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How to Build Students’ Reading Stamina

Editor’s Note: Click on the words highlighted in this story to pull up a definition and short research summary.

Visited recently by one of his former students, Minnesota teacher Eric Kalenze was reminded of the push it took to get that student to read at length.

While teaching a 9th grade class, Kalenze had given a class a 25-page reading assignment, and the student’s mother was concerned about whether her son would be able complete it within the demands of his individualized education program.

“His mom called and said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” Kalenze recalled. “And I said, ‘Would you like him to be able to read 25 pages in a sitting at some point in his life?’ She said yes, of course.”

That student ended up being one of Kalenze’s best readers—hence his jubilant visit back to the classroom. But, teacher and student reminisced, it took some hard work to build his reading muscles to the place where he was routinely able to make it through nightly reading assignments.

It’s an anecdote that gets at one of the truisms of reading comprehension: Just as a skilled hitter spends time at the batting cages and a skilled pianist must tickle the ivories, a skilled reader needs to read.

The work of reading comprehension is the work of a lifetime, dependent on exposing students to lots of content and vocabulary and to giving them the tools to make sense of complex sentences and language structure. It also means growing students’ stamina—their ability to read at length. But this aspect of comprehension has not been studied nearly as much as others—even though the sheer amount of text students are expected to read can vary widely from classroom to classroom, beginning in the early grades.

“You have a 30-minute reading lesson. Are kids going to read 30 minutes or two? Is anyone going to monitor or inquire about that reading? And you also need to be doing something with the reading—interacting with the teacher about it, interacting with the other kids about it,” noted Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Across a week or couple of weeks of lessons, reading should make up a significant part of the class, and students should be held accountable—it should be clear they really are doing the reading,” he said.

New challenges to stamina—and new resources

The push to get kids to read more is hardly new. Since the advent of sustained silent reading and Drop Everything and Read, or DEAR, programs in the 1960s and 1970s, schools have tried various strategies to increase students’ reading stamina.

The challenges persist today. And by most educators’ accounts, they have been exacerbated by the rise of social media and smartphones. With their beeps, badges, and buzzes, smartphones are engineered to maintain users’ attention—and to pull students’ focus away from focusing on print. A recent survey of educators by the EdWeek Research Center found that more than half said that, in grades 3-8, students’ reading stamina had declined precipitously since 2019.

“Stamina is another word for attention,” said Doug Lemov, who trains teachers and whose book Reading Reconsidered aims to bring evidence-based reading practices into classrooms. “Reading is an exercise in attention, and attention is increasingly fragmented.”

If sustaining students’ attention to persist through text is a long-standing challenge, there are also new opportunities. A plethora of new materials, often called “knowledge-building curriculum,” feature coherent content themes and text sets that can facilitate class discussion and give a framework for teachers to supply the academic vocabulary, background knowledge, and oral-language practice students need to make sense of texts.

Still, while these curricula do tend to present longer and more complex texts for discussion, they don’t intrinsically build in the routines that help students persist through them.

“Each grade level’s selections tend to be longer. That’s not nothing, but to me, it isn’t very instructive. It doesn’t give much help” to either student or teacher, Shanahan said.

And although research has tied aspects of text, including its syntax, vocabulary, and length to how difficult it is to read, that’s not quite the same thing as being able to focus on it for sustained periods of time, the educators note.

“It’s not just complexity. I can look at a complex text all day long, but if I only read three pages at a shot, it’s not building my stamina,” said Kalenze, who teaches middle and high school at the FIT Charter School in Apple Valley, Minn., and also leads curriculum, instruction, and evidence-based programs there.

No one curriculum can do everything to help build those routines, the educators said. Instead, teachers should include stamina-building exercises as part of the daily reading their students do. And it’s best to start early. Here are some of their ideas.

Make time for reading and talking about shared texts at school

Lemov is a fan of the new knowledge-building curricula, but said they have to be used a certain way to build stamina. Students should be reading together in class for sustained periods of time, working through complex syntax together, then discussing the texts’ meaning, craft, and nuances, he said.

He often deploys a “reading cycle” to make this happen: a combination of teacher read-aloud, student read-aloud, and student silent reading—all on the same shared piece of text. Teachers might, for instance, read the first two paragraphs to model what expressive prosody—the stress and intonations in a language—sounds like; students then take turns reading aloud, practicing their fluent reading; then, students read the next portion of the text silently on their own.

“It’s a sustained section of text, and we are practicing sustaining attention on it, with no break, for 20 minutes. Then we do a minute of writing and reflection and then we discuss it,” Lemov said. “Should there be reading at home? Yeah, probably, but we should also read consistently in class, because that’s when I can wire their habits for sustained attention.”

This model notably differs from the choice-reading programs like DEAR so popular in schools a generation ago. For one, the reading-aloud piece means teachers ensure that students can decode the text on their own, and arrange supports as needed.

For another, working on a shared text opens opportunities for discussion, debate, and ultimately, community. Those opportunities are foreclosed when everyone is reading their own book.

“The communal aspect of this work is one of the unacknowledged things about why shared books are powerful. When it’s funny and we’re laughing together, you feel connected to the people in the room—also when it’s stunning and memorable, or difficult,” said Lemov. “I believe in book choice in independent reading, but when it gets kind of valorized, it can be an isolated experience that weirdly replicates the smartphone.”

Increase the demands on students gradually

Old-school reading textbooks had plenty of flaws, but some features of them did help by gradually increasing the reading demand over time, Shanahan notes. They’d put one sentence on a page, then over time two sentences, then more, and so on through the course of a year. That same theory of action can still work today, especially as students are transitioning from decoding into reading.

For younger readers, teachers can gradually increase the number of sentences they’re expected to handle; for older students, stamina can be grown via page counts. Either way, the main goal should be increasing the number of words read in a sitting.

Teachers can also set “stretch goals” every so often, using either a longer text or a shorter, more difficult one to build stamina, and they can also help kids internalize routines when they’re struggling, Shanahan said.

“What happens if at one paragraph they do well and at two they have trouble? That’s when you start working on what they might do when they get to that second paragraph,” he said.

They could, for instance, write the briefest summary of the first paragraph to have that in mind before beginning on the second.

Consider using whole texts rather than excerpts

Some of the newer knowledge-building curricula prioritize whole texts, like complete poems, novels, plays, and articles. That stands in contrast to traditional reading programs, including what’s known as basal readers—typically big tomes mostly comprised of excerpts.

The EdWeek Research Center, in a nationally representative sample of educators conducted last fall, found that fewer than 1 in 5—just 17 percent—said they relied primarily on whole texts to teach reading. Most favored all excerpts or a mix of whole texts and excerpts.

Though there isn’t much empirical study on the topic either way, the experts Education Week interviewed favored whole texts. By their nature, whole texts tend to be richer and also gradually make more demands on the reader, who must juggle what’s going on, chapter by chapter, against the work’s larger layers, allusions, and significance. (Longer narrative nonfiction works much the same way.)

“You get to watch characters develop and do more knowledge-building through the things authors don’t explain,” said Kalenze, the Minnesota teacher. “With excerpts, I don’t think you get cumulative gain in quite the same way. There’s just no substitute for watching how a novelist works or how their arc builds. When understanding a work of art, you kind of have to follow everything the author is doing. With a snapshot, I don’t see how that works.”

Teaching a novel or a text of some length also makes it easier for teachers to gradually increase the reading load to stretch kids’ reading stamina—from 10 to 20 to 30 pages over a unit—than trying to juggle a lot of shorter texts of varying levels of complexity.

Accountability matters

There are a few ways teachers can check that kids are successfully building their stamina. One is a simple formative assessment.

When reading a shared text together, teachers can stop and gauge understanding after a set period of time. If students are struggling to grasp the meaning by the end of the read, that may be a signal that a teacher needs to dial back slightly—or offer more supports on the text’s vocabulary, morphological or language features, and other elements.

“If you have a six-paged article about something in the Civil War, for instance, have them read the six pages and then instead of doing some activity right away, quiz them—find out how well they did. Did they have a better understanding about what happened earlier in the article? Did the second half get harder? Maybe they weren’t reading as carefully or maybe they didn’t know how to use that information and the second part just got harder,” Shanahan said.

Another tool useful in secondary school, when teachers expect students to do more reading at home, is the good old-fashioned pop quiz with a few basic questions about plot, characters, or key details. Kalenze uses these not only as a way to prompt kids to do their reading but also because they can prime the pump for understanding if a text is especially challenging.

“It becomes a platform to talk about what’s going on in the chapter, and if it wasn’t clear to you, it will enable our comprehension discussion,” he said. “Without a daily accountability, it really adds up over time. When you start to attach this accountability, you hit a rhythm and you start to notice that all the kids have read. It forces you to do your homework, sit down for an hour, and read.”

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