More Learning Time for Some Kids

  • 01 December, 2018

Teacher question:

I saw you speak recently and you mentioned a few times that schools of high needs should receive more reading instruction compared to schools of low needs. Were you basing your comments on research or your opinion?  Our buildings of high needs students receive fewer instructional reading minutes due to everyone wanting to get a piece of the student for their services (e.g., math needs, reading needs, social skills, specialty school curriculum).

 Shanahan response:

There are no studies that reveal the amount of reading instruction that is necessary or sufficient to teach reading effectively to students at different levels of performance. However, there is an extensive body of literature showing the importance of amount of instruction in reading achievement (e.g., Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Denton, Foorman, & Mathes, 2003; Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliave, et al., 2015; Hoffman, 1991; Kent, Wanzek, & Al Otaiba, 2017; KIesling, 1977-1978; Puma, Darweit, Price, Ricciuti, et al., 1997; Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 2000; Weber, 1971).

The most basic finding from all of this?

More teaching results in more learning.

Thus, those students who are behind in reading need more teaching—not less—if the goal is to catch them up.

Or look at the book Annual Growth for All Students…Catch-up Growth for Those Who are Behind by Lynn Fielding, Nancy Kerr, and Paul Rosier… which shows how their school district couldn’t raise achievement sufficiently until they started providing greater amounts of instruction for the lower performers.

When scientists first started looking into these issues, much was made about the difference between allotted time and academic learning time (ALT). The former is how much time we plan to devote to a subject, and the latter is the actual amount of productive time that we provide. Transition times, for instance, don’t lead to learning, nor does other off-task time.

These days further refinements to the amount of instruction construct are being added. Recent findings are finding that all instruction is not equally potent. More time for certain teaching activities has a bigger payoff. And, this is also true when it comes to specific needs students have. If kids are struggling with decoding, for instance, devoting more instructional time to reading comprehension won’t be as likely to lead to big learning gains as more appropriately targeted instruction would (Connor, Spencer, Day, Giuliani, et al., 2014; Sonnenschein, Stapleton, & Benson, 2010).

Nevertheless, the basic idea is still sound. More teaching leads to more learning—as long as the instruction is appropriate and everyone is paying attention.

When I was a school district administrator, I never made a decision without considering amount of teaching. When directed to implement some policy or to consider a policy direction, I always asked: Will this increase the amount of teaching our students will get? If the answer was yes, then whatever the action, I was for it. And, if it was going to reduce the amount of teaching, then I was adamantly opposed.

That should be every school administrators’ watchword.

Amount of teaching has a big impact on school achievement, and it is a major resource that you can control.

Your situation is a little different, of course. Your kids are lagging pretty much in all areas. Amount of instruction matters in reading, but it matters with other subjects and areas of development, too (e.g., Walberg, Harnish, & Tsai, 1986). If you try to escalate the amount of reading instruction, this likely will come at the expense of instruction in some other area.

Some of this tradeoff might be made up for by focusing reading lessons on content texts, but there are limits to that. A comprehension lesson can easily include science or social studies content, but a phonics lesson not so much.

Reading is important, but it isn’t the only thing that matters in student development. Your team needs to get together to set priorities, so that the areas of greatest need (and potential value) get the greatest time allotments. And, keep looking for ways of expanding the amounts of instruction that will be made available to these needy students.


 Bentum, K. E.Aaron, P. G. (2003). Does reading instruction in learning disability resource rooms really work?: A longitudinal study. Reading Psychology, 24(3-4), 361-382.

Bryk, A.S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage, NY. 

Connor, C.M., Spencer, M., Day, S.L., Giuliani, S. et al. (2014). Capturing the complexity: Content, type, and amount of instruction and quality of the classroom learning environment synergistically predict third graders’ vocabulary and reading comprehension outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 762-778.

Denton, C., Foorman, B.R., & Mathes, P.G. (2003). Schools that “Beat the Odds”: Implications for reading instruction. Remedial and Special Education, 24, 258-261.

Fielding, L., Kerr, N., & Rosier, P. (2007). Annual growth for all students…Catch-up growth for those who are behind. Kennewick, WA: New Foundation Press.

Fisher, C., Berliner, D., Filby, N., Marliave, R., et al. (2015). Teaching behaviors, academic learning time, and student achievement: An overview. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 50(1), 6-24.

Hoffman, J.V. (1991). Teacher and school effects in learning to read. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (vol. 2, pp. 911-950). New York: Longman. 

Kent, S.C., Wanzek, J., & Al Otaiba, S. (2017). Reading instruction for fourth-grade struggling readers and the relation to student outcomes. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 33(5), 395-411.

Kiesling, H. (1977-1978). Productivity of instructional time by mode of instruction for students at varying levels of reading skill. Reading Research Quarterly, 13(4), 554-582.

Puma, M.J., Darweit, N., Price, C., Ricciuti, A., et al. (1997).  Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Planning and Evaluating Service. 

Shanahan, T., & Walberg, H.J. (1985). Productive influences on high school student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 78(6), 357-363.

Sonnenschein, S., Stapleton, L.M., & Benson, A. (2010). The relation between the type and amount of instruction and growth in children’s reading competencies. American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 358-389. 

Taylor, B.M., Pearson, P.D., Clark, K., & Walpole, S. (2000). Effective schools and accomplished teachers: Lessons about primary-grade reading instruction in low-income schools. Elementary School Journal, 101 (2000), pp. 121-165.

Walberg, H.J., Harnisch, D.L., & Tsai, S. (1986). Elementary school mathematics productivity in twelve countries. British Educational Research Journal, 12(3), 237-248.

Weber, G. (1971). Inner-city children can be taught to read: Four successful schools (CGE Occasional Paper No. 18). Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dan Vollstedt Apr 14, 2020 02:28 PM

I agree more teaching means more learning. Im old school and feel the more a student reads the better reader they become.

Imelda L. Lucos Nov 10, 2020 07:59 AM

Yes it is true that if teachers devote more time in quality teaching, the more our leaners learn. And for Administrators they should spent more time on instructional supervision and that is 70 percent of their task

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More Learning Time for Some Kids


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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