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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Why How Many Minutes of Teaching Something Isn't the First Thing to Ask of Research

September 16, 2016


I am now director of literacy in my district. I am advocating for interactive read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and similar activities in our primary grades (K-3). Is there a research base that would allow me to determine how many minutes of these activities I should prescribe? Could you provide me with a copy of that research?

Shanahan's response:

Yikes, Madam, I suspect that your cart has gotten before your horse.

If research says a particular activity provides kids with a clear learning benefit, then wondering how much of a good thing is appropriate is a smart question, and one not asked often enough. But before you get there, you should first ask: Does the research show that these activities are beneficial at all?

I assume by “interactive read alouds” and “shared reading” that you want your primary grade teachers reading texts aloud to kids in a dialogic manner ... that is interspersing and following up these read alouds with questions and discussion.

I am a big fan of reading to kids (did so every day I taught school and read a huge amount to my own kids). But I’m also a big fan of teaching kids to read, and while these two propositions are not contradictory, they are not the same either.

Research on reading aloud to preschoolers and kindergartners is quite supportive (Bus and van IJzendoorn, 1995; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Scarborough and Dobrich, 1994), though none of those studies show any impact on reading achievement. In fact, it is rare that shared reading studies even attempt to measure reading. That should not be surprising given the children’s ages, but it should give pause to those who want to prescribe shared reading in grades 1-3, at least if improved reading achievement is the purpose.

The NELP meta-analyses, the most rigorous and recent of the three, should provide a clear picture of what is known. It found that across 16 studies, reading aloud to young kids led to clear improvements in oral language (mainly better receptive vocabulary—a measure not closely aligned to reading achievement during the primary grade years), and across 4 studies, it led to improvements in print awareness (like recognizing proper directionality). That’s it.

Studies of shared reading with kids in Grades 1 to 3 have been rare, but what is there is not particularly promising. Studies generally report no benefits with regard to reading achievement (e.g., Baker, Mackler, Sonneschein, and Serpell, 2001; Senechal and Young, 2008). Replacing reading instruction with teacher read alouds is simply not a good idea in the primary grades.

(Note: I mentioned that I have always read a lot to kids, and I’d continue to do so if in the classroom today. But not because I purport that it improves reading. It is a way of building relationships between the reader and listener, for setting a tone in a classroom environment, and for exposing students to aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating language and ideas.)

The same could be said about “guided reading,” but here it depends greatly upon what one means by the term. It was originally coined by basal reader publishers to describe their lesson plans; I think Dick and Jane got there first, but by the 1950s several programs had “guided reading” lessons or “directed reading” lessons. However, these days due to the popularity of Fountas & Pinnell’s practical advice many think of guided reading as small group instruction or teaching students to read with texts at “their levels.” I would give different amounts for these two very different practices.

Essentially, guided reading has long meant that kids were going to read a story, chapter, or article under teacher supervision. For instance, the teacher might preteach some of the vocabulary to ease the children’s way. Reading purposes might be set (“read to find out what this family did on their vacation”), and questions might be asked at key points.

I cannot imagine teaching reading without some kind of guided reading practice, but we don’t have studies of the general practice.

Of course, some guided reading features have been studied. We know something about the kinds of questions that are most productive, and preteaching of vocabulary gets good marks.

However, for those to whom guided reading refers to grouping kids by reading levels, I would suggest reading up on the impact of such practices. Teaching kids grouped by reading level has been ineffective in improving reading achievement and damaging in terms of equity (Gamoran, 1992).

So, if you are asking how many minutes teachers should guide kids in the reading of stories or social studies chapters, I don’t have a research-based answer. It seems clear that such practices can be beneficial, but any guidance on amount would have to be practical rather than empirical.

But if you are asking about how much of this kind of reading should be done in reading level groups, then the answer would be as little as possible given the lack of benefit and potential damage of the practice.

Your question about how many minutes is a good one. Educators too rarely interrogate the research to find out how much of something is worth doing.

But, before you can get to that question, you need to ask whether a practice is really a good one in the first place. This is especially important if you prefer a practice, since such affection can elbow aside evidence.

If you are truly dedicated to following evidence, rather than using it as a cudgel to get teachers to adopt your preferred practices, then you should be wary of mandating these specific approaches.


Baker, L., Mackler, K., Sonneschein, S., and Serpell, R. (2001). Parents’ interactions with their first-grade children during storybook reading and relations with subsequent home reading activity and reading achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 39,415-438.

Bus, A.G., and van IJzendoorn, M.H. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65, 1-21.

Gamoran, A. (1992). Untracking for equity. Educational Leadership, 50, 11-17.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Scarborough, H.S. and Dobrich, W. (1994). On the efficacy of reading to preschoolers. Developmental Review, 14, 145-302.

Senechal, M. and Young, L. (2008). The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children’s Acquisition of Reading From Kindergarten to Grade 3: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 880-907.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl