More on Hanford: Phonics Reform and Literacy Levels

  • phonics improving reading achievement science of reading
  • 04 February, 2023

Recently, I posted commentary on Emily Hanford’s reporting and the critical response it received from some in the literacy community. I defended the major thrust of her work and called out criticisms I thought to be illogical, ill conceived, or ill intended – criticism more aimed at maintaining status quo than promoting literacy.

I admitted that my endorsement of that journalism was not without limits. I had concerns and said I may write about them in the future. The future has arrived.

I expressed two concerns, one substantive and one more stylistic. Let’s get the less important one out of the way first. Style.

In “Sold a Story” there a heavy focus on the financial gains of the creators of the curricula that were critiqued. I admit to being as titillated as the next guy about such juicy details, but I also am aware of its shortcoming of that approach. While I don’t know those authors well, I don’t doubt their seriousness of purpose or staunch beliefs. I agree with Ms. Hanford’s critiques of those programs and have no doubt the authors gladly accepted generous financial rewards.

But I don’t believe they “did it for the money” per se. I’ve offered this same defense against the same charges that were leveled against certain reading publishers during the early 2000s. Critics charged the only reason anyone would endorse phonics programs was to get rich. Hanford even went to the trouble of digging up such a quote from Lucy Calkins herself in 2002— a pitiful example of “what goes around, comes around.”

In those days, I – and other National Reading Panel members – were accused of summarizing the research as we did “just for the money.” That we were neither paid for the work nor allowed to have any financial conflicts, while the critics were reaping financial gains from their criticism, was an irony missed by many.

Some will try to distinguish the events by concluding, the phonics authors are right, and the 3-cueing guys are wrong. I believe that to be the case, but it changes nothing. I think in both cases the authors have had strong reasons for publishing what they did, and in both cases, they have had strong reasons for continuing to do so: money is not just a direct benefit, it is an indication that your work has wide appeal to educators and that it must be fulfilling some instructional need. As I’ve noted before, many things work in reading – they just don’t work equally well. Cognitive psychologists have explained how human beings fool themselves, looking at the positive evidence and rationalizing the data we don’t want to accept.

My point: Emily Hanford did the profession (and, most importantly, the students) a service by identifying how the most popular reading programs were out of alignment with the best knowledge that we have about teaching and learning reading. That’s really all that matters. That authors and publishers are allowed to publish what they want and to profit from that publication is a side issue that muddies rather than clarifies.

My bigger concern with Ms. Hanford’s most recent reporting (episode 1 of “Sold a Story”) has to do with the implied connection between the big problem (unnecessarily low national literacy rates) and her solution (add explicit decoding instruction to the agenda and eschew unproven approaches like 3-cueing).

The deep dive into the ugly NAEP scores was both informative (Hanford’s documentary-making skills were on fine display), but they also left me with the implication that we are only succeeding with 65% of fourth grade readers due to the ubiquity of 3-cueing and the dearth of phonics. That seems to be saying that if we addressed those curricular gaffs, all our kids would be successful readers.

That promises too much.

I know this same criticism can be aptly leveled at other reporters, politicians, and academics as well. Perhaps even me. We foreground our claims with pornographic NAEP literacy statistics without ever divulging that our nostrums are about improvement or mitigation only.

Do I believe it would be productive to have well-prepared teachers delivering explicit phonics lessons in grades PreK-2 using well-designed programs for about 30 minutes per day?


I believe it because of the many instructional research experiments that have been conducted over a long period of time that have shown such instruction to provide learning benefits to children.

I believe it because of the descriptive and correlational research evidence from neurological and cognitive psychological studies that suggest the potential benefits of instruction that guides students to connect letters and spelling patterns to phonology.

I believe it because of what has happened to fourth grade NAEP scores in the past when there have been increases (and decreases) in explicit phonics instruction. When we have had major emphases on phonics, scores have risen, and they have fallen or remained stagnant when attention to decoding lapsed.

Given that, what’s the problem?

The problem is that those changes are likely to only produce marginal improvement. Here I’m using the term “marginal gains” the way I think economists do: to refer to small incremental improvements that when added together with other similar improvements could result in significant improvement.

Why do I suspect the gains will be real, but relatively limited?

One reason the gains are likely to be marginal is due to those positive research findings I noted. The effect sizes in those studies average out to about .40 and when you control for other variables that attenuates to about .20.

Many elementary reading tests are calibrated to produce a 1-standard deviation difference between grade levels. That means that the average first-grade and average second grade reading scores often differ by 1-standard deviation. If each year’s phonics instruction managed to accomplish the amount of benefit suggested by those effect sizes (about 20% of a standard deviation or about 2 months added gain over a school year), our kids would be doing about 1 semester better in reading by 4th grade. That’s an amount of gain that I dearly desire, but an amount of gain that still would leave large numbers and percentages of kids far behind.

Of course, obtaining gains in a small study in which the researcher can carefully monitor the delivery of instruction is much easier than doing so in a large urban school district or a widely dispersed rural one. Usually, attempts to implement research-proven interventions on a large scale, witness diminished results. It is unlikely that those estimated gains would be accomplished statewide or nationwide year after year.

Another reason for my skepticism has to do with the findings reported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. They funded an extensive body of research on reading development and instruction which was strongly supportive of phonics. But it also reported that more than 50% of those struggling readers whose decoding ability was boosted to average levels continued to struggle with reading because of other limitations. More recent studies (such as those done by Rick Wagner and his colleagues) have identified plenty of kids with adequate decoding abilities who, nevertheless, struggle with reading comprehension. No reason to believe phonics or more phonics would help those students.

Still another reason for concern is that past efforts that have significantly improved fourth grade reading achievement on the NAEP (most notably from 1991-2006), but they have done so only marginally. Large enough gains to be both statistically and educationally significant, but still with large numbers and percentages of kids who don’t read well enough.

An example might help. Much has been made of the recent reading gains in Mississippi and these have been ascribed to the wide implementation of a phonics curriculum. My own analysis of these scores is that phonics contributed incrementally or marginally to Mississippi’s surprisingly high (for their economic level) reading scores. Reading didn’t only improve in Mississippi after implementing its phonics reforms, however. Incremental gains had been building over a 17-year-period. Phonics was only one in a long series of incremental improvements that when added together made for noticeably significant results.

Setting aside that observation for a moment, let’s attribute the entire 16-point NAEP gain that Mississippi has experienced during this century to the universal implementation of high-quality phonics instruction. After those very real improvements, we see that 35% of Mississippi kids are still struggling with reading. They’ve managed, despite their high poverty levels, to reach the national averages. That’s wonderful. But even with those remarkable gains a very large percentage of Mississippi kids are struggling with reading.  

Another concern about the NAEP evidence: Even during those eras when phonics instruction and 4th grade reading performance rose together, they have not managed to have a big influence on NAEP 8th grade or 11th grade scores. One would think that 4 or 5 years after accomplishing those phonics gains, better readers would continue to display their early learning gains in middle and high school. That has not been the case.

The take aways?

By all means, please address those educational defects that Emily Hanford has Paul Revered for us. Primary grade kids should have high quality phonics instruction and that should provide precious gains in early reading achievement. More kids will succeed in learning to read, and the level of average performance should go up as well.

However, if what you seek is the solution to the low literacy attainment problem that “Sold a Story” started with, then you had better be prepared to do a better job with those other needs that research has also identified.

Our kids need high quality instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, text reading fluency, spelling, reading comprehension (both in terms of comprehension strategies and written language skills – vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, text/discourse structure), and writing. Indeed, our kids need to learn to read challenging literature and informational texts from the different disciplines in sophisticated ways, and they need to get used to using text for building extensive stores of knowledge about their social and natural worlds.

That prescription is for a PreK-12 response, not a primary grade one. Our goal shouldn’t be better fourth grade readers, but more literate 12th grade readers. Having more 4th graders reaching proficiency levels only matters if we’re willing to build quality on quality to make sure they maintain and advance those early successes.

It is okay for our reach to exceed our grasp. But we’ll do best if everyone fully understands both what it is that we are reaching for and what it will really take to accomplish it.

(And to those of Hanford's critics who are now chortling, "See, that's what we were saying," I would say -- "No, what you were doing was fanning the flames of a reading war instead of embracing every initiative that has a reasonable chance of contributing to the accomplishment of universal literacy.")


See what others have to say about this topic.

Scott Paris Feb 04, 2023 01:30 PM

Hi Tim, that’s a thoughtful, circumspect, and useful comment in a world that tilts toward dichotomies and divisiveness. Thanks, Scott

Sharon Walpole Feb 04, 2023 01:53 PM

Tim I read that and it was so well done that I immediately read it again. Thank you.

Joanne Emery Feb 04, 2023 01:59 PM

Hi TIm!
You lay it out plainly and offer a road map - how refreshing. I've been teaching reading for 42 years, and I'm wondering why we have to have a "war." If both factions got together and produced quality phonics/word study with comprehensions skills - maybe
we could reach most readers. Either one of those approaches in isolation will not work to produce a skilled reader - you need both.
I think all level-headed people would agree.

Jaime Murdoch Feb 04, 2023 01:59 PM

In Ontario the Right to Read Report has brought a tremendous focus to change early reading instruction and to implement strong universal screening for students in K-2. Though there is mention of beyond those grades for intervention, people are very much latching on to it being a primary grades problem—it’s not as simple as that. I really loved the last part of your article and hope you continue to expand on the building of quality instruction beyond the primary grades. It’s so important to have teacher training and understanding of explicit instruction in every grade. As a junior/intermediate teacher my learning is going back to those early important skills you highlighted for quality and explicit reading instruction and learning. I hope there is more focus on 4-12 instruction so that we can all support our learners as they move beyond those early grades.

Olivia Wahl Feb 04, 2023 02:13 PM

I really appreciate this post and perspective. I am going to use this next week with teachers and administrators to support moving forward with a K-12 vision for literacy instruction. Thank you.

Karen Winford Feb 04, 2023 02:15 PM

I'm just wondering about history - has there ever been a time when reading "scores" were good? Are we working to bring readers to a level we had in the past? Or are we working towards something we have not seen before in history? Do other countries' readers do better?

Caroline Feb 04, 2023 02:16 PM

Thank you for bringing 'balance' to this latest, and perhaps most vitriolic, version of the reading wars. Our district has used a well researched phonics program for years, alongside reading comprehension. Note, that I say 'used' not necessarily 'used well'...To have our community in a dither about lack of progress is just misinformation leading to hysteria. I will share that my biggest disappointment is the selection/training and continued professional learning of teachers - and I am one! I see in my colleagues a total lack of intellectual curiosity about the evidence of student misunderstanding in front of them and how they might shift their instruction to close those gaps. If the 'program' doesn't say to do 'this' next - they don't and most often because they don't know how. Our district provides extensive PD around these concerns, but my colleagues continue to close their doors and do what they've always done...

HEIDI L HUENINK Feb 04, 2023 02:19 PM


Ashley Feb 04, 2023 02:22 PM

Thank you, Tim. I so appreciate this response, insight, and research. It addresses the vastness of the problem, that it’s not just a phonics issue.
I wish that we could make the efforts to all focus on the comprehensiveness of reading PreK-12 - getting literacy instruction right in all classrooms, and stop being so defensive about “who’s right”. Imagine how different literacy rates would be if those efforts could be shifted, and passionate arguments could be moved towards the solution of who matters most - students and well equipped teachers.

Kristen McQuillan Feb 04, 2023 02:48 PM

Thank you for your work as always, Tim. This was so well said.

ML Feb 04, 2023 02:58 PM

I wonder why you are going around in this circle again? Common sense tells us guessing is not reading. Why would anyone guess what they can know? There are students who will read without being taught. That's part of the 40% proficient at fourth grade. The data you seek is already available. Go backwards to the schools that were teaching phonics before they jumped on the whole language bandwagon. NYC switched to whole language in the late 1990s. They switched back to phonics last year.

Scores across the country plummeted in the 1980s and 1990s when whole language started to dominate because it looks pretty and was more interesting to teachers. The interest level is not about teachers. Learning to read is about the student. Just because it is boring for the teacher, does not mean it's boring for the student. A student has a better chance of loving to read if he or she CAN read. If s/he can't read, s/he will definitely dread every time s/he has to in class or elsewhere no matter how "interesting" it is. Science, common sense, both say whole language is not the answer. Teachers like it for them. But learning to read is not about the teacher.

MaryJean Bell Feb 04, 2023 03:08 PM

Tim, you are spot on! I totally agree with everything you said. I love your reasonable, calm perspective. It seems like in the literacy community we are always chasing after the current “golden nugget” that will produce every child to be an all around proficient reader. No! It takes many “golden nuggets” to build upon each other. One can only take you so far.

Lisa Anastasi Feb 04, 2023 03:11 PM

Wow! This is gold. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Julie Droller Feb 04, 2023 03:15 PM

I appreciate this thoughtful post. Another thing that is woefully missing in Emily Hanford's journalism is a spotlight on the revisions the Teachers College Reading and Project has made to their curriculum in light of hew research and internal study. Their new K-2 reading units have been completely revised, do not include 3-cueing or using pictures to guess at words, emphasize foundation skills and differentiated, data-informed instruction.

It is frustrating that journalists are not celebrating revisions that educators are making as a result of new learning. Aren't we always seeking to learn and improve our practice in service of our students success? Isn't the goal ensuring that all students are skilled readers - and, as you say, continuing to grow throughout their educational journey?

The "reading wars" are adding to the stress and frustration of hard-working educators who are already tired and leaving the profession in droves. Why aren't we working together and learning from one another instead of creating a war, with the ultimate goal being our children. Children are different. Learners are different. There is never going to be one size fits all. We know what successful readers need, and our focus should be on helping teachers understand the science of reading, use materials and methods that address all components of high-quality reading, and become better at analyzing and utilizing data to provide hig-quality differentiated instruction with clear and measurable goals, monitor progress, and foster reading skills and habits that serve all of our students.

Julia Lewis Feb 04, 2023 03:32 PM

Just a huge thank you for the deeper dive into an issue that has troubled me: the notion that teaching phonics is the cure-all for all of our reading woes. As a special education resource teacher, I dearly wish I had the time to address all of the important issues pertaining to literacy. In the meantime, I find a parallel to the view that if we teach math facts, low math scores will evaporate. This is simplistic, one-dimensional thinking at its finest and itself points toward "deficits" in K-12 education, and is especially concerning when educators fall for this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your analysis for those of us who don't have Ph.D.s and the background is most helpful.

Tabitha Feb 04, 2023 03:33 PM

I really enjoy reading your blog posts. This was a wonderfully written response piece to the backlash Emily has received. I wish I could write so eloquently.

You mentioned effect size within your post. Is there a good resource to better understanding effect size? My district has gone all in on John Hattie’s work on effect size. I see a lot of value in his work. However, this 0.40 effect size of a years growth just does not make sense to me. In a staff meeting, our principal mentioned that one class showed 2 years growth in their reading scores. Seems a little far fetched to me. I’ve read that a 0.40
effect size might be a years growth for older students but that an effect size of 1.0 is closer to a years growth for younger students.

Rachel Ryab Feb 04, 2023 03:42 PM

I always appreciate reading your thoughts and perspective. I’m curious about your thoughts around the correlation of background knowledge of the topic of a student text (or lack there of) and comprehension, especially in grades 6-12. This is a time when many students may have those foundational reading skills, but we start to see a discrepancy in comprehension based on their personal experiences with world and the knowledge/familiarity they bring (or don’t bring) to a text. This is most evident in standardized testing, where background knowledge can’t be front loaded.

Debbie Thomas Feb 04, 2023 04:07 PM

Hi Tim!
Excellent! Our focus should always be on the students we (as teachers) serve! Those with the control of the money should keep their eyes focused on our students! I agree with your point about students with good decoding abilities still struggling with comprehension. I work with tier 2 students daily and have a great phonics deficit. Even when we overcome some of those obstacles, there are still gaps in other reading strategies. Home life is becoming more of a disabling factor for some kids too! It’s going downhill instead of improving!

Ann Denoyer Feb 04, 2023 04:10 PM

Thank you for being the voice of reason, again????!

Harriett Janetos Feb 04, 2023 04:26 PM

Thank you for addressing two important issues. I grappled with how to end my response to the critics of Sold a Story (Getting Reading Right: On Truths, Truce, and Trust until I read P. David Pearson's heartfelt tribute to Marie Clay and realized I had to assume positive intent--at least regarding the initial stages of selling the story. So I said:

"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."

However, one wonders as the years have gone by how easy it will be for all involved to put that cash cow out to pasture.

As for your longer, even more important, second point--it could have been my diary entry yesterday. Although I work primarily with small groups of struggling first and second graders, I've been assisting a new third grade teacher with teaching complex, grade-level text. The current unit on 'animal adaptations' reveals problems with word recognition (adaption? adoption?)--yes--but even thornier problems with making sense of text and all the impediments to that process that you describe. Sadly, I do not see many of these third graders achieving proficiency on 4th grade NAEP.

susan marks Feb 04, 2023 04:28 PM

"Even during those eras when phonics instruction and 4th grade reading performance rose together, they have not managed to have a big influence on NAEP 8th grade or 11th grade scores. One would think that 4 or 5 years after accomplishing those phonics gains, better readers would continue to display their early learning gains in middle and high school. That has not been the case."

This is such a great point and one I believe you've addressed before - The idea that once the decoding skills have been mastered, in later grades students' background knowledge plays an increasingly important role in comprehension. As a middle school reading specialist, I see it everyday with my mostly low income, immigrant population. A simple story about conflict on girls' basketball team, becomes challenging if the student knows nothing about basketball.

Karen Cornwell Feb 04, 2023 04:30 PM

Hi Tim,
I am a retired elementary educator and now tutor students online throughout the country. I am starting to realize that quite universally students either don’t read or aren’t taught to read and gain knowledge from higher level texts (textbooks). They may skim the text, and then the teacher spoon-feeds notes for them. The comprehension strategy of note-taking and initial internalization of information is completely stripped away. Frustrating!

Claude Goldenberg Feb 04, 2023 04:40 PM

Tim, amen brother. From your computer to god’s ears… With the additions that (a) we need to also consider what happens in the preschool years and (b) what you write also applies to English learners with additional considerations: either primary language literacy or English language support for English literacy or—ideally—both. Awesome work, Tim.

Gina Margiotta Toussaint Feb 04, 2023 04:52 PM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan. One question though: what do you think about Diane Ravitch’s take on NAEP scores? If what she says is true, that reading scores are not indicative of a crisis, and that scores are misinterpreted and actually indicate an incremental rise…then what of the “wars?”
I’m a doctoral student and would really appreciate your take on this. I’m concerned about reading achievement as a reading specialist and NBC teacher, and I am planning on doing my dissertation on this.


Patrick Manyak Feb 04, 2023 05:17 PM

Thanks, Tim, for the very astute commentary on the current state of affairs in reading instruction. I am very interested in Caroline's comments regarding teachers "clos[ing] their doors and do[ing] what they've always done." I certainly have witnessed this phenomenon in schools, but I am not sure that I would ascribe it to "total lack of intellectual curiousity." I believe that it would be very instructive to analyze the sociocultural levers in schools and districts that enable or even encourage this teacher behavior. Having just returned to teaching in a struggling Title 1 school in California after serving 25 years as a faculty member in literacy education, I now have a front row seat to observe (and live!) those "levers." Here is a quick off-the-cuff meditation on such levels:
1) Teachers have very little access to the type of sustained PD (including classroom components like modeled lessons and thoughtful observation/feedback) that genuinely impacts teaching practice. 2) District-wide programs often fail to account for the unique conditions operating in the most needy schools and thus miss the mark for the teachers/students in those settings, who are then discouraged by the mismatch. 3) Lack of strong systems of behavior management. Michael Pressley found that one of three common characteristics of exceptional first-grade teachers of literacy was excellent classroom management. No matter the targets or nature of instruction, kids don't learn much if they aren't listening! I observe a real dearth of strong school-wide behavior management plans/practices, resulting in difficult kids syphoning off teacher energy and class-wide attention. 4) Lack of strong systemic processes aimed at bringing multiple resources to bear on lower-performing readers and (especially!) writers. I think that it takes exceptional leadership to pull off highly effective RTI/MTSS models of instruction. Although research has demonstrated the potential of such models, the 2015 national RTI evaluation demonstrated that the vast majority of schools that are implementing RTI in reading do not manage to produce positive growth. Further, there are still a great many schools (eg, my school district) that have no systemic RTI/MTSS process at all. This leaves teachers feeling like they are carrying the entire burden of fostering accelerated growth in students who have historically made much less growth than their peers. Discouraging. (BtW, if you are looking to refine your schools MTSS program in reading, check out Michael Coyne's excellent, extremely practical chapter on the Connecticut model MTSS schools [that made a .5 SD growth in reading achievement]: Delving Into the Details: Implementing Multitiered K–3 Reading Supports in High-Priority Schools, 2016.) 5) Time. If we are asking teachers to be highly knowledgeable, skilled, and reflective practitioners, where do they find the time to engage in the variety of tasks necessary to do so? I taught bilingual elementary school in my 20s in southern California, when I had no spouse, kids or similar personal responsibilities. I was totally committed and with the students and families all the time. Now, I have strategically returned to teaching elementary at the point in my life where my son is off to college and my daughter just about. So, I think nothing of being the first one at the school each morning or popping in on the weekends to prepare. It is what I want to do at this stage of my life. So, many of my colleagues have young families at home and are striving in a way that boggles my mind to balance the incredibly important responsibilities of parenting and teaching. Each school day moves at whip-like speed. Each pupil-free day seems to be filled with less-then-impactful activities. Similarly, weekly staff meeting time is rarely impactful in terms of fostering teachers' growth as expert practitioners in teaching literacy. To me, this clear and chronic lack of time begs for highly effective and creative administrative solutions. 6) The previous point leads to this observation: Their is a serious dearth of, to use a term that was popular back in my grad studies days, expert "border crossing professionals" in non-teacher positions in schools. I feel like I rarely see those unique individuals who are well grounded in research knowledge on the practical aspects of teaching literacy (or any subject) who also clearly keep a foot squarely in the world and everyday realities of classroom teaching. Thus, teachers experience so many district initiatives, instructional program decisions, PD, etc... as either coming from folks who no longer remember what it is like to do the job that they do and thus can't tailor practical solutions to the problems teachers address every day or, on the other hand, from folks who seem to have little more research knowledge than they do and are simply dispensing opinion-based "folk wisdom." I would call this situation perhaps the most critical failing of graduate programs of education across the country. Those programs should be the ideal sites for supporting the development of an army of highly effective border crossing professionals in literacy education, but, honestly, I rarely meet one. Wow, this turned into a very long-winded opus, so thanks if you stuck with it! To restate my premise, I am quickly coming to believe that it is not the problem of "teachers doing what they have always done" that is the real problem but rather the series of sociocultural levers that push them actively toward doing so. Change will come when our best minds and administrators focus their attention on the challenging tasks involved in removing these (and others, I am sure) levers and replacing them with the kinds of systems, processes, and practices that make it realistic for everyday teachers to become highly expert practitioners of literacy instruction. Phfew, on with the rest of my day!

Janet Rehmert Feb 04, 2023 05:24 PM


Diane Pust Feb 04, 2023 05:37 PM

I am a teacher librarian in the Merced (CA) City School District. I taught 5th grade for 17 years before moving to the library. As a classroom teacher many of my 5th graders came to me being able to decode but couldn't understand much of what they read. I was trained in Balanced Literacy so I thought I just needed them to read more to become better readers. Years later, I can clearly see that this was not the remedy. As a librarian I serve students from TK through 8th grade and view our literacy crisis through a different lens now. As a general rule, elementary aged students enjoy coming to the library and checking out books a couple times a week, but once they hit middle school library circulation numbers plummet. Tweens are just not reading. Is it technology use? Is it that their teachers don't prioritize self-selected reading? I don't know. What I do know is that libraries can be a very powerful tool in our quest to create readers. I know as a librarian I do not teach students to read, but I hold the keys to the room that can change lives. Foundational skills are imperative, but a variety of quality texts to build vocabulary and general knowledge come when a school district acknowledges that libraries and certificated teacher librarians are important as well.

Emma Hartnell-Baker Feb 04, 2023 06:10 PM

Tim, you legend.

Enough said.


Sheila Keller Feb 04, 2023 06:10 PM

I wish that everyone that heard Emily Hanford's podcast would also read this. Thank you, Tim. Hats off and peace!

Perhaps part of the problem has been that while teaching phonics was "right" from the start, that did not mean the way we've been teaching phonics was (or is) optimal. There is now a phonics program available that promises to more than triple the effect sizes that you cite for beginning readers- not marginal gains at all.

The experiment is yet to be run that if most (upwards of 90%) students become master decoders by third grade by using only optimal programs and methods instead of "business as usual" phonics instruction, does that translate into significant gains in the 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores? I'd like to run that experiment. (Not claiming that better linguistic comprehension instruction is not needed- it is!)

Dr. Bill Conrad Feb 04, 2023 06:50 PM

Beside quality and phonics-based curriculum, we need to consider the elements of pedagogy and assessment. Only 1/2 of the colleges of education instruct research-based instruction resulting in woefully unprepared teachers. District PD triage will never make up for this huge gap. Additionally, school districts demonstrate weak ability in planning and almost 0 ability to implement well and monitor and hold accountability. Inevitably school districts will throw effective research-based program on the ash heap of failed educational fads and initiatives. Sometimes not because of their quality but because of their failure to implement, monitor, and hold accountable

Gale Morrison Feb 04, 2023 06:58 PM

Great as always. I think it's important for parents and school boards and 'laypeople' to keep in mind that this work is so far from over, and in many places not even started. And it is 100% a crisis in large districts serving mostly poor children, where low literacy harms families and communities the most. There is still a very distinct lack of leadership and organizational capacity on reading instruction and attending to the quality and rigor of the texts students are to be reading for school, and I think that's true just about everywhere.

Marc Sims Feb 04, 2023 07:23 PM

“Powerful people cannot afford to educate the people that they oppress, because once you are truly educated, you will not ask for power. You will take it.”

John Henrik Clarke

Betsy Reilly Feb 04, 2023 07:36 PM

Thank you for dealing with the complexity of the debate. I would like to add to Jaime Murdoch's comments about Ontario literacy instruction and the Right to Read report and your perspective of K-12 quality instruction. One of the effects of the Reading Wars as it has drifted across the border from the US is suggested reform on the foundation of our documented success of Ontario/Canadian literacy according to PISA international testing. In Canada we need to work enhance our literacy teaching with an increase in decoding instruction in primary grades and continuing decoding, comprehension and fluency explicit instruction through high school. It is an issue of adding to and building on what we already do well, as opposed to the adversarial posturing in the Reading Wards and labeling it all as "broken". Those struggling readers and their teachers need more support and professional development.

Heather Mistretta Feb 04, 2023 07:55 PM

Wonderfully said, Tim. Thank you for the insights & clarity!
I would love to hear more about any research that distinguishes best literacy teaching practices for kindergarten/early elementary vs middle school/ high school. Having taught in both worlds it seems that research and approaches for one grade level don’t necessarily generalize to all of k-12 education. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Lori Severino Feb 04, 2023 07:57 PM

I like the thinking of focusing on what we want for kids long term. You always tell it like it is! Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 08:41 PM


Thanks. I don't disagree that quality of instruction, but it tends to matter a bit less than the other legs of our 3-legged stool -- the most important ones to get right first are teaching a sufficient amount of those things that kids need to learn to be successful readers. Then making sure the teaching is good too, improves effects. We can teach well and fail to teach the right things. However, if we are teaching the right things poorly, some kids can still figure out what they need to from the information.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 08:43 PM


Such experiments would certainly show us the limitations of what we promote. However, we are working with real kids and the best thing would be comprehensive instructional programs that address all the key elements that kids must master. Phonics is certainly one of them, but there are several others.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 08:50 PM


I don't ask historians to interpret psychological assessments -- especially when they have gotten such interpretations so wrong in the past. My reading of NAEP scores -- in 2006 our scores were the highest they had ever been... they then languished for then next 12 years before seeing a small decline and now with COVID we are seeing a very definite decline. (Those are all at grade 4. 8th grade hasn't changed much over the years -- and the high school tests have enough problems to make them less interpretable). Right now we are trying to regain lost ground. However, the point that we are ultimately asking teachers to get kids to higher levels than we ever have in the past (and as well as at least some other countries are accomplishing) is an important point. Nevertheless, it is something we have to accomplish given the economic and social changes that our society has gone through. You have to have greater literacy now than in the past to fully participate and benefit from our society.


Judy O'Halloran Feb 04, 2023 09:02 PM

Tim, thank you for your essay. I always appreciate your careful, thorough, clear approach to the topics you address. I learn so much from you--and the comments. As the parent of a now 42-year-old son with Down syndrome who endured years of reading failure until he was introduced, in high school, to phonograms, I beg teachers-and parents-not to leave those with cognitive challenges out of this focus on phonics instruction. Please raise your expectations and take your students beyond the ABCs and sight words towards independent reading. A wider range of opportunities in their adulthood depend on this.

Judy O'Halloran

Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 10:20 PM


What would be good scores is related to how much literacy is needed in a society. Given that globalization, digitalizing, and increases in legal protections have over 50 years, increased the amount of literacy that people need. What you would like to see is clear growth in literacy. We saw reading scores climb in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then schools backed off on certain teaching practices (like explicit teaching) and scores went down lower than they had been in the 60s and 70s. Then states and federal governments focused heavily on following research, teaching explicitly, monitoring learning, etc. and in the 1990s and early 2000s scores climbed. Then governments backed off on those policies and scores languished for a decade and then started to fall again in the 2018 and more recently. One could argue scores were the highest ever in 2006, but we're no longer at those levels. Other countries that we used to lead now match our performance, and some even are doing better. We definitely have room to grow and there is reason to believe we can do better (even if it means finding new ways of accomplishing that).


Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 10:27 PM

I'd be a lot more impressed about Lucy Calkin's embracing the "new research" if she had embraced it when she first found out about it in 2002. Instead she argued against it and engaged in character attacks on the people who were summarizing the research. Or, if in 2010 when the state standards all started including phonics, she wouldn't have approached that by claiming that her program was meeting those standards. Or in 2018, when she was claiming that "no one owned science" and that she was following science, too. Or, when she built a phonics component that was substantially smaller than what research has found successful. Or, when she finally embraced the research when states began banning the sale of her program. Since most of the research she is now going on was completed prior to 2000 -- what took so long and what the was the key element in her conversion? And, is she accepting all the research or just the research that states are using to ban her program? It might have been interesting if Emily had pursued that.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2023 10:30 PM


An effect size is an average of effects. One school or class can get higher scores, but then someone else gets lower ones. You are correct about the meaning of effect sizes. It can only be specified as a percentage of year's growth when the test has a one-standard deviation across grade levels (which is true of many elementary tests), but I know of no high school test in which that is the case.


Jill Niederholzer Feb 04, 2023 10:54 PM

My take on your reasoning: Nothing we do, in isolation, will continue the students' ability to read into MS, HS and beyond. However, without close attention to foundational skills that will be used to build upon reading comprehension, 3rd and 4th grade teachers are left with incomprehensible and unsurmountable tasks to teach reading compreshension. As a MS teacher, I struggle with attempting to teach comprehsenion, sentence sturcture, grammar, and text structure within the daily lesson and pull-out times as my school has provided.

Michael Grabarits Feb 05, 2023 03:54 AM

Well said Tim. You have a way of putting this all in perspective when quoting the facts. Thank you and Bless you for always steering us in the right direction.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2023 02:02 PM


Your comment points out why we both need to help kids build knowledge through their school day, and we also need to teach kids how to make sense of text when they don't already have a lot of background information.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2023 02:06 PM


I don't think the way you decide if there is a crisis is to look at the past reading levels.... the real key is to look at how stable reading achievement has been for 50 years (with small ups and downs) during a period when the role of literacy in society (in social life, economic life, health, civic life, etc.) has increased. Having 1970 literacy levels might seem okay for some observers, but they are typically people who have fairly high levels of literacy (as do their kids). There are large numbers of people in our society who lack the reading ability to take full advantage of our society -- that is the crisis.


Jeff Bowers Feb 05, 2023 05:23 PM

I would be interested in your take on "third grade gate" account of the findings in Mississippi. Could the results largely be down to the fact that more struggling children were held back? I don't know much about this, but seems a simple explanation.

Lauren Feb 05, 2023 05:58 PM

There are real consequences to this kind of alarmist and sensationalized journalism. In my district we are required to teach over an hour of phonics, and leveled reading books are discouraged in favor of decodable books. There is a kind of hysteria where district leadership does not necessarily understand the difference between the three cueing system and leveled reading books. The results are that students are demonstrating more and more of a negative attitude about reading in general. One of the great things about teaching in the primary grades is seeing students start to "take off" with their reading. When this happens, they can't wait to get their hands on book after book at a reading level which is appropriate for them. We are not seeing that. "Nan can nap. Nap Nan, nap. Pat can tap and bat it." only goes so far in motivating students to read. We've seen crazy things, like stopping the alphabetic phonics picture system mid year to change to one that is currently in fashion. For the few students who are struggling to learn the old alphabet picture system, throwing a new one at them is malpractice. If I were a parent of one of those students, I would be furious, and as a teacher, I am embarrassed that our district would do this.

Maybe we could at least consider that a teacher who has been teaching first grade for 20 years might actually know what she/he is doing? Maybe they close the door because of a deep concern about the well being of their students' reading education.

Again, balance in all things. Let's stop the craziness.

S. Strebchuk Feb 05, 2023 07:20 PM

Who said that teaching the lower rope better would solve all the problems? In addition, structured literacy is more than just teaching phonics but that wasn't the focus of Hanford's podcast. She was focusing on the gaps and the failure to address learning needs of students who can't read, including those with Dyslexia, who seem to be forgotten and have a right to learn all aspects of reading including decoding. I doubt that teachers have forgotten about comprehension from Grades 4 to 12. It is unlikely that poor reading scores were because elementary teachers ignored comprehension. Low reading scores were likely a result of poor training and adhoc implementation of phonics programs/MTSS of the day with increases in challenging behaviours and the introduction of the cell phone with loads of unsupervised screentime. Poverty, after all, has been with us a long time. The teacher and leadership focus has been on supporting social and emotional health not improving reading or mathematics scores. A shift in educational pririorities that promoted theories of learning styles did not help.

I prefer the approach that Nathanial Swain has taken in providing direction (and free material) for teachers with visual support on why and how one inverts the components of balanced literacy aiming for structured literacy. That inversion model provides concrete, specific direction on the amount of time one takes, the method one uses and the scope and sequence for planning the lower rope skills for letter-sound, decoding, automaticity. He provides direction to primary teachers on how to integrate comprehension and CB standards into the literacy program. This would allow those of us who work with students in middle school to spend more time reading to learn, rather than repairing poor quality encoding and decoding abilities. Too often, the experts are far ahead of everybody else. Your blog comments are simply giving those in leadership who are resisting change an exuse to do what they have always done and promote a poor quality but familiar method.

Karen Feb 05, 2023 10:30 PM

What I'm seeing here on the ground as a reading specialist is this. Back in the days of 3-cueing, struggling readers, especially those with a language based learning difference like dyslexia, could uphold the appearance of reading proficiency based on background knowledge and strong verbal skills until late 2nd or early 3rd grade. (In fact, I'd say that many kids with an SLD in reading learn to excel at compensatory skills like guessing based on pictures and context at a very early age). Now that classroom teachers are using a structured literacy approach (no guessing, no pictures) it is apparent very early which kids understand the relationship between sounds and symbols and can "crack the code" and which kids cannot. I've been inundated this school year with requests for evaluations from the parents of late K and early 1st graders, which is something I've not experienced in 10+ years of this work. Up until now, it's been "wait and see" or maybe LLI and Reading Recovery for struggling readers, who then end up 2+ years behind and in a crisis by 4th grade (and unlikely to ever catch up).
My hope is that early identification plus the correct intervention will equal stronger outcomes than expected across the board.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2023 11:18 PM

S. Strepchuk--
The problem isn't that the reporting focused only on phonics -- I have strenuously defended that aspect of that work. What I am objecting to is the implication that if we were teaching phonics to everyone those 35% of kids who are behind in reading would be caught up. That just isn't the case and overpromising is at least partly responsible for the wicked pendulum swings that we see in reading education.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2023 11:20 PM

You can't fairly blame the stupidity of administrators in your school district on Emily Hanford. I assure you they could make stupid decisions like that without her reporting.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2023 11:24 PM


That possibility is unlikely. That effect does happen but it disappears after the first year. That means in 2018, you might have seen unusually large gains, but the fact that they haven't washed out four years later suggests that is very unlikely.


Lauren Feb 06, 2023 04:50 AM

I'm sure that you are right about that, but they are requiring that we listen to the podcast, and it seems to be front and center with much of the push for phonics only instruction.

Wendy Cocks Feb 06, 2023 08:36 AM

Can the education system ever out-teach literacy disadvantage and academic struggle? We spend a lot of time measuring our impact only to see that we make little difference; put only a little dint in the problem, despite everything we try. I must admit, I feel a bit defeated after reading your article, though it is an excellent analysis of the state of play, and its clarity and rationality superb. This teaching game is not for the feint-hearted!

Timothy E Shanahan Feb 06, 2023 12:44 PM

As Mississippi has shown, it is possible to overcome many of the effects of disadvantage when it comes to literacy. It is hard work and it is worth doing. Unfortunately, not many policymakers are interested in providing the continued support and discipline needed for the continued incremental grind needed for real success. But it is possible.


Ed Ucate Feb 06, 2023 01:24 PM

Hanford did a good job of taking us back to the Reading Wars. It would have been also helpful to explore the reasons behind why so many sincere teachers embraced Whole Language. She could have interviewed more teachers on that side of the issue who would have told you how desperately tired of teaching elementary reading they were. Teachers embraced Whole Language and all things Clay because of what it did for them. It gave them the reason to get up in the morning to read and re-read that Robert Munsch book, or the latest from Don and Audrey Wood. Teaching manuals could not compete with them! Professional practice had swung in a direction that allowed them to place such books at the center of what they did everyday, and they were not about to give that up for anything. And they didn't. However, what felt so right and good ended up selling short a generation of young people who are now trying to recover their writing skills and what was once thought to be their love of reading.

T. Carroll Feb 06, 2023 02:03 PM

And this is why I follow you. When I am reading your blog I often find myself saying out loud "exactly"! I appreciate that you tell it like it is.

Heather Kirk Feb 06, 2023 03:40 PM

We know from the various models of reading that it is complex process with may skills woven together. Whether you look at th Simple View of Reading, Scarborough's Rope, or Nell Duke's Active View of Reading, it is obvious that reading requires more than being taught how to decode with accuracy, although accurate decoding is essential. Thank you for advocating for improvements in reading instruction across all strands of reading and writing.

Max Feb 06, 2023 04:20 PM

I work in a high poverty high language minority school. Tim, you made mention of "...vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, text/discourse structure" as necessary learning targets for comprehension proficiency. These are exactly the struggle that my students are faced with and teachers are not resourced or trained to address them. Sophisticat ed language both oral and written are very underdeveloped, so how can students possibly understand complex text? Or even to follow an argument in a nuanced discussion?

I wonder if, in a digital age, literacy is just so undervalued that it's a Sisyphean task. It seems as though the practice of literacy has changed on such a large scale, that our expectations for proficiency are antiquated and don't match the value system of literacy in that practice today. Marianne Wolf wrote about modern changes in literacy practice. People seem to have trained their brains for short attention reading, skimming, Z or L pattern reading. We used to look at home literacy for our students coming from poverty. I wonder if that has extended to all socio-economic levels, that is, low-levels of home literacy (books, bedtime stories, library time, moms and dads reading). The reasons are not economics, however, they are linked to the way we engage with the printed word in a digital/visual age. When the culture of reading (the kind we are discussing here) disappears, how do we rebuild and maintain it? It feels like trying to revive a lost civilization and culture.

Todd Collins Feb 06, 2023 10:14 PM


I have a slightly different perspective on Mississippi's (MS) progress. You point out that NAEP growth there was long-term, not necessarily related to foundation-skills focus, and only got them "reach national averages." All true, but I think it understates what's been accomplished.

As this graphic shows (, the growth in MS from 2013-2019 (6 years) for Black and Low-Income students was 2-3x greater than over the previous 10 years. And it was a lot - both groups improved by over 10 scale points over six years.

And while this level of attainment does put them below the national average (scale score of 220 in 2019, vs. 215 and 209), both groups are now above the Basic level cut-off of 208, and both rank in the top 5 in their category among all the states.

I don't think this means we disagree - there is certainly more work to do in MS, and I think they agree with that. But I don't think we should diminish what they have accomplished. In a short period, their reading program took them for a long-time laggard to a national leader with groups of students that need support the most, taking them collectively from Below Basic to Basic (which, as some have argued, may be closer to "grade-level" than Proficient).

If other states simply replicated their success, which I believe did primarily focus on effectively teaching foundational skills, it would be a tremendous gift to our students and our nation. There's more to do is MS, but this is a tremendous first step.

Peter Dewitz Feb 06, 2023 11:25 PM

In 2010 there were four articles in the Journal of Literacy Research that examined reading results in four successful states the implemented Reading First, the last effort to focus on scientific based reading research. What struck me were the social and economic issues that the science of reading cannot touch. Children move from one school to another. Teachers retire. Principal resign, and reading coaches move on. The articles report that most schools did not end their five years with Reading First with the same students and the same educators they began with. The best science cannot provide a solution to economic and social change.

Peter Dewitz Feb 06, 2023 11:26 PM

Please post the Wagner citations.

Robbi Gregory Feb 07, 2023 04:03 AM

Dr Shanahan,
To quote Hanford, "We want schools to use programs that are based on scientific research, and they thought their program was..." After nearly a year of endeavoring to work within a district mandated "SoR" program , only decodables are permitted to be read with my 2nd grade students in small group instruction, systematic vocabulary, fluency & comprehension instruction has all but been eliminated, and administrators proudly assert that our district is "explicitly teaching the foundational literacy skills". They point to this podcast to reaffirm that what we're doing is scientifically proven, and discard the rest. When I try to advocate for my students it feels like I am speaking to a cult who are in an all or nothing mindset and I have to proclaim that I love phonics and phonological awareness. It seems rather silly that I need to assert this as any reasonably educated teacher is equipped with the most basic understanding that phonics is a foundational skill which must be explicitly and systematically taught, but as I am not in any "camp", but rather a single teacher in a economically disadvantaged area, who wants to provide her students in a with their best chance at a successful life, I must spell out my views in this "war". So the question to this rambling message is this, HOW to get them to see that this all or nothing approach is NOT based on scientific research? That the time is now to do what is right...not to wait out this newest shiny thing for a few years and see how the chips fall. These kids deserve better than to be a pawn in this newest reading war.

Jeanette Feb 07, 2023 01:13 PM

Hi Tim,

I always appreciate hearing your perspective. Although, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the larger need to address the total complexity of PreK-12 literacy education, I don't believe Hanford's work suggests phonics as a silver bullet. Clearly, she's trying to tell a story that resonates with a wide audience, and thus, may in some circumstances, simplify the narrative for that purpose. Her work need not tackle EVERY aspect of reading instruction. As you mentioned, she sounded an alarm and as we are doing here, it is our job, as educators, to do the hard work of determining what parts and pieces of the remaining story need to be considered and elevated.

In that light and as a response to your larger point, one question I am constantly pondering is the absence of essential information in teacher training courses. I have a degree in secondary special education, a masters in educational leadership, and a C.A.G.S. in literacy, and yet, I have never been required to take a course in reading science or learning science. I subscribe to the montra that all teachers are teachers of literacy, but I've coached many a middle and high school staff that do not share this mindset. As we seek to support the continued growth of every student, it is my hypothesis that all teacher training programs must begin explicitly teaching the foundational principles of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, with a deep dive into literacy instruction. We ask teachers to make modifications and accommodations (the how) to curricula (the what) without ever telling them the why behind the pedagogy. Compounding the problem is the lack of high quality instructional materials we give them at all! I'd love to hear your thoughts on how instructional leaders at any level could support our faculty in reaching more literate 12th graders.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2023 02:22 PM

Jeanette- I fully support the idea of secondary special education teachers and reading specialists knowing how to teach decoding and related skills.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2023 02:26 PM

Robbi —
That is one of the reasons I have this website. Download copies of whatever you need. Ask your administrators what research (not journalism) they are going on? Show them copies of these last couple of blog entries. Good luck.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2023 02:38 PM


Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2017). The comprehension problems for second-language learners with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 40(2), 199-217.

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2018). The comprehension problems of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 88(3), 366–400.

Spencer, M., Wagner, R. K., & Petscher, Y. (2019). The reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: Evidence from a regression-based matching approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(1), 1–14.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2023 02:43 PM


You are correct that instruction cannot overcome all of the challenges that kids face. The same is true for medicine, housing, policing, etc. The issue is how much of it can we overcome? It appears that it can be substantial -- but because of how we operate schools, we do not maintain an ongoing commitment to doing so. Curricula are not maintained, professional development is not truly ongoing, etc. -- not even if it is wildly successful. It doesn't have to be that way, but it too often is.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2023 02:47 PM


Your graphic does show the acceleration that you describe, but it begins too early to disprove my point. The phonics initiative comes after the first parts of that acceleration. The NAEP data show a pretty steady climb over the entire period (with a bit of bump when the phonics initiative was implemented).


Mark Feb 08, 2023 12:36 AM

The issues raised in this “yes, but piece” are all true, but I would argue need to be separated from the point that high quality systematic phonics CURRICULUM and instruction is not standard practice in America’s schools AND poor misinstruction IS more likely. Yes, that and that fact that lots of $ was made, a fact of capitalism. Imagine if we had some reform in higher ed where teachers were better informed about how kids really learned how to read? Now that knowledge still needs to be translated into practice, with good classroom management in schools that may not welcome that knowledge, with knowledge friendly, unfriendly, or no curriculum at all. Still, 1 step forward. What if there was far less 3 cue method? Well a gap to be filled in instruction, but maybe a step forward? I hope so. Look. We should worry about a lot of things, including really bad PHONICS programs, too! To me, the big thing that Emily Hanford has created is an “opportunity.” Look at the discussion. Th openings for learning. Cracks in what has seemed to be impossible to discuss, even in so called institutions of higher ed. Ever been mocked at a faculty meeting for even raising discussion of the NAEP results. BTW, the NAEP measures more than just “reading,” right? Turning the ship around to equal and high outcomes is a challenging task and there are oars to pull in oral language, vocab, wide reading, content knowledge, getting high school students like my son interested in reading SOMETHING (please), These challenges are not shortcomings of the Hanford piece at all but the challenges we all face in making the world a better place and I hope would be noted as such at the beginning of the piece.

Timothy E Shanahan Feb 08, 2023 12:56 AM


Actually, no one has any idea how much phonics is taught or what programs are used or what the quality is. None of us has visited the 60,000 plus schools and no agency keeps track. Nor do we know how much is being done to build text reading fluency or vocabulary or other aspects of language and comprehension and writing. We assume that phonics instruction has been proscribed because the two most popular programs either didn't include phonics at all or gave it a rather cursory of vestigial coverage. What we can't discern from those statistics is the number of those schools that recognized the limitation all along and supplemented with a stand alone phonics program (several of which are quite popular). In any event, big increases in phonics are unlikely to have the impact that you seem to assume. I am hearing from many teachers whose schools have severely cut back on other aspects of reading instruction to facilitate phonics coverage that is way beyond anything found in any research study -- and many are describing other phonics instructional practices that are inconsistent with the research that exists.

You are correct that we don't know what the impact of 3-cueing has been. It is assumed to be negative but not a single research study has ever found that -- and there are several research studies with positive results of complex interventions that include that as a component (either it made no difference or its harm was outweighed by the other components). In any event, assuming an effect -- positive or negative -- does not make it an effect. We honestly don't know about that.


Christine Anselmi Feb 08, 2023 03:00 PM

I've been a skeptic of the Science of Reading. Not because the research isn't sound. Not because I want to allow teachers to hold onto comfortable (though flawed) past practices. Because skepticism is right in science. It keeps researchers asking questions, looking for answers, pushing a field forward, correcting flawed theories, improving, evolving. Where is the research missing the mark? What other factors are contributing to some students continuing to struggle with reading despite the implementation of phonics or even the entirety of Science of Reading methods? How is professional development being implemented to teachers that is hitting and missing the mark as it gets implemented with students? How do teachers actually define Science of Reading after PD has been delivered? In other words, what do teachers think Science of Reading actually is? Are curriculum companies producing adequate materials with an intelligent understanding of all components of literacy instruction? What if, despite our best implementation, student B still struggles to read in fifth, eighth, tenth grade? There are so many questions to ask along the road to implementation and our goal of universal literacy. Your article is not discounting of Hanford's contributions, but it allows for questions to be raised. You are always excellence with backing claims up with the latest research. You lost me at the end with your punative comments to skeptics. Be critical of non-revisionists, but welcome skeptics.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 08, 2023 04:55 PM


You go girl! I'm on your team -- as a scientist. As a policymaker, I have to make choices based on the research that exists and supplement it and shape it as consistently and clearly and as intelligently as I'm capable of doing. The policymaker needs to say, "I've got to make sure that phonics is a significant part of beginning reading curriculum -- that we have the best program supports and professional development on that for our teachers." The scientist has to say, "That's fine... right now... but maybe there are ways to teach phonics better (or better for some kids... who isn't doing well with this required regime and why not?).

Unfortunately, in our politicized times, policy people too often take what looks like the easy road. "The journalists say we need to teach phonics, then we'll promote phonics way beyond what is sensible -- I don't know what's sensible because I'm not consulting the research at all." Or, they underdo it: "The researchers have pointed out that some kids don't need as much phonics as the others. I don't want to go to the trouble of figuring how we might determine that. I'll leave it to individual teachers and I'm sure they'll make the right choices."


Tiffini Feb 08, 2023 05:51 PM

Absolutely. I enjoyed "Sold A Story" and agree with your points here. As a middle school interventionist, I have been asking the same questions to anyone who will listen. What are we doing for our secondary students? These students need change just as much as the K-2 students. Thanks for sharing!

Glenn DeVoogd Feb 08, 2023 08:35 PM

This is an amazing post Tim. I hope you are publish some of the thoughts here. It really needs to get into the literature. The Los Angeles Unified School District, many other districts, and states such as California are bowing to the idea that the simple view of reading alone will improve the low scores in reading. Your writing in this blog and Nel Duke's Active View of Reading in the August issue of Reading Research Quarterly 2021 are important improvements that help educators understand the complexity of reading instruction. I was also thankful for your reference to the Wagner article. The scatterplot on page 18 in Wagner et. al's Combining Old and New for Better Understanding and Predicting Dyslexia clearly shows how some students reading comprehension is better than listening comprehension.

Gaynor Chapman Feb 10, 2023 04:17 AM

Thank you ,Timothy for mentioning the endeavour for Universal Literacy.This was the ideal my mother said was her campaign for returning to NZ.She had seen this achieved in the1930s in low socioeconomic state schools in Dunedin, a staunchly Scottish settlement in NZ, obsessed with basic education. As an elementary teacher you lost grading if every child in your class did not achieve a reading age of seven at the age of seven. No excuses were accepted . By seven years all the common spelling patterns were known and could be spelled. This was using traditional intensive phonics and the Dolch type words.Comprehension was tested as well. The reading books were literature based with eg 'Brere Rabbit and the Tar Baby' , Aesops Fables etc. Having the bottom 10% of struggling readers in a class of more than 30 students all achieving this was is a terrible grind. But once a good teacher has seen this ideal is possible they are incentivized to keep aiming for it.
I am sure you will have schools and teachers in the US ,like Marva Collins, quietly achieving exceptional results in poor areas.Your researcher Pressley,recommended teachers should be exposed to these high achieving teachers . Academics , certainly do not have all the answers and unfortunately over the decades have produced a truckload of awful and destructive nonsense.
I have respect for you Timothy, because you have wisdom and also spent years in classrooms. Teaching is an art and a science.

Jennifer N Feb 11, 2023 06:29 PM

While I don't believe that Sold a Story oversells the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction in the earliest grades, I am concerned that in our conversations about the podcast and the discussions within the "science of reading community" at large, there isn't more curiosity about exploring the efficacy of different types of phonics instruction. Why should we assume that all phonics instruction is equal, especially when we have evidence that even with "high quality phonics" there are many children who take several years to develop basic competency in reading? Many popular traditional phonics programs rely on knowledge that predates the explosion in scientific reading research. Moreover, it seems that the applied research is still lagging well behind the basic science. Is it possible that we continue to leave a substantial percentage of students behind because these traditional phonics approaches aren't as aligned with current research as many are led to believe?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 11, 2023 06:43 PM


From your lips to God's ear. Here we are more than 20 years after the meta-analysis of the National Reading Panel and there have been very few studies into the specifics of phonics instruction in terms of dosage, decodable text, integration with phonemic awareness, speech to print vs. print to speech, analytic versus synthetic, sequences of instruction, relationship with morphology, identification of sufficiency levels, role of spelling, role of spelling invention, set for variability, etc.


Jeff Bowers Feb 12, 2023 10:06 PM

Hi Tim, I suggested that holding children back may play a role in the in "Mississippi Miracle" you wrote:

"That possibility is unlikely. That effect does happen but it disappears after the first year. That means in 2018, you might have seen unusually large gains, but the fact that they haven't washed out four years later suggests that is very unlikely."

Again, I'm no expert in this, but don't understand why the effect should wash out if the state continues its policy. If cross state comparisons consistently include a cohort of Mississippi children who are on average older, it could explain why Mississippi does reasonably well year on year. If the performance keeps getting better in the most recent years and the retention rate was constant, I could see it is not the whole story. But the effect should not wash out. Also, it is interesting to note (assuming this is true):

"In fourth grade reading results, Mississippi boosted its ranking from forty-ninth in 2013 to twenty-ninth in 2019; in math, they zoomed from fiftieth to twenty-third". Again, hard to explain the reading results on the basis of better phonics if maths goes up as well (unless you want to credit math outcomes to better phonics -- a bit of a stretch as there is almost no evidence that phonics improves reading comprehension). But the retention explanation would work here too.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 13, 2023 05:08 PM

The reason that the effect eventually washes out, is that those particularly low readers that are held out of the pool have to come back into the pool, but a year later. You are imagining big gains from those kids who are held back -- which is rarely, if ever, the case. Thus, if it were a retention effect, you'd expect a big jump in year 1 (as those kids were not in the testing pool), and then a relative decline the following year (as those kids were added back into the pool), and then things would stay stable -- perhaps slightly higher than was originally the case, but no where near as high as in year 1. We have seen that in other states and municipalities that have retention laws. That isn't what we saw and continue to see in Mississippi.

One other thing that I would point out -- the retention of 3rd graders on the basis of reading scores began in 2015 -- not 2017 or 2018... it would be very peculiar if such retention effects showed up initially or increased suddenly in the third year of its implementation.


Harriett Janetos Feb 15, 2023 05:11 PM

What do you think of this new report, The Effect of Retention Under Mississippi’s Test-Based Promotion Policy?

Project Summary

This study examines the impact of Mississippi’s test-based promotion policy, adopted in 2013 as part of a comprehensive statewide effort to improve early literacy. The authors employ a research design that allows them to estimate the causal impact of third-grade retention under the policy on test scores and non-test-score outcomes in the sixth grade. The findings contribute to our growing knowledge of how elementary-level test-based promotion policies influence students’ educational outcomes and experiences over time.

Key Findings

For students who were in the third grade in 2014-15, being retained under Mississippi’s policy led to substantially higher ELA scores in the sixth grade.
The magnitude of this causal effect is very large relative to other educational interventions, including test-based promotion policies in other states.
The positive effect on ELA scores was driven by positive effects for Black and Hispanic/Latinx students in particular.
Retention under the policy had no significant impact on other outcomes in sixth grade, including math scores, absences, and special education identification.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 15, 2023 05:34 PM

Historically, most research on retention reported negative effects. However, these studies tended to not be very tightly controlled and there was often a question about the equivalence of the groups being compared. More recently, first in Florida and now in Mississippi, there have been much better executed studies (in most regards) and both studies have found positive impacts for the practice of retaining students at grade 3. Usually with retention policies, there is an immediate positive bump in testing (primarily due to the fact that the lowest readers are removed from the sample during the first yea, but they come back the following year -- thus, the scores go up a bunch, then come down some, and then stay stable). This study is different in reporting big gains three years down the road. Which sounds important... but...

I said these FLA and MS studies are better done in most regards... but not in a key one key design feature... Retention in these cases was not an independent variable in a tightly controlled research study. No, it was part of a series of policy actions that were taken in a concerted effort to raise reading achievement. I don't see how you can separate out the effects of this retention policy and the phonics policy that followed it. Initially, there were small positive gains between the retention effort and the phonics training (and even greater gains followed that). The same was true in Florida -- they did add retention to the mix, but with lots of professional development, monitoring assessments, Tier 2 programming, and research-based instructional materials. There is no question that in both cases, there were clear gains in achievement. But, it is impossible to say which policies or combinations of policies caused the outcomes. Just like I'm not willing to attribute all of the gains in Mississippi to phonics (since the gains have taken place consistently over a long period of time that predated those actions), I wouldn't be willing to attribute them to retention either (though it is clear that there were gains after retention was put in place -- along with any other changes they might have made at that time).


erin butson Feb 25, 2023 06:55 PM

Yes, this! Thank you for this. I SO appreciate your thoughtful, knowledgable perspective.

As a first grade teacher I have been an advocate for targeted phonics instruction ever since I attended the Reading First training in 2000. But phonics is just one piece (albeit foundational) of the complex reading puzzle. Once students have the skills to decode, they (especially reluctant readers) really need opportunities to find a genre or series of books that they enjoy so they can run with it. That is the number one way that I have seen students "become readers", by having the phonics skills AND finding a book series that they can't put down. Students need teachers and librarians to guide them, give them a variety to choose from, encourage them, and connect them.

As a teacher I spend hundreds of dollars a year buying high-interest, can't put down books that I know my students won't be able to resist because I know that is how they go from knowing how to read to becoming actual readers. I buy 3 sets of the Dogman Series (a gateway drug for creating readers) from Costco at the beginning of every year, and by this time of the year (Feb.) they are gone because my kids are taking my books! As a reading teacher there is nothing more magical than to have my budding readers STEAL my books and beg for me to buy more. To me, that is the truest measure of my success.

Teaching reading is not simply the science of knowing HOW to read, but ALSO the art of making stories come alive through reading lots of picture and chapter books together AND connecting readers to books and texts they want to read on their own.
AND then there's a whole lot more than that. But it's not one thing.

Thank you for your perspective. It is a breath of fresh air.

Alison Apr 19, 2023 07:21 PM

Tim, appreciate all the work you do and your insightful posts. Do you have a link for the NICHD studies you referenced here? Thanks for your time!

Abigail Aug 31, 2023 11:23 AM

With the upcoming school year quickly approaching, teachers are rethinking their leveled classroom libraries. How do you suggest teachers reorganize their libraries to support their readers? We have decodables for our K-2 students, but not enough for every reader. How would you reorganize a K-2 classroom library? A 3-5 classroom library? When students book shop and bring books homes for nightly reading, what type of guidance should teachers give students when choosing books?

What Are your thoughts?

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

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