George Lucas Educational Foundation

What Doesn’t Work: Literacy Practices We Should Abandon

A young boy in a large-striped red and blue polar shirt is sitting at his desk with his head down in a book.
A young boy in a large-striped red and blue polar shirt is sitting at his desk with his head down in a book.
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The number one concern that I hear from educators is lack of time, particularly lack of instructional time with students. It’s not surprising that we feel a press for time. Our expectations for students have increased dramatically, but our actual class time with students has not. Although we can't entirely solve the time problem, we can mitigate it by carefully analyzing our use of class time, looking for what Beth Brinkerhoff and Alysia Roehrig (2014) call “time wasters.”

Consider the example of calendar time. In many U.S. early elementary classrooms, this practice eats up 15–20 minutes daily, often in a coveted early-morning slot when students are fresh and attentive. Some calendar time activities may be worthwhile. For example, teachers might use this time for important teaching around grouping and place value. But other activities are questionable at best. For example, is the following routine still effective if it’s already February and your students still don’t know:

Yesterday was _____.
Today is _____.
Tomorrow will be _____.

Does dressing a teddy bear for the weather each day make optimal use of instructional time? Some teachers respond, “But we love our teddy bear, and it only takes a few minutes!” But three minutes a day for 180 days adds up to nine hours. Children would also love engineering design projects, deep discussions of texts they’ve read, or math games.

To help us analyze and maximize use of instructional time, here are five common literacy practices in U.S. schools that research suggests are not optimal use of instructional time:

1. “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction

Students are given a list of words to look up in the dictionary. They write the definition and perhaps a sentence that uses the word. What’s the problem?

We have long known that this practice doesn’t build vocabulary as well as techniques that actively engage students in discussing and relating new words to known words, for example through semantic mapping (Bos & Anders, 1990). As Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz (2014) document, research has revealed so many effective techniques for teaching vocabulary that a big challenge now is deciding among them.

2. Giving Students Prizes for Reading

From Reading Month in March to year-long reading incentive programs, it’s common practice in the U.S. to give students prizes such as stickers, bracelets, and fast food coupons for reading. What’s the problem?

Unless these prizes are directly related to reading (e.g., books), this practice actually makes students less likely to choose reading as an activity in the future (Marinak & Gambrell, 2008). It undermines reading motivation. Opportunities to interact with peers around books, teacher “book blessings,” special places to read, and many other strategies are much more likely to foster long-term reading motivation (Marinak & Gambrell, 2016).

3. Weekly Spelling Tests

Generally, all students in a class receive a single list of words on Monday and are expected to study the words for a test on Friday. Distribution of the words, in-class study time, and the test itself use class time. What’s the problem?

You’ve all seen it—students who got the words right on Friday misspell those same words in their writing the following Monday! Research suggests that the whole-class weekly spelling test is much less effective than an approach in which different students have different sets of words depending on their stage of spelling development, and emphasis is placed on analyzing and using the words rather than taking a test on them (see Palmer & Invernizzi, 2015 for a review).

4. Unsupported Independent Reading

DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), and similar approaches provide a block of time in which the teacher and students read books of their choice independently. Sounds like a great idea, right?

Studies have found that this doesn’t actually foster reading achievement. To make independent reading worthy of class time, it must include instruction and coaching from the teacher on text selection and reading strategies, feedback to students on their reading, and text discussion or other post-reading response activities (for example, Kamil, 2008; Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008; see Miller & Moss, 2013 for extensive guidance on supporting independent reading).

5. Taking Away Recess as Punishment

What is this doing on a list of literacy practices unworthy of instructional time? Well, taking away recess as a punishment likely reduces students’ ability to benefit from literacy instruction. How?

There is a considerable body of research linking physical activity to academic learning. For example, one action research study found that recess breaks before or after academic lessons led to students being more on task (Fagerstrom & Mahoney, 2006). Students with ADHD experience reduced symptoms when they engage in physical exercise (Pontifex et al., 2012)—and these students are probably among the most likely to have their recess taken away. There are alternatives to taking away recess that are much more effective and don’t run the risk of reducing students’ attention to important literacy instruction (Cassetta & Sawyer, 2013).

Measure of Success

Whether or not you engage in these specific activities, they provide a sense that there are opportunities to make better use of instructional time in U.S. schools. I encourage you to scrutinize your use of instructional time minute by minute. If a practice is used because we’ve always done it that way or because parents expect it, it’s especially worthy of a hard look. At the same time, if a practice consistently gets results in an efficient and engaging way, protect it at all costs. Together we can rid U.S. classrooms of what does not work.


  •     Bos, C.S. & Anders, P.L. (1990). Effects of interactive vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary learning and reading comprehension of junior-high learning-disabled students. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13, 31-42.
  •     Brinkerhoff, E.H. & Roehrig, A.D. (2014). No more sharpening pencils during work time and other time wasters. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Cassetta, G. & Sawyer, B. (2013). No more taking away recess and other problematic discipline practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Cobb, C. & Blachowicz, C. (2014). No more “look up the list” vocabulary instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Fagerstrom, T. & Mahoney, K. (2006). Give me a break! Can strategic recess scheduling increase on-task behaviour for first graders? Ontario Action Researcher, 9(2).
  •     Kamil, M.L. (2008). How to get recreational reading to increase reading achievement. In 57th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, 31-40. Oak Creek, WI: National Reading Conference.
  •     Marinak, B.A. & Gambrell, L. (2016). No more reading for junk: Best practices for motivating readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Miller, D. & Moss, B. (2013). No more independent reading without support. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Palmer, J.L. & Invernizzi, M. (2015). No more spelling and phonics worksheets. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  •     Pontifex, M.B., Saliba, B.J., Raine, L.B., Picchietti, D.L., & Hillman, C.H. (2012). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(3), 543-551.
  •     Reutzel, D.R., Fawson, P., & Smith, J. (2008). Reconsidering silent sustained reading: An exploratory study of scaffolded silent reading. Journal of Educational Research, 102, 37-50.
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jafrrw80's picture

Thank you for the reply... I am going to go with my original thinking. Maybe the author can jump into this conversation and clarify, but after reading the other comments and reviewing where the author said, "DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), and similar approaches provide a block of time in which the teacher and students read books of 'THEIR CHOICE' independently.
" To make independent reading worthy of class time, it must include instruction and coaching from the teacher on text selection and READING STRATEGIES, FEEDBACK to students on their reading, and TEXT DISCUSSION or other POST-READING RESPONSE ACTIVITIES" -SEEMS MORE LIKE GUIDING READING THAN READING FOR ENJOYMENT.

This seems a little more than just "it must include instruction and coaching from the teacher on text selection"
How to select a book is an important skill, but one I implement right at the beginning of the year !!!

Thank you for commenting,

agoyette87's picture

How Vocabulary Should Be Taught

I agree with your book No More Look up the List Vocabulary Instruction on the fact that we should not have random vocabulary words that are not related to a concept, spelling rule, thematic unit, etc.. Instead strategies like you mentioned such as "be a mind reader" that helps students become familiar with vocabulary words in a fun way should be encouraged. In my own third grade class, I would always give spelling or vocabulary words that related to a unit of study. I would typically make a game of some sort for students to help remember what the word meant or how to spell it. These games helped solidify the term that needed to be learned, helped my students develop content knowledge of the unit we were studying, and was fun for them. Adjusting the vocabulary look ups to make it fun, educational and relevant is needed, but we still have to make sure we don't fall into the trap of just doing something because we always have.

Another way I found that is effective to teach vocabulary that is a "look up" way is to have students look up words online. This visual method offers more of an in-depth knowledge of words for students and is usually more engaging to them. Integrating technology and ELA skills has been proven to be effective. What is your opinion on that?


RTaylor0531's picture

I completely agree with you. I want my students to feel success and develop a love for learning. I have always considered myself a lifelong learner and strive to instill that in my students, as well. It is so important to do what is right for your students in your room. There are many things that are appropriate in one grade level, but maybe not another. In the same respect, there may be activities appropriate for a high ELL population, but not other rooms. Teachers have to know their students and what will work for them, that is the most important thing.

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist | School-turn-around & Advanced Academics

Great reminder for principals leading struggling campuses where maximizing every instructional minute counts. A word of caution for elementary principals, in my experience parent are as deeply attached to many of these practices as some teachers. Having an information meeting to explain best practices ahead of time would go a long way to prepare parents to let go of the "spelling lists". Dr. Kendra Strange

Laura Reardon McDermott's picture

In first grade, spelling is used to reinforce sound spellings. For example, if we are teaching the ou sound that week, the spelling words might be: around, bounce, found, ground, loud, out, proud, shout... The ou sound is used in their daily readers and other activities throughout the week. Year after year, I see non readers learn to read hundreds/thousands of words by learning the sound spellings... Research supports that when phonics and spelling are taught through direct, systematic, explicit instruction (as described above) students become successful readers.

Debbie's picture

Your "#4 Unsupported SSR" distorts the scope of research on SSR. When fear, testing or grading what you've read and arbitrary rules like forcing kids to finish what they start; distractions such as PA systems and competing videogames; and the absence of a wide variety of choices (aka school library) are part of the classroom mix, students will resist SSR and regard it as another one of those school "hoops" they're being forced to jump through.

HoffmanR's picture

When students become truly engaged with vocabulary, vocabulary becomes their favorite area of study. Activities in my classroom that did this included:
1.) Demonstration--for example, at the high school level, encourage a bunch of students to come to the front of the classroom to hold hands, becoming a human graph to illustrate continuity. They then release hands to demonstrate a discrete graph with individual points;
2.) Illustration--students make drawings of the word and display the drawings that most embody the meaning of the word. For example, for the word, "furrow", a picture is worth 1000 words;
3.) Short skits-- students all work on skits that take a very short time to present and that amplify the meaning of the word;
4.) Etymology--go over the root/s, prefixes, and suffixes in a word. Provide examples of other words with the same root, and challenge students to come up with yet more words. The etymological method, if not overused, presents an especially powerful way to understand vocabulary, decipher new words, and spell words encountered for the first time. Etymological spelling lists go really far toward spelling mastery that carries over into writing. For example, "graph" means "picture" or "writing" and ""photos" means "light," so a photograph is a picture made by light. "Bios" means "life" and a biography is a writing about person's life. One excellent book on the topic, Joegil Lundquist's "English from the Roots Up," presents numerous common Greek and Latin roots for the classroom. Introducing words with the same roots and challenging students to find the meanings of the new words provides an entertaining exercise for all participants;
5.) Writing example sentences together as a class for a vocabulary word to set appropriate context, and then separately as individuals or in groups, helps students to bring the word into their own writings.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

The worst thing that you can hear as a teacher is "That's the way we do it."
However, I also think that different practices might work better for some teachers than for others--in spite of what the research says. If you're really sold on a strategy, often the kids will be too, whereas if you're just going through the motions because it's required, the students will see right through it.

Jodi Palmer's picture

I agree weekly spelling tests are not a reliable assessment of a students true understanding of phonics and sound manipulation. However, I don't think they should be done away with all together. When students know they have to prepare for these words, they are more aware and try to study them (hopefully). This is exposure to sounds and words. I form my lesson on word families to build up to the test. There were different activities( integrating other subjects if possible ) were the students paid attention to rhyming words and syllables and how to change the words by manipulating sounds. Using a gradual release method, the students received a list of words, but after the new year, were given a list of "possible words". They were given a clue such as: they are color words, number words, words that rhyme with ing... The list, of course, is altered for RTI and gifted.

Jodi Palmer's picture

To be an effective teacher, you have to be able to adapt and change as the students and teaching practices do. If the teacher uses a strategy that works and the students are receptive to it, why change it? But, if that same strategy is not working, why frustrate yourself and the class because you are so dedicated to a certain method. Teachers have to be the most flexible people in the world!

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