Should students read 20 minutes a day?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

While initially thinking about this question, I wanted to clearly state “no”. No, we shouldn’t be assigning students to read 20 minutes a day. Mandating a student to read can make this practice feel like drudgery, equated with homework and its ilk. But this issue deserves more attention; it’s not that simple.

Yes, I do know the effect that voluminous reading has on achievement and building a lifelong habit. If you Google the phrase “read 20 minutes a day”, you will get page after page of articles, posts, and videos praising this practice. Reading log templates sometimes accompany the content. One has to get to the seventeenth page of search results before they can find the first article that questions this practice.

The article I found on the seventeenth page is worth reading. Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids?, written by Erica Reischer for The Atlantic, cites two studies that demonstrate the potential negative effects of assigning reading to students and using reading logs (a common practice when assigning daily reading).

  • When rewards or mandates are used to coax kids to read, they may lose their internal motivation to read independently.
  • In comparison to students who were assigned to read daily, students who are encouraged to read voluntarily showed an increased interest in reading independently.

Still, I understand teachers’ interest in holding students accountable for reading regularly. We know that some kids will not read regularly without some level of expectations. So maybe the answer is “no”, but what can we do? Consider the following alternatives to assigning 20 minutes of reading per night.

Co-create Reader Expectations with Students

If we can build learning community norms with students, then they will likely have more ownership in what is decided. (Teachers are the same way.) Today, I happened to visit a few classrooms that were engaged in this discussion. One group decided that, instead of expecting 20 minutes a day, they would read 100 minutes a week. “Some evenings, we get really busy,” acknolwedged the teacher.

Confer with Students

Students cannot fake their understanding of a book when we ask them thoughtful questions about what they read. With conferring, students can connect with a couple students each day during independent reading time to discuss what they read, offer personalized instruction regarding skills and strategies, and craft goals for the future. The accountability piece can still be a reading log, just as long as students know they are responsibile for maintaining it for that next conference. Teachers generally keep some type of conferring notebook to organize their notes.

Bonus: Check out this Edutopia article for more information on reading conferences.

Reader Responses

High school English teacher and prolific writer Kelly Gallagher shares his solution to balancing engagement and accountability with independent reading. In his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About it (Stenhouse, 2009), Gallagher describes his use of “one-pagers” (pg. 82) to evaluate student comprehension. These brief written responses can reveal students’ understanding of what they read. Skills such as prediction and persuasive writing are also assessed with these one-pagers.

Gallagher understands as a practitioner that fine balance between student engagement and classroom expectations during independent reading.

If the teacher infuses the recreational reading experience with too much accountability – chapter questions, worksheets, double-entry journals – then the experience ceases to be recreational. However, if students are never held to any accountability, many of them will not start reading.

Co-creating reader expectations, conferring, and written responses to what students are reading seem like reasonable improvements to the tired practice of assigning a set amount of time for students to read daily. What works for you? What do you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

9 thoughts on “Should students read 20 minutes a day?”

  1. My book-loving daughter had a homework requirement last year (2nd grade) to read 20 minutes a day. The very first day she read for 20 minutes, then put down the book because she was “finished” and asked for her iPad. My heart sank. Fortunately I knew her teacher well, and we agreed that in my daughter’s case the requirement wasn’t needed, because I was finding ways to help her spend time reading every day in other ways (keeping books in the car where she had nothing else to do, reading to her at breakfast, etc.). But even with a teacher that we loved and who cared about my daughter, I still found myself having to be vigilant to defend against the standard practices to protect my child’s love of reading. I fear for other kids whose parents are less able to do this. This is important stuff to think and write about, Matt. Thanks for doing so.

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    1. Ugh, I feel your frustration Jen. School should never dissuade a student to read. You make a great point that any of us can fall into practices that don’t support lifelong reading. Good of you to point this out to her teacher and advocate for your daughter.

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      1. My friend’s daughter’s teacher has required her to complete one chapter book a week (so that she can take an AR test, sigh). So she has to either rush through her books, or (more likely) read books that are shorter and less complex than the ones she WANTS to read, to be able to meet the requirement. This stuff drives me crazy.

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  2. There always needs to be the encouragement for reading for the sake of reading – not because a book report has to be done (though I’ll do reviews for books I like) but best gains I’ve had with resistant readers was when I modelled reading for recreation (not an education book) and when the “assessment” was around finding a book series that would make us want to go to the public library to read more…
    and I do wonder if teachers “assigning” 20 mins of reading each night are doing the same themselves….

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    1. Hi Ian, thanks for commenting. You make an important point – are we practicing what we are preaching. Personally, I do not read 20 minutes a night. Some nights I might read 60 minutes, some nights 15, once in a while – not at all! Reflection important with habit.

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      1. I made myself a “mini habit” that says that I have to read at least 2 pages of a book (newspapers, etc. don’t count) every day. Most days once I start I read more, of course. Often a LOT more. But if I somehow get to the end of the day, even if I’m tired, I still read at least a little bit. This policy does get me to choose reading instead of something else sometimes during the day, which is the point.

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  3. I don’t give my reading intervention students homework or have them keep reading logs, but I do remind them that “the more you read, the better reader you will become.” I make it a point to say things like “wow, I can tell you’ve been practicing your reading!” when my groups are in – it seems to motivate students to read more when they see their peers improving.

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