Blogstitute Week 5: Reducing instruction, increasing engagement

July 23rd, 2012

In the final written post for our Summer Blogstitute, Peter Johnston (Choice Words, Opening Minds) shares the results of a study he conducted and asks us to ponder important questions about the amount of instruction students receive, the level of engagement with the text they read and with each other, and what this all means for teachers, students, and schools in the era of Common Core Standards.

Be sure to check out the discussion of Peter’s book Opening Minds during an ongoing CyberPD event that will culminate in a Twitter chat on Thursday, July 26.

Tune in next week for the final week of the Blogstitute when you will have the chance to preview three video clips from upcoming DVDs by Cris Tovani, Chris Confer and Marco Ramirez, and Debbie Diller.

Powerful instruction — powerful engagement

What would happen if, rather than focusing on teaching reading strategies, we focused instead on getting students engaged?  I can tell you what happened in four eighth-grade classrooms. At the beginning of the year, the teachers simply introduced their students to a range of edgy young adult fiction and told them to read what they liked, no strings attached—no book reports, comprehension questions, or other controlling strategies, and less teaching in front of the class—but there were only one to three copies of each book.

What happened? The students read like crazy (averaging forty-two books each in the first year). They pushed themselves to read complex texts. They began talking about their books—with peers (including those they would not previously have imagined talking with), with teachers, with parents and family, at home, in school, and in class. They sat up in bed and texted each other about books. Talking about books at lunch became normal, not nerdy.

All these conversations about personally and morally complex issues changed relationships—among students and with family members. Trust increased. Behavior problems decreased. According to students, parents, and teachers, students became more open, less judgmental, more responsible, more empathic, more mature, more thoughtful about and in control of their own futures, and happier—yes, happier! I know that being happier isn’t part of the Common Core Standards, but shouldn’t it be? The teachers were happier too, and, isn’t that important, given that a recent MetLife Survey showed that in the past two years the percentage of teachers who report being very satisfied with their work dropped from 59 to 44, and those thinking of leaving the profession rose from 17 percent to 29 percent? Oh, and—I almost forgot to mention—the students’ test scores also increased, and more of them passed the state test. But really, that’s just gravy, unless you consider the happiness of the administrators and the school board members (we didn’t think to gather those data, though).

This is a summary of a well-documented study that my colleague Gay Ivey and I recently completed. It is only one study, but it involves a lot of students, it has been replicated, and it is consistent with a bunch of other research, so I think it raises a lot of questions. For example, what does it mean that students learned more with about half as much in-front-of-the-class teaching (which students could ignore if they were engaged in a book)? How should we weigh these changes in student development relative to achievement on state tests? How should we think about the absence of these achievements from the Common Core Standards? What does it mean when apparently reducing instruction but focusing on engagement actually increases the breadth and depth of achievement? What does it mean that, with only one to three copies of any particular book in a classroom, students manage to share common reading experiences and, over time, common books? What does it mean that students were reading mostly narrative fiction yet were more successful on the state test, which is largely about nonfiction? What does it mean that, because there are only two or three copies of a book, students keep track of exactly who has read each book so that they can talk about it with them—even if they don’t really know them yet—and thus get to know each other in deeper and more personal ways, expanding their circle of friends? What does it mean that these are aspects of mental health, protective factors against high-risk drug, alcohol, and sexual behaviors, and depression?

A recent study by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby showed that, when people are fully engaged in a book, they lose their sense of self and take up residence in the characters. When that happens, they become changed in some of the ways our eighth graders were changed. But they have to be fully engaged—essentially “lost in the book”—which requires that the book be personally relevant and probably means that reading for twenty minutes won’t do it. What does this mean in the context of efforts in the name of the Common Core Standards to displace the amount of narrative text students read with nonfiction?

In the context of these studies and current increases in teacher-student ratios, we might also ponder the question, When does less instruction from a teacher actually improve learning—or, what makes instruction powerful besides the sheer volume of it? How important is collaboration among (and, hence, purposeful assistance from) peers? Does the relationship between student and teacher make a difference—particularly who is in control of the learning? Might what students are doing when teachers are not teaching them matter more than what they are doing when than when they are with the teachers?

Ponder these questions in the course of your summer reading. I will be.


Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

28 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Val  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 9:40 am

    It’s so important for students to take more control of their learning. That’s what teachers want for their students. When does less instruction from the teacher actually improve learning? The answer to that question is perhaps, when more instruction from the teacher equals less student engagement. Creating a classroom community where students feel connected to their peers and teachers, where they can collaborate and interact, and where they feel safe to learn, grow, and share is an environment that most people (students, teachers, others) would want to be a part of.

  • 2. wanablogonliteracy - Book&hellip  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    […] Her research, done in Virginia public schools,  is showing that when given the chance to read books that ask the hard questions, eighth graders were more engaged in reading. Many going from reading one or no books per year, to reading forty books over the course of the school year. They developed a sense of agency through the books that might be classified as “edgy.”  Some examples of the change that look place included a student who asked other kids to stop harassing someone on Facebook after he read a book in which a girl committed suicide after being harassed on the internet. There was young man who changed his whole self-concept through becoming part of the reading community that developed in class. He told his teacher had had been thinking of joining a gang, but after reading books about kids who had made that choice, he changed his mind.  Her work also found that parents were reading more because their kids talked about the books they were reading. This work was presented at the International Reading Association Conference in May of 2012.  Dr. Ivey’s co-researcher, Peter Johnston, wrote on this topic (7-23-12) at the Stenhouse Publisher’s author site:… […]

  • 3. Joan Beaudoin  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    This really speaks to the RC belief that social interaction is key to learning (principle 3, if I remember correctly). Particularly at this grade level, which is NOT within my comfort level, it would seem a necessity. Peer interaction is so vitally important! The word “community” appeared frequently – anyone with RC training, and truthfully anyone who works with children of any age, should realize how important that concept is. Kids to belong!need

  • 4. Vivian Vasquez  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    “A recent study by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby showed that, when people are fully engaged in a book, they lose their sense of self and take up residence in the characters. ” This connects nicely with what Carol Felderman and I found in a study on critical literacy and technology with second graders where children took on different personas as podcasters. Those children took up residence in the personas they took on resulting in their increased participation, engagement and passion for the work they were doing.

  • 5. Vivian Vasquez  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    “A recent study by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby showed that, when people are fully engaged in a book, they lose their sense of self and take up residence in the characters. ” This connects nicely with what Carol Felderman and I found in a study on critical literacy and technology with second graders where children took on different personas as podcasters. Those children took up residence in the personas they took on resulting in their increased participation, engagement and passion for the work they were doing.

  • 6. Laura Komos  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Peter, you raised some really important questions to ponder in this post. I think it is absolutely essential that we take the time to consider the ramifications of “increasing direct instruction time,” as many of us are being asked to do just that. I’d argue instead that we ponder your question… “When does less instruction from a teacher actually improve learning—or, what makes instruction powerful besides the sheer volume of it?” Such a powerful question!

  • 7. Cathy Mere  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Reading your book and your post I have been thinking a lot about this question, “How important is collaboration among peers?”. My hope is to work this year toward shifting our conversations to, “What can you learn from one another?”

    Thanks for sharing your questions. Much to ponder.


  • 8. Linda Baie  |  July 23rd, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I believe that much of what you said can also be applied to writing. I taught this age group for years in an ungraded, progressive school with a similar approach to reading and writing. With the teacher providing some instruction, but given many opportunities for writing and for collaboration, students do improve. That combination with reading approach too as your research showed will mean powerful learning for students. Thank you for this provocative post.

  • 9. Tracy  |  July 24th, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    A lot of ideas here to mull over and put into practice. As stated before me, lots of tenets of Responsive Classroom and community ring true. Here’s another thought to ponder: How do we, as teachers, practice and model what we know is in the best interest of kids, when administrations and districts instruct us to do otherwise (boxed programs, anthologies, etc.)

  • 10. Kelly Mogk  |  July 24th, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    So many things to consider from this post. I especially love this question: “When does less instruction from a teacher actually improve learning—or, what makes instruction powerful besides the sheer volume of it?”

    I strongly believe in the power of relationships, community, and choice. Thanks for the great info, and I’m excited to read your book!

  • 11. Sherell Stepp  |  July 27th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Wonderful post! Working on my MLIS degree and we just read a blog that relates to these ideas by David Warlick. Here is a quote from his blog ( The goal of education today is to prepare our children for an unpredictable future, and we will not accomplish this by applying more education or even technologically enhancing it. Children will learn well when the process becomes authentically responsive — learners become full partners in that process and it all becomes a lot more playful. What could our children accomplish if they were totally engaged in learning!
    Good question by Tracy above… how do we as teachers do what research says is best for kids while trying to meet district and state demands???

  • 12. Mrs. V  |  July 28th, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I appreciate the connections between ideas and research in both this post and Opening Minds. I noticed on the link to the second blog comment that the recent study was presented at IRA. I would love to see publication(s) about it when they are available.

  • 13. Joy Kirr  |  July 30th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks for this post!

    You reminded me of a session I attended led by Erin Olson from IA on reading. She gave her students 3 directions. 1. Read something. 2. Be inspired by it. 3. Act on it / Respond to it. This is adding to my inspiration for Genius Hour in my classroom. My goal for independent reading is to get my 7th graders to READ. What will come of constant reading? Enjoyment, empathy, and, hopefully, ACTION. As Erin said, when we read a book we don’t make a diorama of it (or write a report with a summary!). We share it. Discuss it. Do something with this new information we’ve gleaned.

    Thanks for the post. I know that the more my students read, the easier any goals (CCS or others) will be easier to attain.

    -@Joy Kirr

  • 14. Weekend Round-Up August 4&hellip  |  August 4th, 2012 at 9:36 am

    […] Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement  […]

  • 15. True Learning « Los&hellip  |  August 13th, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    […]… […]

  • 16. Lind Williams  |  August 16th, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    While I agree with Johnston that engagement is the key. He sort of creates a false dichotomy. It’s not a choice between engagement and comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies (e.g. activating background knowledge, creating mental imagery) are what engaged readers do. The trick is that the comprehension strategies shouldn’t be mechanistic. We don’t need a worksheet to become engaged with a book.

  • 17. Matt Renwick  |  September 12th, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    This post has prompted me to totally revamp my building’s after school 4th and 5th grade reading intervention program. In the past, we used a computer-based reading and assessment system. This year, we plan to do just what you did; purchase high interest books, have enthusiastic staff introduce them to the students, and provide 1-3 copies of each book. I am looking forward to seeing the results of this program. Thank you for leading the way.

  • 18. Engagement as a Reading I&hellip  |  September 18th, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    […] Johnston provides this lead to one of the best blog posts I have read. Titled Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement, he describes a group of 8th graders who were given edgy fiction to read and discuss with peers […]

  • 19. Pat Girard  |  October 5th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Peter says it like it is. If kids aren’t truly engaged in reading, they won’t become life-long readers. Reading for incentives, or learning strategies without application to authentic reading, is like teaching the rules of golf, but never going out and playing for pleasure. Now to convince the “powers that be!”

  • 20. Most Memorable Blog Posts&hellip  |  November 25th, 2012 at 10:19 am

    […] Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement by Peter Johnston […]

  • 21. To Model or Not To Model:&hellip  |  December 12th, 2012 at 6:46 am

    […] a research study that yielded compelling proof of that. As he shared in a recent blog post titled “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement,” he and his colleague Gay Ivey looked at four 8th grade classrooms where the teachers […]

  • 22. Rules of Engagement | Con&hellip  |  January 19th, 2013 at 9:04 am

    […]… […]

  • 23. Increasing engagement: A &hellip  |  January 22nd, 2013 at 6:57 am

    […] he shared with us how he re-thought his school’s reading intervention program after reading a blog post by Peter Johnston. Matt will be back in a few months to share the results of the new […]

  • 24. Cathie  |  January 25th, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Great idea and as a special education teacher in a middle school i could really use some help finding titles that will engage my beginning readers. Even for those that want to read I have been challenged to find titles that are engaging and appropriate. Any suggestions????

  • 25. Most Memorable Blog Posts&hellip  |  November 17th, 2013 at 1:10 am

    […] Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement by Peter Johnston […]

  • 26. Update: Diigo in Educatio&hellip  |  February 1st, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    […] Blogstitute Week 5: Reducing instruction, increasing engagement – The Stenhouse Blog […]

  • 27. Going Schoolwide with Rea&hellip  |  January 29th, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    […] a blog post on Stenhouse a few years back, Peter Johnston summarized the findings he and Gay Ivey observed when adolescent […]

  • 28. Julie Wolfe  |  April 26th, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Where can I find a recommended book list for middle school readers? I have been to hear Peter Johnston speak two times and he mentioned several books each time. I would love to find a compiled list of current books that will change our young readers lives!
    Thank you!

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