Please Quit Taking Kids Out of Electives to Do Reading Intervention

John Spencer Education, Education Policy, Literacy

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I get it. Reading scores are low in my district. And it’s not just the scores. Kids are struggling to read. They’re struggling to answer questions based upon what they read. They’re struggling to think critically about what they read. The problem is real.

However, the solution in my district has involved increasing time spent in reading instruction while decreasing the time spent on all other subjects. Kids used to have an elective class and a P.E. class each day. Now they have a reading class and a writing class and when that failed, we turned the writing class into a text-dependent question-answering classroom. Meanwhile, many social studies classroom have been transformed into close reading classrooms while science classrooms are places to learn and practice vocabulary rather than explore the world through inquiry-based labs.

In other words, the response to low reading skills has been to turn every class except math into another reading class.


On top of this, we are adding more reading intervention (a term I hate, because it conjures up images of people confront an addict — or in this case, an anti-addict; someone who never became hooked on phonics). For the last few years, this has meant reducing class time in all other subjects to create a thirty minute reading intervention period. Apparently, the reading focus in every subject combined with the intervention periods are not enough to fix the reading gap. The latest move has been to pull students out of their elective classes four days a week for targeted intervention (in the form of more skill practice and “personalized” programs).

While this approach seems to make sense, it is actually accomplishing the opposite. When I think of strong informational readers, they are strong thinkers. They know how to engage in debate. They know how to how to apply the information to an actual problem. They know how to create a thesis and back it up with several sources. They know how to tap into prior knowledge. These are the things they learn in classes like social studies, science, tech ed, writing, art, music, and journalism.

When I think of strong students, I think of kids who want to be at school. I think of kids who are excited about what they’re learning. They’re driven by more than just stickers and badges. They’re finding meaning and purpose in information. They’re asking hard questions that can’t be answered in a close reading packet. Oftentimes, when we pull students out of electives, we are taking them out of the one area of school that they enjoy. We’re pulling them out of the one area where they might be succeeding. It’s no wonder they hate school.

So, when I say that I’m concerned that we’re pulling kids out of elective classes, it’s not an issue of professional respect. It has nothing to do with feeling undervalued as an electives teacher. The truth is that I want students to become strong readers. However, that’s precisely why they need real science and social studies and writing and elective classes. That’s the only way that they’ll develop into better readers.


John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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Comments 6

  1. D. Ed.

    If we want students to be good readers, there must be a reason to read. Too often we teach how to read without the inspiration that these other courses of study naturally provide.

  2. Joy Kirr

    I am a reading/LA teacher, and I think that… sadly… not everyone IS a reader. I’ve known people who do not read, nor do they enjoy reading, and they’re successful at what they do in life. Maybe these electives are what these particular students will end up doing in life – and we NEED these professions! We need to keep students excited about school, so they will continue to go to school, and will enjoy LEARNING for learning’s sake. I’m with you, John.

  3. Sandy Merz

    This makes me think three things.
    First, it reminds me of the Shirky Principle that institutions will perpetuate the problems they’re created to solve. (
    Second, at my school we often threaten kids that if they don’t do well in language arts or math, they’ll end up losing an elective. So, reading, writing, and math become punishments instead of gateways to the content kids like and are good at. How much would you like the subject or teacher who kept you from taking your favorite classes?
    Third, n electives, sports, and all other extra curricular activities get real opportunities to practice the so called soft skills that will be as important as earning them a job as any kind of intervention class. (Please see Teaching the Soft Skills, Three Students Break It Down at

  4. Chris Wejr

    Very important points.. we always tried to avoid providing extra support during times of a child’s strength (ex. during PE, music if that was their strength). This becomes very challenging in larger schools as we try to meet the needs of the students and help them get caught up in reading. One of the areas that does cause disengagement is a lack of confidence and competence in reading. When a child develops this confidence and competence, so many other areas develop as well. I agree that we should not pull from areas of strength and I also know that we must provide additional reading support (on top of their regular reading instruction) for those that struggle… so how do we do this? How do we provide additional support without adding to the school day (they spend enough time at school) or pulling from anything besides reading? In each school I have worked with, we have provided early support for readers by providing this support during times outside of reading. We have helped students get “caught up” and develop a joy in reading AND more confidence/engagement in school. It is easy to make a statement like “stop pulling from electives” but that is fairly general if we consider everything beyond reading/math as an elective. I look forward to people sharing strategies to provide additional reading support that has been proven to be effective system wide that does not pull from something beyond math. While I agree philosophically about some of the problems with this, I also know the HUGE problems a child faces when they struggle with reading. Any thoughts on solutions to the dilemma?

    1. John Spencer

      I think there are a few strategies that work well:

      1. Pulling them out of reading. If a child is already struggling with grade level texts, it seems like the best class to get small group intervention would be reading / ELA.

      2. Provide a 30 minute silent reading block for all kids. So often, kids who are struggling with reading aren’t doing any independent reading. Yet, they have enough blending, phonics knowledge and site words to access some kind of text. I know it’s not the same, but in sports, we ask athletes to participate in conditioning. I wonder how often that’s true of struggling readers. How often have they simply not built up the endurance?

      1. Chris Wejr

        I like the second idea. What we found at my last school was if they were pulled out of reading, it maintained the gap but didn’t close the gap (and I am not a fan of that term as it relates to others… I am speaking of the gap between the student level and the approximate grade level). What some classroom teachers currently do here is work one on one or in small groups with struggling readers during silent reading time and this seems to help as some students were often behaviour concerns at that time because they struggled to read and did not enjoy silent reading. Thanks for the reply, buddy.

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