How Do You Know if it Really is the Science of Reading?

  • reading
  • 18 February, 2023

The literacy field has long been beleaguered by generic terms that no one seems to understand – or more exactly, of which nobody agrees on the definitions. Terms like whole language, balanced literacy, direct instruction, dyslexia, sight words, and guided reading, are bandied about in journals, conference presentations, newspaper articles, and teacher’s lounges as if there was some shared dictionary out there that we were all accessing. Even terms that seem like they would be widely understood like research or fluency often turn out to be problematic.

This plague of vagueness is exasperating, and I think it prevents productive dialogue or any kind of substantive progress in the field.

Over the decades, reporters and policymakers have often asked me my opinion of [insert any of those undefined terms]. My usual response has been something along the lines of:

“Tell me what ________ is, and I’ll give you my opinion,” not-so-cleverly shifting the responsibility for definition to my questioner.

If they say, “balanced literacy means providing explicit instruction in key reading skills while trying to provide a motivational and supportive classroom environment”, I say, “I’m all for it.” If they tell me, “it means teaching reading with a minimum of explicit instruction, particularly in foundational skills like spelling and decoding,” then I’m strongly opposed.

That approach keeps me out of the soup, but it really doesn’t solve any important problem. My clarity and consistency aside, teachers are still inundated with invitations to professional development programs, textbooks, and classroom instructional practices that are supposedly aligned with some unspecified definition of today’s hot jargon.

The biggest offender now – if my Twitter feed is representative – is the “science of reading.”

I can’t believe the number of webinars, blogs, textbooks, professional development opportunities, and the like that aim to provide the latest and greatest information from the science of reading (whatever that is?).

My advice to everyone: Grab your wallets and run!

Okay, I admit that isn’t very helpful, but it should save you a lot of money and aggravation.

What would be more helpful?

Consumers of a science of reading should start out with a definition of what would fairly constitute such a science. That way they could always check to see if what was being promoted was what they were seeking.

Back in the late 1990s, federal education law – recognizing how misleadingly the term “research” was being used by textbook companies, consultants, and the like – provided definitions of “scientifically-based reading instruction (SBRR).”

Unfortunately, in one fell swoop, the feds stopped promoting instructional approaches based on research and did away with the legal definition of scientific evidence; moves that coincided, I might point out, with the last round of gains in national reading scores.

I’d suggest that, though that definition no longer has legal standing, it is a good starting point for deciding what should be in your personal definition of “a science of reading.”

What would that look like?

First, the evidence must be derived from a scientific method that is appropriate to the claim being made. If you want to claim that a particular instructional method or approach improves reading achievement, you need to prove that; that such instruction is more beneficial than other approaches.

That can only be accomplished through an educational experiment; that provides a sound comparison between students who are receiving that instruction and those who aren’t.

Other scientific methods can provide valuable information, but they can’t answer a “what works” kind of question.

Descriptive and correlational research methods are appropriate for many other important questions (e.g., Are kids of different races or genders making equal gains? What kinds of library books are students most interested in? Have reading scores risen in the past three years?). Those other research methods, if implemented appropriately, can provide sound answers to such questions.

You might be surprised how many fine scientists are out there telling teachers how and what to teach – even though their research has never tested the effectiveness of what they are recommending.

Evidence from their studies can be usefully provocative – that is, it may suggest worthwhile questions. If, for example, you noticed greater student engagement when kids were allowed to choose what to read, you might wonder, “Would such choice lead to more learning?” Unfortunately, too often, people see or think they see that kind of pattern and jump right to a conclusion, “Student choice must lead to more learning,” without bothering to test that claim through a rigorous experiment. (Sometimes research supports such a claim and sometimes it doesn’t. But it certainly can’t be recommended as being based on science without such a test).

Something we should remember that when science identifies a potentially valuable avenue to better learning that doesn’t mean we know how best to exploit that knowledge.

Basically, all I’m saying is, if you want to claim that something works, you need to try it out and show that it can be beneficial.

Second, a science of reading would require studies that provided a rigorous analysis of the data derived from educational experiments. Such analysis must ensure that the results are due to the instruction and not just to normal variations in performance. It also must ensure that the comparisons being made are sound. Some studies try to compare results with groups that are so different in the beginning that it would be impossible to attribute outcome differences to the instruction.

Third, the studies need to go through peer review or some other kind of independent scientific evaluation to protect against serious flaws in the reasoning or analysis.

Fourth, the studies need to be replicated or generalized. That’s why I depend so heavily on meta-analysis; it combines the results of multiple studies. It is not enough to know that the XYZ reading method had great results in one study, if there are 9 other investigations that showed it to be ineffective. That kind of pattern says to me, this technique can work, but it rarely does. Not something I’d be likely to adopt or to recommend to schools.

Fifth, it helps if there are convergent findings – in other words, other evidence that appears to be consistent with these findings. Like the U.S. Department of Education of two decades ago, I would never place the imprimatur of science upon an instructional approach that had not actually been tried out in classrooms and shown to be effective. But once I have that evidence, I am heartened to know of other supporting information.

I don’t talk much about the brain research in reading. Not because I’m unaware of its potential importance, but because of its insufficiency. Any pattern revealed in neurological investigations that suggests an instructional possibility still must be evaluated in the classroom. Sometimes a basic idea is sound, but it is more challenging or complicated to implement than you realize.  

In any event, descriptive and correlational studies, theories, neurological investigations, and studies of other kinds of learning may bolster your trust in the instructional studies that you have.

We have many studies showing the effectiveness of decoding instruction. Those are studies that have compared the results of a strong phonics emphasis versus a no phonics or a weak phonics approach. My trust in those results goes up when I see the mRI studies showing how the brain connects the visual recognition of letters and words with the part of the brain that carries out phonological processing. That neurological evidence on its own, wouldn’t be enough to scientifically endorse phonics as an effective instructional approach, but it sure provides convergent proof that should strengthen my resolve to offer such instruction. (The same, in this case, could be said about digital simulation studies of reading as well.)

Where does this leave us?

If I were invited to a science of reading seminar, and wondered if it would be worthwhile, I’d ask the sponsors if the presenters will either

  1. Limit their endorsement of instructional approaches to those that have been evaluated through rigorous and well analyzed classroom experiments that have been published in peer reviewed outlets, and replicated; or
  2. Distinguish which of their instructional recommendations have such evidence and which do not?

If I had no choice but to attend, those would be the kinds of questions I’d be asking the presenters if their presentations didn’t make the foundations of their claims clear.

If we are serious about improving reading achievement for all children, we are only likely to get there if we hold ourselves to the highest standards of professional practice. Having a sound definition for what constitutes a “science of reading” is more than a game of semantics.  Employing instructional approaches that have repeatedly benefited learners in rigorously implemented and analyzed studies is likely to be the most productive way to progress.

These days I’m seeing schools mandating instructional practices that have no direct research evidence in the name of the science of reading. Those practices don’t become part of the science of reading because someone wrote them down, or because they were recommended by a researcher, or because they address a particular aspect of reading development.


See what others have to say about this topic.

T. Call Feb 17, 2023 10:55 PM

I think you are at the root of a big, big, deeply discouraging problem.

"SOLD A STORY" described the "rock star status" of Marie Clay. Now same status, just as problematic, is being applied to SOR people who don't have the evidence either, as you say.

A characteristic of science is skepticism and questioning, hypothesizing based on what is established. SOR instead is dogmatic. Tim, we are kicked in the teeth when we ask those presenters the questions you suggest, right as the questions are.

Listened to some "SOR" podcasts this week and, just one example, several times, the issue of how many times a child must encounter a word to "know" it was discussed. 12? 15? 20? Chasing citations was proclaimed as if there was a specific number answer that applied to all-children and these podcasters would chase it, find it! This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the knowledge base, how studies are constructed, that "findings"/answers depend on several factors (as science tends to define), how study results add value and provide direction. This is one example of misplaced precision. Science doesn't yield a recipe which teachers still seek.

Maybe we need to define a scientific mindset.

Marianthi Koritsaris Feb 18, 2023 03:09 PM

What would you the best phonics instruction looks like in a constructivist classroom ? What are the best resources for phonics and phonemic awareness instruction ?

Rebecca Pennington Feb 18, 2023 03:24 PM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan, for offering clarity and precision again. The body of actual experimental research and other types of research is so large that it is difficult even for experts to read and digest it all. Teachers look for "recipes" and quick fixes because they are so overloaded, though that is no excuse. I appreciate that your posts offer summaries of research and citations to follow. A few examples of topics where I find the SOR community not quite in line with the research are 1) use of 100% decoable or mostly decodable text only until all sound patterns are learned, and 2) learning syllable types and rules as always effective. There are fight about "three-cueing", which is nuanced and you've addressed it here. I appreciated your careful analysis of "Sold a Story" as well. As a teacher educator in a small private college, I keep up as best I can, but often both side are critical of those in my role.

Jeffrey Bowers Feb 18, 2023 04:10 PM

Related to your points above, one of the big problems is how selective people are in citing research. How many times do I have to hear someone citing the Clackmannanshire studies as evidence in support of SSR, ignoring the fundamental flaws that have been pointed out repeatedly. There is a long list of problems I've highlighted in various papers regarding the evidence for SSP (e.g., that are just ignored. A strong proponent of SSP does not have to agree with my analyses, but it is not appropriate to simply ignore the paper despite being published in one of the top journals in education. When you treat the literature selectively, you are not engaging in science for the sake of understanding, you are using science as propaganda tool.

Just as often people mischaracterize the studies they cite to support their claim. E.g., that the NRP provides evidence for SSP when in fact it claimed that there was no good evidence for one form of phonics for another. The list is endless, and researches are just as guilty as anyone.

Mark Pennington Feb 18, 2023 04:17 PM

Okay, Tim. You more than hinted at it saying, "These days I’m seeing schools mandating instructional practices that have no direct research evidence in the name of the science of reading." Let's get a famous Shanahan list of these instructional practices, please.

Norman A. Stahl Feb 18, 2023 04:22 PM

Tim, Tim, Tim...I truly like this piece and will share it with others. It gets at definitional issues that really complicate our trying to do right by the learners. Perhaps the first thing to do is dump the use of the word "science" or at least the belief we do Big S science. I admit that I older than dirt, but given that our profession will never undertake true basic science. Heck, it rarely gets applied science correct. We should go back to the term "pedagogics" as in at least attempts to lead us to cross borders between the classroom and quality research.

Harriett Janetos Feb 18, 2023 04:28 PM

Great points, Tim. Along these same lines, I recommend the following: The Reading League Journal (Jan. 2020) where Mark Seidenberg and Matt Cooper Borkenhagen provide eight tenets for teachers in their article: Reading Science and Educational Practice: Some Tenets for Teachers.

These tenets are:

1) "Evidence Based" doesn't mean "true."
2) Teachers can make use of scientific findings, but be cautious.
3) Teachers are cognitive theorists.
4) Reading problems are not necessarily about reading.
5) Skilled word-reading is like a reflex.
6) Most learning is implicit, but explicit instruction matters.
7) Balancing implicit learning and explicit instruction is hard.
8) "Components of reading are for teachers", not for children.

Teri Feb 18, 2023 05:14 PM

How many times does it take until a word that is decoded transfers into sight and when should one be concerned if it’s not happening?

Sheila Keller Feb 18, 2023 05:18 PM

Yes, I've very thankfully been made aware by you and other leading thinkers that there is a pervasive (mis)use of some practices, because we are pretty susceptible to having really strong beliefs. You've laid out some fundamental understandings all practitioners should have about how to tease out what we know from what we believe or suspect. Given there is a tremendous dearth of understanding of how to think about research, maybe the focus needs to shift from "the five pillars" of reading instruction and SOR , which seems to have exacerbated the problem or muddied the waters, to "How do we know?"

Dr. Bill Conrad Feb 18, 2023 05:41 PM

You truly have been a lion in your steadfast and relentless efforts to promote science-based approaches to reading within an educational community that is lost in a fog.

Many educators eschew science for alchemy - always searching for the gold instructional nugget but always settling for shiny fool’s gold!

Even if educators would miraculously commit to science-based approaches, they would be hampered by their inability to implement consistently, systematically and with fidelity. Inability to monitor, adjust, and hold accountable would also be major obstacles!

Keep holding the line on science-based approaches to reading. You are an inspiration!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 18, 2023 05:59 PM


There is no set number. I have seen estimates of from 6-12 times, but this varies greatly in terms of individual words and individual learners; it also matters in what contexts the words are confronted. Practice with something like flashcards can provide a small learning advantage, but at times this evident increase in skill doesn't transfer to text reading. Also, some words are more complicated than others and if the words you are teaching have a lot of overlap (like were and where), they are harder/slower to learn. Likewise, I would expect kids to master and retain such words slowly at first, but by the end of grade 1, they pick up most such words without many exposures. If some youngsters are having trouble retaining words that you have exposed them to, I would look at the words carefully and consider what decoding skills the kids have developed. However, if you have some students who are struggling with this compared to the others, it very well might be a problem. I would take a hard look at how I am teaching these under these circumstances. How linked to the decoding skills that you are teaching is this word reading? Are kids really looking at the word carefully and thoroughly? Are they trying to sound out the parts of the words that they can decode? Are they trying to write and spell the words from memory? Or, is it just a brute memorization task? I'd try to avoid the latter and try out some of those other steps.


Ann Christensen Feb 18, 2023 06:01 PM

What a great column and comments. Science is the basis of evolving understandings. It builds on the work of others and continues to experiment. Current practitioners are often forced by admin to adopt the new shiny approach as if we have learned nothing from past practice. Through Whole Language and Balanced Literacy, I have learned how important writing is to reading development. I see many young children move from phonetic writing to decoding, sounding and blending. I see them learn to compose ideas and gain insight into the flow of fiction and nonfiction text. I learned from Clay that teaching for transfer is powerful and necessary. I learned from Shanahan to look beneath the shiny new ideas for the research that supported it or to discover the lack.
I began teaching in 1977 when Basal Readers and workbooks were going to script reading instruction, teacher-proofing it. Struggling readers just repeated the same instruction over and over. Identification of learning disabilities was new. There were no MRIs. Evelyn Woods Speed reading courses were all that.
I have continued to study the research over 50 years. I wrote a book on early literacy, and daily support my kindergarteners in all aspects of literacy. I hope we continue to build our understandings of the most effective pedagogies.

PETER AFFLERBACH Feb 18, 2023 06:07 PM

Hey Tim

You've been on a roll lately. Thank you.

I encourage readers of your work to consider also the writing and scholarship of Paul Thomas.

Here's a recent post:

Harriett Janetos Feb 18, 2023 07:07 PM

Those of you who follow Peter Afflerbach's suggestion and read the piece he recommends ( will notice a glaring omission from that article: no reference at all to the three-cueing system, which is at the heart of Sold a Story. There is no mention of three-cueing either as a concession or a point of contention. Here's what you won't find Tim doing: cherry-picking his points. Reader beware.

Joanne H. Feb 18, 2023 07:30 PM


No matter how much I read I continue to become more confused than ever! I would also really appreciate the list that Mr. Pennington would like you to create. I've done a great deal of reading, but I'm not well versed in scientific methods which is why I read your articles. I am in the position of teaching at the university level and there is debate about a push from some lawmakers to mandate science of reading as a part of the content in a methods class. What is your opinion on this?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 18, 2023 07:55 PM

While I sympathize with the idea of mandating various instructional practices by mandates from state legislators, I cringe at the thought of what the outcome of these efforts may be (and, so, I don't support most of the legal maneuvering that is going on).

First, I oppose the practice of teaching kids to recognize words by looking at pictures or by three cueing. However, once that becomes a law where does that leave the teacher who in frustration over a child's bungled attempt to decode a word. "Look at the picture," may slip mindlessly through her lips and in a moment her career, license, and reputation may be ruined. Sounds far fetched, but teachers who don't obey such laws may inadvertently find herself in that kind of soup. Perhaps not the best way to address what may be a problem (3 cueing certainly is not consistent with how people appear to read, but there is no evidence that giving kids such guidance in the context of a substantial and appropriate phonics program does any actual harm -- in other words, I think it should be discouraged and avoided, but if someone lapses into it, I'm not sure it is actually harmful).

Second, it is clear that some bureaucrats, legislators, and governors are idiots (I mean that in the politest possible way). They see the very real pain in the faces of mothers and fathers of dyslexic children whom the schools have failed to nurture, and want to do something. The press says they should follow the science, and there are plenty of parents, teachers, administrators, professors, consultants, lobbyists, publishers, etc. who are happy to tell them. However, with no understanding of the science and no standards for what kinds and qualities of research are needed to determine a favored practice, they are mandating a dog's breakfast of regulations that range from those supported by solid evidence and those that have never been studied at all. Making such decisions may be politically sound, but it doesn't do much to promote reading.


Helen Proulx Feb 18, 2023 08:12 PM


Appreciate your reasoned insight to help educators approach science of reading promoted methods & materials.

I wonder, too, about the danger of positioning research & teacher practice as separate & one-way (research studies informing teaching practice & not the other way around)

Ultimately, teachers need to be their own researchers, too. Informed by “the science” to be sure, they also need to be positioned to & learn to effectively measure the impact of their instruction & adjust instruction accordingly. In my experience, this piece of the puzzle, is often left out of the science of reading (sometimes very one-sided) conversation.

Judith Dunkerly, Ph.D. Feb 18, 2023 09:41 PM

I really appreciate this piece as you are pointing out what I feel is the biggest problem with SOR currently: the commercialization and monetized nature of many SOR “programs.” In our state, we’ve even had divisions/ DOE members want certain for-profit curricula inserted in our methods courses to “train” pre-service teachers. Thanks for the solid reminder that the jury is still out on what a “science” of reading might actually encompass.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 18, 2023 10:41 PM


I have a slightly different take on that. Teachers lack the training, resources, time, and purpose for conducting research -- just like the typical family physician in medicine. It's possible for practitioners to play a role in research, but it is really a different job. However, I am always surprised that public agencies do not involve teachers in a substantial way in the determination of research priorities -- in terms of research that gets funded and summaries of research that are commissioned. Researchers (me included) tend to focus on questions that interest the research community. That often means the practitioner is left out. These days I get tons of questions about how to teach various aspects of phonics. The research community still seems to be interested in whether phonics can be made to work, and they are less interested in the best ways to teach phonics effectively (just the opposite). What goes under the name "teacher research" tends to be a pale imitation of what is usually meant by rigorous research.



Julie Lewis Feb 18, 2023 10:55 PM

While anyone can be overwhelmed in a field where hundreds, or more, research studies are reported on annually, my experience working for 34 years in public education is that most administrators, and therefore teachers, prefer to "hitch their wagon" to a program that they think (hope) will be the answer to their prayers, in lieu of actually training teachers to understand what science actually informs us on how children learn to read and what we know about how to facilitate the process. Either way, there is risk. Publishers are in the market to sell programs, so I tend to be somewhat wary of trainings delivered by publishers and their various representatives. Administrators often like to admonish teachers to implement the adopted program with "fidelity," never mind the program does not "know" your students, but if you know your students and have that deep understanding, you are in a better position to deliver interventions and to make decisions on what to include, exclude, modify, intensify or add to meet the needs of a struggling student, or to facilitate the growth and development of the student who excels and may not need the hours of certain kinds of drill and practice. I appreciate the work you do with this blog to weed out what is not efficacious while pointing us toward what is. I also appreciate my professional organization peer-reviewed journals for the role they play in helping me to keep my focus on what works.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 18, 2023 10:59 PM

I'm not a big fan of most conceptions of constructivist teaching since it tends to marginalize the idea of explicit teaching -- basically telling people what they need to know. We all construct knowledge but we do that from information that comes from many sources, including direct telling. Explicit teaching increases the chances that someone will construct the knowledge you want them to have (it isn't like pouring peas into a container, because the container does no interpretation -- people are different than that, and we need to teach well to make sure kids are getting the message. The first lesson from this... traditional explicit decoding instruction in which you explicitly teach students/guide students to perceive the sound in question, recognize the letters or spelling patterns, link those two things, apply those skills to decoding/encoding words, and applying those skills in text reading.

However, that valuable information does need to be interpreted by kids. What we are teaching explicitly is not exactly what goes into their heads/minds. That's one of the reasons why activities like invented spelling make so much sense -- it requires kids to think hard about what words look like and relationship between letters and sounds (more extensively than occurs in a typical explicit decoding lesson and under more varied and complex word structure activities). Also, it is a reason why it is not a good idea to limit children's reading to typical decodable text. Decoding is complicated, more complicated than most of us could ever explain to a 6-year-old. Yes, use decodable text as part of a phonics lesson to give kids practice with what you teach, but encourage/support children reading less controlled text early on (part of what kids need to learn is to deal with irregularity). Increasingly, folks are developing ways of explicitly supporting the flexibility that is needed to deal with irregular and conditional spellings, but allowing students to try to deal with that does not hurt them, it increases their chances of constructing the system of decoding that works.

Hope that helps.


Mat Feb 19, 2023 02:19 AM

Another great article, thank you Tim! So I'm assuming we could apply this to the knowledge building trend that we see in schools and that is being spoken about a lot on social media. There was a well known baseball study showing that students who knew more about baseball had better reading comprehension than students who didn't know about baseball but it hasn't been replicated as far as I know. So we need to see more studies like that before we can be sure about this, right? In your article you wrote that practices can become part of the science of reading because someone wrote then down or were recommended by a researcher. Well E.D. Hirsch wrote down the need for a knowledge curriculum in his Why Knowledge Matters book and an educational journalist, Natalie Wexler, wrote a well known book called the Knowledge Gap. Some would say these have now found their way into what we call the science of reading, but I'm assuming you would say they have not earned their place there and being a little presumptious considering that evidence is still lacking.

Jeff Bowers Feb 19, 2023 11:20 AM

Just looking over my comment and I wish I had not used "you" in: "When you treat the literature selectively, you are not engaging in science for the sake of understanding, you are using science as propaganda tool". It was meant as a generic you, not directed at you. That said, I do think you (along with most everyone else) have not addressed the serious problems with the evidence of the meta-analyses used to support phonics, nor the lack of any good evidence that two decades of mandated phonics has resulted in better reading outcomes in England. But anyway, I was not intending to come across so personal -- sorry about that!.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2023 01:59 PM


Indeed, my comments cover all aspects of reading instruction. The baseball study was not an instructional study, it was a demonstration of the role that knowledge plays in reading comprehension. The instructional idea that has (incorrectly) been drawn from that demonstration is that building up students' knowledge of factual information (declarative knowledge, world knowledge, background knowledge) is the best way to increase reading comprehension has not been evaluated through instruction. When one thinks about the millions of topics that it is possible to read about, the idea that teachers can intentionally build children's knowledge of all of these so they will be able to read about them would be impossible. Sadly, that means kids (and later when they are adults) will not be able to read about anything they haven't already learned. In classrooms, it increasingly seems to mean that if it is factual it is worth reading, if it only deals with human development, emotions, and relationships (stories) it is not. All of these claims are interesting, but none of them have been rigorously evaluated in practice.


Mary McCool Berry Feb 19, 2023 02:27 PM

What are your thoughts on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curricula and the Knowledge Matters Campaign?

Mary McCool Berry Feb 19, 2023 02:29 PM

I am reading Diane McGuinness' books. What are your thoughts on her work?
Would you like to discuss on my reading podcast, Reading Swizzle?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2023 02:33 PM


I'm a big fan of people knowing stuff and am a strong believer that schools should teach biology, physics, chemistry, geography, history, economics, literature, world culture, and the arts. I think reading (and viewing) should be an opportunity to learn about our social and natural worlds. However, until there is evidence that teaching those things improves general reading achievement, I'm going to focus my attention on those things that have been found to improve general reading achievement (e.g., decoding, written language, comprehension strategies, combinations of reading and writing).


evelyne craig Feb 19, 2023 04:08 PM

yes! yes!

Mary Conner-Righter Feb 19, 2023 07:48 PM

"These days I’m seeing schools mandating instructional practices that have no direct research evidence in the name of the science of reading."
Would you be able to address this further in a blog post? Or is there already one that you've written related to this that I may have missed?
Thank you.

Lorraine Kinsman Feb 19, 2023 08:43 PM

Always appreciate your direct, honest observations and the clarity your blog entries offer - in Alberta, we are definitely in the cross-hairs of the SOR movement. As a 34-year educator, including 19 years as principal in elementary schools and 2 graduate level degrees invested in teaching reading, there is no doubt in my mind that no bandwagon approach will guarantee or improve students’ learning to read as long as we neglect the child in our work. Teachers who are able to flexibly identify and respond to what a particular student needs in the moment tend to have the students who make the greatest gains as readers. Knowing how to teach phonics, writing, comprehension strategies, and making sense of how 26 letters work together to produce evidence of thought carries experienced teachers with foundations of sound, flexible practice through episodes of ‘magic bullet’ hype such as we are faced with now. If every child were the same, we could teach one way. The reality is that it’s hard to find two children who follow exactly the same trajectory learning to read so our methods and approaches need to reflect that as well.

As a university instructor now, working with pre-service teachers, I am shocked at the dearth of discussion about child development in the context of learning and have grave concerns about how these brilliant and enthusiastic young people will manage to find their solid practice foundation going forward. However, I am an optimist and appreciate your voice of reason as educators navigate this latest wave of ‘pick me!’ sales pitches.

Sebastian Wren Feb 20, 2023 12:32 AM

I have always been disturbed by charlatans who CLAIM that their program or their approach is based in "research" when it mostly certainly is not. And their target audience BELIEVES them with remarkable credulity! (The target audience being, of course, teachers and curriculum decision-makers.) While serious-minded researchers publish peer-reviewed articles describing very focused research studies, the charlatans in education circumvent that whole system, and target their audience directly with idealized descriptions of what instruction should look like. If you have snake-oil to sell, you don't want to try to convince researchers that your product has value -- you want to go directly to the consumer, and hope that they aren't savvy enough to understand that you are selling them a hoax. Educators are, sadly, not very good consumers of research, and they get suckered over and over again by "the next new thing" that SEEMS to be based in research. Charlatans write articles that LOOK like research, full of APA citations... but those citations are not referencing research studies. They're just opinion articles -- cherry picked. Educators REALLY need to learn the difference between research evidence and "expert opinion."

Timothy Shanahan Feb 20, 2023 01:24 AM


I write about such topics from time to time. I don't have a list per se, but some of those topics have included multisensory phonics instruction, advance phonemic awareness, decodable text, knowledge based curriculum (or replacing reading instruction with content teaching), balanced literacy, etc. Type some of those terms into the search function on my site and you'll be able to accumulate a collection.


Rita Cevasco, MA, SLP Feb 20, 2023 01:59 PM

When I try my best to look across fields, I find these basic teaching principles to be sound, but I would like to know if I am missing the mark:
1. begin with explicit and systematic phonics instruction
2. teach reading and writing together--in other words, every phonics concept is practiced in reading, writing, and spelling
3. give it context--in other words, use both decodable and uncontrolled text to reinforce the phonics instruction
4. analyze non-decodable words to help children track the expected spelling, as well as the unexpected spelling, practice them in writing, and include them sooner, rather than later, in reading
5. include handwriting practice so kids will achieve a level of automaticity
6. get kids engaged in original writing as soon as possible, which means encourage invented spelling
7. include morphology right away, especially inflectional suffixes --kids have this grammatical info in their oral language system and there is no reason to wait (and morphology supports vocabulary, spelling, and grammar)
8. focus on sound because literacy builds from the oral language system (then later feeds the oral language system), so I have kids organize all vowels by sound, not by spelling
9. include reading & writing projects as soon as possible so kids apply learning (deep learning principles) and experience challenge
10. have kids create their own resources to promote ownership and support memory (my kids make vowel charts, affix charts, and LA binder pages)
11. keep grammar functional and practice at the sentence level, showing them what they already know and use in their oral language system
12. keep read alouds going: both kids reading aloud to adults and adults reading aloud to them
13. engage in multisyllable practice sooner rather than later, showing orthographic patterns, morphological patterns, but also phonological patterns of pronunciation and stress

None of these give me specifics on how I teach these concepts, but focusing on the principles that I read in various meta-analysis and across different fields is helpful in creating my own comprehensive approach.

Lynn Heasley Feb 20, 2023 02:49 PM

I 100% find this spot on, but it did leave me wondering about the huge cost to a company that has developed a program based on the information put out by researchers and based upon what has already been proven to work. If there are not yet double blind scientific research into a program, do we eschew such programs until there is and how do said programs go about getting the money for said research? It's a bit of a quandary.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 20, 2023 05:11 PM


My argument isn't that no one should publish programs or that schools shouldn't purchase them. If anything, I'm pro program because of the consistency that they can add to a school's offerings -- and they keep teachers from constantly having to recreate the wheel. The issue is more of a truth in advertising kind of thing. Teachers should know what aspects of the program are consistent with actual research and which parts of the program have just been made up on the basis of their beliefs, theories, hopes, inferences, etc. That way teachers can think along with the curriculum designers and observe how things are going in their classrooms. If something that has a lot of research isn't working, you either have to figure out what you are doing differently than the research or how your circumstance varies from that of the research. If something that is not based on research is not working, you might want to come up with a plan for changing it.


Christine Anselmi Feb 20, 2023 06:33 PM

"How Do I Know If It Really Is The Science of Reading?" is the article teachers should be mandated to read as opposed to listening to "Sold A Story". Emily Hanford's podcast is being used to legitimize products sold by curriculum companies, a clever use of psychology used on teachers who have little time to wade through and understand dense research articles. Teachers are left to trust that administrators have asked the critical questions suggested by Tim prior to selecting the curriculum on which they are trained. And administrators are relying on curriculum companies to employ developers who are knowledgeable of current research and understand how to translate it into applicable materials. Curriculum companies are dependent on researchers to do comprehensive research. All along the way there are shortcuts that people take due to time, energy, personal psychology, and any number of other variables. These variables derail the perfection of implementing reading instruction to children. To some this may seem fatalistic. To me, it seems human. Our best bet is to further the research as Tim suggests when he identifies the dearth of research on HOW to effectively implement reading instruction in the classroom. Maybe we have to keep curriculum companies around for ready-made materials and scope and sequence guides, but districts would be wise to limit their influence and prominence. More time and money should be dedicated to teaching educators how to implement reading instruction keeping research and the child ALWAYS in mind, together with an eye on state standards.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 20, 2023 09:38 PM


I'm a big supporter of Emily Hanford's reporting. There is no excuse for ignoring the best research that we have; that is as bad as making research claims for approaches that don't have an acceptable research base.


Seth Weinberger Feb 21, 2023 05:27 PM

In your comment above you recommend that students start reading non-controlled texts early in their reading instruction. But how early? And at what stage of reading development are decodable books no longer beneficial?

These seem to be readily testable propositions. Is there research on this? Are you interested in helping our nonprofit prioritize a research agenda around the use of decodable and non-controlled books?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 21, 2023 06:32 PM


We know very little about decodable texts. There are only a few rigorous studies of them and it is not even clear that they are beneficial. However, it is clear from a substantial amount of evidence that we can make text so difficult and obscure early on that we can slow progress with decoding. Given studies that suggest that it is problematic to focus on text that is too consistent (more consistent than the English language), I think it best to have kids reading both decodables (to provide practice utilizing the skills that we teach) and some other texts that use a different simplification scheme (such as lots of word -- not phrase or sentence -- repetition. In other words, not non-controlled but controlled in other ways so that students gain what they need to which is more than dumb decoding. For example, that mix allows us to provide kids with practice with a pattern that works frequently (e.g., CVCe -- made, take, bike, dome, etc.) while mixing in exceptions (e.g., have, come, which require students to make judgments and choices rather than just dumbly applying a pattern that works frequently, but not always).

You are correct that the questions about this should be fairly straightforward. However, I'm not in a position to take on more work at this time so I doubt that I could be very helpful to you. If you have some ideas that you would like to run past me, feel free to send them to me at I'll try to reply, but make no promises.

Good luck.


Lauren Feb 21, 2023 11:10 PM

I once knew a teacher from back in the days of autonomy who had a system of phonetic sound cards representing different vowel and consonant combinations. She set it up as the students against herself. If any of the students missed the sound, she would get a point, if the students all got the sound, they would get a point. She would stomp and fume in pretend indignation if the students all got the sound correct. I don't know if it is scientific, but every student was on the edge of their seat, smiling and excited, and every student learned to read in that teacher's class. They read real books in addition to the phonics work, by the way. These days I've heard many administrators refer to the "Science of Reading" with nasal condescension. One of the key buzz words is: Research Based. This is thrown around and used to prevent teachers from using successful teaching strategies that they have developed. I have to say honestly that much of the research based curriculum that is out these days is not very appealing to students. They don't like it. I don't like reading decodable tongue twister passages that don't make much sense either.

Susie Feb 22, 2023 12:03 AM

As always, there is so much foot for thought and I have so many questions so I can shore up my own learning and understanding of what science says about the pillars of reading. Is there a resource/professional book/ or coursework that would help me better understand what the current convergence of data is teaching us about all aspects of reading achievement - phonic, phonological awareness, vocabulary, background knowledge, literacy knowledge - text types, writing or grammar - the syntax and semantics of complex text, etc.


Miriam Trehearne Feb 22, 2023 01:45 AM

Miriam P. Trehearne Feb. 22.2023

Thanks, Tim, for another clear and factual blog post. I will make four key points mainly addressed to teachers:

1. When you read an article with a SOR focus check to see if the key research-based and proven instructional practices identified are included or is the article too narrow in its focus. For example, is writing included, or does it remain one of the curriculum gap areas as noted by Bill Teale, (et al) in 2007. Many young children come to reading through writing as mentioned by Ann Cunningham in her blog posting on February 18, 2023. Additionally, if Balanced Literacy is referenced, is it defined? Is it stated that oral language, including vocabulary, is at least as important as decoding? Unfortunately, oral language (word and world knowledge) remains a curriculum gap area as well. Recent research has shown that infants born during the pandemic vocalize significantly less compared to children born pre-pandemic, (Deoni, 2021, Gilkerson, 2022). These behaviours are critical for oral language development. The good news is that strong oral language programs in preschool, kindergarten and the primary grades can have long lasting and significant effects on the children, well into middle school (Dickinson and Sprague, 2001).

2. Consider this: The most recent international comparison of students’ educational performance with those in other countries is the 2018 Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) which has been administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in countries around the world for over 20 years. PISA currently involves more than 80 countries and focuses primarily on the reading, mathematics, and science performance of 15-year-old students. It is possible to compare trends in reading performance for different countries since the initial assessment published in 2000. In my own country’s context, Canada, the average reading score for Canadian students was 520, 33 points higher than the OECD average (487). Only students from four provinces in China, Singapore and Macao scored higher.
Canada’s reading scores have remained relatively stable over time. Let’s look at the United States (506) and the United Kingdom (504). The national curriculum in England has mandated a strong focus on intensive and explicit phonics instruction since the early 2000s (Wyse & Bradbury, 2022). In the US, the six-billion-dollar ‘Reading First’ program, implemented between 2002 and 2007, prioritized the teaching of systematic explicit phonics for low-income students (Cummins, 2007). By contrast, over the past 20 years, Ontario students, in fact most Canadian students, have experienced a relatively balanced reading curriculum that integrates phonics instruction with a strong focus on promoting active engagement with reading and writing (Cummins, 2022).

I am frequently questioned by US educators as to how multicultural Canada is. Do we have many students who are learning English (and French) as a second language? The answer is Yes. In fact, Toronto, the city I now call home, is the most multicultural city, per capita, in the world. Its citizens speak 180+ languages and 51 percent of the population was born outside of Canada. I am not saying that Canadians do not experience difficulty with reading. We must also do much better. But I do believe that teachers generally following the students, not a scripted program, and not jumping on bandwagons has served us well. Unfortunately, as Lorraine Kinsman stated in this blog on February 19, 2023 “Alberta is in the cross-hairs of the SOR”, as is much of Canada.

3. Mark asked for a famous Shanahan list of research-based and proven instructional practices. I would recommend Tim’s article in Reading Research Quarterly 2020 titled What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction? And talk about a blast from the past which is just as relevant today, as it was twenty years ago. Take a deep dive into P. David Pearson’s article The reading wars: The politics of reading research and policy-1988 through 2003 in Educational Policy, 18(1), 216-252. And finally, Jim Cummins, University of Toronto wrote a masterful article, Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Report: Sincere, Passionate, Flawed in The Journal of Teaching and Learning, Vol16, No1, 2022.
4. Finally to fellow teachers: Avoid the latest flavour of the month. Always consider the following for PLC’s: “Where is the research to support this practice?” Whose research, is it? How credible is it? Does it appear in a refereed journal? How would or could this work in my setting? Does this seem plausible to me?
If what I (or we) am already doing is working well, why implement change? Teachers encourage children to question, to inquire. Teachers and school districts need to do the same.

Natalie Gallimore Feb 22, 2023 12:59 PM

Nearly 2 decades ago, the Stanovich's provided a good overview of what research should entail for education.

Sadly, still today many do not understand or refuse to follow these science/research principles. Moreover, when one looks into the available 'so-called' research, one finds that some programs have cherry-picked students (i.e. baseline PA was too low to be included in the study) which removed the potentially the greatest struggling readers from their test population. As well, a well known program has published/spun that even when students are not successful in their program, that this result is beneficial for the student (when in reality by the student their failure is internalized as 'fail #2' in addition to not being able to learn in-class with peers 'fail #1) because educators will then know that the student requires a different, more targeted and intense reading intervention. No mention of the time-wasted within an ineffective program.

Key Elements
-Agree to terminology (i.e. LD in North America does not mean the same as LD in the UK so one needs to know study source)
-Agree to expected scientific research practices
-Sample size and disclosure (particularly if screening occurred)
-Expectations for efficacy study design & execution (by wary when only the program designer assesses program efficacy)
Accurately recording & disclosing withdrawals
-Importance of peer review
-Repeatable of research findings by others, and
-Broadly sharing significant findings in plain language and not only in a pay-walled peer-reviewed research journal

Paula Feb 26, 2023 04:15 AM

What are your thoughts on Direct Explicit Sequential Instruction (Science of Reading) and Constructivism (As maker educators, we follow the philosophy of Constructionism which holds that learning by creating something is an inherently superior way of learning. As AI removes a great deal of the ”doing,” maker ed becomes that much more vital.). I fully believe in the Science of Reading (and seeing results in both reading and now math as I apply it there as well) - but other educators are telling me constructivism is better. I even found some studies backing it up. So, wondering if one is better, can or should they both coexist? If so, how and why?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 01, 2023 07:40 PM


I think you raise an interesting question, but one based upon a false dichotomy. I think the evidence that learning is a constructive act -- that we don't just pour information into kids' heads -- is without question. However, the idea that direct instruction is somehow contradictory of that fact is wrongheaded. Learners make use of information from many sources -- including being told something by a teacher of by observing a demonstration.

In any event, teaching should include both explicit telling and showing, but it also should include guided practice. Let's take one example: invented spelling. Researchers have found that young children go through a series of stages in learning to spell. It isn't just that they memorize a growing list of word spellings, but they construct an evolving understanding of how spelling works and how words are constructed. Given this, those authorities (including me) encourage kids to write, spelling words in the ways that they think at a given time they should be spelled. This kind of practice gives students opportunities to figure out those construction rules by trying to construct the words themselves and their efforts reveal to teachers what they know so far. That seems pretty constructivist to me.

How do kids grow in that ability? On what basis do they construct those word construction rules? That's where direct instruction comes in.
Teachers teach phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, word recognition -- and those are best taught intentionally, with lots of telling and explaining and demonstrating and guiding. That information becomes the raw materials that children use to progress with spelling. The same could be said for other aspects of reading as well.

Research shows that explicit instruction or direct instruction tends to be most productive -- but that instruction tends to include lots of opportunities for kids to try to apply that information that they are gaining access to from direct instruction. That's why I always encourage lots of decoding and encoding practice in reading, it is why I tend to favor paired reading over choral reading for fluency instruction (since each student has to spend real time trying to read and reread the text -- rather than being able to coast on the group), that's why I like the idea of having students write about what they are reading and not just answering a few questions during a discussion, etc.).

Learning is constructive, but it depends upon knowledge/information. Direct instruction is the most powerful and efficient way to provide that information that becomes the basis of construction. Good explicit instruction provides students both with opportunities to see and hear the relevant information but to try to use that information with teacher guidance and with relative independence.


Gaynor Mar 02, 2023 02:38 AM

I believe the most difficult aspect of written work is assembling the ideas into sentences and spelling is a mechanical component of this .
As a maths and reading tutor of children with reading and maths problems,,I compare direct instruction of spelling with teaching children their tables. I like uncluttering the mind of mechanical skills so they can concentrate on higher level thinking skills.
I don't like having to correct wrong spelling children have invented themselves anymore than correcting wrong tables in a multi step calculation.
English spelling is fiendish and the learning of the 400 or so spelling patterns means there is much to cover. I think for a higher achieving child invented spelling may be a good idea but too time consuming and frustrating for the less able.. I do however believe in some discovery learning and enjoy the innovator ways some natural learners teach themselves.
I have my remedial reading students do a large amount of spelling both phonic and sight words in both lists and dictation. They actually get to enjoy it.
As a physical science graduate I am not familiar with all the varieties of educational psychology , but I have studied the direct instruction of Siegfried Engelmann and in his writings he refers to developmental psychology as in opposition to his behaviourist approach. Since Marie Clay was so obsessed with developmental psychology I do wonder if there is an ideological resistance to explicit instruction from the Whole language camp.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 07, 2023 05:58 PM


Indeed, there is such a bias. There is lots of talk about the neglect of phonics in whole language and balanced literacy and this is often blamed on 3-cueing theory. What isn't discussed much is that those approaches to instruction also tend to pooh-pooh phonemic awareness instruction, spelling instruction, handwriting, comprehension strategy instruction etc. Either rejecting these outright or embracing versions of them that tend to be weak instruction (mini-lessons for example). The idea tends to be that children learn from doing and so if they just read and write, they'll somehow get better at reading and writing (and adults should be minimal in their involvement in this -- modeling and observing, rather than telling, explaining, demonstrating, etc.).


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How Do You Know if it Really is the Science of Reading?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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