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Tools to Boost Students’ Reading Stamina

Try these strategies to help your students sustain their focus on reading for longer periods of time, and drive comprehension in the process.

March 27, 2024

Getting students to read independently for long periods of time has never been easy. Now, with devices designed to sap their attention sitting in their pockets, the challenge has become even greater. 

A new survey by Ed Week found that more than half of teachers in grades 3-8 report their students’ reading stamina has “declined precipitously” in recent years. The findings line up with a 2014 meta-analysis, which concluded that for many U.S. students, the stamina required to sustain their attention during independent reading and “interact with texts in a meaningful manner” is waning. 

While some argue students should be developing their reading stamina at home—and teachers should be using their valuable class time on other priorities—the best-selling author and former educator Doug Lemov told Ed Week that kids need consistent practice in school to sharpen these muscles. “Should there be reading at home? Yeah, probably," he conceded, "but we should also read consistently in class, because that’s when I can wire their habits for sustained attention.” 

When we turned to ask educators in our audience how they go about improving students’ reading stamina, many agreed with Lemov, saying that step one is building up the amount of daily independent reading time students receive.

As you build up students’ stamina, consider trying out some of the following approaches to ensure you’re setting students up for success—and that they’re getting the most out of the texts they’re reading. 

A Little Experiment to Surface Distractions 

To improve students’ attention spans, try calling their, well… attention to the issue. Neurologist, researcher, and classroom teacher Judy Willis writes that this could look like a self-awareness activity that helps students shatter the myth of multitasking and makes it clear just how much of their time and attention distractions consume.

First, ask students to make a list of all the potential distractions that come up for them as they read. These will likely include: cell phones, the internet, TV, and video games. Next, assign students a task to complete—like reading 10 or 15 pages of a novel—and ask them to do it one night with their main distractions available to them, and another night when their distractions are not available. 

Students can then compare and contrast how much time it takes them to complete the task in each instance, and bring the differences they notice to class for a larger discussion. “After gathering and evaluating their data, students will no doubt find evidence showing which multitasking distractions waste time and diminish success,” says Willis. “Most kids believe they can have it all by multitasking. The fallacy is that when combining these activities with homework, they are getting less done, not more.” 

The activity can also be used as justification for keeping your classroom clear of similar distractions, and for drilling down on the importance of rebuilding your students' attention span through frequent periods of sustained reading time. 

Incremental Practice

Knowing you have to assign students more independent reading time is one thing, but doing it should be less like flipping a switch and more like developing a new exercise routine, writes educator Marile Mariana Stoneburg on Facebook. Stoneburg said that it’s important to “start small, start easy” and “alternate between increasing rigor and increasing time.” 

Seventh grade teacher Katherine Marie wrote that she starts with 10 minutes of independent reading time, then builds up to 20 and eventually 30 minutes. Providing students with books they’re interested in, or the ability to choose what they read at times, goes a long way toward building—and solidifying—their endurance, according to Marie. “They build their reading stamina with books they choose and love,” she said. “Then when they have to dive into harder texts they don't get to choose, that built up stamina is there to fall back on!”

Educator Megan Reznicek Kersey adds that fun games help motivate her students to read for longer periods. Kersey’s seventh grade ELA students play “Game of Quotes,” during which they engage in silent reading—“start with a few minutes, build up to 20”—and then answer silly questions with lines from the book they’ve been reading. 

Questions include: “What’s the last thing a bug says before hitting the windshield?” or “What's something written on a note you wouldn’t want your teacher to confiscate?” Students must search through the pages they’ve just read to find “funny, relevant” responses. Knowing they’ll have to go on this hunt, Kersey said, incentivizes them to read more: “The more they've read, the more they have to choose from.” 

Chunk Material into Manageable Bites 

Assigning students 20 minutes of classroom reading without building up their stamina will likely result in a good deal of closed eyes and (clandestine) cell phone scrolling. 

Lemov told Ed Week that teachers can quickly build up to 20 or more minutes of uninterrupted reading time by breaking the time into smaller, consecutive tasks: Teacher read-alouds, student read-alouds in pairs, and silent reading on the same shared text, for example. 

This “reading-cycle” might look like teachers reading the first few paragraphs of a text, students around the room taking on a few paragraphs of their own outloud, and a final period where students finish reading for a set time silently. At the end, Lemov assigns a brief period of writing and or discussion of the text. “It’s a sustained section of text, and we are practicing sustaining attention on it, with no break, for 20 minutes,” he told Ed Week.  

High school social studies teacher Monique Anne says she takes a similar approach by applying the jigsaw method to sections of longer non-fiction texts. For example: Try asking students to take on smaller sections of a text (say, a few paragraphs) and work collaboratively to understand and explain its meaning to peers in a larger discussion about the text’s substance. 

Anne told Edutopia that after using this strategy with students she transitions from shorter texts to whole texts in class, on their own: “they can hang in there for about 25-30 minutes,” she wrote, “I’m calling it a win!” 

Breathing Exercises 

One educator who teaches language learners recommended trying out breathing practice and similar mindfulness exercises before sustained reading practice, which can “release stress and increase concentration.” 

Aukeem Ballard, a dean of students and former history teacher in California, said he incorporated mindfulness activities into each of his classrooms at least once a week. Even as little as five minutes, he told Edutopia, helped students boost working memory and tune out distractions—benefits that bode well for improved reading stamina. 

A simple activity Ballard used was asking students to put their feet flat on the ground, close their eyes, and take deep breaths—in and out. “I guide students to follow where the air from their breath goes,” Ballard said. “While students are focusing on their breath, I invite them to reflect.” This reflection could be on the reading they’re about to engage in, a theme they’ve been discussing in class, or anything else. 

Ballard invites students to spend another minute “having everyone, including myself, focus on how we’re showing up to the space.” Some students, Ballard said, might show up angry to class, or stressed because of their school work. “We always make sure to validate how we are showing up without judgment toward ourselves.” 

To help students take the exercise seriously, Ballard found it useful to point students toward a list of research-backed benefits to mindfulness activities, including improved cognitive flexibility, reduced emotional reactivity, and reduced rumination on unwanted thoughts. “It is not strictly meditation, but rather a practice in supporting your mind to take care of yourself,” Ballard told students. 

Check for Understanding

To ensure students are grasping the meaning of what they're reading while they’re building up their stamina—and not just staring at words on the page—quick checks for understanding can be useful. 

Literacy expert and researcher Timothy Shanahan told Ed Week that short quizzes right after a sustained period of reading on a shared text can help teachers gauge how well students were able to make sense of the passages, and provide clues about further supports teachers might need to add, such as vocabulary review or discussions about narrative structure or sequencing. “If you have a six-page 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,” Shanahan told Ed Week

Do the quiz results show that they have “a better understanding about what happened earlier in the article?” Did their comprehension trail off as they continued to interact with the text? “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. 

A short quiz could include a few basic questions about plot, characters, key details, or dates, for example, and they don’t have to be graded. 

High school history teacher Benjamin Barbour told Edutopia that he likes to mix-in short written assessments to check for understanding, even as short as a sentence or two. “When students decipher concepts simply and succinctly, they’re primed to contemplate what they read at a deeper level,” Barbour said. “Summarizing, for instance, obliges them to read the text several times, identify key concepts and main points, and decode complex passages.” 

His insights line up with a body of research which finds that when students summarize what they’ve just read—in their own words, and without the help of a text at their side—it helps them better integrate new information into their existing knowledge base.

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