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).

The original impetus for this emphasis on time was a theory proposed by John Carroll in 1963. He suggested that we think of aptitude not as an IQ score or something like that, but as an amount of time one would need to learn something. He came up with an equation that included the amount of time that a particular student might need to learn something and the actual opportunty to learn that we were willing to provide, along with the student's persistence (how much time he or she would be willing to work at it). I suspect the children that you work with need more learning time than average kids, so providing less time than average is sure to end in failure. 

More teaching leads to more learning—as long as the instruction is appropriate and everyone is paying attention. And, some kids--due to nature or nurture--require more time. 

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(20, 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.

Dec 02, 2018 01:24 AM

Another hit, Dr. Shanahan. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with educators. I see the misguided results of schools who continuously do things that decrease the amount of reading instructional time for students who have a greater need, including the departmentalization of grades as early as grade 2. When schools do this, they definitely lose instructional time to multiple transitions throughout the day, and group bathroom breaks, and have a huge tendency to then focus on only “test genre” reading (yeah THAT’S a thing now in schools ????). It’s sad and not at all what the most underserved students actually need.

Tim Shanahan
Dec 02, 2018 02:43 AM

Lots of good points, Chandra. Teaching is a precious resource, but it is badly abused

Trish Stoll
Dec 02, 2018 11:42 AM

Great article! Do you have suggestions for tools to help teachers monitor or track time spent teaching what students need? I was thinking of a tool for reflection to help them to be mindful of wasted time. When I worked as a Ready First Literacy Coach someone conducted research on the amount of time students spent on reading rich VS reading poor activities. Maybe a similar tool would be useful to calculate the amount of time a student spends on instruction that targets an individual need.

Tim Shanahan
Dec 02, 2018 11:57 AM

I don’t know of any such tool, but personal experience tells me that when there is a big emphasis on time, teachers often manage to find ways to protect teaching time better.

JoLynn Wilson
Dec 02, 2018 01:32 PM

Great article! Reading teachers in my district are required to put struggling students on a reading computer program for 90 minutes a week. A computer is their reading instruction.

Patrick Manyak
Dec 03, 2018 06:47 PM


Again, thanks for, to my mind, emphasizing just the right points. I often quote to schools the simple formula embedded in the "Annual Growth..." book: "growth = quality instruction + quantity of it, or, to capture it as concisely as possible, "growth = quality + quantity." I like schools to think this through by first asking themselves, "Are we providing high-quality instruction (i.e., targeted, research-based instruction that has been shown to produce positive outcomes in [somewhat, at least] comparable settings)? And, if we are and do not have the kinds of outcomes that we desire, how do we increase the quantity of it that students receive?" The Kennewick schools described in the book found that quantity was an absolute critical factor in producing "catch-up growth" - the accelerated growth that enables lower-performing students to catch up to their peers. This has been born out in my experience as well. I have, at various times, consulted with teachers about practices for struggling students. They have headed off very excited about implementing them, done so, and observed only luke-warm results. We have then huddled again, determined that the instruction really was targeted and research-based, and thus decided that we would up the quantity. Presto, results followed. I am thinking of one girl in my wife's 3rd grade class for whom this was especially true. She entered reading only 25 wcpm and made slow growth through the first several months, despite quality instruction in word recognition, high frequency word phrases, and repeated reading in carefully chosen texts. We sat down with all involved, talked it through, and ended up with the teacher, the interventionist, and a private tutor all doing the SAME THINGS! Quality instruction x 3/4! She exited 3rd grade reading 97 wcpm and scoring proficient on a challenging state test of reading. Quantity really matters!

Significantly, the final issue that Tim brings up - thoughtful prioritizing - was actually very central to the Kennewick schools. They determined quite consciously that proficient reading was going to be dominant priority in Grades K-3, believing that reading would be critical to the students' future success in all the academic disciplines. Establishing this priority enabled them to continue increase the quantity of reading instruction until they were extremely successful with a very high percentage of students. I feel like schools don't always do a great job thinking through key priorities. We all know that there are a zillion "good things to do" with kids. But, if we are in settings where a high number of students are not demonstrating proficiency in truly core areas that will greatly impact their long-term academic success and opportunities, I just don't believe that there is time for them all! Now, this kind of thinking runs the risk of "narrowing the curriculum," which I fully agree is a concern. At the same time, does anything "narrow" students long-term learning more than being mired well behind the curve in reading? Consequently, I spend a whole lot of time thinking about priorities and the "just right" instructional balance that attempts to ensure that needy students receive sufficient quantity of instruction in critical foundational skills (word reading, reading fluency, etc...) as well as rich (but efficient) instruction in areas like vocabulary and content knowledge that we know influence long-term academic outcomes. I think that the exercise of really getting down to brass tacks and talking thoughtfully and carefully about where instructional time goes and why and to what effects needs to be front and center on every school's agenda...

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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.