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Allocating Time for Instruction

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Most teachers will agree that the most valuable resource in schools is time for instruction. As public schools have evolved from one-room schoolhouses to large districts with thousands of children, the tasks expected of teachers each day have changed as well. Where once it was expected that teachers cover the “3 Rs” of “reading, (w)riting, and ‘rithmatic”, teachers must now cover all those plus science, social studies, physical education, music, art, world languages, and many other topics. Despite the expansion of the instructional expectations for modern schools, the amount of time available for instruction has not changed. Every teacher has the same 24 hours in each day, and there are usually about 6 hours of that allocated for instruction. Given the finite amount of instructional time, how should teachers prioritize their time? What are the recommended minutes for instruction in specific content areas? Available research focuses on elementary reading instruction times, but some guidance for elementary math instruction is available as well.  

Reading Instruction

Thanks to a recognition of the critical importance of reading for all other school outcomes, a large volume of research has accumulated to provide information about how much and what types of reading instruction are most effective. The National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000) summarized available research about reading instruction and documented that teachers must cover five key aspects of reading at all grade levels:

  1. Phonemic awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

Not covered in the NRP report was how much time is needed for such instruction each day.  Other organizations and researchers have provided guidance on how much time is needed for reading instruction at different grade levels. For example, the Florida Center for Reading Research examined research about how to organize reading instruction and concluded that in the elementary grades (e.g., K–5) a total of 90 minutes per day are needed for reading instruction. For older students, 60 to 90 minutes per day are recommended. Importantly, students with reading difficulties will need more instructional time each day.

Beyond scheduling 90 minutes of reading instruction, teachers need to know how to organize the instruction so that it includes activities related to all five areas of reading. The amount of time needed for each area changes as students become stronger readers, but some amount of time for each area is needed at all grade levels. An important aspect of organizing reading instruction is balancing large-group, small-group, and individual learning activities. An example of a 90-minute reading instruction block schedule is provided at the website Reading Rockets. This schedule includes an initial whole-group lesson of 25-45 minutes followed by small group and individual work that is customized to each student’s current learning needs. An important component is grouping students for daily focused instruction on skills needed by all group members. To make this happen, teachers rotate the group’s activities so that each group gets about 20 minutes with the teacher each day. While the teacher is working with a specific group, the other students are assigned to peer-tutoring or individual practice activities.  

Math Instruction

There is much less published research about the components and time needed for effective math instruction. Two publications that provide some suggestions about the content required for effective math instruction include the 2001 National Research Council study Adding it Up: Helping Learning Mathematics (Kilpatrick, Swafford, & Findell), as well as the 2008 National Math Advisory Panel (NMAP) report. Adding it Up found that there are five strands of mathematics proficiency that students need to learn:

  1. Adaptive Reasoning
  2. Strategic Competence
  3. Conceptual Understanding
  4. Productive Disposition
  5. Procedural Fluency

The NMAP report provided more details about how to teach mathematics effectively. In particular, this report found that neither teacher-directed or student-initiated instruction was adequate by itself. Instead, students need a combination of both these instructional methods and frequent opportunities to practice their math skills in order to become truly proficient. Brown-Chidsey and Bickford (2016) compiled available data about math instruction recommendations and suggested that allocating 60 minutes per day in grades K through 5 and 70 minutes per day in grades 6 through 12 appears to be a good starting point. Although details about how best to organize daily math lessons would benefit from additional research, using a combination of whole-class, small-group, and individual methods such as recommended for reading appears to be a good starting point.

Other Subjects

There is much less research about the best methods and time requirements for teaching other subjects beyond reading and math. In the absence of such information, using generally effective teaching practices such as an instructional hierarchy with a balance of whole-class, small-group, and individual activities appears to be appropriate. In addition to these approaches, developing school-wide schedules that allocate time for students to participate in both daily core instruction as well as supplemental lessons is important. An example of such scheduling is the use of a “skills” block in the daily schedule. Such a time block is usually about 30 minutes long and allows time for both remedial and enrichment activities. For students who start the school year below the grade-level expectations, having additional time for “catch-up” lessons is essential. For more information on the importance of school schedules for supporting all students see the FAST™ Insights blog titled Setting up Schedules to Support an MTSS.

Having enough time for instruction is essential if students are going to achieve expected learning goals. Available research suggests that 90 minutes are needed each school day to teach reading effectively at the elementary level. Less research is available about math instruction, but preliminary guidance suggests that 60 to 70 minutes per day are required in order for students to attain mathematics proficiency. These suggestions are for the Tier 1 core instruction provided for all students. For those who are behind, additional instructional time is needed so that they can catch up to peers. The best way to help students catch up is to include a daily “skills” block of about 30 minutes when additional instruction or intervention can be provided. Although time is the most precious commodity in schools, planned and careful use of the available instructional minutes can make a big difference in all students’ learning outcomes.

References

Brown-Chidsey, R., & Bickford, R. (2016).  Practical handbook of multi-tiered systems of support: Building academic and behavioral success in schools.  New York: Guilford Press.

National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (2008). Foundations for success: The final report of the national mathematics advisory panel. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Research Council. (2001).  Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics.  J. Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, and B. Findell (Eds.).  Mathematics Study Learning Committee, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Science and Education.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Reading Rockets. (2016). An example of the 90-minute reading block.  Retrieved from: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/example-90-minute-reading-block

Dr. Rachel Brown is FastBridge Learning’s Senior Academic Officer. She previously served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on effective academic assessment and intervention, including multi-tier systems of support, and she has authored several books on Response to Intervention and MTSS. 

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