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Read to expand school day

We know that we need longer days in schools full of kids who need to catch up to grade level. Schools that have increased learning time have had significant success. How do we do that without breaking the already strained school budget? Here is a small idea: make lunch period a READING and lunch period, and enforce it.

Do away with hot lunches. Serve box lunches, or let students bring their own food. Hand out the food at their desks as their pre-lunch period ends, and have them stay there, with a book of their choice and a teacher reading her own book. Everyone sits and reads, and eats if they want to. No exceptions. Try to arrange that pre-lunch class so friends are not together. It is quiet time, to feed the soul and the mind, and calm everyone down for the rest of the day.

It would also help if we turn cafeterias into game rooms and theaters, good for indoor PE, drama and music rehearsals and any classes needing extra space. The cafeteria is a lunchtime disaster waiting to happen. Why put up with it?

Maybe we could motivate lunchtime readers by letting them spend one lunch period a week in a chatting room with their friends, as long as they accumulated no penalty points for talking and other distracting behavior during the reading lunch the other days of the week.

I know. This sounds impractical. But it is worth a try. It would add 45 minutes of the best kind of learning, just reading, to the school day, without actually making it any longer. Students can talk to each other on the way to their next class, and on the way home.

This would work better in smaller schools where quieter classes are in vogue, and students more likely to know each other and be comfortable acting like a family on a lazy Sunday evening, everyone with something to read. Elementary schools should have little problem with it. By the time those kids are in middle school, it will be part of their daily rhythm, and carry over to high school.

I am open to other ideas. Tell me what you got. But we need more learning time and I am not sure how best to get it.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 26, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  increase learning time, longer school days, make lunch period a reading-and-lunch period, more reading time in school, students choose their books  
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Jay- we actually tried this with our 4th & 5th graders it did not work as well as you would hope. The Matthew effect just increased, those who already read benefited more, those who didn't struggled and disrupted. Too many of them were behind with out the remedial support or English language support it just was an act in frustration. While I agree with you that we need get more time in, it takes people and planning. The Everybody Wins program also does a version of this for a select group of kids. They are helping, but again there is a limit to the number of volunteers. The ugly truth in these times is that if you have to make up for the lack of society and parent investment in a child in their early years, you must pay for it later and that usually means with cash.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 26, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse


Sounds like a good idea but in reality it could be a big flop. We had "Readers Workshop" or "Silent Sustained Reading" in our school every day. Both of these are what you're proposing - give kids supervised time to read. Unfortunately what happens is a result of Thorndike's Law of Effect: the good readers get better because they're already successful readers, they enjoy what they're doing. In effect; the rich get richer. The poor(er) readers are not successful, some despise/resent it, and do everything except read during the designated period. They ask to go to the boys'/girls' room, to the nurse, get a drink. They sometimes spend the bulk of the designated period looking for a book from the library. It's sad but true. Again, the rich get richer and...

Posted by: phoss1 | January 26, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

I must say, I am just appalled at this idea. Could you imagine if we said to adults across this country, we are taking your one real break during the day and saying now work - every day! Many people choose to work through lunch, but can always decide when that is. Now to push that down on children. School is more than just test scores after all. It is, like it or not, the most important social development time during a child's life. Not just because we allow "too much" free time at school, but because children (humans) are social beings and demand social interaction. I can't imagine the impact of taking the social time away that from lunch would play on the classroom. With recess now non-existent in many middle schools, lunch is the last part of the school day when students make their own choices.

Posted by: jebhoops | January 26, 2010 7:05 AM | Report abuse


I was a bit taken aback by your first two words, "we know." I think education is wrought with anecdotal evidence and the feeling that there is a panacea for all of our educational woes.

While I agree that research has shown that lengthened school days can have a positive effect, I think you are well aware that those models (KIPP for example) are more than an extended school day or sustained silent reading period. The KIPP model incorporates parental involvement and good teaching pedagogy to name just a couple of the pillars that have made it effective according to the data.

I also think you fail to address the data that says that kids simply need time to play. Several researchers have stated kids are simply not built for the way we run our schools. Research has shown also that exercise from recess is beneficial to students’ academic achievement; even when that recess takes away time students spend in the classroom (Zygmunt-Fillwalk, & Bilello, 2005).

We ask students to sit still and pay attention from 7 or 8 am until 2 or 3pm haven taken away at this point much of their time for exercise and simply being kids. Before we take away their lunch periods for sustained silent reading-- is there research that backs up this claim will actually work? Or it more anecdotal evidence or placing a square peg of something that worked one place into the round hole of somewhere else.

Posted by: smm7d | January 26, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

I don't want students eating lunch in my classroom. Last year they ate breakfast and snack in the room, and it was a mess - milk spilled on the carpet, wrappers and crumbs everywhere. We ended up with mice. Kids just aren't neat enough or coordinated enough to eat at their desks and not spill or drop anything.

In addition, who would supervise the students while they ate lunch in the classroom? One of the advantages of the cafeteria is that a few aides can supervise the students while the teachers get a break. I'd go nuts if I couldn't have my 25-minute lunch break away from the kids to take a breath and have some adult conversation! For some teachers, that's the only time they have all day to use the restroom!

Posted by: landerk1 | January 26, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

What about kids who depend on school for providing a meal, preferably hot, at lunch- and maybe depend on school for breakfast as well? The idea of placing on lower-income parents- especially those whose kids qualify for a free lunch- the responsibility of packing a lunch isn't likely to work. Disorganized parents, or parents lacking money, aren't likely to pack a nutritious lunch, another reason this isn't a great suggestion.

One more thought- what does this do for cafeteria workers who need their jobs? I know there have been problems with school cafeteria food, but punishing kids and workers, as well as the teachers, just doesn't sound like a good idea.

Posted by: ChevyChase3 | January 26, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

You are applying an adult solution to a kid problem.

Yeah, I read/work through lunch too when I want to get more work done at the office.

But my kid's day at school seems to be more productive when he plays sports at lunch.

The target zone for improvement of schools across the nation is the 3-6 period.

There should be available at all schools afterschool optional study halls and extracurricular activities so that kids whose parents work have somewhere to be and something to do that is a good use of their time. Sports, art, theatre, study hall, languages or just library and computer lab.

To run schools on an 8:30 to 3 schedule while the average workday runs 9-5 is a huge national inefficiency.

The school day should roughly match the workday.

And this nonsense the president just announced that we can't spend more on these types of programs because they are not defense related is just ridiculous.

There are millions of unemployed people in the US with all sorts of skills, from the ability to coach football or teach speed reading or chess in after school programs, who could be put to work, at least part time.

And the idea that we can't spend taxpayers dollars unless we are blowing something up in a foreign nation, is just nonsense.

If today's kids aren't cared for and given sufficient opportunity to learn and grow, they are tomorrow's terrorists.

Posted by: wtznx | January 26, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse


Might not be a bad idea, especially because we could lose full day kindergarten in Fairfax County, just to helo fund a $71 million increase in school employees' retirement funds.

Posted by: TGT11 | January 26, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

See above comments from teachers--lunch is for eating and for socializing. Only the strong readers will really take advangtage of your suggestion.

However, I did have a good experience at my school as a child...we had a break each morning and afternoon for a snack or quiet time and the teacher read to US one chapter aloud and then had us read the next silently. teacher selected an interesting book but an easy read for most but getting us excited to move forward in the book meant that it stimulated the weaker readers and the strong readers raced through it and then read their own books. I did this with my own one chapter of HP and let them read the next on their own or read it out loud to the family.. very helpful for the weaker reader in the family.

Posted by: samclare | January 26, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Any talk of expanding the school day in our dire monetary climate is a bad idea. Teachers are already facing a 2nd year without pay raises, increased class sizes, and potential layoffs. Just wait till FCPS gets rid of Freshman sports. Do you think my 14 year old boys want to exchange football for reading? Is this what is best for education?

Posted by: hokiematt10 | January 26, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

These are good points, exposing the weak parts in my argument. But I think there is something possible and useful to do if we head in this direction. I like samclare's suggestions particularly. I read to my kids every night, in one case until the child was 13. It had exactly the same effect that samclare describes---a habit that got the kids involved in the story and encouraged their own reading. There must be some way to get more reading, by both teacher and students, into the school day.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 26, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

I agree to expanding the school day, but I'm not sure about your idea. What about my youngest son, whose special needs limit his ability to read? He is in 2nd grade and is just now learning the alphabet.

However, many parents have to pay for after school care. If schools were open until 5 p.m. or later at the elementary and middle school levels, students could have more learning time and parents would not be in that awful place of wondering what their children are doing. Of course, I am also a supporter of year-round school.

Posted by: lydandy | January 26, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with taking lunch period away from students. Many have to rush through lunch as it is, and heck, there are employment laws in place that requires at least a half hour break during a regular hour work day.

The problem with academic absorbtion isn't lunch periods and I totally disagree with removing the option of hot lunches for children during the day.

Why not reintroduce "study hall" during regular school hours? 5 minutes adjusted from classes that would build up to maybe 20-25 minutes at the end of the day. It would allow students to unwind and begin independent reading or homework.

Posted by: TwoSons | January 26, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I don't disagree with the idea to extend the school day for kids. I do however take issue with the idea of taking lunch and recess away from our kids. For starters Jay, we have very large numbers of students who participate in the school lunch program through free and reduced lunch. Many of the kids only eat at school because they live in poverty. Additionally, our nation and our children are facing epidemic proportions of childhood obesity from poor nutrition. It is essential that we give children an opportunity to play at recess in order to stay physically active. Also, our kids need to learn the basic social skills of sharing, cooperating and teamwork which are learned through healthy play at recess. The reality is that we need to extend the school day which will benefit children and working parents too. As far as the school budget – perhaps the city needs to make the necessary budget increase to help our children to be educated.

Posted by: Democracy999 | January 26, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

As someone else has pointed out, many schools in California do this already. It's called SSR, or Sustained Silent Reading. It was once called DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) also BEAR (Be Excited About Reading) and whatever catchy buzzword there is. It's certainly not a new idea; it's been around since the 60s.

Some schools do SSR between 3rd and 4th period, no matter what class it is. I have a friend who noticed that so many kids didn't bring a book that he just shrugged and started reading aloud to the kids.

My school does SSR and SSW for 20 minutes at the start of humanities. The kids are supposed to keep a log of what they've read and ask questions. They go through it by rote. I decided it was a monumental waste of time, and have created my own curriculum for the time--ability grouped, of course. This at least assures me that the kids are getting some actual learning during SSR.

"It would add 45 minutes of the best kind of learning, just reading, "

Could I have a cite for that? There's no evidence that "just reading" is the best kind of learning.

As is usually the case in education, there's little rigorous research that demonstrates value to SSR.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 26, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I'm all for kids spending more time reading but think that this would end up being counterproductive. Students already spend SO MUCH of their day sitting still and being quiet. That's pretty tough on both young children and adolescents. They need breaks like lunch and recess to move, talk, recharge, etc., just like adults.

Posted by: scottmcleod | January 26, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I would've loved this as a kid because I was an introvert, but plenty of kids are extroverts and the socialization opportunities at lunch are a highlight of their day. At least that's what my extrovert brother always used to say...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 26, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

"We know that we need longer days in schools full of kids who need to catch up to grade level."

Stop right there, Jay! Are you sure this is true.

Saying that kids that simply spend more time on task (ToT) will learn more is a gross misassumption and the proof is in the reasearch. (see sources below)

Alfie Kohn writes about this extensively in his book "The Homework Myth."

"More time usually leads to better learning", is very misleading. Alfie Kohn (p.103) writes that years ago, the proponents of ToT were forced some years ago to revise their original proposition. In the amended version, learning was said to improve in proportion to the quantity of engaged time on task.

Enforcing our will on those kids to read during their lunch hour may gain more time on task, but you will be hard pressed to enforce their authentic engagement.

What will happen is you will wind up with a whole bunch of fat, ticked off kids who hate reading.

If we want kids to improve and enjoy reading more - rather than doing things to them - we need to work with them.

Check out:

Anderson, Richard C., Jana Mason, and Larry Shirley. "The Reading Group: An Experimental Investigation of a Labrynth." Reading Research Quarterly 20 (1984): p.34

Posted by: JoeBower | January 26, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

While I agree with JoeBower that time on task--in and of itself--does not necessarily lead to "better learning" I think there is compelling evidence that reading more does, in fact, improve reading. There are caveats, of course. Special needs students might require more one-on-one attention, students who are significantly below grade level might benefit from small group instruction. But even kids who "hate to read" because it is a struggle CAN improve their reading fluency and comprehension by reading material they CAN access. If that means a 4th grader needs to tackle a 2nd grade level book in order to read independently, that's okay. The act of reading will improve that student's reading ability.

But having kids read in a classroom during lunch? No. Problems? Many.

I don't think our building service workers would much like cleaning up the additional (sticky) messes. They already have enough to do.

Staffing? Who watches the kids? When do classroom teachers get a chance to use the copy machine, gather materials, set up e for the next class? In elementary school we teach it all. I need a little time to switch from reading to science or social studies to math.

Some kids already use the lunch period (only 25 minutes, by the way, in elementary school) to work on extracurricular projects. When can they fit this in?

When do kids get to socialize? Kids need to learn how to get along and work out problems independently. Lunch is one of the few times in the school day when an adult isn't hovering over them directing the action.

I already read aloud to my students. I meet in small reading groups every day. The kids are grouped by reading level. Struggling students already get pulled out for additional reading intervention. Social Studies and Science curricula are already integrated into the reading block. Students read and test themselves using the Accelerated Reader program. Now they should read while they eat? Why don't we just let them eat in peace and chill a bit?

Posted by: daveairozo | January 26, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Another in your offerings of one-size-fits-all proposals. Bless you for trying but the responses above have all the info you need.

Why don't you put out short proposals and then prominently feature some of the best responses as your next article? That way we all can get to the reality of what works and does not.

How about a teacher of the week column where an experienced (minimum 10 years)classroom teacher can give details and knowledge of a chosen topic?

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 27, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Extend the day by cutting it in half - make classtime more intense: half the students go 3 1/2 hours 8-11:30 and other half 12:30-4. Same (best) teacher teaches both sessions - pay the teacher 25% more for 25% longer day - but cuts classroom #s and teacher #s by 1/2 - keep the best teachers. Then super size the offsetting sessions of 3 1/2 hours with 1 hour of reading, 1 hour of PE and 1 hour of history/science video (NOVA, nature channel or history channel, etc). Balance of 30 minutes for transition between location of supersized classes for these 3 activities - every day. These 'classes' could be 3 to 4 times the size of a regular class size. Teach how to read in class...then give them reading time of 1 hour every day outside of class. 7 total hours of education a day --same cost -- or less.

Posted by: LP59 | January 28, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

clarification: Reading hour, PE and video 'classes' could be 3 to 4 times the size of the regular (more intense) class size. 1 teacher needed for 80 kids watching Nova vs. 4 teachers teaching 20 kids how to read.

Posted by: LP59 | January 28, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

For an educational columnist, you don't seem to know much about education, how children learn, or what their basic developmental needs are. I'd love to see this research that "the best kind of learning" is "just reading." Perhaps a century ago, this was thought to be true, although Dewey might have disagreed. After a full morning's work, children need time to socialize and play, such obvious truths that I feel silly even writing these words. I'm not familiar with you or your paper, but is the following meant to be satire?

"Maybe we could motivate lunchtime readers by letting them spend one lunch period a week in a chatting room with their friends, as long as they accumulated no penalty points for talking and other distracting behavior during the reading lunch the other days of the week."

Uh, have you ever worked in a school?

Posted by: mcreste | January 29, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you are the Grinch of Education. You want to cut out recess and now you want to use lunch for reading time. Good grief! We are talking about children, here.

Here are some more sensible suggestions:

• Keep interruptions during class time to a minimum, especially intercom announcements.

• Encourage the reading of novels and longer books of nonfiction, rather than short snippets of bowdlerized stories that appear in the basal reading textbooks.

• Implement Reading Workshop and provide the training teachers need to implement this program successfully

• Provide libraries, qualified librarians, and budget for regular acquisitions

• Provide teachers with an annual budget for maintaining and upgrading classroom libraries.

Posted by: Nemessis | January 31, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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