Why don’t you like independent reading? It only makes sense for students to practice reading if they’re going to get good at it. My students live in poverty. They won’t read at home, so I provide 20 minutes a day for them to just read. Practice makes perfect, you know.
You’re right about the importance of practice. Practice has value in the development of any skilled activity.
I have no doubt that reading practice plays a role in making kids better readers.
I don’t oppose encouraging students to practice their reading. However, as a but I do believe in making instructional time as productive as possible. Just sending kids off to read is not likely to pay off as the other alternatives.
There has been a lot of research into the kinds of practice that improves performance.
We now have a pretty good idea on what effective practice looks like (Ericcson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993).
Unfortunately, your 20 minutes of daily independent reading doesn’t resemble that picture to any degree.
Effective practice, for instance, is purposeful, intentional, or deliberate. It doesn't include just aimless engagement in an activity. Effective practice focuses on what it is the student is trying to improve.
My wife is a pianist. She practices a lot. By that I don’t mean she sits around playing the piano all day. No, she works on certain pieces of music – or even parts of those compositions. She selects music that places certain demands on her and then works on them over again and again to master their intricacies.
Similar examples can be drawn from athletics. The most effective hitters in baseball don’t just “take batting practice.” They practice trying to hit the fast ball up and in or the curve down and away. Much is made about how many swings some hitters take. Pete Rose reputedly took 500 swings per day. But amount of practice may distract from the purposefulness of the effort. Rose didn’t just swing – he took the swings that could improve his hitting in a particular way.
Free reading, independent reading, sustained silent reading, drop everything and read time… all emphasize the idea that kids should be reading. There is some doubt about how much students really read during these periods (Stahl, 2004), but even if they are reading, there is nothing deliberate about it. What are they working on? What is it that they are trying to learn? Which texts have they chosen that will allow them to work on whatever that may be?
Let’s face it. There is nothing purposeful or deliberate about free reading. There is nothing wrong with that, unless the reason for the practice is to make the students better readers.
There are other features of productive practice, too.
Perhaps, your approach reflects some of those.
For instance, it helps if the skill to be practiced is broken into manageable parts. That allows a lot of repetition of key features or especially difficult parts of the skill.
That seems logical for improving a skill, but it isn’t an accurate description of the kind of practice that free reading provides.
Another important feature of effective practice is feedback in the moment. Errors creep into any skilled performance, so having a knowledgeable coach or partner who can monitor the practice and provide guidance in how to improve makes a big difference.
But, again, the classroom practice that you ask about is notable because of its independence of that kind of teacher involvement. At best, a teacher might speak briefly to a child several minutes (or even days) after the practice. If the child is self-aware enough to recognize what he/she is struggling with, and open enough to share it with the teacher, and articulate enough that the teacher understands what happened, then possibly some productive feedback can be provided. That's unlikely, however.
When I look at the average effect size of various instructional routines for teaching decoding, fluency, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000), I come up with .40 approximately. The same kind of exercise within classroom independent reading is .05-.10 (Yoon, 2003). That means that the payoff from teaching is 400-800% better than the payoff from having kids go it alone.
Similar imbalances exist between practice in music or athletics and practice in educational tasks like reading or math. The educational payoffs tend to be relatively tiny; about 4-5 times less effective than in those other activities (Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). (Evidently, we need be careful of those kinds of sports or music analogies since the nature of what needs to be practiced is so different).
What’s interesting is that those practice routines that research has identified as being powerful look a whole lot more like good reading instruction than free reading. Think about the kinds of reading that students engage in during guided/directed reading or repeated reading. There are clear purposes for the reading, the text is chosen for its appropriateness to those purposes, the reading takes place in relatively brief segments, the teacher monitors student success and provides feedback.
In those teaching contexts, a good deal of reading should take place. Not only in the reading class, but in social studies, science, and other subjects, too. Students should be reading at school throughout their day, week, and year. A 30-minute reading comprehension lesson should involve at least 15 minutes of reading; maybe more.
By all means, encourage your students to read for pleasure, too. Help them find books they might be interested in. Give them opportunities to share their reading experiences with other kids in class. Provide guidance to parents to support home reading. Offer advice on home reading routines (the wheres, the whens, the whys, the hows).
But cherish and protect your students’ instructional time. There isn’t enough of it. School is a good place to make kids stronger readers.
Don’t make the students’ independent reading part of your daily classroom schedule. Teach and guide your students so that it becomes part of theirs.
(Oh, and I don’t buy the idea that kids from low-income families won’t read. They will with the right guidance and support and if they can become proficient readers, which is why their instructional time is so precious. The argument that these kids will do better if you reduce their opportunities to learn just doesn’t bear scrutiny.)
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1608-1618. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810
Stahl, S.A. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 187–211). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Yoon, J. (2003). What a meta analytic review of three decades of SSR says about reading comprehension. Journal of Curriculum & Evaluation, 6(2), 171-186.
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