In the past year I have read two books that have become very popular, one was regarding reading and the other writing. The first book is The Book Whisperer by Donna Lynn Miller. The second book I read was by Barry Lane and is entitled But How Do You Teach Writing?. Each of these books have many powerful suggestions to help improve student writing and reading skills. They become very popular among teachers, and I believe have had a significant positive impact on students as well.
When we dig down to the key principle in both books it is the same. The best way for students to get better at writing and reading is to give them more time with authentic reading and writing. Pacifically with reading I have really tried to ensure that my students get at least 30 minutes of personal reading time each school day. In order to get this I have had to cut back on how much time I spend in the basal, and teaching reading strategies. This made me a little bit nervous because the testing that the district monitors is tightly tied to the basal and the concepts taught in the lessons I was skipping. I strongly believed however that it was more important for students to have time to read in books they enjoy than to spend that time teaching strategies and skills. I have not eliminated the strategy and skills lessons, but they have gone from 30 minute lessons with lots of practice too focused 10 minute lessons with little to no practice. We are now a third of the way through the year, and so far my students are showing better gains than I have seen in previous years.
While this is hardly a scientific study, both books site a lot of research suggests that just giving students time to read and write will have a far bigger impact on student performance than teaching specific skills in these areas. For those of you that read my blog and think "this guy's grammar is atrocious, who does he think he is to tell us how to write?" I have to agree, but I would point out that most of my instructions growing up was focused far more on grammar and skills then it was just on allowing me time to write and express myself. If you think my grammar is bad now, you should read my stuff from a few years ago before I allowed myself to just start writing.
I personally believe that teaching specific techniques and skills in reading and writing are important. But I have also found that a 5 to 10 minute lesson, and a quick quiz that can fit on a 3 x 5 card, is just as effective if not more effective than a 30 minute lesson in a worksheet. If we can tighten up and focus our lessons into these little power lessons, students will have much more time to read and write about the things that they love. This is definitely a trend that is moving in the right direction.