Did Reading First Reveal Phonics Instruction to be Futile?

  • 18 January, 2020

Teacher Question:

I’m a big phonics promoter. Recently, someone challenged me saying that the fact that Reading First didn’t work shows that emphasizing phonics is a bad idea. Can you help?

Shanahan replies: 

In 2001, the President and the U.S. Congress agreed on the creation of a $5 billion program to enhance reading instruction K-3 in especially low performing Title I schools. That program was called Reading First. Every state got a portion of the funds based on their poverty statistics and there was a list of schools and school districts that were eligible for this money based on reading performance on their state tests (3rd grade scores). The grants were sizable, often hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional funding only for use in K-3.

This money had to be spent on four things:

(1) professional development for teachers that emphasized phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension;

(2) core reading program adoptions – purchases of programs that were consistent with the research in terms of teaching those 5 things;

(3) an assessment system (typically DIBELS) to screen kids at the beginning of the year and to test them periodically throughout the year to monitor their progress; and

(4) intervention programs aimed at teaching the struggling students those 5 things identified as necessary by those assessments.

Three-quarters (75%) of the money was to be distributed to these underperforming schools to do these things. The other 25% of the money was to be used by the states themselves to incent all of their other schools to do these things, too, but with their own budgets. Simultaneously, Title I nationally encouraged, incented, and mandated certain changes in all Title I schools (including those with no Reading First money). Reading First was the Bush administration’s attempt to codify and implement the findings of the National Reading Panel, the work of which had been conducted under the Clinton administration.

Finally, the U.S. Department of Education was required to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of Reading First. 

I was a member of the National Reading Panel and served as a consultant on both of the later implementation and the evaluation studies.

The implementation studies revealed that Reading First schools spent a small amount of additional time teaching reading than other Title I schools (it was a statistically significant difference, but not necessarily a pedagogically meaningful one – the $5 billion led to less than 10 more minutes of reading instruction per day). Early on Reading First schools emphasized phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency vocabulary, and comprehension more than did the non-Reading First schools, but over time the implementation differences shrunk (which makes sense given that states were trying to get everyone else to do what Reading First schools were doing):

“The Implementation Evaluation found that RF teachers reported using instructional practices emphasized by the Reading First Program. It also found that, over time, teachers in other schools increasingly reported using similar practices, and that while significant differences reported between the two types of schools persisted, the differences diminished between 2004–05 and 2006–07” (Gamse, et al., 2011, p. x, https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/reading-first-implementation-study/report.pdf)

The outcome evaluation found the following:

  • “Reading First produced a positive and statistically significant impact on amount of instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) in grades one and two.
  • Reading First produced positive and statistically significant impacts on multiple practices that are promoted by the program, including professional development in scientifically based reading instruction (SBRI), support from full-time reading coaches, amount of reading instruction, and supports available for struggling readers.
  • Reading First did not produce a statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension test scores in grades one, two or three.
  • Reading First produced a positive and statistically significant impact on decoding among first grade students tested in one school year (spring 2007). The impact was equivalent to an effect size of 0.17 standard deviations” (Gamse, 2008, pp. xv-xvi, https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pdf/20094038.pdf)

In any event, there were several schools in the evaluation that were doing better under this regime, and some of the state studies (like Pennsylvania, Bean, et al., 2010) showed extensive improvement in early reading achievement, including comprehension, as a result of Reading First.

Unfortunately, in addition to these limited learning outcomes, there was a scandal in the administration of the program (particular instructional products were favored by the Department of Education, a big ethical no-no) and the U.S. invaded Iraq, undermining President Bush’s popularity. When it came time to reauthorize this expensive program, there was no political will among Democrats to support the President on anything, and there was no Congressional support for aligning oneself with a scandal and limited outcomes. 

The implementation study itself shows that by the time the outcome evaluations were being measured, there were few practical differences between Reading First and non-Reading First schools, which should not be that surprising given that the states had spent $1 billion trying to make that happen.

I documented that on my website at the time https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/explaining-the-reading-first-impact-study-new-districts-added, listing some school districts (and even states) that had mandated that all of their schools follow the Reading First practices, using the same programs and trainers, etc. For instance, Florida implemented Reading First statewide (using federal money where it was available and Florida tax dollars where it was not) – they made clear gains during that period. The same can be said about the Bureau of Indian Affairs; they did Reading First in all of their schools and had clear improvements.

Researchers worry about this kind of thing (as it might lead to what they refer to as a Type II error) because it means the study isn’t comparing different programs. If everyone is treated with pretty much the same antibiotic regime, then the experimental group shouldn’t outperform the controls, no matter how effective that regime may be (and, then penicillin is out the window). 

I shared this information years ago with some European researchers and told them how the comparison group had been intentionally contaminated by the Reading First policy. They told me that under those circumstances the only possible way you could meaningfully evaluate the program would be to see what happened nationwide in reading achievement over that period. In fact, those years were the the last ones that saw NAEP improvement for our fourth graders. Reading achievement improved significantly during those years and has languished nationwide since its demise.

I would have loved to see follow up studies on those school districts that had been so successful with Reading First as opposed to those who were not. For example, in Chicago we received substantial Reading First money and purchased the Reading First approved programs, but the district told the schools that received the programs that they didn’t have to use them. They often were never even taken out of the boxes!

Now, back to your question. Does the demise of Reading First suggest that a heavy emphasis on phonics instruction is likely to be ineffective?

Since Reading First was not a phonics program, but an overall instructional improvement effort (including phonics)…

And since Reading First did not lead to much more instructional emphasis on phonics (or any other aspect of instruction) than in the comparison schools…

And since Reading First did not lead to any consistent or meaningful superiority in decoding skills…

And since Reading First (and the associated instructional efforts) led to clear national improvements in primary reading achievement according to NAEP…

The idea that the Reading First experience showed the futility of phonics is dopey.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Thera Pearce Jan 18, 2020 06:59 PM

Thanks for the historical context of Reading First and its perceived limited success. As educators, we must be mindful of research, interpretation of its results, and continue to be aware of what has been proven to work pedagogically. Unfortunately, statistics can be used to prove anything. Keeping the larger picture in mind, particularly the politics in this situation, is very relevant. CCSS are another example of how education has been affected by politics and how a teacher's daily instruction is impacted by those that have no background in curriculum.

Dave Jan 18, 2020 07:39 PM

So, how effective have other k-3 reading approaches been, particularly those without explicit and systematic phonics?

Jeanne Jan 18, 2020 07:39 PM

The goal of reading instruction is comprehension, and although phonics instruction is critical to fluency and reading success in the early years, it is not the end goal. In fact, our goal is that students will outgrow phonics as they become stronger readers as they get older. In many of the schools I worked in during the time periods you described, there was simply not enough actual reading going on with children. Isolated skill work often does not translate into actual reading, and practice, which is critical for anything I want to improve in, is essential. The Reading First work I experienced contained very little thinking for children. Balance is the key to growing strong readers, and our arguing over this has to come to an end. It’s not good for schools or children.

Dr. Kimberly Miles Jan 18, 2020 07:57 PM

Being a recipient of the initial Reading First Training as a teacher, I've always wondered if like educators including school leaders have continued these instructional improvement efforts in their classroomes and schools communities today. It would then be intresting to examine the impact these targeted instructional improvement efforts have had on their student's reading outcomes initially in the primary grades and as they transition to middle school, high school and beyond.

Timothy E Shanahan Jan 18, 2020 08:20 PM


I don't know of any major initiatives that have tried to improve literacy on scale without including explicit phonics, unless one takes the California initiatives of the late 1980s. Unfortunately, California wasn't testing at the time so it isn't possible to evaluate what happened there. However, in 1991 when NAEP first started comparing states (31 participated) and California citizens found that what they had always been told (that they had the best education system in the country) might not be true, the Reading Wars began.


Timothy E Shanahan Jan 18, 2020 08:20 PM


I don't know of any major initiatives that have tried to improve literacy on scale without including explicit phonics, unless one takes the California initiatives of the late 1980s. Unfortunately, California wasn't testing at the time so it isn't possible to evaluate what happened there. However, in 1991 when NAEP first started comparing states (31 participated) and California citizens found that what they had always been told (that they had the best education system in the country) might not be true, the Reading Wars began.


Timothy E Shanahan Jan 18, 2020 08:23 PM

I don't how many schools you visited during that period, but it is unlikely that you were seeing markedly less reading and more isolated skills work given the rather modest outcomes we were seeing in the nationwide evaluation or that I was seeing in the hundreds of schools that I visited during that period. We know what reading programs were purchased during that time and they all had substantial amounts of reading material and reading lessons. In any event, it was a time period when reading achievement rose, so if it was isolated skills work that you were seeing, then that must have been the reason for the reading comprehension improvements experienced at the time.

Samantha Jan 18, 2020 08:47 PM

In response to Jean, above: It’s true that phonics/decoding is not the end goal of reading- comprehension is. But until kids can decode, they cannot comprehend.

Elizabeth Robins Jan 18, 2020 08:56 PM

I found your overview of the background to Reading First, its implementation and evaluation was comprehensive. It shows the pitfalls inherent in interpreting its overall results - especially due to the deliberate attempt to encourage training and implementation in neighboring schools. Ethical and practical in effect this bulldozed any clean results as these additional schools were then selected as controls for evaluating results. Better of course to use those continuing to do previous methods. Sad!
(Respectful edit: Need to change initial date to 2001.)

Peggy Jan 18, 2020 09:03 PM

I’m a new “convert” to the structured literacy camp coming from about 20 years in the balanced literacy camp. That being said, please consider my comments from perhaps a stance of naïveté. I wonder if part of the reason that some teachers devalue phonics instruction is partially because they themselves have minimal knowledge about the guiding rules. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know anything about the 6syllable types until 5 years ago and that was simply through my search for answers! I’ve also recently been experiencing stronger growth in student skills because I’ve paired a ton more challenging phonemic awareness work with phonics in my K and 1 intervention groups (Title 1Reading). K- heavy on the phonemic awareness. I don’t see the same “vertical” growth as I did in leveled texts but I see much stronger and more consistently accurate work in decoding and writing. I’m hoping for “vertical” growth in the future! Any thoughts and/or advice is appreciated! Thank you for sharing your research and incredible depth of knowledge!

Chandra Jan 18, 2020 10:13 PM

I so respect the work that Dr. Shanahan does to help sift through the weeds of the research about reading instruction. He does indeed report the good, the bad, and the ugly of education policy and it’s impact on students and teachers alike. Peggy, there are many who just like you only recently came around to the importance of systematic phonics instruction. No one ever said that this was all that students needed to learn in order to be readers. It’s just a very important component. I worked mainly with older students who’d been “victims” of balanced literacy who not only couldn’t decode, or encode for that matter, but also couldn’t comprehend largely because they couldn’t fluently read text of any substantive complexity. I’m grateful for the push for structured literacy and hope more people open up to what clear research has been telling us all along.

Betty Reed Jan 18, 2020 11:10 PM

There is no one answer or
approach to teaching reading, but this over the top SOR group is on a mission to kill kids’ passion for reading. All students don’t learn in the same exact way, and the literacy picture is so much more complex than systematic phonics. Give this ten years and it will show the exact same results of Reading First, Common Core, and every other thing that’s come down the pike.

D Jan 19, 2020 12:59 AM

Having seen the “implementation” of Reading First in my district, I can tell you in that case at least there was little, if any, adherence to the guidelines.. WL (as it was termed at that time) continued on...

Rebecca Jan 19, 2020 02:05 AM

I would echo D’s reflections. In my experience there was no true implementation science or coherent vision at the district level.

Marilyn Jan 19, 2020 03:17 AM

We never outgrow phonics. It is how we puzzle through unknown words.

Tim Shanahan Jan 19, 2020 04:25 AM

Betty— do you really believe that all kids learn differently? If that’s the case then teaching is just a crap shoot. How many different lessons do you teach each day, how do you identify the snowflake needs of each child? I bet that’s true of medicine, too... doctors would be crazy to look for generalizations.


Sherrie Jan 19, 2020 08:36 AM

I also participated in the Reading First training as a a Reading Specialist serving a school population of 600 students K-6. My school did show significant improvement in 3rd grade state reading scores, which continued as students progressed throughout the measured years of 4-6 grades. As a Reading a Specialist, I reviewed the progress monitoring data- which we chose to share with students. As students began to “own” their reading progress, our school noted significant improvement in comprehension which was monitored using a “Maze” tool. I would like to consider the pedagogical development of reading skills. When students receive quality instruction in phonemic awareness in grades K-2 these skills become internalized, meaning students continued to apply these skills, as well as ongoing phonic skill development in upper grades. Phonics consisting of complex phonemes identified by Snow (et all )phonic skill development published in Words Their Way.
While the over all Reading First study did not show significant gains we must consider the overall changes which occurred in the control schools- which meant there basically was no control nationally. However, when you look at individual schools and the changes which occurred over time, how can you not attribute the growth to solid Balanced Reading instruction, which included phonic instruction. I encourage teachers of K-3 to continue to embed phonic skill instruction into their Daily Reading instruction. These skills are foundational to advanced phonic skill development which students experience in their future educational careers. Without phonetic knowledge, students have nothing to build comprehension because their cognitive load remains in decoding of words and not shifting into the meaning connection.

Candace Evans Jan 19, 2020 04:20 PM

I taught third grade back then (Florida) and all of my students performed wonderfully on the state assessment. I attribute their success to not only using Reading First, but to having them read independently a book of their own choice during our daily scheduled 20 minutes of DEAR time, as well as 20 minutes daily listening to me read aloud after lunch from a novel.This activity was our favorite part of the day. I modeled what good readers do ( without explaining, so as not to ruin the story)
and would always stop at a crucial point, leaving them wanting more. We routinely talked about books and analyzed characters actions, motivations, and development. They loved reading time! I was not a fan of DIBLES, as my slowest reader was my best reader and he would get frustrated because he wouldn’t beat his time. I fount this disheartening. As a current high school teacher I give my students 20 minutes of DEAR everyday. I feel it’s crucial that they don’t stop reading independently. My goal has always been to develop students into lifelong readers and thinkers.

Denny Langwell Jan 19, 2020 07:39 PM

As a reading first developer trainer and a reading specialist with 43 years of small and whole group instruction experience, I can assure you that systematic phonics instruction coupled with appropriately leveled independent reading and writing opportunities the most effective way to teach elementary children to read effectively. Phonics instruction for seriously disabled readers such as Orton Gillingham as demonstrated in intensive individual and small group instruction is essential. Whole group phonetic instruction with programs like Discover Intensive Phonics For Yourself promote “can do” attitudes especially in early elementary students. It’s sad that teachers are forced to pile mountains of contradictory and unproven instructional programs that rob them of the opportunity to provide basic skills instruction and opportunities for young students to experience their own reading and writing empowerment.

Rob Kelly Jan 19, 2020 09:27 PM

Hi Tim - I think an important point to make here is that, just like in the medical field, educators do generalize findings to prescribe instruction to the masses. We also know that a smaller percentage of children will need something more or different, an intervention perhaps. However, in medicine, the content of the prescription (chemicals) is just as important as the way in which the drug is administered. The same is true for reading instruction. We know that phonics, fluency, oral language, concepts about print, etc, should be included in the content of reading instruction. But we also shouldn’t ignore the way in which the instruction is delivered. I often see teaching that includes correct content but is lacking appropriate instructional delivery.

Claire Jan 19, 2020 10:32 PM


Can you provide the reading programs which were provided and are they available today? Or any comparable program(s)?

Karen Fahy Jan 20, 2020 01:05 PM

You took the words right out of my mouth, Jeanne.

Tim Shanahan Jan 20, 2020 03:10 PM

That varied a small amount by state, since each state has to approve the list. The key was a program had to provide teaching of PA, phonics,vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. All the major core programs were usually approved (Scott-f, Houghton, harcourt, Macmillan-McG, so we’re programs like SFA. But how much any of them were used could vary a lot (there is a list showing frequency of use in the implementation study that you can easily find on line,


Elizabeth Clemens Jan 23, 2020 03:13 PM

Having just completed your podcast, I am impressed that the interaction between Language Arts and Reading skills is being accomplished, or, at least, being proposed. I earned my Reading Specialist degree after 12 years as English Teacher, and was trained to bring back to my system, the need you express for content teachers to support student progress in reading and writing. Unfortunately, my public school system rejected that theory in 1970., forcing me into the private sector. My point is that too many decisions are top-down. If teachers are being prepared properly at the university level, which I doubt, given the poor use of grammar in one of the comments, then teachers should be enrolling faculty support at the school site. In many cases, this is not an option, but I applaud your attempt to make a difference.

Keith Smolkowski Feb 05, 2020 11:06 PM

I wanted to add that in Oregon, we also found results that differed from the national Evaluation of Reading First due largely to what we considered some challenges with the national study. Overall, phonics coupled with other big ideas of reading (some noted here in other comments) really seemed to help students. We reported results, and a discussion of the national study, in a paper in ESJ:

Baker, S. K., Smolkowski, K., Smith, J. M., Fien, H., Kame'enui, E. J., & Thomas Beck, C. (2011). The impact of Oregon Reading First on student reading outcomes. The Elementary School Journal, 112(2), 307-331. https://doi.org/?10.1086/?661995

Ann Feb 11, 2020 01:09 AM

Reading First perverted ‘evidence based’ into a political (and financial) stance and ignored research they disliked. It was wrong on so many levels.
We teach the READERS based on ongoing assessment. We don’t teach the program-what ever that may be. We owe fidelity to the goal of creating readers, literate citizens, not to some teachers’ guide.
The data for RF is not impressive...don’t let it be influential.

luqman michel Feb 14, 2020 07:56 PM

"our goal is that students will outgrow phonics". I don't believe that anyone outgrows phonics. Phonics is a tool to decode. Once we have learned to read we then read at a fast speed but that does not mean we have outgrown phonics.
For instance, how would we read the following sentence; 'Ramasamy bought some coconumdum for his wife Chellamani.'
We read most of the words easily but we need to use phonics to decode the name Ramasamy and Chellamani. We also need to use phonics to decode the nonsense word coconundum.

Why is it that despite the 'No child left behind' policy introduced in 2001 and phonics being taught in most schools, we still have kids leaving schools as illiterates?

The main reason is that children are confused as a result of consonants being taught with extraneous sounds.

You may read more in my blog at https://www.dyslexiafriend.com/2020/02/verifiable-truths.html#more

Allen Apr 15, 2020 05:17 PM

Do you think parents have some responsibility to start teaching reading at home? I know I read to my children but I always wondered if I could do more.

With the low entry cost of Phonic kits available to parents and caregivers should they look into buying a course to help their children before school starts?

Sandra Oct 18, 2021 07:30 AM

Hi. I have been trawling the internet in search of different thoughts and perspectives on the teaching of literacy in our schools. My aim is to produce some really solid examples of yearly, term and daily planners that demonstrate differentiation and a balanced literacy approach of all of the sciences of literacy including the 5 components of reading PLUS reading for knowledge, enjoyment etc (comprehension) AND also the science of writing (spelling, editing, writing genres, sentence and passage structure). Oh, also critical lit and handwriting! Basically everything. We can talk about it all until the cows come home but what I think we need is that elusive planner to take the overwhelm out and get on with teaching our kids with confidence that we are teaching every child in the classroom. What do you have in mind here? Would love to see what our experts come up with! TIA

KT Dec 19, 2020 11:05 PM

What is your take on Dibels 8’s use of NWF at Grade 3. If you support its usage with students who ARE readers, why?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Did Reading First Reveal Phonics Instruction to be Futile?


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