Do Learning Centers and Seatwork Improve Reading Achievement?

  • 13 October, 2018

Teacher questions:

I am an elementary literacy coach. A trend I am seeing in our K-2 classrooms are center activities not aligned to measurable outcomes. My question is, in a room of 24 first graders, when the teacher is pulling a small group to deliver targeted instruction, what does research say is best for what the other students to be doing? I'm struggling to find a model that we can confidently start driving towards.  

I am often asked about what the "other students" should be doing while teachers meet with small groups. I refer to What Works Clearinghouse studies to see gains for different programs and approaches. I can't find anything that quantifies students' reading improvement for independent reading vs. a computer program. For example, teachers will tell me they "put" students on a computer program daily for 20 minutes while they work with a small group because the teacher likes the program and thinks it is effective. Some of these programs do show decent gains on the studies on What Works Clearinghouse, yet I'm not a fan of computer-assisted reading programs. I struggle to respond to that because I can't find research support that refutes it over gains from independent reading. Can you help me to explain to teachers the difference or benefit to having students read independently over being put on a computer program if there is one?

Shanahan responds:

Wow! Thanks a lot, ladies.

You’ve used up my weekend in researching an answer to these questions.

No, I don’t mean I’ve been reading the research on seatwork (okay, I did a bit of that).

But there are an amazing number of websites that promise they can teach you how to say, “I don’t know” and still sound intelligent.

Unfortunately, they counsel that the dummy who doesn’t know should offer to research the question.

My problem is that I’ve researched it and still don’t know the answer. (Do I still sound intelligent?)

There isn’t much research on this topic.

But go to Amazon, type in “learning centers,” and an plethora of books pops up. They are all great—apparently; their blurbs describe them as “effective” and say they “really work.” (What they work at is not clear from the blurbs.)

There are some studies on seatwork, particularly in mathematics. This neglect is surprising given the vast amounts of classroom time devoted to seatwork. One study found that kids spend as much as 70% of their instructional time on their own, which varied by subject area (Fisher, et al., 1978); and more recent studies have produced similar results (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Vaughn, et al., 2002).

The studies that do exist tend to evaluate the effectiveness of seatwork, rather than pointing out successful seatwork routines that increase learning.

For example, back in the 1980s Paul Sindelar and his colleagues tested different amounts of direct teacher guidance and seatwork activities. They devoted 25%, 50%, and 75% of the time to teacher-led instruction and found that the more time with the teacher the better the kids did at learning math. And, the opposite—the more seatwork, the less learning.

Is it a good idea to have kids spending so much time working away from the teacher?

According to the studies, no.

Studies report that kids are less likely to be engaged in learning when working on their own (Cohen, 1994; Cowen, 2016; Gump, 1967; Kouno, 1970); and amount of seatwork has been found to be negatively related to learning (Seifert & Beck, 1984).

One study even reported that the best readers did reasonably well with seatwork and other independent activities, but lower readers learned substantially less from such activities (Connor, Morrison, & Petrella, 2004). They needed the teacher time.

The remaining research on seatwork focuses less on what kinds of assignments, centers, or programs lead to the most learning, and more to how teachers might manage seatwork better so that the kids won’t be as disruptive. In other words, their goal is identifying which routines keep kids busiest, not which ones teach best.

What these studies are all saying is that seatwork should be thought of not as a productive part of the school day, but as a necessary evil.

When it comes to academics, kids simply don’t learn that much on their own—except perhaps for the ones who are really good learners anyway—in which case, seatwork could be characterized as an effective way to make sure the lower kids don’t catch up!

The second questioner above hoped that I could point out research showing that independent reading was better than computer work. I know of no studies that make that comparison, but generally independent reading tends to have a pretty small impact on reading achievement. Seatwork studies suggest that the more learning comes when kids are interacting with others; not working by themselves—even when that self-time might be reading on their own.

It is possible that there are benefits to working with digital programs, since they provide some interaction (and some do have supporting research). However, even the best of those programs tend to require lots of teacher involvement if they are to make a learning difference—though that isn’t always how they are used in classrooms.

I do like the idea of having kids read during their downtime, but I would link this closely with their reading instruction. Thus, I might have the kids reading something silently prior to coming to group, so that they are ready to discuss; or I might have kids follow up their reading with me, by practicing fluency with a partner (which can help if the texts are hard enough and the kids stay on task). And, either of these activities could involve a social studies or science book, not just the “reading books,” which might take advantage of some of the slack time in those classes.

Research is very supportive of cooperative learning groups, so you might have some luck combining that with project learning activities, but cooperative learning requires some real knowledge. You’d have to study up on that if you wanted to really be successful.

Writing is another activity that can fill such space. Perhaps doing a writing lesson prior to meeting with reading groups, and then having kids working on their compositions while you work with groups would be useful (again, as long as they stay on task).

Overall, my message would be to minimize this kind of independent work, seatwork, center time, or on-one’s-own computer assignments. It’s better for the kids to work with the teacher and to work with each other.

Brush up your skills in working with larger groups including how to maximize student-to-student and student-teacher interactions and choral or every-student-responds responses.

Seatwork is like homework; it is best focused on applying what students already have learned.

When you do meet with small groups, try staggering the schedules—talking with one while the other reads, then moving to the other group to interact with them, while the first group is annotating. Or, if you meet with groups in a particular order, always give yourself 5-10 minutes between groups to interact with the kids who have been doing seatwork on their own.

I’d love to tell you that there are terrific research-supported workbooks, seatwork activities, computer programs, stations, or learning centers. There just aren’t. Given that practitioners need to be experimental, trying out various routines to evaluate their impact on learning and behavior.

Those books I noted earlier might be a good place to start. But wherever the ideas come from for your seatwork routines, you should be skeptical and data-oriented in evaluating their effectiveness and usefulness, and willing to try lots of alternatives.

Or, I could just say, “That’s a really interesting question.”


See what others have to say about this topic.

Debi Varney
Oct 14, 2018 12:10 AM

When my students are not working with me, or with another adult in the room they like Reader's Theater, where they retell and act out a story that has been read aloud (it encourages oral language from all including ELL learners). They also enjoy activites such as Write the Room, writing a letter to the student of the week, or working with a partner at word work (putting words in ABC order, stamping sight words, etc.)

Julie Taylor
Oct 14, 2018 03:01 AM

Thank you for your detailed response, I appreciate it very much.

I’m glad you tied in the importance of building background knowledge and pulling in science and social studies. Along with writing activities and cooperative learning, that gives teachers more flexible options that all yield high gains.

Melissa Leahey
Oct 14, 2018 01:16 PM

What is your general opinion of the workshop model, specifically the Calkins curriculum, that requires so much independent work during the workshop?

Oct 14, 2018 04:48 PM

Teacher time vs. independent working time...that's been a dilemma for ages. Now, our district is embracing and rolling out personalized learning where students will be spending even more time on independent work. What are your thoughts with Personalized Learning that is the new rage? As an elementary reading teacher who works with small groups of 2-5 students for only 25-30 min. at a time, what is the best use of that time to be the most effective? I do take running reading records with my students so I do have them working independently or with partner at times. When we read stories/poetry/articles, etc., after a brief pre-reading activity I have them read independently while I go around and have them whisper read to me for a page or so and then I go listen to another student, giving strategies support as needed (from Fountas and Pinnell LLI program - I adopted this style) vs. all sitting there reading round robin. Yet, we do that also to talk about fluency and work on reading with expression, paying attention to punctuation, etc.
So many thoughts here....independent time vs. teacher time, on computer programs or not, etc. I wish I felt more confident that what I was doing was the best for the kids.

Oct 14, 2018 07:05 PM

Speaking of independent time, my district is now requiring all K-5 students to work on the eSpark program for both reading and math. They want students on each program for 1 hour per week. My 2nd and 3rd grade students log into the Read Naturally program for reading support sessions. I see those groups twice weekly for 30-40 minute sessions. Three times per year our students log in to the DORA, or Diagnostic Online Reading Assessment. This data determines the starting point for the eSpark reading platform. We also have the McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders program, mostly digital format, some print materials in grades K-1. I do like the structure/organization of Wonders, and the plethora of materials and resources. I'm actually so worried our district might be going back to the workshop model that I wrote a persuasive essay to our director of curriculum (who happens to be a former high school chemistry teacher. ouch.) Our teachers enjoy reading aloud, having guided reading groups, etc. but we do not want to abandon our Wonders program!
The point is, our students are being asked to do more and more on their own, on their iPads, using Apps and programs that the teacher has to "manage". Direct instructional time has become impacted. Much is this is taking away the power of the teacher to teach!

Allie Spiva
Oct 15, 2018 01:49 PM

This is quite the "sticky" topic among teachers at my school. Thank you for bringing up the importance of maximizing teacher to student time and student to student time!

Oct 15, 2018 11:00 PM

Several of the districts I support are using the Daily 5 structure for their reading block and though I have some concerns with it, it does use mini/power lessons with the whole group in between each 10-20 minute round of independent student work. Independent student work includes things such as Read to Self , Read to a Partner, Word Work which could include phonics or vocabulary, and Work on Writing which should be related to the reading/comprehension focus for the week. There are generally 2-3 independent rounds per day depending on the student's age and stamina, but it does allow for a longer whole group lesson on a topic such as comprehension at the beginning and then smaller groups to meet with the teacher during independent rounds with short whole group focus lessons on topics such as fluency, vocabulary, or phonics to be taught in between each round. These districts also use the Wonders reading curriculum and the material seems to be very manageable for breaking into a lesson structure such as the Daily 5. I still have concerns regarding the independent time and how the struggling readers are managing, but I have seen classrooms where the teacher has taught the independent rounds well, has high expectations set for the students, and structured activities where the students are expected to "produce" something during their "independent" (or partner) time and it is very successful and the students do well. On the other hand, I have seen some situations where the independent time is not well spent at all so in my situation, it really depends on the teacher and their dedication to creating well planned and executed lessons with high student expectations.

Tim Shanahan
Oct 16, 2018 12:06 PM

Lucy Calkins’ reading workshop, Daily 5, personalized learning, and the various digital instruction formats that require large amts of time on their own for kids are all unresearched. i doubt any of them would do well if evaluated. These approaches are more for the grown ups than the kids.

Patrick Manyak
Oct 17, 2018 01:00 PM

As always, I deeply appreciate Tim's commitment to addressing highly pragmatic "where the rubber hits the road" questions from a research-informed perspective. I can't help but believe that if all teachers read and discussed his responses in school settings, they and their students would be the better for it.

This particular issue is close to my heart, as I spent a year-and-a-half researching the participation of struggling first-grade readers (from several schools featuring very different programs) in all of the various contexts - classroom, intervention, home - where they engaged in literacy activities. One of the things that I did was simply follow the focal children during classroom literacy instruction, recording in detail what they were doing, how they were engaged, etc... Here is a summary record of a struggling reader in a "Guided Reading" classroom during the time that she was not at the "teacher's table." This was a highly typical case for this kind of instruction, and I used the term "downtime" to conceptualize these students' experience during the center time.

I observed Sally, one of the focal students, during centers. From 9:35-10:00 I recorded the following observations:
• Sally has been wandering around, ends up at the writing table.
• The students switch centers and Sally moves on, ending up sitting in the rocking chair and singing.
• The teacher tells Sally to get busy.
• Sally and Susana play on the rug, matching words to sentence strips.
• Sally tells Susana about going to the potty in the corner of her room when she was little.
• Sally goes over to the writing table to tell a girl that she has the wrong marker.
• Sally and Susana chat.
• Sally tells me that her dad is going to be gone on her birthday.
• Sally and Susana continue to chat while they take sentence strips from the pocket chart.
• The teacher tells the two to “get on the job.”
• Sally sits in the rocking chair, flipping cursorily through the pages of a book.

Here was my concluding statement: This sequence demonstrates how the focal students generally slipped through the cracks without doing much reading or writing during the independent centers. Thus, while the students received highly responsive reading instruction during the time that they were with the teacher at the reading table, much of the rest of the guided reading period represented downtime in which they were not engaged in significant academic work.

Now, I would not claim that every student in every "centers-based" class has this same experience. But, I think that this is a very serious issue that I find teachers are either a) relatively unaware of (most teachers that I share this observation with believe that their students are far more productively engaged during centers...) or b) somewhat stubbornly explain this phenomenon away based on the "philosophy" that "students need time to explore and experiment" and that the the time the kids spend with the teacher doing guided reading "makes up for" the less productive center time. The bottom line is that based on my observational research, many of the neediest kids basically experience upwards of 60/75-90 minutes as "downtime" during the literacy block. I can't help but feel that we need to do better...

Tim Shanahan
Oct 19, 2018 03:30 AM

Your systematic observations match with my own (less systematic ones) and with the learning results from studies showing how little learning happens when kids are away from the teacher. Nevertheless, I hear with some frequency from curriculum directors who tell me the most important thing that could happen in their district would be for their teachers to do more small group teaching. Big mistake.



Robert Berretta
Oct 20, 2018 11:55 AM

1. Gather a group of 24 individuals and try to teach them all the same thing in the same way. Doesn't work unless everyone is on the same level. Rarely the case in any classroom, and especially not the case in my school (large urban district, ethnically diverse, socioeconomically challenged).
2. Small group instruction, especially in rotations, can be really effective: it's the only time you get to really focus on individual strengths and deficits, something that's impossible with whole group teaching.
3. And the work the students do when they're not with the teacher has to be, like you say, focused on practicing previous skills or reading. And the classroom management (Susana and Sally, get to work!) has to be strong enough to ensure that all students are on task.
4. And the above criteria must be true even when instruction occurs in a whole group setting.
5. Nearly all reading programs (Wonders, iReady, eSpark, whatever) are built to make money. Instructional practices are timeless (kids need to read a lot, speak a lot about what they read, write a lot about what they read, and get systematic teaching in the skills they need to write better) are what really help students learn. Good practices > programs.

Tim Shanahan
Oct 21, 2018 01:17 AM


You have really strong opinions but no evidence supporting them. You should run for president. I’m dedicated to following the data... which aren’t very supportive of your unsubstantiated beliefs. Faith is great for Sunday mornings, but I prefer evidence when it comes to making decisions that affect children’s lives.


Barb Byer
Oct 21, 2018 06:49 PM

I am glad you brought up Cooperative Learning. Group work and independent work should not be our only two choices.
One of the important goals of the classroom teacher is to create a community of learning where we learn that each individual has unique strengths and weaknesses and everyone has something to contribute. Partner reading, three partner tasks where each person takes a turn, listening to and learning to provide positive feedback and suggestions on improvement of other's creative writing, just a few activities. Changing partners frequently teaches kids how to work with a variety of people.
Sitting at a computer with headphones on is isolating. And there are negative social consequences of spending too much time in isolating activities which need to be evaluated alongside any academic gain. Education is more than test scores.

Holly Lane
Oct 21, 2018 07:22 PM

I have nothing to add to the topic at hand, but I thought you'd like to know that--unless something terrible has happened since I left the office on Friday--the "late" Paul Sindelar is very much alive and well and still an active member of the faculty at the University of Florida.

Tim Shanahan
Oct 27, 2018 02:23 AM

Oops..sorry Holly (and Paul).

Tim Shanahan
Oct 27, 2018 02:27 AM

All these requests for comments on specific ways of providing more independent work — there is a reason why there isn’t supporting research for these claims/theories/approaches... they all suffer from the problem that learning is more powerful with a teacher. Sorry!

rob ackerman
Oct 29, 2018 01:55 AM

Tim--- can you please paint a picture of a Gr 4 classroom literacy block, which has 24 students, including 5 reading below grade level ( 3 special ed and two EL students), and 5 reading above? What does a 60 minute block look like?

Nov 27, 2018 06:04 PM

I've been thinking the same thing! I am new to this site, and I am amazed at what I have learned after 35 years of teaching. I keep trying to "picture" a literacy block in the upper grades. While I know there is not exact answer to this, I would love to hear Dr. Shanahan's response.

Deborah Godwin
Feb 16, 2019 11:42 PM

After my whole group with my students- modeling and rereading key details so my students can practice in their small groups.
I have them ask questions while they read. My students fluency and comprehension has improved on their reading tests.
Teaching ELL students takes a lot of my time and I even have my medium readers help them with their high frequency words.
I agree that my students learn more in our time during the whole group time. In small groups some of my low readers really struggle trying to complete the center work. Do you have some other strategies I can use with my low readers?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Do Learning Centers and Seatwork Improve Reading Achievement?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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