Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction

  • shared reading instructional level
  • 19 June, 2016

"Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high..."

It is summer and not a good time for a long blog on literacy teaching. So, I took the time to write a short one. I didn't want to get worked up in the summer heat, so have provided a pithy critique of 5 popular myths about reading instruction.

1.  No, the fact that you do not use a textbook to teach reading does not make you a good teacher.

The idea that good teachers don’t follow a program and weak ones do has been around since well before I became a teacher. It is absolutely silly. The good teachers are the ones who manage to teach kids a lot and the poor ones accomplish less. That has nothing to do with whether a program is followed or not.

 2.  No, the fact that you have regularly scheduled free reading time in your classroom does not mean the kids will improve in reading.

Kids can learn something from reading on their own. But they tend to learn much more from reading instruction (reading a book along with other kids discussing it with a teacher, and writing about it). Free-choice reading time—SSR, DEAR, SQUIRT—ranges from having no affect on learning to having very tiny effects. Encourage free reading when teachers aren’t available to work   with kids and encourage teaching when they are.

3.  No, focusing only on reading—ignoring writing and content instruction—is not the best way to raise reading achievement for struggling readers.

The idea that kids who struggle with reading need more literacy instruction makes sense and is supported by research. But often this is offered at the cost of other kinds of instruction. Writing about text has been found to have bigger comprehension effects than reading alone, reading and rereading, and reading and discussing. Skipping writing instruction and activity for extra reading is obviously a bad idea. And, though it might be necessary to pull kids out of some content instruction to get the reading help they need, the bad effects of this should be reduced by making sure the texts used for this instruction is content rich.

4.  No, assigning students (in grades 2-12) to reading books at “their reading levels” does not facilitate learning to read.

I’m still finding teachers who are sure there must be research supporting the idea of teaching kids with texts of particular levels of difficulty (such as those they can read with 95-98% accuracy). There isn’t. Kids can learn from a wide range of text difficulties, and it makes sense to guide them, within instruction, to make sense of texts that they would struggle to read on their own.

5.  No, reading to kids does not teach them to read.

There are few activities that I enjoy as a parent, grandparent, or teacher than reading to children. And, yet, studies show that such activity has positive impacts on children’s vocabulary (kids who are read know the meanings of   new words). However, the idea that reading to kids teaches them to read is a bad idea—and one not demonstrated in the dozens of studies on reading to kids. I definitely would continue to read to children, but not instead of reading instruction. Reading picture books or chapter books to kids should not take the place of any part of the reading and writing instruction blo


See what others have to say about this topic.

HoraceManifesto Apr 06, 2017 05:25 PM

My understanding is that reading aloud builds content knowledge and allows kids to intellectually engage with material they couldn't read independently. Both of these things make kids smarter, which makes them better readers down the road - once they've got decoding and basic comprehension down. Am I wrong about this? 6/20/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:26 PM


That is certainly the theory, but there is no direct research showing it to actually works that way--or to provide any estimate of how big of an effect it might be. There is no question that kids pick up some of the word meanings of the materials that are read to them (research is clear about that) and one would like to think that improves reading comprehension. I know of no study that measured the impact of reading to kids on their world knowledge, but again, I can't imagine that it doesn't have that impact (if you read about dinosaurs to kids, they'll likely no more about dinos then their friends who no one read such materials to).

However, we prescribe reading to kids like it will have some immediate or measurable impact on children's reading achievement. Mom comes to teacher to find out how to help, since Henry is lagging the other second-graders in reading. The teacher says read to Henry. That's nice, but it probably won't raise his achievement in reading like that (and we don't have a single study showing that it does). Mom would likely be better off listening to Henry read every night than reading to him under those circumstances.

One of my friends, Chris Lonigan, has called reading to children the "chicken soup" of literacy instruction. It might not have any specific or immediate payoff, but it couldn't hurt. These days with text difficulties increasing in grades 2-12, I'm finding more and more teachers who think the best thing they can do is read those texts to the kids. That is not a good approach for that. Your description of what we can expect from reading to kids is right on the money, but it is not something to trade reading instruction for (though I always read to the children I taught and would again).


Cristina Hyelin Choi Apr 06, 2017 05:26 PM

Tim, you mentioned that being read to at home won't have a great impact. What are some ways that parents can help their child with reading? I'd love to share some strategies with my student families. 6/20/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:27 PM

Well, it can have a positive impact on at least some aspects of oral language (vocabulary) and while it hasn't been studied directly, it is hard to imagine it not having any impact on world knowledge. I would definitely read to my kids--you couldn't get that wonderful time away from me, but don't expect that to "teach kids to read." Other things parents can do with their young children: teach them letter names and sounds; teach them to write their names; encourage them to engage in invented writing (trying to write their own stories, etc.); print their stories for them (have them dictate and you write and then read and reread those stories with your kids).

When they are a bit older, listen to them read and reread texts.

those are some of the things I would do (and did do) with mine.

thanks. 6/21/16

Mary Apr 06, 2017 05:27 PM

Ignoring the importance of accuracy (along with its close partner fluency) for learning new material, retaining it in long term memory, and being able to generalize it to new situations is ignoring generations of research in behavioral psychology - both in academics and the workplace. Not only do students tune out or act out when their accuracy dips beneath a certain level (85 - 90%) but they begin to hate what they are doing. I'm not sure if you have studied quantum physics in depth, but I'd love to see you in a semester class where your accuracy with the quantum physics text dipped below that level and was so low that you never developed fluency. Did reading it over and over with the teacher help you learn it. Report back to us how much you learned that semester and how you now feel about quantum physics. I'm seeing students who have had the modern cocktail of a little phonics and guided reading, but never to the extent that they have had this approach.....because it's Ohio and Fountas and Pinnell have left their mark here in the state where phonics is a forgotten art. Instead of looking at text, those students are always looking at the teacher's mouth. What a horrid situation to keep reminding students again and again when they do have text at a level they can read that they need to look at it. It's the teacher's mouth telling them the words that they've relied on. And it's why so few of them have ever moved beyond the 4th grade reading cliff, unable to read more than 110 wcpm and reach the "read to learn" stage.

Some basic resources (and there are so many it's impossible to begin to list them) that describe the critical importance of a certain level of accuracy in acquisition of skills (along with fluency) can be found in so many high quality research articles in cognitive and behavioral psychology addressing academics and workplace skills that I cannot begin to list them, but here are a few I quickly googled. As a last thought -- in the area of cognitive load theory, accuracy of aspects of a task related to what the student is able to learn overall is another area where exciting research is being conducted .........another aspect of accuracy. behavan00020-0021.pdf (you can get a peek at this one)

The list goes on and on because there are generations of research. Talk to any behavior consultant, cognitive or behavioral psychologist. I started in the field of reading, because as a behavior consultant it became evident that all of the middle school students schools I was seeing whom the schools were trying to send to behavior disorder schools couldn't read anywhere close to grade level. Those kids would do anything to get out of class so they didn't appear "stupid" to their peers. And no one in the schools cared about giving them the systematic, explicit reading instruction they needed. Ethically, I had no choice. If I wanted to prevent students from entering behavior disorder programs which are more often hell holes than not with little instruction happening, I had to start working with early reading intervention. Whenever I have tested adults who had frustration level reading in school, they always cry at some point recounting their situation........100% of them will start to cry. I never know when, but it's almost like PTSD. And yet schools put their students in that psychologically harmful situation all the they did years ago.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:28 PM


I might be ignoring the "research" (more like well articulated beliefs in some cases), but you are ignoring all of the research on the actual issue at hand (reading). You may or may not be right that there are critical amounts of information you have to have possession of to start learning physics (though I doubt it), but you definitely are not right about reading. It's sort of like concluding that since we know the moon is dusty, then Saturn must be dusty too (that works unless you look at the data from the probes to Saturn that show that it is more icy than dusty). So "all the data" may support what you are claiming, but when people actually study the problem under discussion they are coming to different conclusions than you.

When you are trying to solve a problem conform to the data, not the theory. Rely on research that examines the problem directly, not some other problem that may have an analogical relationship with it. You might want to read some of the research on this problem, including Kintsch and McNamara's work on the impact of difficulty on comprehension (under various circumstances it improves it) or the studies on children's independent reading choices (which tend to be at the "frustration level" even with good readers--so much for the idea that people avoid challenge).

Dave Ziffer Apr 06, 2017 05:29 PM

It could be that Mary's analogy is weak, but if so I'd expect it to be weak in the other direction. A competent reader fails quantum physics due to an inability to understand the content, but at least he/she could read the words. An incompetent reader in reading class fails because he/she cannot even attempt the subject. I cannot imagine a more frustrating classroom experience.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:29 PM

Dave-- But trying to do this by imagination is the problem. That formula has always made so much sense to educators, but as researchers have actually tried placing students in texts harder than that they learn as much or more reading than when they are placed in Mary's way. And, of course, for lower readers that increases their chances of working with content that interests them at intellectual levels that kids often find to be motivational. Can you imagine always having to work in "baby" stuff because your reading skills aren't as high as that of your peers? 6/23/16

Mary Apr 06, 2017 05:29 PM

No competent teacher of struggling readers would ever relegate an older reader to an entire diet of "baby" stuff because they weren't reading at grade level. Adaptations including "read alouds" and higher level technology which has improved the range of accommodations for the struggling reading with learning disabilities are surveyed at Their use provides the older student with learning disabilities access to that material without humiliation. With effective early prevention-based systematic, explicit phonics, there should only be 5% of students needing those accommodations. Educators who do not use the technology available so that the student with learning disabilities in reading can access higher level challenging text without humiliation are remiss.

1. That struggling reader with learning disabilities also continues to need systematic, explicit phonics instruction (or advanced word reading/fluency depending on his/her level) in order to continue to increase his or her reading skills. To not also provide that instruction which will continue to lead to greater independence is negligent. And yes, the Intervention material to increase the word reading/fluency skills will be at a "lower" level. Educators who do not provide the much needed compensatory reading instruction are also remiss.

Often we adults have "assumicide" about what kids feel and want, which is why conversations with them about these issues are so important. A year ago I watched a class of struggling inner city ELL students who had made the lottery that enabled them to start in a high powered successful charter school. They were fortunate because in this school, they are tested and if below level in reading get explicit systematic instruction at their level. They also participate in high level English classes, but without the humiliation of constant failure with high level reading without accommodations.

I was watching these students in their Direct Instruction Corrective Reading Decoding class which is calibrated to the 3rd grade level where they are reading. Because of the past dysteachia they had in their school system, it will take 2 years to catch them up in the actual fluent reading of text, but they will catch up. To my surprise as they finished the last chapter of the Hurn story ( a 3rd grade level quirky exciting dog story as only Zig Engelmann could write), they spontaneously stood up and started clapping because the ending was so exciting for them. Later, their teacher told me that they wrote letters to Zig, telling how much they enjoyed his quirky stories. These are kids whose experience of success for the first time plays a large role in their enjoyment.

2. This need for older students to read frustration level text should be a moot issue. Teaching word reading and fluency is the "easy part" and if all these students around the US had had the systematic, explicit phonics starting in preK followed by advanced word reading and fluency, by the end of third grade the sky would be the limit for what they could to learn. And had they been in a paradigm changing RTI where the fortunate 20% of readers who learn to read as if by magic breaking the code by the middle of kindergarten, they would have been reading highly challenging text since that point. I suspect you were in that 20% as was I. But we have to go beyond our personal experiences and look at the science of reading...........and talk to the kids who weren't wired to read as we were. As we know, the research at top medical schools shows that with that systematic, explicit reading instruction, the reading level increases along with the brain changes -- even for those older students.


Jo-Anne Gross Apr 06, 2017 05:30 PM

Jack Fletcher-Phonological deficit...
A short pause needs to occur,no more than three to four months so they can be taught to read using the science of reading.
They`re stuck-instruction to repair the deficit..Orton Gillingham based theory curriculums are optimal because they connect sight,hearing,articulation and writing...then the students can access print more easily and enjoy their growth in reading materials.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:30 PM

Jack might be right about the optimal nature of Orton-Gillingham approaches. Nevertheless, research does not actually show that. There are many programs that approach phonics differently than O-G that appear to do equally well. O-G approaches are the only ones that have failures (the O-G taught kids don't always outperform the control group). That is unusual for phonics programs. --But don't read too much into that, because O-G approaches have been studied with the most severely disabled readers (including those who are hospitalized for their injuries, disabilities)--much more so than other phonics programs. 6/26/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:31 PM


First, if we are talking about reading--and not finding ways to have kids not read--then, according to you, there are no competent teachers out there. In fact, the whole idea of there being an instructional level is that you have to match texts to kids if you are going to facilitate learning to read. Reading to kids is a way to keep kids up with the content, but it does not make the texts you ask the kids to read any more mature.

You are correct that experts estimate that only about 5% of kids have learning disabilities, but about 25% are usually struggling readers. No one has ever proposed that these readers be dealt with differently in instruction, particularly with regard to matching kids to text. So both groups--the disabled and the disadvantaged--are blocked from reading (not listening to) texts at their maturity or intellectual levels.

We are both big proponents of phonics and fluency instruction, and I even support the idea of matching beginning readers (including older beginners to text so that they can abstract the basic spelling patterns etc. from the language. However, beyond that, it makes no sense to teach kids to read with texts that are matched to their reading levels. Look at Renata O'Connor's wonderful research on learning disabled children that shows the lack of facilitation of that approach with those children.

thanks. 6/27/16

Susan K Gittinger Jun 30, 2020 12:24 AM

Dr. Shanahan, I am a huge proponent of DEAR and Story Time (reading aloud to kids), but not in place of reading instruction. While I liked the chicken soup metaphor, I think of them more as chocolate cake (or whatever your dessert of choice might be.) I have often used DEAR in place of the traditional Morning Work routine. Students have a DEAR journal and track what they read. Often they summarize it in 2 sentences, participate in written conversation with a partner, or verbal share time. Those who love to read, love to begin the day this way. Those who don't have often come to enjoy reading more. I have found that having a good supply of magazines such as Ranger Rick, National Geographic Kids, Sports Illustrated Kids, etc has been a hook for my reluctant readers. Story Time is also a time to simply relax and enjoy books. I try to pick books that at least loosely connect to a curriculum topic, have some challenging vocabulary or figurative language, and have wide appeal. When a student is absent, others fill her in on what she missed which leads to good discussion. While I would agree that these two strategies can't replace reading instruction, I think they are certainly ways to engage students in text.

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Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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