22 April, 2016
To assist in analyzing and maximizing use of instructional time, here are five common literacy practices in U.S. schools that research proposes are not optimal use of instructional time:
- “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction
Students are given a list of words to look up in the dictionary. They write the definition and perhaps a sentence that uses the word.
What’s the problem?
It has been long known that this practice doesn’t enhance vocabulary as well as methods that actively engage students in discussing and relating new words to known words, for example through semantic mapping (Bos & Anders, 1990). As Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz (2014) document, research has revealed so many effective techniques for teaching vocabulary that a big challenge now is choosing among them.
- Giving Students Prizes for Reading
From March is Reading Month to year-long reading incentive programs, it’s common practice in the U.S. to give students prizes (such as stickers, bracelets, and fast food coupons) for reading.
What’s the problem?
Unless these prizes are directly linked to reading (e.g., books), this practice actually makes students less likely to take reading as an activity in the future (Marinak & Gambrell, 2008). It actually undermines reading motivation. Chances to interact with peers around books, teacher “book blessings,” special places to read, and many other strategies are much more likely to foster long-term reading motivation (Marinak & Gambrell, 2016).
- Weekly Spelling Tests
Generally, all students in a class will be given a single list of words on Monday and are expected to study the words for a test on Friday. Distribution of the words, in-class study time, and the test itself use class time.
What’s the problem?
You’ve all seen it — students who got the words right on Friday misspell those same words in their writing the following Monday! Research suggests that the whole-class weekly spelling test is much less effective than a strategy wherein different students have different sets of words depending on their stage of spelling development, and emphasis is placed on analyzing and using the words rather than taking a test on them (see Palmer & Invernizzi, 2015 for a review).
- Unsupported Independent Reading
DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), and similar approaches offer a block of time in which the teacher and students read books of their choice independently. What’s the problem?
Studies have found that this doesn’t actually foster reading accomplishment. To make independent reading worthy of class time, it must involve instruction and coaching from the teacher on text selection and reading strategies, feedback to students on their reading, and text discussion or other post-reading response activities (for example, Kamil, 2008; Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008; see Miller & Moss, 2013 for extensive guidance on supporting independent reading).
- Taking Away Recess as Punishment
What is this doing on a list of literacy practices unworthy of instructional time? Well, taking away recess as a punishment likely decreases students’ ability to benefit from literacy instruction. How?
There is a considerable body of research correlating physical activity to academic learning. For example, one action research study found that recess breaks before or after academic lessons resulted to students being more on task (Fagerstrom & Mahoney, 2006). Students with ADHD experience decreased symptoms when they engage in physical exercise (Pontifex et al., 2012) — ironic given that students with ADHD are probably among the most likely to have their recess taken away. There are alternatives to taking away recess that are much more effective and don’t run the risk of reducing students’ attention to important literacy instruction (Cassetta & Sawyer, 2013).
Measure of Success
Whether or not teachers get involved in these specific activities, they provide a sense that there are chances to make better use of instructional time in U.S. schools. It is encouraged that instructional time is scrutinized minute by minute. If a practice is used because it is always done that way or because parents expect it, it’s especially worthy of a hard look. At the same time, if a practice steadily gets results in an efficient and engaging way, protect it at all costs.