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.
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