Skip The Activity?

In terms of input, I’ve observed a few differences between reading independently and reading in pairs, or as a whole-class. The bottom line? Reading independently results in far more input than could be provided in pair, or whole-class activities. Therefore, I wonder if we’re not giving enough time for independent reading, even there are already routines in place (e.g. 10 minutes 2x/week). Could we be better off skipping some or even most of the reading activities in class? Maybe. Granted, independent reading cannot be the only kind of reading done in class since most students not only need input, but also interaction, at least in the K-12 public school context I teach in (conf. Beniko Mason’s more advanced Story Listening students with access to 500+ graded readers). Still, how much less input are students getting with all those activities? Let’s look into that…

Most first year students can read an entire 2-sided page of low level embedded readings like these (around 200 total words), within about 5 minutes. However, when I’ve done different whole-class and paired reading activities using just Version 2 or Version 3 (around 100 total words) those activities can last twice as long, or even an entire half of class! That’s a big difference in input compared to time. This lack of input becomes even greater when we consider how often teachers use the exact same text for different reading activities…

In my earlier days of comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT), back when I was exclusively using TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), there was a lot of buzz about novelty, getting students reading the exact same texts just in novel ways. While I don’t doubt the value of rereading, I now doubt that use of class time, spending several days, or even a week on what is mostly *not* independent reading. Let’s do some math on that…

Say you’ve got a text of 200 total words. Students could read that on their own in about 5 minutes, then you have the rest of class for…well…anything. Put another way, in a 45 minute class with a modest 20 minutes set aside for reading (re: Talk & Read lesson plan), students reading independently could read 5 different texts, or one long text of about 1000 words within that time. The alternative is spending those 20 minutes of class reading only a portion of that one original text, say 100 total words, in some kind of paired, or whole-class activity. Wow! Of course, if you think this math doesn’t represent reality, even a moderate estimate would be that students reading independently could read at least two texts (400 total words) in the time it takes students to read 100 total words with a whole-class or paired activity. A 4 to 1 ratio is significant. So, why are we spending so much time doing activities?! Obviously it’s interaction, and interaction is slower, but still. Can we get more independent reading into daily practice? Probably. Back to spending many days on the exact same text

What does it mean if we have to spend many days in order to get students understanding? Well, it means that text isn’t comprehensible enough. Better adapt it, or find a new one, right? Now, I’m not suggesting that we eliminate activities and ban interaction altogether. However, I am suggesting that we give students additional independent reading time during class. Even 5 minutes before a team game is a more efficient use of time to input. Doing so consistently also has the benefit of encouraging us to provide more parallel texts, or just a greater variety of them. After all, reading one text for 5 minutes, then a different text for that paired activity you planned could result in double, or triple the input. Your call.

Have you observed something similar? Unsure of the math? Do a little observing and reporting to find out:

  • Hand out a text for students to read independently at the start of class, and set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • Note where most students finish within that time.
  • Later, perhaps even a different day with a different text, go ahead and do whatever reading activity you originally planned. Maybe it’s translating back and forth in pairs. Maybe it’s a running/moving game. Maybe it’s a team game with dice. Whatever it is, record how long it takes to do that activity.
  • Note where most students finish within that time.
  • Compare input (run the texts through Voyant Tools for exact figures if you like!).

4 thoughts on “Skip The Activity?

  1. How dou you deal with students who will not read. Independently or with class or with a partner. I would love to include more time to read independently but some students stare at the floor or book and don’t process the words. I have checked what they choose to read and I need to help a few choose different books. Boy there are some that have appropriate texts and don’t read.

    • I don’t really have students who don’t read. If I happen to notice a sound, I look up from my book, or paper—because when they read, we read—and just give them “the stare.”

      I do advocate for an extensive choice-based reading program. To be clear though, in this post I’m mostly talking about independent reading of all the same texts, as in Sustained silent reading (SSR), not choice reading, like Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Giving all students the same text to read *on their own* is going to be a better use of time in terms of receiving that input.

    • I have quite a few who refuse to read during FVR. I just continue to supply the books and as long as they are quiet and staring at the book, I just let them be. I can’t force them to read. We do other reading activities throughout the class, so I know they get some input from reading. I tweak how I introduce reading every year, though I guess I haven’t found my best way to do it yet to motivate everyone.

      • I started in September with 1 minute of silent reading before doing any other activity with a particular text. When it came time for choice reading FVR in November, it was for 4 minutes, then 5, then 7.

        It also helps to have a variety of texts. Most kids who don’t like reading don’t have a book they find interesting. For second languages, that’s also a sign that books are too hard. Incomprehension creates a host of problems.

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