October 6, 2016
I am serializing my book for you here, or at least parts of it. My goal, in
doing so, is to get feedback from you experts about the “technical”
arguments I am making. These include how much time a child needs in order
to excel at reading, which is the topic of today’s excerpt. I’ll summarize
some plot first, just to put it in context.
Last episode, we met our protagonist, Patrick, who is a young musician
trying to figure out how to make a go of the career for which he went to
college – music performance. We find him playing a brass quintet concert in
a school, for a bunch of K-1st graders. This school is near the house he
and his wife and son just moved into, and he discovers it is where his own
child should go for Kindergarten next year. So Patrick is interested in
learning more about the school.
The principal of the school meets with Patrick after the concert and
somehow convinces him to be the community representative on a committee to
respond to central office threats of closing the school for poor reading
scores. Patrick feels ill-prepared for this role, and starts desperately
looking at research, visiting better schools, and seeking other help. In
the process, he accidentally runs into a somewhat-exotic music professor of
his from college days, who asks him very interesting questions that make
him wonder what she really knows about schools. After more emergencies keep
cropping up at the school, and he is getting more-deeply involved, Patrick
decides to call his old professor for real help, wondering if she has any
“You’re lucky to have caught me at home. I’m headed out of town to a
consulting client. I’ll be gone for the next two weeks. Have you figured
out what’s stopping your school from being great?”
“I think so,” I say. I quickly talk her through my thought process: For a
school to be great, reading skills must be great, all the way through 8th
grade. This can’t happen unless there is a strong pipeline of K-3rd reading
skills being built.
“Good start, Patrick. So, what do you want from me now? I’m about to dash
out the door!” she responds.
“I’m stuck when I get to the level of what a good classroom looks like –
what good teaching looks like,” I respond, feeling like the only choice is
to be open and honest with her. I need her help and I need it as soon as
possible. We’re both in a hurry!
“Twelve hundred hours” she says.
“Say what?” I’m wondering if she heard anything I said.
“The answer is 1,200 hours,” she repeats.
“Ok, if that’s the answer, then what’s the question?” I know I sound a bit
testy. I still can’t tell if she has heard anything I said. Her little
‘1,200 Hours’ mantra is meaningless to me.
“If you were my consulting client, and were paying me to tell you how to do
things, I’d ask you to define your ‘theory of change’. But since we’re just
talking now,” she chuckles, “I’m cutting the jargon and management
concepts. As I recall, you’re pretty bright, so you figure this out
yourself. We can always get back to that other stuff later, if you get that
“This sounds like a riddle,” I respond, impatiently. “What’s the question,
if ‘1,200 hours’ is the answer?”
“Ok, ok. Your question was ‘What does good teaching look like?’ Yes?” she
replies, sounding more than a little impatient with me now.
“Well, yes,” I answer. This is like some game she’s playing, toying with
me. OK, I’ll bite. Let’s play 20 Questions! “So, how is ‘1,200 hours’ the
answer to that question?”
“The first filter you can use to decide if good things are happening in a
classroom is how many hours is a child being exposed to reading and its
instruction. By the end of first grade, that should be 1,200 hours.”
“That’s your answer? First of all, where do you get that number?” I ask.
“And that’s just an amount. What about the quality of that so-called
exposure? Surely you don’t mean just any kind of exposure, right? What
counts as part of that 1,200 hours?”
“Your last question first – what counts in that number?” she says, and I
can hear her sitting down now, like this might take some time. “When a
child is young, at home before schooling years, being read to is what
counts. Then, once the child goes to school, instruction counts, along with
more hours of being read to at home.”
“I guess that makes sense, so far,” I say, going along with her for now, to
see what else she’ll have to say.
“Now your first question – where do I get that number, 1,200 hours.”
“Wait, is there any research to back-up this idea of yours?” I ask.
“Well, there’s a study that says reading to your child 20 minutes per day
produces better readers. Then there’s Hart and Risley’s work from the
1990’s saying poor kids hear 30 million fewer words than middle class kids
by the time they are 5 years old. You can see why other studies show that
children enter Kindergarten at greatly varied levels of reading readiness.
This is the start of the “reading gap” we all hear so much about in later
grades. I just put it all together and did some math to come up with that
1,200 hours idea. But there’s not one study following children from birth
to the end of first grade and comparing their reading performance and the
number of hours of reading exposure. Maybe you should do that study!”
“I’m a musician, not a reading researcher!” I say, a little too loudly.
“And how do you know all this stuff? You were a music professor, right?”
“I was a “world music and community building” professor, remember?” she
reminds me. “That’s a lot more than just music. You should remember we
talked in class about community including education and jobs and civic
dialogue. That got me into looking at reading research pretty quickly. It
all pretty consistently says early reading skills are the key. Even the
economists are saying that now.”
“Ok, I get that, I guess. Then what about the math behind your number?” I
say. “How’d you get 1,200 hours instead of 1,000 or 10,000 hours?”
“Fair question” she says. “Here goes. Research says 20 minutes per day of
being read to is good. So, assume 20 minutes per day from birth, times 6
days per week, just to give the parents one day off per week for really
good behavior. That’s 20 minutes times 6 days times 52 weeks times 7 years
until the end of first grade. 20 minutes x 6 days a week = 120 minutes x 52
weeks a year = 6,240 minutes x 7 years = 43,680 minutes by the end of first
grade. Then add in-school instruction in Kindergarten and first grade. That
should be 80 minutes per day for every child, if they are at grade level
when they start Kindergarten, just to move ahead a year in reading skills.”
“At the same time the student is being read to at home?” I ask, trying to
keep up with all this simple math, wrapped around what is a new idea for me.
“Absolutely. Keep up the reading at home,” she says. “So, the school
portion is 80 minutes per day times 5 days per week is 400 minutes, times
40 weeks per year is 16,000 minutes, times two years is 32,000 minutes of
in-school instruction by the end of first grade. What’s that all total?”
“Let’s see now. 32,000 minutes at school. Plus 43,680 minutes at home.
That’s 75,680 minutes.” I say, calculating in my head.
“Right. Now divide by 60 minutes per hour, and how many hours is that?”
“Well, math was never my specialty,” I say, getting out my iPhone and
punching the numbers into its calculator. “Looks like that’s 1,261 hours.”
“So, what’s that total in hours by the end of first grade?” she says.
“Well, it’s 1,261 hours, right?” I say.
“Right,” she says. “Let’s round down to 1,200 hours, just to keep it
“Ok, now I see how you get that total,” I say, still a little dazed – not
so much by the simple math but by the bigger idea. “But what do you propose
a teacher should do with all of this information? How does it help them
when they are pushed to do lots of other things with their time?”
“Remember Nancy Reagan,” she says. Great, here we go with another of her
“Say what?” I ask, sounding a tad exasperated.
“As first lady of the whole United States, Nancy Reagan’s slogan was ‘Just
say no’. Or are you too young to remember her anti-drug program? So forget
Nancy Reagan. The idea is that 1,200 Hours becomes the way for a teacher to
judge the value of any initiative or program or even moment to moment
classroom activity – and then say NO to any that do not produce more
instructional time for the students. It is instructional time that will get
students reading, especially those who need it most.”
“And who are those students who need it most?” I ask.
“Those are the students who did not get the minutes of reading exposure
every day at home before they started Kindergarten. And probably they are
not getting 20 minutes more per day at home when they are in school now.”
“Wait. So, are you saying the teacher should make up that time that parents
or somebody did not do at home? Teachers are not going to like that. They
don’t have more time. What, you want them to stay after school with those
students and give them what their parents are not giving them at home?
That’s not gonna happen! Teachers have lives, too!”
“It can be done during the regular school day,” she says. “But now I’m out
of time to talk more.”
“Wait, now I’ve got a million questions for you. You didn’t say anything
about the quality of what reading exposure a child is receiving,” I say,
realizing I’m suddenly sounding a little desperate with this woman who
minutes ago I was dismissing as inattentive and irritating.
“Hey, I’ve got a plane to catch and my ride is downstairs waiting for me
now. I’ll email you my cell number. When you can tell me how students can
get more instructional time during the school day, you can call me. Then
you’ll be ready for more.”
With that, she clicks off before I can get another word out.
On sabbatical in Paris!