Have you heard of the “Rock, Pebbles, and Sand” story?

Here’s a quick reminder…

Imagine a jar filled with rocks, sand, and pebbles. The big stones take up most of the space and the cracks in-between are filled with small pebbles and grains of sand. The jar is full.

But what would happen if you put the sand and the pebbles into the jar first?

There would be no room for the big rocks!

So, what is the meaning behind this time management analogy?

The big rocks symbolize the most important things in your everyday life or, in this case, reading instruction. The pebbles are other things that matter but hold slightly less importance, and the sand represents all the “small stuff.”

The “Rock, Pebbles and Sand” analogy can be applied to our reading instruction time. The “small stuff” is still important, but if you spend all of your time on them, you’ll run out of time for the core things that will accelerate your students reading achievement.

Big Rocks for Reading Achievement

Think about it…What are your big rocks for reading instruction?

I’ve got two big rocks that I consider as non-negotiable activities for reading instruction. I’ve come to this conclusion based on research and my experience as a teacher.

{To watch an edited video where I explain my 2 big rocks hit play below or read on instead. OR, the original, unedited Facebook live video is at the bottom of this post.}

The Two BIGGEST Rocks for Reading Achievement

My two big rocks for reading achievement are…

  • Teacher Read Aloud
  • Student Read Aloud

When we set up our lessons, we must be laser-focused on these two things.  


Because reading has two basic components: Decoding and Comprehension.

According to the “Simple View of Reading” theory, there’s a simple formula for attaining reading achievement:

Reading Achievement = Decoding x Listening Comprehension

The formula has been supported by many research studies (e.g., this or this), and it hints at the importance of Teacher Read Aloud and Student Read Aloud.

With these two activities, we’re able to accelerate reading achievement because they target 1) sound-based decoding and word identification as well as 2) listening comprehension, which are vital for becoming a mature reader. Strategic guided oral reading practice by the student with feedback from the teacher is one of the best ways to help them develop her sound-based decoding, word identification, and fluency.

The teacher read aloud, on the other hand, is one of the best ways to develop oral language abilities, background knowledge, and vocabulary. Hearing things above a student’s reading level, in particular, gives her exposure to new words and concepts. This is brain work that builds listening comprehension, which supports reading achievement. 

average daily reading time is 1 minute

What are the Benefits of the Student Read Aloud?

Imagine you coach a basketball team: All the key Word Work activities we do, such as Switch It, Read It, or Sort It, are like basketball drills one does in practice to build the foundational skills needed. Lay-ups over and over. Dribbling through cones. Etc. 

The are important. Foundational.

But the game is where it's at. The game's the place where all the skills learned during those drills will be put into play...literally. In the game, the player has so many more tasks, responsibilities, and demands to juggle. It's a whole different level! And in the game, she has the opportunity for much more learning than in any one dribbling through cones exercise. 

The Student Read Aloud is game-time. A host of word reading and comprehension demands are put on our young reader as she attempts to read independently. This time is some of the best time we can spend supporting our developing readers.

The meta-analysis of the National Reading Panel emphasized the value of this student reading time:

"The analysis of guided oral reading procedures led to the conclusion that such procedures had a consistent, and positive impact on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension as measured by a variety of test instruments and at a range of grade levels."

Sadly, the message of the value of this time spent reading aloud, with teacher support, may not have gotten through to many of our teachers.  Some older (here and here) and more recent research studies (here, here, and here) have found that the many of our young students read aloud for only about 1 minute per day.

That's kind of obviously insufficient, right? Imagine how good LeBron James would have been if he only played 1 minute of basketball per day? 

When I was on a large research I.E.S. research project testing the value of a K-1 reading intervention for struggling readers, I observed many teachers before our intervention in a brief reading instructional session with just 1 struggling reader. What struck me most is that the child did very little reading...even in this protected, quiet, 1-on-1 time.

My hunch is that because of so many of us teachers have been poorly prepared to teach word reading skills, we lack confidence in how to help students succeed. If we ask them to read and we don't know how to coach them to fix their errors, what are we supposed to do? Sooooo....we don't ask them to read so much!

[Remedying that problem is the crux of our mission here at Reading Simplified and our core Word Work activities, streamlined system for meeting all learners' needs, and our approach to coaching readers through their errors, are designed to solve this major problem.]

So, whether your students read aloud 1 minute per day or 15. Perhaps you want to consider if you're optimizing this portion of their day? It's a Big Rock for their Reading Achievement.!

What are the Benefits of Reading Aloud?

Reading aloud, too, comes with a waterfall of benefits.

Reading aloud to children and teens can help build engagement in reading and potentially a love of reading. This is not just a frou-frou emotional outcome; only those who love to read and identify as readers will read for a lifetime. 

Reading aloud may be the best way to build the Listening Comprehension domain of the Simple View equation. One way it does this is through giving students exposure to rare words that helps develop vocabulary and word recognition.

According to “What Reading Does for the Mind” by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich, the relative rarity of the words in children’s books is greater than in adult conversation.

more chart of rare words found in children's books

That’s hard to believe, right?

But according to the chart above, college graduates communicate just 7.3 rare words per 1000 when speaking to friends or spouses in everyday conversation.

Surprisingly, children’s books have a much higher average of 30.9 rare words per 1000 words spoken.

What can we learn from these findings?

First of all, our colleges may be slacking just a little bit! 😉

Secondly, it reveals evidence that children’s books are, in many ways, far more advanced than day-to-day talk between two college-educated adults.

Thus, when we read out loud to children from high quality literature, we’re giving them exposure to language that they don’t hear very often, even when talking to college graduates!

In sum, please reflect on where you spend your instructional time. Are these 2 Big Rocks of reading achievement--the Student Read Aloud and the Teacher Read Aloud--getting enough time and attention in your classroom?

I'd love to hear what you think! Please comment below.

Big Rocks for Reading Achievement

(Below is the original video I recorded for Facebook live on this topic; you can also watch the edited highlight video at the top of the post.)