Is Emily Hanford right?

  • 07 January, 2023

Teacher question:

Our school district is all abuzz about “Sold a Story,” a documentary about reading instruction, and the response it is getting from some reading experts. We’ve been surprised that you haven’t written about this. We’re sure you have an opinion. Would you be willing to share it?

RELATED: Monitoring the Reading Comprehension of Older Students

Shanahan responds:

I admire Emily Hanford and her work. I’ve been interviewed several times by her over the years. She always has treated me respectfully. She asks probing questions and relies on relevant research for the most part. In my experience, her quotes are accurate and fitting.

That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with all her views or even how she frames some of her arguments. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she usually gets things right, and I’m sympathetic with most of her conclusions since I believe they’re more in tune with what research reveals about reading instruction than the positions of her supposedly expert critics.

The major thrust of her work (not just the documentaries you note, but also earlier productions) has been that readers must translate print (orthography) into pronunciation (phonology) and that explicit teaching of phonics helps kids learn to do this. She also emphasizes that many schools are not providing such instruction and that many teachers aren’t prepared to teach it. Finally, she’s revealed that the currently most popular commercial reading programs ignore or minimize phonics instruction, and teach approaches to word reading that science has rejected (like 3-cueing, in which students are taught to read words by looking at the pictures or guessing from context).

Those positions are sound; well supported by lots of high-quality research. My disagreements with Ms. Hanford’s work are more around the edges. I think she puts too much emphasis on the motivations of those who’ve advanced theories that don’t stand the test of evidence. Also, her reports tend to imply greater consequences of the problems identified than is prudent (something I might write about soon).

The counterarguments to Ms. Hanford’s reporting strike me as more troubling. I think they do more to confuse the issues than to enlighten. They often seem to have no purpose beyond attempting to discourage the teaching phonics (a peculiar slant given that such instruction has long been required by all 50 U.S. states).

I have neither the space nor patience to reply to all of the criticism, but here are my thoughts on some of the more prominent ones.

1.     Challenges to the source rather than the content.

Since the early Greek philosophers, ad hominem arguments – as opposed to ad verbum ones – have been characterized as illogical, fallacious, and just bad form. Any student enrolled in Philosophy 101 learns that sound reasoning eschews attacks on the person rather than the person’s claims.

Accordingly, I reject the ad hominem judgments of some of my colleagues.

The idea that reporters can’t report on education unless they’ve taught school or possess a PhD in education strikes me as loony. It is akin to the idea that Woodward and Bernstein couldn’t cover Watergate since they’d never been elected President.

The accuracy of Ms. Hanford’s reports is legitimately open to challenge, but rejections of accurate reporting because the source isn’t a professional educator is fallacious.

I’m flabbergasted that those who reject Ms. Hanford’s reporting because she is a reporter aren’t similarly up in arms about commercial reading programs created by folks with little or no expertise or knowledge of reading instruction. The latter would seem to be more problematic since the likelihood of it harming children would be so much higher.

As for myself, I try to avoid ad hominem judgments altogether, though I certainly recognize the appeal (many of those critics have little expertise in these issues – for example, many in their research and teaching are focused on high school education and aren’t particularly conversant in issues of beginning reading instruction). Nevertheless, the issue shouldn’t be who the sources are, but whether the reports are accurate.

2.     Reading requires more than phonics.

Most critics have dismissed Ms. Hanford’s reporting because of its intensive focus on phonics instruction and decoding. Their criticisms are either that she doesn’t provide a definition of reading (so she must not understand what reading entails) or that she is neglecting potentially valuable instruction in other skills and abilities.

I understand why one would want to ensure that children receive comprehensive reading instruction – I’ve argued for comprehensiveness for decades. Teaching children all the skills that research has identified as beneficial to learning seems like the most-likely-to-be-successful approach one could take.

However, journalism is different than teaching. What’s requisite for a curriculum, state standards, core reading programs, teacher education, or daily classroom instruction has little to do with what one must include in a journalistic report.

The same can be said about research studies. If I conduct a study on the teaching of reading comprehension, editors don’t berate me with complaints that my study failed to consider the best way to teach children to deal with the schwa sound.

Imagine that a medical reporter discovers that doctors and nurses at the local hospital are not following sound sanitary protocols. She documents the problem, interviews medical personnel and patients, examines local health records and research studies that have addressed the implications of such lapses.

Would you really be convinced that the reporter must be wrong because there is more to medicine than hand washing and instrument sterilization?

Perhaps the hospital administrator’s response would be something like: “Ms. Hanford doesn’t understand all the necessary components that go into sound health care. You might have noticed that she didn’t define sound health care in her documentaries, nor did she even mention the importance of tasty foods in the commissary or the proper procurement practices when it comes to essential materials that must be kept on hand (an important part of health care to which I have personally devoted my career).”

We’d all laugh the dude out the room because we still want the doctors to wash their hands.

My point is simply this: reporting, unlike reading instruction, doesn’t have to address everything to be sound and of value.

The reportorial identification of negligence or corruption should never be interpreted as being more than just that. If a reporter finds out that a public official is embezzling, that neither means that all public officials are crooks nor that the one so identified is the only fly in the ointment.

My sense is that neither Hanford nor the many reporters following up on her stories in their own locales are having any trouble finding schools that omit or minimize phonics, or teachers who claim they weren’t prepared to teach it.

This should not be terribly surprising to anyone in the field given that Education Week surveys have revealed some commercial reading programs that minimize phonics instruction or that omit it altogether are widely used in U.S. classrooms. Likewise, academic studies have demonstrated important gaps in coverage of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary/morphology, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension in teacher education programs.

Even if your local school district is already doing a crackerjack job with phonics, that doesn’t mean that the other 67,000 U.S. schools are on point with decoding. Such reporting may increase the scrutiny your teaching is subjected to, but if you’re really addressing phonics then that shouldn’t be a problem.

Hanford’s reports do not provide a comprehensive examination of all aspects of a reading program. I don’t think we should expect them to do so, and I don’t accept that her identification of this problem prevents anyone from teaching other essential aspects of reading.  

 “We were going to improve our reading comprehension instruction, but that damn Emily Hanford won’t allow us to do that!” Yeah, that’s the problem.

Comprehensiveness of coverage is a responsibility of educational standards writers, curriculum designers, professors, boards of education, school administrators, and teachers. Not journalists. They are vigilant in trying to identify our shortcomings – they are not required to find all of them.

A fascinating aside: Many critics have written things like, “of course, phonics is essential” or “everyone agrees that phonics is an important part of reading instruction.” Those admissions usually precede admonitions that this reporting goes too far in advocating for phonics.

To me that raises a question: If everyone knows that phonics is so important, how could an especially popular commercial reading program omit it for nearly 20 years without any remark from these vigilant reading educators? They blame reporters for not being comprehensive in their conceptions of reading instruction, but then let themselves off the hook for being even more woefully inattentive.

3.     There are many ways to teach reading.

While many of the critics have been willing to concede the value of explicit decoding instruction, others seem to defend its neglect. Their claim is that this reporting is off base since there are “many ways to teach reading.” In other words, in their opinion, teaching 3-cueing is as effective as teaching phonics – and either choice is equally supportable.

Those arguments may appear to deserve 4-stars for affability and reasonability. But only if you’re willing to ignore the research.

Studies show that explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction consistently provide a learning advantage. There are no such studies supporting 3-cueing.

Studies show the activation of visual and phonological centers in the brain when word reading… they don’t reveal similar activation in that would suggest 3-cueing.

Readers do sometimes guess words (e.g., damaged pages, reader distraction, lack of decoding ability), but this is more evident with poor readers than good ones.

Usually, we strive to teach students to emulate proficiency. I want my kids to try to golf like Tiger Woods, not some old duffer who can’t get onto the green.

Three-cueing is the only instance I can think of that asks students to parrot low success performance, rather than proficiency. 

There are many ways to teach reading. It is sophistry, however, to pretend that these ways are all equal. Phonics provides a clear advantage.

To those who claim that we need different ways of teaching decoding (e.g., pictures, context) since all children are different, show me the research.  

Until such research is available, I’m willing to follow this claim to its logical conclusion. Let’s say that I’m willing to entertain the idea that all children learn differently. If that is the case, then why aren’t these critics up in arms about programs that omit or minimize phonics given that research has found such omissions to be especially harmful to our most vulnerable children? Their position seems to be not just inconsistent, but hard hearted and downright mean.


Emily Hanford’s investigative reporting has been useful; a welcome relief from the wishful but misleading reporting that has often plagued this topic. (Patti Ghezzi, the astute former educational reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, recently provide an exceptionally candid account of why her past reporting went so wrong -- included in Maureen Downey's column).

For many schools these reports have led and will lead to a serious rethinking of how best to meet young children’s reading needs. Perhaps, some of these long overdue appraisals will be led by wise schoolmen and women who will wonder, “Gee, if we so missed the boat on phonics, how are we doing with other aspects of reading? Maybe we could do better.”

One can hope.

READ MORE ARTICLES HERE: Shanahan On Literacy's Blogs


See what others have to say about this topic.

Margaret Ruller Jan 07, 2023 05:54 PM

My thoughts are that reading instruction requires balance based on assessment evidence from the students in front of me. And that it requires deep understanding of these processes and intellectual fluidity on the part of teachers to meet the needs of their students as they progress as readers and writers. This crazy battle back and forth serves no one. Enough.

Sheila Keller Jan 07, 2023 06:17 PM

Thank you for that reasoned assessment of both Ms. Hanford's reporting and some of the responses to it...Going forward, the third counter argument that you take apart, that "there are many ways that children learn to read, therefore choosing a way and teaching it is my prerogative," will need to be fleshed out thoroughly. In practice, that is a common and powerful argument, but in reality, as you point out, it is totally fallacious and obviously so, given the research. Helping folks to think in brand new ways- an uphill battle! Thank you, Tim, for always getting to the learning points and circumventing the drama!

Janet Jan 07, 2023 06:00 PM

I have taught both in Head Start and childcare centers for over 19 years. When phonics was taught by the end of the year, my 4 year olds,on their own,could read simple 4 page books. They sounded out the words. My experience with TSG lacks the amount of phonics needed. Not every child learns what is required through play

Emma Hartnell-Baker Jan 07, 2023 06:25 PM

Children do all need the same, but learn at different rates; some hardly need any explicit phonics, some need a lot. If we agree systematic phonics is essential, we can also agree that phonemic awareness is crucial - again, how much explicit instruction will depend on the child.

Differentiation is key. And yet in the UK I see kids sitting through the same instruction as their peers for more or less two years - some could’ve been focused on higher order skills, and becoming more fluent readers. And some aren’t keeping up with the pace of the class.

Saying that the issue is a lack of systematic phonics instruction falls down when we look at the UK where it’s mandated and tested. Over 1 in 4 still can’t read at end of primary school. We can learn from this, surely, and ask more about how phonics is taught and start refining our focus. Systematic, yes - but why ‘synthetic’?

It’s time to stop the phonics v three cueing argument (while also asking why so many hold onto three cueing for beginner readers) and focus on the learners who are left behind, whatever the flavour of the decade by policy makers. Even when phonics is taught daily in F & KS1 (4-7)

Imagine if this much attention was on empowering teachers to understand the learners - the reading brain - and knowing what each child needs.

Everyone is always talking about what teachers are DOING and not so much on the learners. It polarises.
This becomes about programs, and again stunts collaboration between researchers and teachers as ‘experimenters’ working together to create a unified science of reading.

The wars are ongoing when everyone is encouraged to blame and choose a camp. And this also closes minds to new approaches that build on existing research. Isn’t that what science is all
about? Seeking better answers, often to questions not yet even being asked?

‘Miss Emma’

Gina Margiotta Toussaint Jan 07, 2023 06:27 PM

I’ve been a primary-grade teacher for 30 years in LAUSD, and I have always taught using phonics, following a scope and sequence. I have a hard time believing that a large percentage of teachers in the US are not using phonics. With the NRP, NCLB, and RTT, evidence-based instruction was a requirement. So I just don’t understand, and I suspect there may be other factors that would better explain our students’ lack of proficiency in reading (NAEP scores). Thoughts?

Patrick Manyak Jan 07, 2023 06:31 PM

Thanks for the insightful commentary, Tim. I frequently think of the oft-used and entirely accurate phrase with regard to reading development/instruction: "Necessary but not sufficient." I believe that research makes absolutely clear that there are several "necessary" knowledge-skill-strategy domains involved in proficient reading AND that none of them are "sufficient" in and of themselves. That said, I do feel that effective phonics instruction leading to competent word reading is, perhaps, the "first among equals." Why? Because if students don't become proficient word readers early on in schooling, research makes clear that this often becomes an insurmountable obstacle to their long-term reading achievement (see Connie Juel's long-term studies in the '80s and Zuowei Wang's team's recent decoding threshold studies). For me, proficient word reading stands as the first great test of the quality of our reading instruction and the critical initial fork in the road for reading development. If we provide it, we give students a fighting chance moving forward. Of course, in keeping with "necessary but not sufficient," we also need to provide effective instruction in other key domains all along the way. However, If we don't provide highly effective word reading instruction in the early grades, there is little hope that many of our students will become proficient readers regardless of what else we teach (Juel, C.1988. Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447. Best of luck to all of us involved in the very challenging task of teaching all students to be competent readers!

Sandy Jan 07, 2023 06:33 PM

I coached teachers in reading instuction for many years, as well as provided instruction for students myself. I learned that in general, most teachers had almost no idea of how to teach phonics other than through handing out worksheets. Sometimes they did not even know the generally accepted order in which to introduce letter sounds, and modeled sounds incorrectly for students. Do you know of training programs or self-help programs for teachers that will prepare them to effectively teach phonics and also, to help their students deal with the tricky decoding situations that can confound students relying first and foremost on phonics?

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 06:38 PM

As long as we all agree that phonics is essential for beginning readers and that teaching kids to guess words on the basis of context, pictures, syntax is the wrong way go... I think it is quite reasonable for all to agree that not all students will require the same amount of explicit decoding instruction (it will depend both on how quickly they master the lessons and what they have learned elsewhere).

Given such agreement, there would be no reason for snarky reporting (or blog entries) on the topic. The problem is that not all seem to agree with these premises. As Emily Hanford's reporting has shown there are popular instructional programs that fail to agree with those first two ideas (and without those, the third is nonsensical). Her reporting on those failures may seem like she is fanning the flames of a reading war, but to me it seems like she is calling out those who are quietly waging a secret reading war -- depriving children of essentials and feeding them what is inappropriate (while hoping no one will notice).


Marnie Ginsberg Jan 07, 2023 06:40 PM

Oh praise God for this analysis. It’s very cathartic reading, as I have been just so twisted up in knots with some of the rebuttals of Hanford’s work but not able to express my concerns coherently. Your logical analysis is much needed. Our children deserve us to behave like grownups. I will be sharing widely.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 06:43 PM


I definitely do not believe that the lack of phonics is the only reason for low reading scores (I hope to write about that soon). However, Units of Study has been identified as one of the most popular reading programs in the nation and it has never included phonics (they have added it recently because of the uproar). As noted above, reporters are having no problem finding schools that have not supported the teaching of phonics or teachers who admit they have neither been trained to teach it nor have been supported in such teaching with instructional materials. (And, of course, 3 cueing instruction tends to include a bit of phonics as part of their curriculum -- but this tends neither to be systematic nor sufficient -- and as Emily Hanford's reporting has shown teaching kids to guess words as a good alternative to phonics is a really bad idea, too).


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 06:46 PM

I fully agree with you on necessary but insufficient. That's why when I was director of reading in Chicago, we required substantial amounts of instruction devoted to word knowledge (phonemic awareness, alphabet, phonics, high frequency words, vocabulary, morphology), text reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. Teachers weren't allowed to pick the ones that liked teaching and we provided substantial amounts of teacher preparation in what to teach and how to teach it. That's why, I assume, we were able to raise reading achievement significantly in grades K-12.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 06:50 PM

I can't get into endorsing or recommending specific programs (conflicts of interest). I recommend that you take a look at the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse website that provides information about which programs have rigorous research evidence evaluating their effectiveness.


Victoria Jan 07, 2023 06:59 PM

I love this blog and read it faithfully! I’m just posting a small correction: I went to follow up on the Atlanta Constitution article and found that it is actually by Patti Ghezzi, guesting for Maureen Downey.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 07:08 PM


Thank you for the correction (never try to do these things from memory). I have made the appropriate changes to the blog posting and now the appropriate reporter will get credit for her candor and quality.

thanks again.


Elizabeth Clemens Jan 07, 2023 07:09 PM

Since students are individuals, with different needs, why not let the student decide what works for him? By the time students are struggling with each of these arguments, they could have identified their own best learning style. Children are smarter than we give them credit. Teacher preparation should prepare us to do a better job of recognizing different student strengths, rather than relying on text material to lead us. Bureaucracy chooses and the teacher loses her control in the classroom. That seems to be the way the game is played.

In the seventies I did my own research, as a reading specialist, and found that, given the data from norm-referenced testing, I could motivate the student to set his own goal for improvement. In each case, I could successfully raise student reading scores several grade levels, by enlisting his support. Now, I see public education is looking into coaching as a solution for under achievers. It's a start. Perhaps, with easy access to test results teachers will focus on student strengths and forget about their weak areas which only try to change the student and make him identify with failure'

Teresa Jan 07, 2023 07:25 PM

In Hanford's earlier reporting regarding reading instruction, she discussed the Simple View of Reading which states that reading comprehension is a product (not a sum) of decoding multiplied by language comprehension. Thus, if a child doesn't know the meaning of a word, their reading comprehension will be zero even if their ability to decode is stellar. It's disingenuous for balanced literacy advocates to reframe the Science of Reading as "phonics only."

Mary Jacobson Jan 07, 2023 07:25 PM

I really appreciate the perspective here, especially as it relates to understanding the role of a journalist in shedding light on things that otherwise might not get attention. So thank you for that. You also note that the “comprehensiveness of coverage is the responsibility of educational standards writers, curriculum designers…” etc. I think this is where many of us who have been teaching, studying, and learning about reading instruction for many years become exhausted. The influence of her reporting has been expansive and in many cases, major policy decisions are being made without any regard from the voices of those of us that are trying to be mindful of the countless variables that go into teaching reading. We often don’t have the massive platform to share that message. Hanford has the ears of many high powered decision makers and unfortunately, many do not seem willing to entertain the idea of, “yes, AND”.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 07:42 PM


I suspect the reason teachers and principals don't always trust "experts" is because of the silence of experts on these issues that Emily Hanford is publicly exposing -- and because their responses have not "yes and" but "no she is a reporter, no there are other ways to teach reading, and no not everyone learns the same way." I think if reading experts in cases like this responded "yes and" we'd see a lot more productive change.


Bruce Howlett Jan 07, 2023 07:51 PM

As a former bioscience researcher and retired special ed teacher I was disheartened by Hanford's reporting. Talk about ad hominem attaches! Spending a episode on F & P's wealth, Caukins' past and Heinemann's income without mentioning Barbara Wilson or Voyager Sopris finances is unbalanced reporting. Talking about the numerous shortcomings of Balanced Literacy without mentioning the negative research on Orton-Gillingham, such as Richey (2006), Stevens et al. (2021) opened up her message to legitimate criticism.

Worse Hanford is perpetuating the reading wars that has wasted decades on time and energy while reading scores have barely budged. I'm working on a blog about channeling all this energy into designing methods that work backwards from exciting recent research on multi-component instruction, FCRR fluency work, morphological awareness, etc to create innovative methods that are easy to implement and evaluation format using "real" post-pandemic classrooms. This would rapidly put cutting edge methods into classroom teachers' hands while continuously improving instruction - just as is done in most other segments of society. Email me for a copy when it comes out

Heather Mistretta Jan 07, 2023 08:34 PM

Thank you for this clear and concise post!
An alarming practice that could be embedded in point 3, or maybe it deserves its own blog post: In reality, for years, early elementary teachers have used a combination of both phonics and 3 cueing. Most teachers have a dangerous partial understanding of research. If asked, I believe almost all teachers would claim that of course they teach phonics. (Usually whole group instruction followed by worksheets of varying effectiveness.) The elephant in the room is practices surrounding daily “guided reading.” Most early elementary classrooms still have (3 cueing) books that are used for small group guided reading. Small groups of students dutifully gather around a teacher who guides them in a 20 minute guessing game followed by some comprehension/ vocabulary questions. One teacher I know echoes the thoughts of mist, innocently stating that she is giving her students the best of both worlds. Phonics for decoding and guided reading for comprehension. It is this “both phonics & 3 cueing approach” that is the most dangerous. Like sprinkling cyanide on a salad. In order to change these calcified practices we have to answer these 2 essential questions: 1. What should guided reading/ small group work/ centers look like without 3 cueing? 2. What are evidence based practices for incorporating comprehension/ vocabulary that do not involve students guessing rather than reading?

Kate ODonnell Jan 07, 2023 08:46 PM

Thank you for a thoughtful response. The argument I keep hearing most (because of the district ai teach in) is that the science of reading is not appropriate or responsive to multilingual learners/emergent bilinguals. I wonder what your thoughts are on that? If we acknowledge that multilingual learners might need more oral language development initially and if we attend to transfer from L1, what else is missing?

Patti Ghezzi Jan 07, 2023 08:47 PM

Thank you for the kind words. I am fascinated and encouraged by the conversation around Sold a Story and the opportunity to equip all kids with reading skills.

Linda Cherubino Jan 07, 2023 09:23 PM

The argument that educators who know that teaching phonics is crucial are neglecting comprehensive reading instruction is ridiculous. That would be like saying that music educators who are adamant that musicians learn how to read music neglect the broader instruction on actual instruments or that football coaches who insist on intense understanding and practice of the particulars of the game neglect actual play on the field.
Why on earth would we keep students from understanding how language works?!

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 09:46 PM

Research on multilingual learners find that English learners benefit from instruction in all the same things that benefit native speakers. However, the effect sizes for such instruction tend to be somewhat lower. For instance, phonics instruction is effective with ELs but not as effective as it is with the other students. The one exception to this is vocabulary. Basically, phonics can only help a student read to the extent that the student knows the language he or she is trying to read. That's why experts on second language learning argue for daily periods of English instruction for ELs, in addition to regular lessons in PA, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and writing.


Laurie Jan 07, 2023 09:47 PM

In my district every teacher is being asked to read "Sold a Story". We currently have a very heavy handed mandate from district administration to teach phonics lessons over any other type of reading instruction in the primary grades. In listening to the presentation, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the way the assertion was made that certain approaches to reading instruction are now understood to be "wrong". These "wrong" approaches have hurt people ( as per the man who could not write down a dying man's last message to his mother because the wrong reading instruction approaches had left him illiterate at sometime before the war in Vietnam). It feels like propaganda. Sensationalism...

In a perfect world wouldn't we sit down at our staff development meetings and look at the Marie Clay's fascinating research and methods, and Lucy Calkins contributions along with Louisa C. Moats and Carol A Tolman? Does it have to be right and wrong and black and white?
I think the phoneme/grapheme sequential and systematic instruction is effective and necessary. It is more effective when you find ways to make it fun and engaging. I'll probably get tarred and feathered for saying it, but I like doing running records with my students to see what kind of mistakes they are making when they read. It gives me good insights and information.

If I were choosing a program for my own children, I would like a program that has good explicit, systematic instruction in phonics done in a way that is fun and engaging (no drill and kill). I would also like my children to read colorful and interesting leveled picture books, and I wouldn't mind if they sat in reading nooks feeling really positive about the joy of reading. I would love it if they spent some of their reading block writing their own books and rereading them...

The last thing I will add is that learning loss during the pandemic was/is a very real thing. Teachers, myself included, were not necessarily knowledgeable about how to teach online, and quality online materials were not readily available. Online teaching is especially difficult when working with the youngest primary students. I did not see that this was mentioned in Emily Hanford's piece. I think that the pandemic and learning loss created ripe conditions for the kind of phonics instruction backlash that we are now experiencing. The problem is, that having come through the stress of the pandemic, what students need now is calm, consistent instructional practices. Honestly, there's a kind of "phonics hysteria" going on that is not helpful to anyone, unless you are selling phonics based materials.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 09:51 PM


Thank you for your integrity.

Sportswriters have an old saying, “No cheering in the press box.” It’s one that education writers sometimes need to remind themselves, too. Just because you like an idea that doesn't make it a good one.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 10:02 PM


I agree with your dislike for the ad hominem in Ms. Hanford's most recent reporting. The motivation of these folks is not the issue -- the persistent lack of adherence to research in their programs is fair game. I might find the information about these authors' financial holdings to be distasteful and inappropriate but it does not change the facts about their programs.

I'm not willing to buy the idea that someone selling a program with no phonics or with components that undermine the little they do with explicit phonics is okay, but if you dare criticize those design features you are fanning the flames of the reading wars. Its sort of like blaming Ukraine for responding to the Russian invasion. If someone came up with a K-12 core reading program that only included phonics, it would deserve negative reporting (and I wouldn't claim the reporters were just fanning the flames of the reading wars) -- I'd blame the authors and publisher of the program for that.

I'll continue to advocate for comprehensive instruction in reading and that includes phonics in the primary grades (as I have quite publicly for decades). If a program designer omits it (or other essential components), he/she is the one who has declared war not the people who challenge such omissions.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 10:02 PM


I agree with your dislike for the ad hominem in Ms. Hanford's most recent reporting. The motivation of these folks is not the issue -- the persistent lack of adherence to research in their programs is fair game. I might find the information about these authors' financial holdings to be distasteful and inappropriate but it does not change the facts about their programs.

I'm not willing to buy the idea that someone selling a program with no phonics or with components that undermine the little they do with explicit phonics is okay, but if you dare criticize those design features you are fanning the flames of the reading wars. Its sort of like blaming Ukraine for responding to the Russian invasion. If someone came up with a K-12 core reading program that only included phonics, it would deserve negative reporting (and I wouldn't claim the reporters were just fanning the flames of the reading wars) -- I'd blame the authors and publisher of the program for that.

I'll continue to advocate for comprehensive instruction in reading and that includes phonics in the primary grades (as I have quite publicly for decades). If a program designer omits it (or other essential components), he/she is the one who has declared war not the people who challenge such omissions.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 10:06 PM


It is ridiculous to assume that someone who advocates phonics advocates neglecting other essential components of reading. However, some phonics advocates actually do that (I just heard from a teacher who was proudly spending nearly 90 minutes a day teaching phonics). I call them out as well. There is no excuse for reducing any child's chance to become literate.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 10:11 PM

You sound wonderfully open, and yet as a parent and grandparent, I'd rather that your focus was on getting kids to the highest levels of reading ability (it's nice to be open to all kinds of things, but not all approaches are equally effective and that should be paramount). You seem to be very concerned about whether the children are entertained. However, research shows that if you want kids to be motivated to read, the best thing you can do is enable them to read at high levels. Reading in nooks doesn't improve kids reading. It might make them tolerate your class but it won't make it more likely that they'll enjoy reading or that they'll choose to read later in life.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 07, 2023 10:13 PM


Just like a reporter, not every blog entry can deal with every important topic in reading. There are answers to your questions on this site. I would encourage to type terms of interest into the search function and read/view the blogs, resources, and publications on this site that address those interests.

good luck.


Jo-Anne Gross Jan 07, 2023 10:44 PM

I have a small remedial reading company.
I can tell you in no uncertain terms that 95% of the students that come to us can’t read well but mainly they can`t spell the words.
Orally they can chew your ear off but they have low self esteem and encounter daily frustration at school.They are stuck.

I think many kids aren`t being taught, after 23 years,that`s my definite conclusion.

I have a question,why aren`t we calling it grapheme phoneme correspondence as Linnea does.
Teaching phonics without including encoding won`t create the permanence that leads to fluency.(O.M.)
It also avoids the F word which ruins every reading conversation.

Motlalepula Mojela Jan 08, 2023 01:58 AM

I have been teaching for 35 years, the last 15 years in a Special Needs School.Whilst studying, I learned about Mary Clay's Reading Recovery, Whole Language Approach, Explode the Code, THRASS, Letterland etc.As an English Second Language, our classrooms have become circus as literacy levels are declining.A research study by the university of Pretoria(PIRLS) shows that out of 50 countries, South Africa's primary school children cannot read or write, I believe teaching reading for meaning, understanding the text, roaming around the known, at the foundation level will break the barrier and improve literacy levels

Cheryl Cole Jan 08, 2023 04:06 AM

I am 55 and was taught whole language in first grade and could not read in second grade. With a lot of hard work from my second grade teacher, my parents and myself I learned to read in second grade. I did not learn to teach phonics in college. I am in a very large School District and we did not really have a reading program until four years ago. I would say there is about two minutes of phonics in small group instruction 3x a week( obviously not enough).

Gaynor V. Chapman Jan 08, 2023 09:05 AM

I fully support Emily's articles and admire her journalistic skills in making a fairly technical topic comprehensible and interesting to lay people. I admire her work in exposing wrong reading methods that have persisted for far too long ,damaging untold lives. In New Zealand Marie Clay became a sacred cow , exalted to dizzy heights , given many top honours in science and society. Her Reading Recovery (RR) was installed as the one and only remedial reading programme and sustained by large amounts of NZ government monies. Five million dollars of taxpayer funds were spent advertising it overseas, including the US. There was exaggeration and dishonesty in recording the success of students' achievement in it. Much research over the decades(1985 onwards) indicated RR was certainly not achieving what Clay claimed, in extravagant promises, it would achieve. This research was ignored by her. In fact there was so much counter evidence, one academic stated he was surprised she did not recant in the 1990s.
Science is nothing if it is not about honesty. Eventually the truth will prevail, and hopefully this is a warning for for any other self-deluded , self -righteous individual who persists in pushing any criticism aside.
You may wonder why I have such harsh words for Clay but for forty years I witnessed, in my mother's private school room, the misery of hundreds of distraught parents ,some of whom frequently cried themselves to sleep over the suffering of their children who required remedial reading, disabled by Clay's wrong methods in the classroom but were further damaged as failures of RR. Parents commented that there was a definite transformation in their children when they did become readers after an intensive phonic programme. The poor self-esteem, being withdrawn or depressed or aggressive went. But remediating these children can be very difficult with a tremendous amount of work over a long period of time.
A revival of the reading wars would be a good idea if it draws attention to the most vulnerable the poor, black and brown who can be inarticulate yet represent the largest number of victims of this malpractice in reading.

Anna Sanders Jan 08, 2023 02:42 PM

Thank you for this commentary.

I see one of the main issues that no one ever fully discusses, is that one side is trying to teach kids to read word with irregular sounds at the same time as they are teaching them the regular sounds. Yes, they debate using books based on “sight words” vs. decodables but the argument needs to be more focused. Why are we teaching kids the irregular sounds before they are solid with the regular sounds? When they struggle, it seems like an easy thought process to say, “let’s just focus on the regular sounds first.”

Sandie Barrie Blackley Jan 08, 2023 03:23 PM

Emma Hartnell-Baker~

Your points are so well-taken! You said:

- "It’s time to stop the phonics v three cueing argument ...and focus on the learners who are left behind..".
- "Everyone is always talking about what teachers are DOING and not so much on the learners."

Every supervisor has observed teachers using a research-backed curriculum and providing excellent reading instruction to a group of students but with some of the students in the group not participating for one reason or another and/or some students struggling to respond with anything close to accuracy.

At best, schools track the name of the curriculum and student presence in the room (seat time) but they don't have systems that can track what learners actually do (e.g., The number of response opportunities directed per day to individual students, their response accuracy, error types, etc.). In reading instruction, "dosage" is generally defined as seat-time (was the kid in the room) as opposed to individual learner response opportunities.

Using Dr. Shanahan's hospital analogy, it's like a hospital system that requires tracking the delivery of medication to patients' rooms but not tracking of whether patents actually took the medication.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 08, 2023 05:06 PM


Thanks for this personal note. Many respondents on this site over the years have expressed doubts that there are classrooms or schools where phonics is not taught (just as there are many who express similar doubts that there are any classrooms or schools where phonics is over done -- where it takes up too much of the instructional real estate). Notes like yours should not be dismissed by those doubters. America has more than 60,000 schools and they vary greatly. Currently, far too many have drifted away from providing the kind of instruction that you found helpful in your life.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 08, 2023 05:13 PM


Education in South Africa is incredibly challenging. A program like RR would make little or no sense in that context. The level of support and education for teachers is woefully low, and corruption in the system easily trumps any rules and regulations aimed at addressing those problems. Students in South Africa don't need highly expensive remedial reading programs at this time (delivered by exceptionally highly trained teachers)... they need considerable increases in the amounts of daily explicit instruction in key skills and abilities from well trained and well supported teachers. Phonics is certainly one of those components -- so is vocabulary/morphology, comprehension, text reading fluency... roaming the known is not one.



Susan Kahn Jan 09, 2023 02:54 AM

I have been teaching special needs students for 50 years with Sue's Strategies®, a phonetic program based on Orton-Gillingham content and augmented with memory tactics. Almost every student improves reading accuracy skills, decoding, by two to four grade levels within one academic year. I agree with Emily Hanford that schools should discard the 3 Cueing methods and instead use phonetic instruction.

After children can read the words on the page, other factors such as vocabulary knowledge, grammar, and comprehension techniques effect reading ability. These skills also require teaching. Phonics is the first, crucial step to literacy. By mandating phonics for all elementary school children, they will receive an equal opportunity to learn. Unfortunately for today's young people, too many lack this civil right.

Do I worry about the gifted child who taught himself or herself to read before kindergarten? No, I just would make sure that these children know phonics for spelling accuracy, and I would give them books to read at their level.

I would love to see a national law passed by the US Congress guaranteeing children the right to learn phonics in all public schools.

Julie Lewis Jan 09, 2023 02:09 PM

Interesting reading, both Tim's blog and the comments I skimmed. Overall my greatest concern is how poorly teachers are trained and prepared to teach reading. What is being called "Science of Reading," (SOR) while a refreshing advance is also being used as a cudgel by people who have some understanding of how children learn to read words and the nuances involved. Several months ago I was strongly chastised by two fairly active persons in this "movement" for daring to use the term, in lower case, "guided reading." I referred to it as the strategies, techniques, etc. teachers use to guide readers through the reading of selections and passages in their classrooms for the purpose of advancing reading comprehension. It matters little whether you are an energetic advocate of SOR or not, teachers do need to teach and teaching reading doesn't stop after the phonics lessons end. Teachers still need to guide or direct their students through the process of achieving comprehension. Or, let's consider the well-meaning teachers who hear or see any mention of using syntax or semantics as aides in accurately identifying words for the purpose of comprehension and they react. This all or none mindset is troubling. For heaven's sake, we must teach children to accurately identify words and for all its variability, teaching phonics and the underlying phonemic awareness as a necessary prerequisite is not the end in itself. We must not allow young readers to be satisfied after decoding a word until they have ascertained that the word fits the semantic and syntax of the sentence. We do use more than one cueing system when reading, but the difference is how and when to use/prioritize each one to achieve one's goal which always has to involve comprehension of the passage being read to meet the reader's purposes. Knee jerk reactions to terminology seem to be a function of well-meaning teachers and practitioners who have a limited grasp of how and when to teach reading. We have work to do preparing our teachers. And for heaven's sake, when a first grader is successfully reading and spelling multi-syllable words, is sensitive to the vowel sounds and spellings in the word, he or she has probably reached what Ehri calls the "full alphabetic phase" and need not be subjected to daily Heggerty or Kilpatrick drills to develop phonemic awareness. Let's teach teachers to identify and provide for our students' developmental needs and differentiate our instruction. Just because children need certain competencies, doesn't mean that delivering more and more of it is good for all students. It is a little like continuing to fill a cup after it is overflowing. When the cup is full, it is time to drink and then move on, perhaps filling it again with a different beverage.

Linda Ende Jan 08, 2023 07:10 PM

What is your opinion on using the three cue analysis (running record) for reading assessments with young readers?

Melinda Bender Jan 08, 2023 07:57 PM

Hi All,
I am a parent of a 10 year old Daughter of AVERAGE intelligence who was diagnosed with Dyslexia and subsequently diagnosed with Dyscalcuia and Dysgraphia. The past 4 years have been the worst years of my family’s life trying to navigate what this diagnosis means for my child and how her NYS School District determined this really meant a self contained placement was necessary as the four walls of that placement is the only place for a “multi sensory approach” she would benefit from. I successfully disagreed with that placement and continue to disagree with every decision they have made about her educational needs as their decision is not based on any scientific research but rather the legal minimum requirement and the premise the law grants that School Districts would not make a decision that is harmful or detrimental to my child. My child is in 5th Grade at a 2nd Grade Reading Level, 1st Grade Math Level, and Kindergarten Writing Level. We are constantly told she is inattentive and frequently needs to use the restroom or complains of migraines or dizziness. This is a massive neurological manifestation of the cognitive fatigue she deals with everyday in school and exacerbated anxiety she already has. She cannot attend to ineffectual curriculum/methodology/approaches. And yes this has been corroborated by a Neuropsychologist who has stated her present educational level is not a function of inattentiveness. Structured Literacy is beneficial to all and essential for some. And using the phrase “Structured Literacy/OG/Multisensory/Phonics based” is just lip service if it is not implemented with fidelity and you have diagnostics be it informal or formal that show the efficacy. Essential for some is also the difference between my child graduating at age 18 and going to college or as a parent me pursuing SSI/Disability because she would be unable to join the workforce and earn a living wage. Which is the reality my attorney faced with his daughter at age 30.
I went to Advocacy Day with the NYS Legislature/Senate for Dyslexia Advocacy Day and met a Professor of Literacy at a SUNY school and I said to her “Help me out here. The SUNY School you are employed at has both and Education Department and a Psychology Department. Yet the research from Clinical Psychologist at the same school you are employed at and Neurologist/Neuropsychologist from other Universities School have proven repeatedly how children learn to Read yet the same University but different department, the Education Department, pumps out graduates who have no clue what the Science of Reading is and thinks Orton Gillingham is just pipecleaners and writing letters in sand. I am sorry but I have a hard time reconciling this”. She leapt out of her chair and said I know! I called out my SUNY President and said “Why aren’t we in the education department teaching in alignment with what the Psychology Department has conducting the research on?” And you know what the President of this SUNY school said? “The Education Department is allowed to have an opinion”.

Jenny Chew Jan 08, 2023 08:14 PM

Re. South Africa: I went right through school there and then taught there in the 1960s before moving to the UK. At the time, phonics teaching was routine in South African primary schools, and this was still the case in the 1980s, when I visited some schools there, talked to some teachers and teacher-trainers, and found 16-year-olds there to be getting better spelling scores than 16-year-olds in England on the same test. I know that things have changed in South Africa since then, but I agree with Tim that the main need is for more explicit instruction in key skills.

Re. ‘Miss Emma’s’ statement that despite England’s early emphasis on phonics ’Over 1 in 4 still can’t read at the end of primary school’: I think this over-states the problem. It’s true that more than 1 in 4 don’t reach the expected level at age 11, but that doesn’t mean that they ‘can’t read’ – in most cases it means that they are poor readers. I think things are improving, however, as a result of the Phonics Screening Check (20 real words, 20 pseudo-words) which all 6-year-olds in England have had to take since 2012. The pass-rate has risen from 58% to 82% over the years as teaching has improved. We can relate these results to the results of representative samples who take the PIRLS international tests every 5 years at age 10. Even in 2016, when only 58% of our 10-year-olds had passed the PSC at age 6, only 3% were below the PIRLS ‘low benchmark’, so could possibly be considered non-readers. If better decoding at 6 translates into better reading at 10, our 2021 PIRLS results, apparently due out in May 2023, should be better than our 2016 results. We shall see.

Sara Hjelm Jan 08, 2023 09:08 PM

Added the link to this on here in my link collection… Thank you!
We actually, for some mysterious reason, have the same problems in Sweden. It seems to be highly infectious ;)

Lisa Caldwell Jan 08, 2023 10:47 PM

I am celebrating 21 years as an educator having taught grade 2, grade 4, and currently as a literacy coach in a CT school district. Our district staff and teaching staff understand the necessity of phonics instruction. Our teachers teach phonics. We teach the five pillars of reading. We produce many proficient readers. Are you still reading? :) And these facts are precisely why I take issue with Hanford's reporting and several NYT education reporters articles; and very importantly, the reporting by journalists who neglect the science of reading and the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. This one-sided reportorial style can be lazy at best and dangerous at worst. Because your post is in response to Hanford's reporting, and her podcast has gained a cult-like following, I am focusing on that.

I agree with you: "The reportorial identification of negligence or corruption should never be interpreted as being more than just that. If a reporter finds out that a public official is embezzling, that neither means that all public officials are crooks nor that the one so identified is the only fly in the ointment...Reporting, unlike reading instruction, doesn’t have to address everything to be sound and of value." And, "However, journalism is different than teaching. What’s requisite for a curriculum, state standards, core reading programs, teacher education, or daily classroom instruction has little to do with what one must include in a journalistic report."

Ah, and there's the rub: that last sentence that admits a journalistic report does not have to provide a fair and unbiased account. It (reporting) doesn't have to address everything, but it should at the very least include relevant and varied arguments/experiences/claims especially when the issue is of national significance. Hanford (and admittedly others) has fanned the flames, and done many teachers who actually instruct children, a disservice by not conducting a more thorough investigation. Or, at the very least, conducting interviews with other districts’ teachers and parents whose many students are proficient readers.

Unfortunately, due to social media and "news" that cut a very wide swath across our television, smart phone, ipad, and laptop screens, readers are often fed one-sided stories that can also convey misinformation - or at least a lack of information - and Hanford's podcast has unleashed a very shallow and narrow view. Is her reporting accurate and correct regarding only the people and educators she interviewed? Yes. Does this make her argument fair? Hardly. It does not take much research and effort to prove a politician has committed corrupt, unlawful acts. It does require more valid and reliable research to prove that our country's teachers are teaching reading incorrectly (or correctly).

In my district, many teachers interpret Hanford's reporting as condescending and patronizing. Teachers are well-trained professionals. Our district values its teachers and provides many opportunities for professional development. Teachers are well-supported by our BOE. I am not naive and deeply understand this is not the case everywhere. However, it is disappointing that Hanford's reporting devalues teachers. (She conveys that teachers were given the wrong tools/resources/materials to accurately teach reading so “it’s not our fault" - does she not think that most educators are actually educated, informed, and have a voice?)

Is there work to be done? Of course. There always will and should be or why have professional development? Solid literacy curriculum is science- and evidence-based and should be well-structured - not governed by a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach hasn't worked for decades. Enough. Let's stop the division, get to work, and actually support teachers. Reporting styles like Hanford's only lead to opinion-based, confirmation-biased views that lack sufficient evidence and confuse the issues. I understand this is Hanford’s right as a reporter. But too many people are “Sold (Only One Side of) a Story."

Laurie Jan 08, 2023 10:58 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan. I should have clarified that I teach Reading Intervention. There is often a social/emotional impact on students when they can not keep up with their classmates in reading. They can often develop a negative attitude about reading because it is embarrassing for them. While entertainment is not my goal in instruction, motivating and engaging students who feel defeated about their reading skills is worthwhile. This is easily done without compromising instructional integrity. As to "nooks", it's probably a word that invites derision, and I would never claim that this should be the core of classroom instruction. When I am pulling students for assessments, I do set up bean bag chairs, classical music, and and books at an independent reading level for the students waiting for assessment. I have to say that they just love this, and students who are sometimes disruptive in their regular classroom, sit contentedly engaged in reading their books. I know that research says this does not further their reading progress, but it allows me to complete my assessments, and I can't help but feel like they are synthesizing skills and developing confidence. My wishful thinking for the perfect reading program for my own daughters arises from the fact that while they both can read at high levels (and I'm thankful for that) they don't necessarily love to read, and this saddens me and makes me wonder what went wrong. I also wish that these pendulum swings would stop, and we would all work together on the perfect balance of instructional practices for optimal reading development, including practices which encourage students to love to read. These reading wars were going on when I first started teaching (a longer time ago than I care to admit). The wars are costly, disruptive, and bad for students, and it has come to the point where it is just irrational.

Julie Meyer Jan 08, 2023 11:06 PM

Hello Tim,
Could you explain in more detail your statement “ research shows that if you want kids to be motivated to read, the best thing you can do is enable them to read at high levels.”

Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2023 12:04 AM


Research shows that how well kids can read contributes to their later motivation to read, but their motivation for reading has little impact on their learning progress in reading.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2023 12:09 AM


I’m happy to hear that you and your colleagues are doing a good job. However, the two most popular reading programs in the country either have not included phonics at all or have replaced it with 3 cueing. The implication if that is that large numbers of teachers are not teaching reading as well as they could. Your argument shouldn’t be with Hanford fir revealing that fact, but with the educators whose lack of knowledge and poor choices have made you look bad. Hanford
.s reports represent substantial reporting.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2023 12:09 AM


I’m happy to hear that you and your colleagues are doing a good job. However, the two most popular reading programs in the country either have not included phonics at all or have replaced it with 3 cueing. The implication if that is that large numbers of teachers are not teaching reading as well as they could. Your argument shouldn’t be with Hanford fir revealing that fact, but with the educators whose lack of knowledge and poor choices have made you look bad. Hanford
.s reports represent substantial reporting.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2023 12:14 AM


I see little benefit in that kind of assessment. I want to know things that will affect my teaching. Since I won’t be teaching 3 cueing it wouldn’t matter much what those patterns are. Use assessments that tell you something about phonemic awareness, phonics, text reading fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling, alphabet knowledge, writing quality.


kara Jan 09, 2023 04:32 PM

I greatly appreciate the amount of dialogue happening when it comes to teaching reading. I believe, what you may not find as a survey question but should, is that some teachers are not receiving the proper time and support to learn how best to teach reading. A few professional development days a year will not get us to the level of expertise we need teachers to have in order to teach children how to read fluently and accurately. For teachers who did not receive training on the science of reading, our educational system will need to provide the appropriate amount of time and compensation for teachers to soak in the knowledge. Teachers need 1:1 or small group instruction themselves to be able to do this well. We need to move forward, supporting teachers who need more training. We need colleges to be proactive labs for teachers to practice teaching reading. We need a consistent plan in this country to educate and reeducate teachers to successfully teach children how to read. Our democracy and our children are at stake. #teachers #scienceofreading #enoughwiththereadingwars

Jill Kerper Mora Jan 09, 2023 06:34 PM

With all due respect, Professor Shanahan, as a teacher educator with expertise in Spanish-English biliteracy and literacy instruction for multilingual learners, I have no earthy idea whose theoretical or pedagogical model you are critique with your comments about "3-cueing." Would you please provide references so that I can make an informed judgment about the validity and credibility of your criticisms?

Esther Klein Friedman, Ph.D. Jan 09, 2023 07:57 PM

Thank you for a very clear response to the current kerfuffle about Ms. Hanford's series. Your points are on target and the field needs to buckle down even harder to address the items you point out. We need to ensure that phonics happens -- and that it is done in a direct instruction format. Some of the 3-cueing standard bearers have developed some odd constructivist versions of phonics instruction. We need to be mindful that there is both good and not so good instruction (some actually bad) in phonics. We need to ensure that teachers receive training in the effective version(s) and address deficiencies in reading programs that schools are using (and for which they have spent boatloads of money). Many of these program can be patched to include what they are missing and to excise less effective stuff or damaging protocols -- still maintaining the other elements, including the literary content that reading programs do need. And, of course, they need to continue looking at the other elements of literacy much broader. Hanford never said not to address other areas. As you point out, she was just focusing on one aspect of reading instruction that has been so starkly omitted from our reading programs for the last 30+ years or so. In the 80s, folks like me were called 'phonicators' here in NYC. I don't know a single one of us that limited ourselves to phonics-only instruction. We were pushing for a complete instructional program. The only fear I have now is that all of this brouhaha will be misinterpreted as a 'phonics-only' movement and the pendulum will shift us back into dystopia.
Esther Klein Friedman, Ph.D.

Timothy Rasinski Jan 10, 2023 03:04 PM

Hi Tim – Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on Emily Hanford’s work. I have several concerns about her work, but my major concern with her reporting was it’s nearly exclusive focus on phonics. She essentially claims that a neglect of phonics is the reason “Why Kids aren’t being Taught to Read”. Any reading scholar or practitioner knows that reading is more complex than just phonics; but is that true of the general public? Since the work of Rudolph Flesch in the 1950s the public has been told that phonics, or more precisely the lack of phonics instruction, is the reason “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (notice the similarity in titles).

You mention that when you write a scholarly piece on comprehension you don’t need to recognize the other elements involved in reading. The reason for that is that your audience is other scholars and practitioners who are already familiar with the complexity of reading.

You suggest that journalism is different from teaching (or reporting research). Indeed it is, as a journalist, Emily has a much larger and wider audience than you and I can ever imagine. And, a large number of her audience are not familiar with the complexity of reading and learning to read. Readers of her blogs and listeners to her podcasts are left with the impression that fixing the problems in reading requires little more than direct and systematic phonics instruction.

You argue that, as a journalist, Emily is entitled to focus on individual elements of the reading process without having to bring in other aspects of a comprehensive reading curriculum such as you did in Chicago. My own thinking on this is that as a journalist, with such a large audience of readers and listeners who may not be familiar with the complexities of teaching and learning to read, she has an obligation to, at the very least, acknowledge these other elements. For example, in the 60,000+ words in her blogs and podcasts (the length of many books) the word “phonics” was used well over 100 times; the word “fluency” was not mentioned once.

Going back to your hospital analogy, don’t you think that a medical reporter worth her or his salt would, when discovering that doctors and nurses are not following sound sanitary practices, dig a bit deeper to see if other related practices were being violated?

How about another medical analogy. What if the medical reporter found out about a new and promising multi-component procedure for treating cancer. Would it be ok for that journalist to explore only one portion or step of that procedure? Should professionals (i.e. doctors) be concerned that the journalist’s piece presented only component of the therapy, even if the report on that one portion was important and true?

It is this type of “just-one-part of the story” that leads to increased polarization. How much of the political polarization we currently see in the United States is due to certain media/journalistic outlets telling only their side of the story. I hope that is not case when it comes to teaching and learning to read; I fear, however, that Hanford’s work will continue the legacy of “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”

Tim Rasinski

Harriett Janetos Jan 10, 2023 03:53 PM

To Timothy Rasinski I'd like to say that I understand your frustration (as expressed in the two letters you signed and your recent appearance on The Literacy View) but I feel your arguments fan the flames of confusion rather than clarity. We cannot task Emily Hanford--or any other journalist--with addressing all the issues of our field in a systematic and explicit way that separates the known from the unknown, which Tim Shanahan tries his best to do on a weekly basis even if he sometimes sends us messages about decodable books or PA instruction that run contrary to our beliefs and practices. A case in point: You and others have referred to the phonics review conducted by Wyse and Bradbury as though its findings have been widely accepted. I have read many reviews of this research (including Kathy Rastle's) which reveal its flaws. As a reading specialist, I have to wade through all of this to make the best decisions for my students and to advise my K-2 teachers. Let's not muddy the waters. I think Tim's piece gives us the clarity we need.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 10, 2023 08:51 PM

Tim R.--

1. I agree with you that Emily and other reporters overstate the case for what will happen if phonics gets added to the curriculum. (I mentioned that in the piece -- that's what I might write about soon).
2. I think your expectations for journalism go beyond what is practical or usual. In fact, this belief about journalism could lead to some serious misunderstandings. In Chicago we have a lot of reporting on public corruption. When I read an article in which a journalist reveals evidence about the corruption of an Alderman, i do not assume that he/she has checked out all the other alderman and will write about both the crook and the 49 honest alderman. The story tells me nothing about the others (and I wouldn't expect it to).
3. I still think it is much more serious that widely used instructional programs developed by our colleagues fail this comprehensiveness test. In other words, that Hanford makes no case for the teaching of vocabulary, language, or reading comprehension disturbs you -- but you're not especially concerned that commercial reading programs fail to include phonics (or other components of reading). Respectfully, I think that is backwards.

tim s.

David Wakelyn Jan 10, 2023 11:04 PM

I’m trying to understand the resistance of knowledgeable academics like Fountas, Pinnel, and Calkins to phonics. Could it be that some kids really hate how tedious most phonics mini-books used to be? Is part of it that they know there’s some percentage of kids who learn to read without phonics? Is there any research about these questions someone could point me towards?

Rob Mattheu Jan 11, 2023 02:13 AM

My issues with the reporting are that the discussion of "science" is simplistic at best.

Consider Hanford's oped on the Mississippi test data.

It's a basic concept of science that correlation does not equate to causation, which Hanford acknowledges twice in the piece, but it's clear from the article that she believes that is the reason.

We could look at Mississippi as a promising result, but it should be acknowledged that there's not rigorous data surrounding LETRS translating into academic success. Additionally, Hanford doesn't investigate other reasons test scores may have gone up, how readers beyond the fourth grade are doing, or discuss the existing research on LETRS. While LETRS may be leading to gains, the only What Works Clearinghouse info on LETRS I can find was dismissed by Moats because it didn't consider a lot of other outside factors (the same factors that impact reading almost everywhere) and the efforts to put LETRS into practice where not overseen by those who created LETRS.

WWC found Reading Recovery to have positive effects, a view recently being reconsidered because of a study led by Henry May. Unfortunately, rather than a sober assessment of this study, Hanford's article on the study is wrongly headlined "New research shows controversial Reading Recovery program eventually had a negative impact on children".

The study doesn't say that, and May himself says he wouldn't go so far as to say it. But it doesn't appear Hanford or APM, despite their leading role in covering the "science" of reading, cares to address this misinformation. Additionally, Hanford doesn't mention the study is a working paper that hasn't yet been peer reviewed.

It's perfectly fine to use the study to challenge existing information on Reading Recovery, but it highlights a fundamental problem for educators that May highlights, but Hanford doesn't discuss about the science in reading. And that's the lack of good data to make decisions on or to truly say what works and what doesn't in practice. To quote May from his paper:

"One thing we can conclude with certainty at this point is that more research is needed to
better understand why and when reading interventions lead to long-term impacts. The fact that
Reading Recovery is one of the only interventions that has been subjected to multiple large-scale
experimental and quasi-experimental studies of both short-term and long-term effects is
important to recognize. Too many popular reading programs and interventions have minimal to
no evidence of short-term nor long-term effectiveness in school-based research that employs a
rigorous causal design. The research and practice communities should work together to change

I don't dispute that phonics is important, but Hanford's work and the embrace of Mississippi without a level of scrutiny about the reasons for their gains, has led to a lot of policies being made that treat the "science of reading" as a panacea without concrete evidence. There's nothing in Kentucky's new law that defines what interventions work and don't work, nor is there a framework or funding for studying the impacts of these changes in a way that helps us understand what is and isn't working. If we want to have better outcomes, we have to understand what works and when.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 11, 2023 02:16 AM


I mentioned there were a couple of things about Hanford's reporting that I disagreed with. One of those was her attempts to get at the motivation of F&P, and Calkins. My own assumptions is that, at least initially, they were trying to do good. Calkins had no deep knowledge of reading (the focus of her training and research had been on writing -- which is why she can say with a straight face that she didn't know the research and now claims phonics research is new). She was working from writing instruction as a metaphor. "I know the kind of thing that works with writing, that probably works with reading, too." For me, the problem with that isn't the initial reasoning or the use of metaphor to determine action -- no, just that she never really looked at any evidence as to the relative effectiveness of her approach (a lack of curiosity or trust in research?). In terms of F&P, they adopted a theory that seemed plausible at the time and a program of instruction that they thought had strong research behind it, and they brought it to America and expanded it, etc. Again, as it became apparent that there were problems with the research (I first wrote about that more than 30 years ago) and studies were showing that the program could be made effective by adding more explicit decoding, they dug in their heels rather than adjusting (everyone who disagreed was wrong).

Good intentions, but a lack of curiosity about their actual effects and an unwillingness to adjust as data became available is what undermined their efforts. As I've written before, one of the biggest problems with reading instruction is that so many things work. In both cases, they could identify large numbers of children who clearly were learning to read from those techniques (that, perhaps, 5% more kids would learn to read from adjustments to those approaches is not something one can just eyeball -- it takes real data to know). I've met them all, know none of them well, but believe the problems with their approaches are more due to those issues than a profit motive. Of course, I don't really know what motivates anyone (including myself) in most instances, so I don't speculate a lot on that. What matters is that we can do better (and need to be as self-skeptical as they were not).


Timothy Shanahan Jan 11, 2023 02:22 AM


I don't disagree about the overclaiming for phonic (or anything else). That is the topic that my piece says I will write about soon. Most of the research on Reading Recovery has been crap, something I've written about a number of times since 1989. Initially, I thought the problems with the research were just bad design, but over time as those designs persisted despite wide knowledge of the problems they began to seem more intentional than sloppy. However, the well designed studies have found positive short term benefits from RR, but benefits so small that devoting such large amounts of funding represents a serious ethical problem. I think it is fair to say that Hanford and other reporters have overstated the problems with Reading Recovery for the past year or so... I think it is also fair to say that Fountas and Pinnell and other have way overstated and overclaimed for Reading Recovery for more than 35 years... which is the bigger problem?


Jenny Chew Jan 11, 2023 08:48 AM

Tim - you say you agree that 'Emily and other reporters overstate the case for what will happen if phonics gets added to the curriculum'. I keep thinking that England may be a good test case, as a lot more phonics has been added to the early curriculum and all children have to take a national decoding test at the end of the second year of school (age 6), so we have evidence that the pass-rate has improved from 58% to 82%. Whatever impact this has had on reading-for-real may show in the next lot of PIRLS results, which we should hear about in May.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 11, 2023 01:29 PM


That may be the case... hard to tell across nations. In Chicago, we mandated that reading/writing instruction receive 120-180 minutes per day. 1/4 of that time was to be spent on word knowledge, which included phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, vocabulary, morphology... in the primary grades, most of that 30-45 minutes was to be devoted to PA, phonics, spelling... after proficient decoding was accomplished, word teaching was entirely aimed at vocabulary and morphology. It is not enough to mandate phonics (or any other part of the literacy curriculum). Teachers need to know how much time makes sense. That way a big emphasis on phonics means that kids still get 90-135 minutes a day of other literacy instruction (text reading fluency, reading comprehension -- both strategies an written language, writing). It is certainly possible that mandates in the UK (or elsewhere) get overdone.


Jenny Chew Jan 11, 2023 02:59 PM

Tim: while I agree that ‘it’s not enough to mandate phonics’, I think that phonics was for a long time a ‘sine qua non’ which was seriously under-stressed in England – that’s on the basis of comparing teenagers in England with teenagers in South Africa, where I had also taught, and on the basis of the 17 years I then spent, after retiring, helping voluntarily with reading in primary schools (children aged 4-8) and seeing the problems caused when teachers encouraged guessing. I also read as much research as I could. I was therefore happy to contribute to various government initiatives to boost early phonics teaching, because I thought that just giving greater emphasis to that ‘sine qua non’ would improve later reading performance even if nothing much else changed. England’s 2016 PIRLS performance was compatible with that, though not proof. Our next PIRLS cohort were a lot better at decoding at age 6, and I’m hoping that our next PIRLS results will be better than the 2016 results or at least will not be worse as predicted by some critics – notably one high-profile education professor who is on record as expecting our performance in international tests to go down rather than up. I’m trying not to count any chickens before they are hatched however.

Max Jan 11, 2023 03:49 PM

Dr. Shanahan, I appreciate addressing the initial query and the following discussion it has sparked. In anticipation of the forthcoming documentary, "The Truth About Reading: the invisible crisis hiding in plain sight," I wondered if you had any thoughts to provide at this time. Did Nick Nanton get it right? If you cannot comment now, do you anticipate addressing this in the future?

Harriett Janetos Jan 11, 2023 05:01 PM

Tim, you say: Good intentions, but a lack of curiosity about their actual effects and an unwillingness to adjust as data became available is what undermined their efforts.

Here's how I made this point in my stab at making sense of Sold a Story, "Getting Reading Right: On Truths, Truce, and Trust": Picture this joyful scene: children beaming with pride as they crack the alphabetic code. It’s the delivery of the lesson that can and must be joyful--not the dilution, misdirection, or downright deceit conjured up through good intentions that have led to bad outcomes. Ignorance is not bliss; it hurts children. We need the truth. No more making it up. No more stories.

Timothy Rasinski Jan 11, 2023 09:43 PM

Tim - Thanks for your response to my comments. I understand that the major intent of SAS was to discredit the 3 programs that were featured. However, what proof was offered beyond heartfelt testimonials of certain teachers and parents? While these are certainly important and not to be ignored, testimonials could also have been garnered from teachers and parents who had other views. Science requires more. The most recent study by AIR (2021) of Units of Study appears to demonstrate benefits for the program.
Tim R

Timothy Shanahan Jan 11, 2023 10:03 PM

Tim R.--

The AIR study was a correlational study and is not acceptable evidence for determining the effectiveness of any educational program. I think of that kind of research on any commercial product to be marketing research rather than scientific study. The results are akin to a finding that families that purchased Teslas had higher incomes than those who did not and that their incomes rose after they made their purchase. Perhaps the next poverty program should be to purchase Teslas for all families below a certain income level.

I think it would be foolish to use that as evidence to argue for the omission of explicit phonics instruction (or explicit fluency instruction, for that matter), or as evidence that teaching 3-cueing is a good idea.


Judy O'Halloran Jan 13, 2023 05:33 PM


I so enjoyed, and m so grateful for, your thorough, clear response to those who question or are critical of the Emily Hanford series.

My son who is 41 and has Down syndrome was on course to graduate functionally illiterate from high school. I spent arduous and agonizing years of searching (before the internet, ugh) to find a program that would work since the district was obviously not using effective methods.

Then one day a retired learning disabilities teacher told me matter of factly, “He just needs an Orton-Gillingham program.” Almost a decade of taking beginning reading courses, attending district reading workshops and searching, and that term had never been discussed.

But that was a life-changing conversation. Once introduced to the concept of phonograms, Casey made the quantum leap to becoming an independent reader.

I so respect Emily Hanford for the deep, thorough and exhaustive research she has done. In a recent interview on the podcast Science of Special Education (, I suggested, tongue in cheek, that Ms. Hanford be nominated for sainthood for the illuminating information she has made readily available to educators, parents, and the general public. Keep up the good work, St. Emily, and keep up the vital information you bring forward, Timothy Shanahan.

Judy O'Halloran

Bill Matthew Jan 14, 2023 06:58 PM

This topic should have been (almost) settled science 40+ years ago when the results of Project Follow-Through, the largest planned variation study of instructional effectiveness ever conducted, were published. The superiority of Direct instruction, initially developed by Sigfried Engelmann (et al.) at the Univ. of OR, was unequivocal. I’ve yet to meet an EdD educator in charge of curriculum who’s aware of that research.

Steven Rosenberg Feb 05, 2023 07:59 PM

Thank you! I think that the prevalence of the anti-phonics sentiment among reading professionals was a result, in (large) part, to systematic sexism. In the past, many (if not most) of the teacher educators were men. Many (if not most) of the former presidents of the then International Reading Association were men. Hardly any of these gentlemen had ever taught a beginning (or disabled) reader.

Nevertheless, there are women teacher educators who also down play the role of learning phonics. About twelve years ago, during a meeting of teacher educators in Connecticut, I supported the state education department's adoption the "Foundations of Reading Test" because it tested teacher candidate knowledge of of phonemic awareness (and other pre-reading skills) and phonics instruction. After the meeting, two female teacher educators told me that graduate candidates students didn't need to learn phonics because they (personally) had learned to read despite never having been taught it. UGH!

Sara Foster Feb 10, 2023 04:25 PM

Not really on board with commenting on commenting on commenting. Move the needle. Focus on your own work and not the reporting. Keep on your own side of the street.

????????This is one of the reasons I went Speech to Sprint as a parent. No more theory, just tell me what to do so I can do it effectively as a parent and a teacher. I’m weary of experts bickering, commenting, “researching” and reporting. I just need to know what to do with 20 minutes a day to get a Kinder READING.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 10, 2023 09:05 PM


Fair enough... I think you'll find plenty of that if you go back through my blog entries, publications, and resources on this site.


Kristin Walker Feb 12, 2023 01:29 AM

Wow. That was a beautiful "message." Thanks.

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