at it)... but there shouldn't be that much downtime in school, and the teacher definitely shouldn't have much. Sustained silent reading advocates have long espoused the idea of teacher reading during this period (and some have even claimed the lack of such modeling is the reason that SSR has so little impact on kids' reading ability)... I think there are much better ways of encouraging reading than to just read in the classroom (like telling kids about books you have read or creating a book club).

January 19, 2016 at 11:14 AM

Lequone Banks Apr 03, 2017 02:26 AM

Reading is fundamental...if it is done correctly. That is the point I received from this post. I understand the need to be intentional, but I disagree that reading on your own is somewhat detrimental to students. Reading a favorite novel is not a bad thing. I regularly have students read quietly when they are finished with an assignment. Students eagerly check out books from the library to SSR, not to have their teacher headline the the reading show. Yes, I agree with the need for instruction. Meaningful lessons on decoding and the use of context will help the student read individually. Reading is such a hot topic that never seems to cool down. Now, that I think about it, why should it...Reading is fundamental.
January 21, 2016 at 2:35 PM

Lequone Banks Apr 03, 2017 02:27 AM

I didn't say that SSR or DEAR were detrimental to kids, only that they weren't as good as what should be happening. Think of it this way: there are a lot of things that one can do to maintain or restore their health. Some of them are very fundamental, like getting enough hours of sleep, exercising, and eating nutritious foods, and others are more occasional, requiring the assistance of professionals (like having your teeth examined professionally twice a year). When my doctor or dentist is available to work with me is a lousy time to go out for a run or to prepare my kale salad; I can do those on my own time and the expensive professional is not always available. I would much rather have kids read for pleasure on the 185 days that they are not in school, or on school days during the 17 hours they are not in school--than on those days that they have a professional teacher available to work on improving their reading ability and extending their reading skills, etc.

Typically teachers are available to their school districts--not necessarily to the students--for about 1480 hours per year (out of an annual 8760 hours). If we are going to use the school day for kids to go read on their own instead of receiving instruction, perhaps that means teachers will voluntarily make themselves available to teach the kids during those other 7280 hours. Since Johnny was off on his own reading for fun during the school day, Mrs. Smith will pop over to our house this evening to provide him with the missed instruction. Of course, it could go the other way, too, with parents asking for a portion of their tax money back since their child is only getting 6.5 hours of teaching instead of the 7 they thought they were paying for. My point isn't that it isn't good for kids to read on their own, only that it is not sound to do that when a teacher is available to provide instruction (which should be more powerful than what junior could pick up on his own).
January 22, 2016 at 12:30 PM

Veronica P. Apr 03, 2017 02:27 AM

I found this post interesting,and I agree with you that students need to be reading more productively, under a teachers supervision. I am working with students in a guided reading setting, and since our school started using a "Readers Workshop Model", there has been more involvement with student reading, especially when the students read with a partner. However, if the teacher is not observant of how student partners are reading, who is to say that they are just passing time and pretend reading? I think it's a great idea for the Reading Coach to visit classrooms and observe productive student reading, but at our school, our coaches time is spread so thin during the day with meetings, data teams, and small group instruction. You mentioned book clubs as well and I think that would be a great idea for 3rd grade and up. As a new teacher, I am always looking for ways to motivate my students to read and explore books.
January 24, 2016 at 1:00 PM

Timothy Shanahan Apr 03, 2017 02:27 AM

I'm a big fan of paired reading, but that is not a time for the teacher to check out. I know many teachers who group have the different groups practice reading with each other while she is with another group. What I do is have all the groups doing their paired oral reading simultaneously, with the teacher circulating through the room--giving guidance, recording assessment information, coaching the partners, etc. Oral reading fluency time is instructional time.
January 24, 2016 at 3:46 PM

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Kids Need to Read Within Instruction


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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