Are our students spending excessive amounts of time on reading skills activities? Is it possible to eliminate some reading skills activities for students in basal reading programs and still maintain high scores on skills tests?
Results of a series of three studies conducted by Barbara M. Taylor, Barbara J. Frye and Thomas M. Geotz at the University of Minnesota, indicate that most students are able to pass pretests on skills before they study a unit. What is more, their scores on the end-of-unit or end-of-book tests remained high even when skills practice was eliminated.
These researchers state that elementary students in basal reading programs do indeed spend a considerable portion of their reading periods on skills activities (worksheets and workbook pages). Word recognition and comprehension skills are taught, retaught, practiced and tested at every level in basal reading programs. In classrooms where teachers were observed, between 30-70% of the reading period was devoted to this type of seatwork.
Reduces reading time
Needless to say, spending so much time on skills practice reduces the amount of time available for actual reading and, as previous research indicates, time spent on indirect reading activities, such as skills sheets, is unrelated to actual gains in reading achievement. Time spent on silent reading, on the other hand, is related to reading achievement gains.
Despite these findings, textbook manufacturers continue to include large amounts of written skill work in their programs, and teachers continue to assign large amounts of skills practice. Taylor et al. speculate that teachers feel compelled to spend large amounts of time on skills practice in order to ensure that their students will perform well on the end-of-book skills tests.
Balancing skills work and reading time
What remained for these researchers to determine was the ideal balance of skill work to actual reading that would, in fact, ensure high test scores. To help make these determinations, the researchers chose only those elementary schools which used basal reading programs.
Participating teachers were all volunteers with many years of teaching experience. Students were randomly assigned to either a control or an experimental group. Students in the control groups simply followed the regular program outlined in their basal reading series. Students assigned to the experimental groups were pretested on the basal skills covered in each unit.
Those who received a score of at least 80% on the pretest were excused from any written skills work for that unit and used this free time, instead, for independent pleasure reading. In the meantime, those students who did not pass the pretests received instruction and practice in skills.
Participants in the first study were drawn from sixth grade students in average and above average reading groups in two elementary schools which used the Houghton Mifflin Reading Program. Students in average groups were pretested on individual comprehension skills before each unit and earned a passing grade 83% of the time.
Above average readers were able to pass pretests 90% of the time. These average and above average readers did well on posttests even when excused from skills instruction. Significantly, teachers reported that they were able to cover basal skills more quickly when they had to teach only a few students instead of the entire class.
Fourth graders in 8 classes which used the Scott, Foresman Reading Series, participated in the second study. To determine the number of activities necessary to effectively teach skills, teachers in this study agreed to limit to 5 the number of written skill activities (including worksheets, workbook pages and skills tests) used with students who failed the pretest and were, therefore, identified as needing skills instruction.
In this second study, average readers passed pretests 76% of the time, receiving skills instruction 24% of the time. Their mean score on the end-of-book skills test was 94% correct. Above average readers passed pretests 87% of the time, receiving skills instruction 13% of the time. Their average score on the end-of-book tests was 96% correct.
In summary, Studies #1 and #2 showed that much of the time spent on comprehension skills in basal reader programs appears to be unnecessary for students in average and above average reading groups in the upper elementary grades. By reducing the amount of class time devoted to basal skills activities, the teacher can provide students who pass pretests with increased opportunities for independent reading, which appears to be more effective in raising achievement scores. Students who fail to reach 80% on pretests can be provided with brief, but intense, small group basal skills instruction. All students in these experimental groups earned excellent scores on end of the year tests.
This third study was conducted to examine the effects of this experimental program on primary students’ achievement in basal skills. Unlike the previous two studies, Study #3 also included below average readers and tested decoding as well as comprehension skills.
Students in grades 2 and 3 in two elementary schools which used the Scott, Foresman Reading Series, participated in the third study. Students who scored 80% or better on pretests were again excused from skills instruction and worksheets for that unit. All students in control groups followed the basal reader program as designed by the publisher.
Below-average readers in these experimental groups passed pretests on decoding and comprehension skills 76% of the time. Above average readers passed pretests 88% of the time. Based on this information, researchers concluded that the pretests on basal skills can be used to eliminate unnecessary skills practice for primary as well as intermediate age students and for below average as well as better readers. As with the first two studies, end-of-unit and end-of-book test performance was unimpaired by the reduced skills practice in the experimental groups.
Evidence supports cutbacks on skills work
Many students across the elementary grades perform well on skills post-tests even though they skip skills instruction and practice for the majority of basal skills. Taylor et al. suggest that the majority of students were able to pass pretests because skills they were covering in their current unit had already been successfully taught in earlier books. Results of these three studies suggest that many elementary students in basal reading programs are able to skip 70% to 90% of skill activities in their basal readers. These researchers believe that class time spent on other reading activities would be more beneficial.
These results are limited to children in grades 2-6. Moreover, for below average readers in grades 2 and 3, conclusions are considered especially tentative due to the small size of the sample population. Results are also considered limited by the fact that all teachers participated voluntarily and all were experienced and skillful teachers whose students typically perform well. However, results are promising for elementary students in general and Taylor et al. suggest that further research be conducted.
“Reducing the Number of Reading Skill Activities in the Elementary Classroom” Journal of Reading Behavior Volume 22, No. 2, 1990, p. 167-179.
Published in ERN November/December Volume 3 Number 5