Third grade reading proficiency matters—enormously. It is eerily predictive of academic and career success; students who don’t reach this benchmark are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time. Unfortunately, K-3 literacy instruction, on which so much depends, is often a misguided, inefficient mess. While it consumes a generous portion of the school day, it typically neglects the most vital elements of literacy. That’s why our success rate, despite some progress, is still abysmal: only about half of our 3rd graders perform at grade level on their own state assessments. It is even lower for poor and minority students.
This is both horrific and unnecessary. According to literacy researcher Richard Allington, studies show that “virtually every student could be reading on grade level by the end of 1st grade.” In my experience, most educators acknowledge the need for intensive, systematic phonics instruction. They also know that students need to read and talk and write far more than they currently do, across the curriculum. There is wide agreement that all of these elements must be in place for K-3 students to acquire the fluency, knowledge, and vocabulary needed to become literate and articulate. We’ve yet to capitalize on this consensus. Or to see what prevents us from acting on it: the structure and substance of the typical K-3 literacy block and our overhyped commercial literacy programs. Their failure can often be traced to the pervasiveness of small-group, ability-based instruction.
The most successful K-3 teachers I’ve observed use small groups sparingly. That’s because their whole-class instruction consistently incorporates the most proven (but rarely implemented) elements of successful teaching. They master simple methods for ensuring that all students are attentive, and they conduct frequent, ongoing assessments of the class’s progress throughout the lesson—and then re-teach accordingly. An Education Week article last year adds credence to this approach, reporting that whole-group instruction is “almost always” more effective than the small-group, ability-based model.
The most successful K-3 teachers I've observed use small groups sparingly.
These facts point to an opportunity for dramatic improvements in 3rd grade literacy. Do the math: In a two-hour reading block, five groups of students will receive about 20 minutes of reading instruction per day. In a classroom that uses small groups more sparingly, students will receive about 80 minutes—three to four times as much.
Three to four times as much. This would allow for huge infusions of instructional time into the essential components of literacy. Teachers could use this additional time to incorporate more:
- Intensive, sustained, systematic phonics. We could substantially accelerate students’ mastery of the phonetic code in K-1—and still have time for kids to read and listen to far more fiction and nonfiction texts.
- Reading/general knowledge. If most students have mastered decoding in the 1st grade, they could spend record amounts of time in 2nd and 3rd grade reading literature, history, and science texts to build their knowledge base and vocabulary, which are critical to effective comprehension.
- Vocabulary instruction. Most of a rich vocabulary is acquired through abundant reading. But research also shows that we can reliably supplement this with targeted, embedded vocabulary instruction.
- Discussion. To become confident, articulate speakers, students must engage in frequent, purposeful discussions about what they read. We could multiply the length and frequency of such discussions, which animate an appreciation of reading and are excellent preparation for writing.
- Writing and writing instruction. Writing has an unsurpassed capacity to help us think logically, express ourselves clearly, and understand, analyze, and retain content. It often promotes dramatic, measurable improvements across the curriculum and is crucial to success in innumerable careers.
Let’s be candid here: These core elements of literacy seldom get the time they deserve in most K-3 classrooms—or our inordinately praised commercial programs. A shift to larger amounts of well-executed, whole-class instruction would at least double the amount that students receive in these critical areas. The benefits, for K-3 and beyond, would be immense.
Of course, many will argue that students don’t need more time with their teacher; they can learn to read and write on their own, at our now-ubiquitous independent learning “centers,” which are set up with materials for students to work independently while the teacher works with small groups. But are they learning? “According to the studies,” writes literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, “No.” Time spent away from the teacher, he writes, should not be considered a “productive part of the school day.” I consistently observe students languishing at these unsupervised centers, ambling slowly from station to station, aimlessly turning pages or talking quietly with a partner instead of reading. And that explains, as Michael P. Ford and Michael F. Opitz found nearly two decades ago, why only about a third of the overall literacy period has any academic value.
What should we do? Take Shanahan’s advice: “Brush up your skills in working with larger groups,” and use the windfall of precious time to multiply the amount of instruction we provide in the most indispensable elements of K-3 literacy. Then as night follows day, 3rd grade literacy rates will rise.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘A Misguided, Inefficient Mess’