How can I teach RAN to improve my students' reading?

  • 18 April, 2020

Teacher’s question:

Our school psychologist tests all of our boy and girls for RAN. He says it is the best predictor of reading ability. How can I improve my students’ RAN performance?

Shanahan’s response:

If someone tells you that you can teach RAN, run!

RAN refers to “rapid automatized naming.” Back in the 1970s, researchers wanted to measure cognitive processing speed, so they came up with a variety of RAN measures. Typically, students are asked to name known colors, objects, letters or words, and their performance is timed. The studies showed that rapid naming was a good predictor of reading ability and was an important indicator in dyslexia (Denckla, & Rudel, 1976).

Since then, there have been hundreds of studies of RAN confirming this result.

In a meta-analysis of 137 studies of 28,826 participants, it was concluded that RAN was one of the best predictors of reading ability, but that there was “still no consensus regarding the mechanisms responsible for this relationship” (Araújo, Reis, Petersson, & Faisca, 2015, p. 869).

In other words, we know RAN is important, we just don’t know why. Some experts think it has something to do with phonological processing, but there is evidence at least as persuasive that is implicated in orthographic processing (Georgiou, Parilla, & Papadopoulos, 2016; Georgiou, & Parilla, 2020). There is even evidence from the neurosciences suggesting that, while it may affect phonological and orthographic processing, that it is actually a separate thing altogether (Chang, Katzir, Liu, Corriveau, et al., 2007).

Reading is a complex process with lots of moving parts. The speed with which we can analyze letters and retrieve sounds, and combine this information in short term memory matters, but so does the timing of these varied processes. It won’t work if the parts aren’t well coordinate. Speed and timing.

Norton and Wolf (2012) have offered what I think to be the most persuasive analysis of RAB. They indicate that fluent comprehension is “a manner of reading in which all sublexical units, words, and connected texts and all the perceptual, linguistic, and cognitive processes involved in each level are processed accurately and automatically so that sufficient time and resources can be allocated to comprehension and deeper thought” p. 429.

In other words, whatever it is that RAN measures is implicated in many parts of the reading process.

One interesting thing the researchers have discovered about RAN is that it is more closely related to fluent text reading than to accuracy of word reading. It is important that students be accurate; that they be able to read the words right. But reading is more than just fast word recognition, it is a more integrated process than that.

Your eyes scoop up some information from a text and that information is communicated to your brain where it needs to be integrated with phonological information. But while it is doing that, your eyes are leaping forward to the next scoop of visual data.

This parallel or simultaneous processing is an important part of reading. Dyslexics, even when they are able to identify words accurately, don’t coordinate this parallel processing as well as good readers, and RAN is more closely correlated with this aspect of reading than with accuracy (Pan, Yan, Laubrock, Shu, & Kliegl, 2013).

In other words, your school psychologist is on to something important.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can teach RAN. The relationship of RAN to reading is so complex that only one research team has even bothered to try to teach it (no one who has studied it thinks that we can teach it successfully in any way likely to matter). In that one study, they trained students in rapid letter naming with no reliable impact on either RAN or reading (Kirby, Georgiou, Martinussen, & Parrila, 2010).

Norton and Wolf point out that although it has been shown that instruction can improve performance on most reading and language measures, those interventions have not resulted in much RAN improvement.  

That doesn’t mean there aren’t well-meaning (but not very knowledgeable) folks out there with sure-fire schemes to improve RAN. Here are a few examples of that kind of thing:

 Please avoid them. Save your time and your students’ time. Focus on teaching those things that improve reading achievement. RAN is a great predictor of success, but it is not what you need to teach.  

Maryanne Wolf has concluded that if you want students to accomplish that earlier mentioned fluent comprehension, you can’t single RAN out like that for specific focus.

What she does argue for are two things:

First, teach all of the components of reading that we know improve reading achievement. If reading requires the kind of coordination of processes, then you need proficiency in each process.

Second, teaching that emphasizes the coordination of parts makes sense, too. Teaching oral reading fluency through activities like repeated reading may be exercising their positive effects by helping students to develop that coordination, though she admits that such teaching may sometimes only lead to faster reading, rather than more coordinated or fluent reading.


Araújo, S., Reis, A., Petersson, K. M., & Faísca, L. (2015). Rapid automatized naming and reading performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 868-883.

Chang, B., Katzir, T., Liu, T., Corriveau, K., Barzillai, M., et al. (2007). A structural basis for reading fluency: white matter defects in a genetic brain malformation. Neurology, 69, 2146–2154.

Denckla, M. B., & Rudel, R. G. (1976). Naming of objects by dyslexic and other learning disabled children. Brain and Language, 3, 1–15.

Georgiou, G. K., & Parilla, R. (2020). What mechanism underlies the rapid automatized naming-reading relation? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 194, 1-9.

Georgiou, G. K., Parilla, R., & Papadopoulos, T. C.  (2016). The anatomy of the RAN-reding relationship. Reading and Writing, 29, 1793-1815.

Kirby, R., Georgiou, G., Martinussen, R., & Parrila, R. (2010). Naming speed and reading: A review of the empirical and theoretical literature. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 341–362.

Mazzocco, M. M. M., & Grimm, K. J. (2013). Growth in rapid automatized naming from grades K-8 in children with math or reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilties, 46(6), 517-533.

Norton, E. S., Wolf, M. (2012). Rapid automatized naming (RAN) and reading fluency: Implications for understanding and treatment of reading disabilities. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 427-452.

Pan, J., Yan, M., Laubrock, J., Shu, H., & Kliegl, R. (2013). Eye–voice span during rapid automatized naming of digits and dice in Chinese normal and dyslexic children. Developmental Science, 16, 967–979.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Ann Apr 18, 2020 08:21 PM

Just yesterday, I was preparing a PowerPoint for university seniors in education on the use of data to increase the efficiency of instruction. “Every screwy thing we do to make scores look better than they are is harmful to children,” I quote from your 1/29/18 blog on early literacy assessments.
Nonsense word flash cards, hacks to increase WPM scores, ignoring writing instruction to spend more time on decoding, all practices I have observed in classrooms, are designed to increase test scores rather than teach children the many parts of the reading process they need to become proficient readers.
Among the confusions about predictive assessments such as RAN is that some educators think they work backward as well.
Many years ago a popular study showed that the ability of a kindergartener to count to 100 on the readiness screen predicted success in kindergarten teachers worked to teach all students to count to 100.
Given the time limits in a school day, we must use children’s time in productive ways, not on magical thinking. Providing reading and writing instruction and practice in a variety of participation structures, using formal and informal data to plan instruction and monitor progress, and to continue to increase our own expertise as literacy teachers IS predictive of student success...regardless of RAN.

Elo Apr 18, 2020 08:58 PM

I tutor bright middle school kids who don't comprehend by helping them see the patterns that guide reading. I've also used these tools with ESL students. I studied Cognitive psychology and Linguistics at U of Toronto. My practices reflect the research in those fields.

Here are some of the most useful tools I use.
1. Google to find "Ten steps to college reading summary sheet" for teaching how writing and reading material is structured.
2. For pulling together grammar: 112 Sentence patterns with diagramming and sentence combining.
3. Identifying 3 key words central to the meaning of the sentence and then having them reconstruct the short essay from
their key words outline. Watch them grasp the difference between meaning and subject. The program "Excellence in
Writing" has good examples. Homeschoolers use this a lot.

I like your article because it emphasis activities that change the student's ability immediately. The aha moments that my kids have make them feel that our sessions are fundamental to how they can help themselves. I feel my students have struggled in the past because they never had the opportunity to see how everything fits together and instruction has not been systematic. I am sorry the United States does not have more tie in between Cognitive research and how curriculum is designed.

Harriett Apr 18, 2020 09:46 PM

Tim, you say: Back in the 1970s, researchers wanted to measure cognitive processing speed, so they came up with a variety of RAN measures. Typically, students are asked to name known colors, objects, letters or words, and their performance is timed. The studies showed that rapid naming was a good predictor of reading ability and was an important indicator in dyslexia (Denckla, & Rudel, 1976).

In Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill (2005), Diane McGuinness says: The fact that RAN digits and letters predict reading so much better than RAN colors and objects do means that naming speed per se is not a factor in learning to read. Also, the fact that RAN digits predict reading just as well as RAN letters do means that letter names per se are not a factor in learning to read. The RAN-reading connection is more general than this, more likely to be due to home instruction and to the speed of paired-associate learning. This is more evidence that paired-associate learning is a key component of decoding skill.

Can you comment on the connection between "paired-associate learning" and reading proficiency?

Tim Shanahan Apr 19, 2020 12:58 AM

Since that time we have learned a lot... areas of the brain that seem to govern this naming speed have bee identified, genetic links have been found, RAN has been found to be significant longitudinally and in all of the languages that have been studied. It is definitely one of the key reasons for dyslexia — and it is definitely more than phonological coding. No this isn’t just how much mom drilled kids o. Letter names (as studies have also shown).


Dana Apr 19, 2020 01:15 AM

Can you recommend any screeners for RAN, or what should be part of a screener for RAN

Terry Apr 19, 2020 05:38 AM

Is there a difference between the start of the reading process and the more advanced reading concerning the practice of letternaming?

Harriett Apr 19, 2020 03:50 PM

I'm trying to reconcile RAN research with research on infants that also measures processing speed. You write: Your eyes scoop up some information from a text and that information is communicated to your brain where it needs to be integrated with phonological information. But while it is doing that, your eyes are leaping forward to the next scoop of visual data.

Anne Fernald's research at Stanford monitors how quickly infants 18-24 months recognize spoken vocabulary. Whereas RAN activities ask children to identify something by naming it, the identification in Fernald's research comes through eye movements since the children can't speak. They hear a spoken word and then look at the picture that represents that word. Slow processing speed impacts future reading.

I'm wondering whether these two processing speeds are related--one involving the speed of identifying through naming and the other through looking--or are they measuring something different but each connected to reading proficiency?

Timothy E Shanahan Apr 20, 2020 08:44 PM


The most widely used tests of RAN are:

Wagner, R., Torgesen, J. K., Rashotte, C. A., & Pearson, N. A. (2013). CTOPP-2: Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (2nd ed). Dallas: ProEd.

Wolf, M., & Denckla, M. B. (2005). RAN/RAS: Rapid Automatized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus Tests. Torrance, CA: WPS.

good luck.

Timothy E Shanahan Apr 20, 2020 08:45 PM


I don't know any work on that. Sorry.


Timothy E Shanahan Apr 20, 2020 08:45 PM


I don't understand your question. Please try it again with more detail.


Lisa Apr 21, 2020 05:39 AM

What are your thoughts on this recent intervention study. It seems to shed new light on previous findings.

Phonological Awareness and Rapid Automatized Naming Are Independent Phonological Competencies With Specific Impacts on Word Reading and Spelling: An Intervention Study Stappen & Van Reybroeck
Their decisions about how to do the RAN training were interesting also.

Tim Shanahan Apr 22, 2020 01:52 AM

That is a poorly done study, published in a marginal journal. With a 35 percent attrition rate and no check on its impact on the outcome and with measure to subjects ratio this high, you really can’t tell if one group did better than another. Nothing here that would change my mind. Given such an interesting result I’m surprised they didn’t redesign a more powerful study and replicate it. Given the problems I would bet it wouldn’t replicate. Thanks


Jolynn Apr 22, 2020 09:40 PM

I liked reading and learning about RAN. What it is and how to use it. It seems to me that you said that it can be a good predictor of reading, but it is something we shouldn't necessarily use to teach with. Does it predict Dyslexia well, or is it a processing speed indicator, or both? I plan to learn more about this, I teach in a computer lab and students sometimes need to recall information that I give them quickly, some students lag behind, I wonder if this could predict which students aren't processing the information that I give them, so that I could spend more time helping them to assimilate the information that I give them. Thanks for your information!

Tim Shanahan Apr 23, 2020 01:00 PM

Jolynn— RAN scores are good predictors of reading ability, they are well correlated with dyslexia, and they are not something that should be taught. RAN be part of a diagnostic battery when determining reading problems, but it should not be part of a regular monitoring effort.

Good luck.


Bonnie Terry, M.Ed., BCET Apr 24, 2020 12:25 AM

I appreciate your post, Tim. You are spot on to point out that RAN is one of the best predictors of reading ability. It was also critical that you pointed out that neuroscience suggests that RAN is a separate thing from phonological processing. That is why doing one thing alone does not improve reading.

Because reading is a complex process with so many moving parts, a varied approach that includes the 5 tenets of reading is needed to improve reading skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

RAN lies within the fluency piece of reading. Processing speed impacts reading fluency. It is your ability to easily retrieve information, rapidly and automatically without effort.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information announce Stappen and Reybroeck’s results of their 2018 study on RAN and Phonological Awareness:

“The RAN intervention was found to be beneficial for the word reading speed. This is consistent with numerous correlational findings showing that RAN was a strong predictor of reading speed (van den Bos et al., 2002; Savage and Frederickson, 2005; Tan et al., 2005; Landerl and Wimmer, 2008; Araújo et al., 2015; Georgiou et al., 2016). However, this is the first time that the causal impact of RAN on reading speed is confirmed through an intervention design. In the other causal direction, a recent study (Wolff, 2014) showed that a reading training, which included speeded exercises, could indirectly enhance RAN. Those two pieces of evidence suggest a causal and reciprocal relationship between RAN and reading speed.

Furthermore, the results revealed that the efficacy of our intervention occurred in the long run (i.e., 6 months after the intervention), and highlighted for the first time that such training was widely beneficial for reading achievement. These findings open up new perspectives for the prevention and remediation of reading disabilities.”

So, pairing the teaching of all of the components of reading: fluency training [which involves processing speed and RAN], with phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension, reading skills improve.

I have seen first hand, as a board-certified educational therapist and learning disabilities specialist, with teaching children for over 35 years that have a varied approach to teaching reading that includes RAN and fluency drills, but not limited to, can help processing speeds and overall reading. This is specifically beneficial to younger children who may still be sounding out words.

Oh, you also have a typo. “Norton and Wolf (2012) have offered what I think to be the most persuasive analysis of RAB.”

Stay safe and healthy,
Bonnie Terry, M.Ed., BCET

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How can I teach RAN to improve my students' reading?


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