Finding the Time – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom
It’s mid-August and many of you are already back in school. We are not back yet, but yesterday I opened my planner for the first time. I love the feeling of that empty planner – so much potential! So much learning! So much time!
And yet, I know in January, I will be feeling just the opposite. I will wonder where the time has gone and if I have spent it well. So today’s post is not about a literacy strategy. It’s all about you, and the decisions you make that have a major impact on your student’s achievement. Today, we are going to talk about the schedule.
There are many things out of our control as teachers. For example, this year, my school is piloting a new math curriculum and a new SEL curriculum. I can’t control that. The PE and library schedule is out of my control. Recess scheduling and pull-out schedules are also out of my control. When you think about the time in the day, much of it is out of my control. But, always, I can find some time everyday when ALL (yes, all!) of my students are with me for Independent Reading. I found the time when I taught kindergarten and I find the time now that I’m teaching fifth grade. I made that decision twenty-one years ago when I first read Fountas and Pinnell’s Guiding Readers and Writers and I’ve never changed my mind. I’ve changed just about everything in my practice since then, so why is this a constant for me? Because it is the single most important thing I do to raise reading achievement, build critical thinking skills and provide emotional support for my students. Don’t believe me? Here is the research.
Raising Reading Achievement through…. Reading
It seems like a no-brainer. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice it. Just this afternoon I had a conversation with my daughter about strategies she can use to improve as a basketball player. We talked about dribbling and layups and reading books about basketball strategy. Not once did I suggest that she do a few worksheets about basketball. That would be a pretty ludicrous idea. And yet, how much time do students actually spend practicing reading each day?
Researchers have been asking that question for decades. Just how long should students read each day? Should they read in school or at home? Should the teacher read while they are reading? There are hundreds of studies that support the importance of daily reading. Here are links to just a few:
- This study found that 15 minutes of daily reading had a positive effect on students’ reading comprehension ability, word recognition skills and fluency.
- This study found that 15 minutes is the magic number to begin seeing accelerated reading growth due to independent, daily reading.
- This study found a correlation between reading at school and improved comprehension, but no correlation between reading at home and improved comprehension.
So, enough research. There are hundreds of studies that you can Google if you want to know more. But I think it’s a good moment to unpack this with a real-life example.
One of the biggest influencers on my practice as a reading teacher was a young girl named Amy. Amy was 8 years old and spoke another language at home until she came to school at age 5. I was privileged to be her 3rd grade teacher. At the beginning of the year she was reading at a second grade level, which wasn’t bad considering she had only been speaking English for three years. She was in my lowest Guided Reading Group, reading books at levels J and K. Third graders typically read levels M, N, O and P. And I had a high reading group that was reading “The Whipping Boy” by Sid Fleischman, which is a level R. I noticed that Amy had chosen to sit really close to the Guided Reading table, and that she had checked out a copy of “The Whipping Boy” from our school library. After a few days, I could see that she was really interested in the book and our conversation, so I invited her to join us. I was convinced that she needed to be instructed at her Instructional level, though, so I asked her to continue in her low reading group AND participate in the higher level group. A few weeks after we finished “The Whipping Boy”, I assessed Amy’s reading level again. To my utter shock, she had grown from a level J to a level N! I couldn’t believe it, so I had a colleague re-assess her. Same thing! That’s when I realized Amy’s motivation and interest in the book had done what no amount of direct instruction could do – caused her ability to grow more than a year in a few weeks. And she never went backwards. For the rest of the year, she kept up with my gifted students in the higher reading group, and in fourth grade, she even surpassed some of them.
Obviously, Amy is a very special student. Few students have the motivation to do what she did. But Amy taught me that motivation is more important than home life, economic status, language skills or current reading ability. And I have seen that pattern emerge time and time again since Amy first helped me see it. When students become motivated to read, their achievement goes up.
And how do we increase motivation to read? By giving students time to read, and to be read to. But, there are some essential components that make the reading time more effective. First, students must be allowed to choose their own books. Choice is key in human motivation. But, teachers need to be ready to step in to help match students with books (see my posts about Book Ballots and Book Talks for strategies on how to do that!) Second, students should read a wide variety of texts. Build a classroom library that exposes students to newspapers, magazines, books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, literary fiction…. When students read widely, they become more curious and hungry to read more. My Book Bingo can be a fun way to encourage choice and reading of different genre. Finally, students will be more motivated to read if they set goals around their reading. I like to have students set goals about how much reading they will do and what type of reading they will do. More on that in a future blog post.
Increasing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading
Back in 2004, I read Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Marzano. It’s a terrific read and I highly recommend it if you want to learn more. One of the key ideas in the book is that students today lack background knowledge about all sorts of things. They can’t find Mexico on a map; they don’t know when (or why) the War of 1812 was fought; they think that milk comes from cartons, not cows. If that was true in 2004, it is even more true now. According to a study cited in this blog, during the 2015-16 school year, a survey of 9.9 million students found that 54% of students read fewer than 15 minutes a day. Marzano found that the best way for students to build background knowledge was through wide reading. If students are reading less than 15 minutes a day, they are not building background knowledge. And background knowledge is key for critical thinking.
Take, for example, the critical thinking skill of formulating a hypothesis in science. In order to formulate a reasonable hypothesis, you have to have some background knowledge. Last year, I asked my students to formulate a hypothesis about fish dying in a lake in the Adirondacks. I gave them data on wind patterns and pollution from factories in Detroit. I assumed that they would know that pollution kills fish. So, I was surprised when one of my students hypothesized that the pollution was not causing the fish to die. Luckily, I pushed them to explain their thinking. This particular student had a freshwater fish tank and had observed algae-eating fish, and they hypothesized that the fish in the Adirondack lake would eat the pollution, just like the algae-eating fish. Their hypothesis was based on background knowledge from their small corner of the world. In this case, limited background knowledge really hindered their ability to formulate a reasonable hypothesis.
Providing Emotional Support through Reading
I learned what it meant to be a normal, teenage girl, growing up with the awareness that my life could end with any knock at the door by reading Anne Frank’s diaries. I experienced the thrill of saving my brother from death at the hands of the White Witch by reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I thrilled to the noise of the crowd as the Black Stallion surged across the finish line, and I felt as though the victory was mine. I felt less lonely during the pandemic by reading “The Pillars of the Earth”, an historical fiction book about plague times. Book have helped me become more empathetic, more courageous and more confident. Books have given me solace in times of trouble and eased my pain in moments of sorrow. This year more than ever, we need to tap into the healing power of books so that our students can emerge from these difficult times and find their own healing and their own voice.
And the research backs up my experience. There is a type of therapy called bibliotherapy that uses reading and books to help people heal. One study of 96 students with mild depression found that bibliotherapy was an effective strategy in treating their depression. Other studies have also found that reading is helpful in decreasing anxiety and depression. If you’ve ever experienced the calm of a classroom full of students, all on task, all quietly reading, you can easily understand how that experience helps people find inner peace.
But how do I find the time?
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that quiet, choice reading time is an essential part of every classroom, everyday. And now, we find ourselves back at that schedule. Where do we find the time?
First, you have to ask yourself a hard question. “What can I take out of the schedule?” Here are a few suggestions that you might consider taking off your plate. Only you know what will work best for your students, but removing one or more of these might give you the time you need for effective reading practice every day.
- Worksheets – As I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t have someone work on their basketball skills by completing worksheets. Why use them for reading improvement when you could simply have the kids read?
- Accelerated Reader or other test-based motivation program – When was the last time you read a book because you hoped to take a test on it? According to the What Works Clearinghouse, there are two valid studies about AR. One found a very small gain in comprehension. The other found no gain in comprehension. Neither found an improvement in fluency. So, if you use AR, it should be a very small part of your literacy block. It hasn’t been proven effective enough to take center stage.
- Weekly spelling lists – Again, there is ample research that weekly lists do not improve spelling ability. We DO need to teach how language works, but this approach is not effective.
- Rote language activities – Activities like copying definitions from the dictionary, coloring posters about idioms or figurative language, grammar packets…. Ask yourself if your students will grow more with time reading or time spent on rote tasks.
- Handwriting practice – How useful will this be to your students? I could make the case that students should be exposed to cursive, but I don’t think it merits a lot of instructional time. Where do you fall in this debate?
As you really start analyzing your schedule, you may find moments that you can grab for Independent Reading. If you commit to finding the time, you will find it. Start by finding 15 minutes a day, and stick with it. Don’t let anything interfere with it. Then, make it 20 minutes a day, and really commit. Before you know it, you will have found 30 minutes a day. That’s when you will start to see it really making a difference.
So, this year, once again, I figured out a schedule that includes our math pilot, our SEL pilot (during SS time
0 and at least 30 minutes of reading time each day. I am still agonizing over what to take off the plate and what to include. And in January, I will probably ask myself where the time has gone. If all goes well, by January I can tell myself that about 45 hours of the time went to purposeful, student-centered, choice reading. And then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that something is going well, and I will dive back in. I wish the same to you, teacher friend!