Time and Teaching

  • 17 November, 2009

  I received two recent letters asking similar questions. Both correspondents noticed that I make a big deal about amount of instruction and they wanted to see the research that I rely on when I encourage schools to maximize time.

Although there are lots of studies of time and its role in student learning — not just in reading, but in education generally — these studies aren’t always easy to find. If you look up time or amount of instruction in ERIC, there are studies, but you’ll miss out on some of the best examples. You probably won’t find the research on full-day kindergarten there, but are such studies about anything but amount of instruction (the kids either get 2½ or 5 hours per day of schooling)? You’ll probably miss out on the homework studies, too, but I would put them in the increased time basket as well. And where do the analyses of A Nation at Risk (1983) fit? That was the report that kicked off our seemingly permanent school reform efforts. They compared the lengths of school years across nations, and found that kids in the U.S. were getting less teaching than was available in many of the countries who outperform us academically (a more recent analysis was in my newspaper this week… only one country that is doing better than us has a comparable length school year (Finland); everyone else has more days of schooling. And there are studies of the time commitment required to develop genius (Walberg, 1981, Gifted Child Quarterly), or models of what works in school reform (e.g., Fuller & Clarke, Review of Educational Research, 1994). Most of those studies won’t show up in a literature search focused on time, but they are about time, just as are the studies of extended school years, extended school days, tardiness and absenteeism, afterschool programs, summer school programs, and efforts to use the school day better (and there are both correlational or experimental studies on all of those topics).
If you go back a ways, you can find really neat literature reviews showing that when students engage in generative activities (like writing summaries or answering questions after reading), they do better than when they just read. It became a standard rhetorical turn in such reviews to wonder if it was the activities that conferred the learning advantages or whether the readers in the experimental conditions were just spending more time on texts because of the activities. That was seen at the time as a research design problem, and reviews by Rothkopf, Wittrock, and A. Gagne (all appearing inReview of Educational Research in the 1970s) treated time as a confound that may have boosted the experimental groups performance, making it difficult to determine whether the reading comprehension interventions were really working. None of those studies would be considered to be time studies, but I would include them since their benefits came from adding time. Yes, getting students to spend more time on text helps them to comprehend more — as long as they are engaged in thinking about the meaning of the text. 

There are also “natural experiments” that are evident when a community begins sending kids to school (such as has happened recently in Egypt or as happened here in the U.S. since Brown v. Board of Education--African American school attendance climbed dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s and achievement climbed with it). During the 20th century, most U.S. states increased the length of the school year from about 100 days to the current 180: and there were gains in learning associated with that (by 1970 we were no longer increasing the school year or including new populations in schooling; 1970 is when our achievement gains leveled off to where it is now). One can look at education in South Korea over the past decade or so, to see what increasing a school year and enrollment percentages can do to achievement levels. (Is anyone surprised that the U.S. high schools with the highest dropout rates also have the highest absenteeism? Kids at those schools usually miss more than 30 days a year).
Herb Walberg once told me that there was something like 10,000 studies on the role of time or amount of teaching in education. That was years ago, and I suspect the number has grown quite a bit since then. I never checked Herb on this point (let me see the bibliography, Herb), but experience tells me that he is usually correct about such claims, so I trust it (especially when I can so easily find so many studies of time myself). Given that, I think it is pretty clear that amount of instruction matters.
But there is an important caveat, oft raised during these past few decades: there is a difference between allotted time and engaged time. That is, learning is going to come from how time is used and not just the how much time is available (Jane Stallings wrote a nifty article about this in the Educational Researcher in 1980, and Barack Rosenshine and David Berliner wrote similar pieces around the same time). I have seen schools hire teachers to deliver extra instruction to kids through afterschool programs: instruction that, ultimately, was not delivered (in some cases, because kids didn’t show up and in others because the teachers simply didn’t teach). Of course, if the teacher is presenting something or leading a discussion and the kids aren’t paying any attention (lots of allotted time, but no engaged time), no learning is going to happen. 
We need to make sure that our schools have enough time to teach reading effectively, and I suspect we will need longer school years and longer school days to accomplish that with all kids. But currently we are not using teaching time well, so simply expanding time availability is not a sufficient answer. Below I have listed some of the time studies that I use in my courses here at the university. The Smith paper is available online and it shows how teachers often fail to use the allotted time in the Chicago Public Schools (there are similar reports about teaching elsewhere, with sadly similar results). So, longer school years and school days yes! But let’s make darn sure that we provide the “bell to bell” teaching that Mel Riddle talks about (Mel was the principal who turned around a severely challenged high school in Fairfax Co., Virginia; one of the big tools he used to raise achievement there was getting teachers to use the instructional time for —you guessed it— teaching!).

American College Testing. (2006). Reading between the lines. Iowa City: American College Testing.

Carroll, J.B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 723–733.

Cooper, H. (2001). Summer school: Research-based recommendations for policy makers. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review.Review of Educational Research, 66, 227–268. 

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Pastall, C. A. (2006). Review of Educational Research,76, 1-62. 

Cooper, H. Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987-2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1-62.

Filby, N.N., & Cahen, L.S. (1985). Teacher accessibility and student attention. In C.W. isher & D.C. Berliner (Eds.), Perspectives on instructional time (pp. 203–215). New York: Longman.

Frazier, J.A., & Morrison, F.J. (1998). The influence of extended-year schooling on growth of achievement and perceived competence in early elementary schooling. Child Development, 69, 495–517.

Frederick, W. C. The use of classroom time in high schools above or below the median reading score. Urban Education, 11(4), 459-464.

Fusaro, J. A. (1997). The effects of full-day kindergarten on student achievement: A meta-analysis. Child Study Journal, 27(4), 269-279.

Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effects of schooling. New York: Academic Press.

Smith, B.A. (1998). It’s about time: Opportunities to learn in Chicago’s elementary schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Stallings, J.A., & Mohlmna, G.G. (1982). Effective use of time in secondary reading classrooms. ERIC Document 216 343.

If you want even more citations, go into Google Scholar and type: engaged time teaching reading. That’ll give you a half million choices! Or type in some of the names or articles above and see what else comes up. Happy hunting.


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Time and Teaching


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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