By Tim Shanahan
Twice this week—from a NY teacher and an Illinois school administrator—I’ve been asked how to organize instructional time for literacy with Common Core. One was an email inquiry, the other face-to-face, but both noted my earlier concerns about Daily 5 and CAFE.
In both cases, they were right that I am not a big fan of those approaches.
My reason in both cases (and also with any similar, but less popular schemes): they distract teachers from an intense focus on what they are trying to teach students. Teachers have to be focused on learning—not activities.
Of course, many teachers would point out, the idea is for kids to learn, but teachers do that through their activities. I don’t disagree about the need for instructional activities as the means for increasing student knowledge and skills, but that doesn’t mean we should idolize the activities.
There are many activities that can be used to accomplish particular learning or teaching goals and teachers need to select among these and to move among these as they help students to gain the outcome. Locking into a particular activity on a daily basis is foolish.
Research has shown that teachers struggle to keep focused on kids’ learning; that they get so wrapped up in the activities that they often lose sight of their purpose. What do they say about alligators and swamp draining?
That’s why so many teachers and principals come to measure success in terms of how smoothly the activity went rather than on what it enabled kids to do.
Any scheme that focuses teachers on activities rather than outcomes is a non-starter for me.
However, I do appreciate that teachers embrace such schemes because of their manageability. The biggest decisions teachers have to make have to do with how to parcel out their valuable instructional time, and any plan that helps teachers to do this has some value.
The framework that I have long used is both similar to—and wildly different from—these schemes that I’m criticizing. My framework also gives teachers guidance with time use, but its emphasis is on the outcomes rather than the methods.
I start from the premise that students are going to need to spend a lot of time with literacy to become literate. Given that, I think kids should spend at least 2-3 hours per day dealing with literacy.
A second premise is that we have multiple goals in literacy and that they all compete for instructional time. I believe that it makes sense to divide the available instructional time among these different goals.
What are these goals? My reading of the research says that students need to learn words and word parts (to read them, to interpret them), they need to be able to read text fluently (with sufficient accuracy, speed, and prosody), they need to be able to understand and interpret the ideas in text, and they need to convey their own ideas through text (writing). These are all critically important goals, and each of them has many sub goals.
I would argue teachers should provide students with explicit instruction and lots of practice time in each of these four learning areas on a daily basis. Rather than focusing on four or five activities that kids should be engaged in everyday, I’d rather have teachers thinking about what activities they should encourage based on the learning goals in each of these areas. Thus, it would be very reasonable to spend 30 minutes on words, 30 minutes on fluency, 30 minutes on reading comprehension, and 30 minutes on writing everyday (on average)—even though the actual activities would vary.
A daily organizing plan that is focused on these outcomes makes greater sense than one based on activities such as read to self or read to someone.
And such a plan makes sense even when using “core reading programs” or “basal readers” because they help teachers to choose among the many options such programs provide.
It makes sense to organize instruction in ways that allot time to learning goals—rather than to instructional activities. It is not that teachers don’t need activities, just that activities don’t have a one-to-one relationship with instructional outcomes. That’s why approaches like Daily 5 and CAFE are simplistic and don’t have an especially powerful relationship with learning. Those approaches get teachers aimed at particular classroom activities, without sufficient attention to the outcomes.
How should teachers determine which activities to use towards these essential ends? Research.
For example, imagine you required 30 minutes per day for paired reading (an activity). Research indicates that paired reading can be an effective way of teaching fluency so that sounds pretty good. But it is not the only way to teach it: radio reading, echo reading, reading while listening, and repeated reading are all good, too. As are related activities that can help with some aspects of fluency such as sight vocabulary review or reading parsed text (helps with prosody). Wouldn’t it be better to devote the time to developing oral reading fluency and leave the activity choices to the teacher?
I indicated that I would devote slices of time to word learning (not word study—that’s an activity), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. Why those? Because for every one of those there is research showing that such instruction can improve overall reading achievement. There is also research showing that at least some struggling readers may have a specific learning problem in one of those areas (but not the others). Later, I’ll be more specific about these categories as goals, but for now the categories are enough.
Increasingly, research is suggesting that oral language development is implicated in reading development. Not yet any studies showing that oral language instruction improves overall reading achievement—but getting closer. Some educators might want to divide classroom literacy instruction by 5, to accommodate that additional goal.
Another possibility: many of my colleagues believe it is essential for teachers to motivate; to teach kids to love reading. Again, no research showing much of an impact on overall reading achievement but if you are committed to that outcome, building it into the time structure would be appropriate.
I wouldn’t add either of those goals at this time, as I’d wait for the research to make the case. However, whether I stayed to the goals already mentioned or added these, I would still structure the time around the goals and not the activities. It doesn’t make sense to set a self-selected reading time, because this alone is not a very robust response to the motivation goal.
I would also stress that this approach calls for set amounts of time devoted to particular goals—not set periods of time. What I mean by that is that it would be okay for a teacher to spend 30 minutes per day teaching vocabulary, but that it wouldn’t have to be done from 9:00-9:30. The point isn’t to fit instruction into boxes, but to ensure students get sufficient amounts of teaching. Thus, a teacher might include a 5-minute vocabulary review at the beginning of the day, a 10-minute vocabulary discussion focusing on connotation during close reading, and a 15-minute direct instruction period with new words in the afternoon. Not as simplistic as CAFÉ or the Daily 5, but sensible in terms of what it takes to successfully teach students to read.
Many have been surprised that I said there isn’t any research on Daily 5 or the activities it promotes. Some complain that I just haven’t seen it well implemented. But that really isn’t the problem.
The fact is teachers find it difficult to stay focused on learning. They become consumed by classroom activities and daily routines. And because of that, any scheme that encourages them focus on activities over outcome is a really bad idea.
The point of Daily 5 is a good one: teachers should routinize the use of classroom time. Reducing the sheer number of daily scheduling decisions for teachers is smart.
But routinizing a day is not the same thing as ensuring learning. Especially when the activities you are including aren’t certain to instill learning. There has to be a better way.
Let’s take it a step at a time.
First, decide how much time will be devoted to literacy. In many schools, 90 minutes is the standard, but I’d argue for 2-3 hours per day. Provide more literacy work when kids are especially challenged, and less otherwise.
Second, decide which learning categories require attention? Put the time into aspects of literacy prove to help kids become better readers and writers. There is substantial research showing that if you teach young children to hear the sounds within words (phonemic awareness), then they end up doing better with decoding and comprehension. I would definitely teach that. There is similar evidence concerning the systematic teaching of letters and sounds, so phonics is in, too. And, there is a substantial body of work indicating the value of teaching word meaning (vocabulary), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. They all deserve some time within your schedule.
You can be a bit arbitrary in dividing the time across these categories. For instance, I group all the word skills—phonics, phonological awareness, sight vocabulary, meaning vocabulary—into a single set, and they share 25% of my ELA teaching time. That means kids would get a lot of decoding instruction early on, and less vocabulary support; but as they went through the grades they would get less and less phonics, and more and more focus on word meaning. Fluency, comprehension, and writing, would get the other portions of time.
Third, these categorical divisions then need to be expressed in terms of specific learning goals. Let’s say 15 minutes per day of the word time in my kindergarten this semester is focused on letter names and phonological awareness. My goal for the kids is to make sure they can recognize all the alphabet letters and can fully segment words (that is divide spoken words into all of their separate phonemes). Or, perhaps, the fluency goal this report-card-marking in second grade is to make sure students can read texts at 75 words correct per minute, with pausing that reflects the punctuation and meaning.
In reading comprehension my goal may be for students to be able to read and summarize 3 text pages without teacher input or support. Or perhaps I’d want them to be able to read a social studies chapter and explain the connections among the subsections.
Such goals do not have to be singular or simple. Either or both of these comprehension goals could be a point of focus of my lessons, or the teacher could emphasize additional—and very different—goals, like wanting students to develop a rich knowledge of their literary heritage. That means I could teach the above goals, and simultaneously expect kids to gain an understanding of the significance of a particular cast of characters or plot elements from fairy tales or Shakespeare.
None of these are activities. They are all measurable learning outcomes and my days should be organized around these kinds of goals.
Fourth, once I know what I am trying to accomplish, then I must select activities and texts consistent with those learning goals. Sometimes these choices will be highly constrained by the goal itself: if you want students to know the characters and plot of Romeo and Juliet, it is probably wise to focus heavily on that play. If you want kids to distinguish Little Red Riding Hood from the Wicked Stepmother, and the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs from the one who devours Grandma, then this probably dictates a Fairy Tales Unit.
In other cases, there are choices. Should the student read the selection in parts or all the way through? Will the teacher ask questions or will the students take over this role as in Book Club? Will the analysis be through discussion or writing? Will the phonics practice be synthetic (focusing on the individual sounds within words) or analytic (using known words as analogies)? Will students reread a fluency text a set number of times or until a particular performance criterion is met?
Such decisions should be shaped by research considerations and learning considerations—not routine. Research is pretty clear that students do better in decoding when taught systematically from a sequential program than when teachers try to be diagnostic and individualized. That likely means the phonics portion of primary grade reading instruction is best spent delivering lessons from a high quality phonics program. Or, studies show that oral reading fluency practice leads to the most learning when the texts are at students’ frustration levels. That means that having students read texts aloud to each other (partner reading) might be a good choice (though so is echo reading), but teachers should assign frustration level texts to either of these activities.
Last point: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require the teaching of all of the topics that I have mentioned in this entry. But CCSS does not specify how to organize time around that instruction. The plan put forth here should help teachers to consider the whole set of standards, not just particular activities (e.g., close reading).
Similarly, core reading programs (e.g., basal readers, literature anthologies), provide teachers with lots of texts and activities; usually more than can be delivered in a typical school schedule. This plan can help teachers to decide what to include and what to delete. Many teachers that I know routinely omit the writing activities. If writing outcomes were their focus 25% of the time, many of them would not make this bad decision. Or, teachers often complain that there are just too many decoding lessons. That may or may not be true, but if I had decided to devote 30 minutes a day to phonics teaching, I could determine pretty quickly what to omit and what to teach.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Original publication date 5/18/14.