More on the PBS News Hour Dyslexia Segment

  • 08 June, 2019

Recently, the PBS News Hour aired a report about the parents of children who suffer from dyslexia. Their kids weren’t being taught phonics and weren’t learning to read. When phonics instruction was provided, they did better, and so the moms were pressuring their state to ensure other kids wouldn’t face the same neglect. It was a classic story of public institutions (in this case schools) not adequately serving and the public rebelling against the bureaucratic neglect.

The report was rebuked by a group of reading professors. The fact, that I hadn’t signed on to that protest, provoked comment in this space and on Twitter. Readers wanted to know why I wasn’t part of their protest.

Not interested in joining the melee, I was willing to make a formal state of my take on the various topics at issue. This is the second installment of that explanation that began with last week’s blog entry.

Last week, I considered whether there is such a thing as dyslexia, whether everyone who struggles to learn to read is dyslexic, and whether phonics instruction is a particularly effective or specialized approach for dyslexics.

Here are some issues to consider.

Does a diagnosis of dyslexia suggest a particular instructional treatment?

No, unfortunately, it does not.

Although the PBS report may have implied that if a child is dyslexic then phonics instruction is the only way to go. But the term is often used generically to mean nothing more than “reading problem”.

As one of my colleagues pointed out recently: “Do you know how many neuropsych evals I've seen where the kid's phonological awareness is a STRENGTH compared to their other assessment data and they still have a dyslexia diagnosis????”

The most rigorous and accurate approach to dyslexia diagnosis that I’m aware of is that developed by Ginger Berninger and her team. It includes analysis of genetic alleles, brain structures and functions (fMRI), and eye movements; well beyond the scope of a typical neuropsychological evaluation (and beyond what I have ever been able to do in my professional practice).

As much as I’d like dyslexia to be reserved for those disorders that include disruptions of phonological processing, that as yet is not the case. That means that if a child is described to me as being dyslexic, I still need to test and probe to find out what is likely to be most beneficial instructionally.

Thosee kids that PBS focused on all apparently benefited from the addition of explicit phonics to their instructional regime. That, to me, is prima facie evidence that phonics was a good call in their cases—it worked! That, however, doesn’t mean that is the only or the best response that would make sense in all cases. Berninger, for example, distinguished between dyslexia and oral and written language learning disability; in my understanding, both of those would be classified as developmental learning disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, but my instructional responses to them would be quite different.

When phonics is the solution, is there a particular kind of phonics that works best?

Although the “science of reading” makes it pretty clear decoding is deeply implicated in the reading process and that phonics instruction facilitates such learning, it is largely silent about which approach is best.

Studies that directly compare different phonics programs just don’t exist, and there aren’t enough studies of any particular phonics method to support an informative meta-analysis.

The National Reading Panel (NRP) concluded that explicit phonics was beneficial for kids in both regular classrooms K-2 and for struggling older readers. (Later the National Early Panel broadened this to include preschoolers, too).

NRP found that systematic phonics is best, that is there should be a sequential phonics curriculum to guide teachers’ instruction.

But NRP found no statistically significant difference between synthetic phonics (teaching each orthographic/phonemic element and how to blend these together) and analytic phonics (teaching larger spelling units including syllables and rimes, or word analogies). Proponents of each get pretty heated, despite the fact that there is no evidence that their way is the only way or the best way to help kids to become readers.

The PBS report showed some video of kids being taught phonics by a multisensory approach (involving tactile-kinesthetic responses). Again, such approaches have fervent proponents, but not research evidence that has shown them to be better than any other approaches (nor any worse, I might add).

The best statement about quality phonics instruction that I’ve found is from the International Dyslexia Association. They don’t endorse any particular phonics product, but their instructional principles concerning structured phonics instruction are impeccable and sensible and, until we gain more empirical evidence, I think they should be the standard:

But if the term dyslexia doesn’t describe a specific learning problem or fails to lead to any specific diagnosis then isn’t it non-scientific?

Since the dawn of science, it has been accepted practice to identify physical or mental conditions long before we have gained sufficient knowledge to use these categories practically. Cancer was first identified in 1775; and the first effective cancer treatment was found in 1956. Schizophrenia was first identified in 1908 (really 17 years earlier, but there was an all-too-familiar argument over terminology); we’re still figuring out that one more than a century later. There are a large number of physical and mental conditions that, though identified, do not yet allow for a precise prediction of what treatment would be best. Learning disorders is one of those conditions.  

A term like dyslexia is a scientific hypothesis that over time gets described, used to categorize experience, refined, and used to guide scientific exploration. Nothing unscientific about any of that, but currently I wouldn’t trust its diagnostic value (beyond the idea that these kids are really having persistent trouble learning to read).

How many dyslexic kids are there in the U.S.?

Perhaps the best estimate we have is from epidemiological studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic. Their estimate is 20% (the figure that PBS used). That sounds a bit high to me since I’ve heard estimates from 5-35% over the years; though, admittedly, those haven’t seemed as thoroughly grounded as the Mayo numbers. Nevertheless, I suspect many of those kids who struggle in reading do not really have a developmental disorder. In many instances, they just haven’t been taught well and, perhaps, if we take addressing their learning needs seriously, we may refine those estimates downward.

The letter from the reading professors touted the idea that there are lots of ways to teach reading. How can you support phonics if there are so many good alternatives?

I’m not going to pretend to have understood that portion of the complaint to PBS. It was vague and ambiguous. Rather than trying to parse the equivocal and confusing language, let me respond this way.

Yes, indeed, kids can learn to read without phonics instruction. Again, and again, I hear supposed dyslexia “experts” and advocates claim that phonics is essential or that learning to read can’t happen without phonics.

As my granddaughter Emily says with as much skepticism as a 5-year-old can muster: “Come ooooon.”

In other words, this is so obviously not the truth that when it is stated half the people in the room grab their wallets.

I’m a big supporter of phonics instruction. The nuns taught me phonics in the 1950s. It was a late addition to our Grade 1 curriculum, and it helped.

The first book I ever read about reading instruction (in September 1969) was Why Johnny Can’t Read, a pro-phonics polemic. I tutored a struggling reader in Pontiac, Michigan in phonics the next day.

I taught phonics in my first- and third-grade classrooms, though it was not part of the curriculum at the time.

I wrote about the value of phonics when I was still a graduate student—back in the days when that position was not a popular one, and I included phonics measures in my doctoral dissertation.

And, I served proudly on the National Reading Panel on the alphabetics committee that reviewed the research on phonemic awareness and phonics—which found them to be valuable in teaching reading (and I have the stripes to show for it).

But let’s be perfectly honest. There have been entire generations that have learned to read English without phonics instruction. Research studies show that kids who have been taught little more than word memorization have learned to read.

Let’s be careful with our language and circumscribed in our claims. To do this it can help to distinguish phonics, which is a type of instruction, and decoding (which is the ability to read words based on the spellings).

Learning to decode is an essential of reading. If you don’t learn to decode, you won’t learn to read. (There is more to reading than decoding, so decoding is an essential, but not sufficient condition for reading).

Phonics instruction can help kids to figure out how to decode. As such phonics is helpful, but not necessary. That is, it is possible to figure out decoding without explicit instruction in phonics.

Phonics helps many kids to figure out decoding earlier and easier than would be the case without it, and there are kids who would never figure it out without that help (like those kids on PBS). For them, phonics is truly essential.

That sounds pretty straightforward. Some kids need phonics instruction, and some can get by without it. So, all that teachers need to do is identify who will benefit from what and then provide such teaching.

But that’s the crux of the problem. We have no way of sorting out ahead of time who needs phonics, who would gain some benefit, and who would do fine without it.

This is similar to the issues of vaccination. We don’t know which kids are going to be exposed to polio and who is susceptible to it, so we vaccinate everyone.

The PBS report included a teacher who said she hadn’t been trained in such teaching. No excuse for that.

It reported on five kids who received inadequate phonics instruction in the early grades. No excuse for that.

Despite the need for “extraordinary support” for these children, their schools apparently provided no phonics interventions. No excuse for that, either.

The reading experts were not wrong in their claim that kids can learn to read in other ways (e.g., without explicit phonics instruction), but they missed the point that those other ways hadn’t served these children well.

Phonics instruction needs to be a universal element of reading instruction in the primary grades, and primary grade teachers need to know how to teach phonics. That protects the largest number of children.

And those children also need instruction in oral reading fluency, reading comprehension (including both cognitive strategies and language skills like vocabulary, morphology, grammar, cohesion, structure, etc.), and writing. Remember phonics is neither a panacea for all reading problems, nor a sufficient response to the reading needs of all of our children. A science of reading would definitely include phonics because research shows that such instruction is widely beneficial. But that science would require these other elements as well, and for exactly the same reason--empirical research shows their benefits.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Serapha Jun 08, 2019 07:40 PM

I was a struggling reader- for many reasons and I remember having a phonics intervention in 2nd grade and I thought, Wow, this is it. I just needed to know the code. I read the whole Little House on the Prarie series that same year.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 08, 2019 07:57 PM


Phonics isn't everything, but as your experience shows, it is something. I don't get all the religious/ideological/political pro- and anti-phonics stuff. It helps many kids so it should be part of instruction.


Harriett Jun 08, 2019 08:12 PM

Thanks, Tim, for such a comprehensive and balanced analysis--and for keeping the emotion out of your voice, something I sometimes find difficult to do. Your link to IDA's statement about structured phonics instruction includes this reference to teacher training:

"The majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to prevent reading problems, to recognize the early signs of risk, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities successfully. Inquiries into teacher preparation in reading have revealed a pervasive absence of rich content and academic rigor in many courses that lead to the certification of teachers and specialists. Analyses of teacher licensing tests show that, typically, very few are aligned with current research on effective instruction for students at risk."

This perfectly describes my experience getting my reading specialist's credential--hence, the emotion. Once I realized that the Three Cueing System and other "systems" I was taught failed to help struggling readers crack the code, I began doing my own research. Now, a dozen years later, my discoveries have helped hundreds of students over that initial obstacle--how to decode. Your distinction between phonics and decoding is very helpful. I find phonics to be the quickest, most efficient way to assist struggling students so that they can go on to read with facility and pleasure. But you're right: If teachers/specialists feel they have better methods to accelerate this process, they should use them.

Such an important discussion. As the year winds down and I get hugs, and thanks and tears of joy from students and parents alike, I know that phonics works for my struggling students. Thanks again for tackling this topic head on.

Tonya Jun 08, 2019 09:25 PM

I'm on the side of the students! Much of the debate I have seen, mainly on Facebook, has been bashing schools and teachers. Many of those that are pushing for the "phonics" side are in the tutoring business. There are "bad apples" in any profession but to lump all teachers in the same basket is unfair. Many of those that are screaming the loudest do so negatively. Instead of just selling their product or service, they talk negatively about other products, schools and teachers. Everyone learns differently!! We all need to think outside the box when teaching our students. We also need to stop labeling children. We need to stop fighting and start uniting to help ALL students!! Stop making education about $$$$$.

Eoin Shanahan Jun 08, 2019 10:33 PM

Thanks Tim for these very insightful observations. I ask two questions with the greatest respect
(1) You write 'Phonics instruction can help kids to figure out how to decode'. May we add the words '...and encode'?
(2) You write 'As such phonics is helpful, but not necessary.' Would 'As such phonics is helpful, but not essential for all' bring greater clarity to this excellent piece, since phonics is necessary for some learners?

Tim Shanahan Jun 09, 2019 03:37 AM

Eoinn— yes and yes, respectfully.


Michael Pye Jun 09, 2019 10:12 AM

I really wish your conclusion had been summarised at the begining. I enjoy the detail of your argument but if I didn't already have some understanding I think I could walk away with serious misunderstandings.

A simple statement at the begining that research has shown that SSP is our best (current) approach to teaching large groups of students decoding, before then parsing that statements limits, would prevent that.

On a side note I was surprised that analytical phonics hasn't been directly compared to SSP and been shown to be inferior. That was an assumption I had always made. However if the big comparison studies between whole language and SSP never had a analytical phonics group we would need different research to investigate that.

Hope I haven't misunderstood anything.

Jo-Anne Gross Jun 09, 2019 11:30 AM

If we did K-2 Reading instruction properly, I love this document referring to NRP, yourself and Benita discuss instruction
Then, we’d know who is Dyslexic,L.D.

Sam Bommarito Jun 09, 2019 12:11 PM

This is another entry I'll have to bookmark. As a previous reader already stated it is well balanced and comprehensive. Thanks for this and all your contributions to the field. As my grandson might say "nothing but net".

Harriett Jun 09, 2019 03:08 PM

In Reading Development and Teaching (2016), Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp write:

"We have found only two adequately controlled studies published since the National Reading Panel report which have succeeded in directly comparing the relative efficacy of synthetic small-unit phonics and onset-rime analogy large-unit phonics in promoting reading growth. . . Both conclude that teaching small units is more effective than teaching large units. . . Children need to know almost five times as many onset and rime correspondences as grapheme-phoneme correspondences to read all monosyllabic words in the early version of the Children's Printed Word Database. It is simply more efficient to teach children grapheme-phoneme correspondences."

Michael Pye Jun 09, 2019 04:52 PM

Thanks Harriett.

Marvi Hagopian Jun 10, 2019 12:20 AM

President George W. Bush tried to turn the tide with his Reading First (RF) program. It promoted the teaching of systematic, explicit, direct phoneme awareness and phonics instruction. RF was highly successful in California, the perfect compliment to the state’s recently adopted Reading\Language Arts Standards and Frameworks. has graphic examples of gains made by student performance in many of CA’s lowest performing schools from 1999 to the programs end in 2005. Many states took the money but failed to implement the program with fidelity. Those states showed little to no improvement and caused Reading First to be labeled as another failed government program. Common Core (CC) replaced California’s Standards. Since the adoption of CC student scores in California drop each year. Systematic, explicit, direction instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics are no longer an important part of the curriculum.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 10, 2019 12:33 AM

I’m still going to use the entire body of studies not just two of the set because they go the way I want. The fact that one has not proven to be best means either is okay.

Harriett Jun 10, 2019 02:21 AM

I totally agree, Tim. I choose synthetic phonics because I find it's simpler for students. There are fewer phonemes than phonograms, and I need my struggling readers to be able to manipulate phonemes when they mispronounce a word because they have to understand what to do when prompted to "try a different sound." Like the authors of Reading Development and Teaching, I simply find it's more efficient. But if new research says otherwise . . .

Nancy Duggan Jun 10, 2019 02:21 PM

The letter you did not sign and your answer here categorize the advocate groups in the PBS News report as “moms pushing the state to push phonics,” but that is an inaccurate description. First off, that particular group in Arkansas includes educators, yes teachers and yes moms and dads, who happen to be tax paying citizens. That the snippet in the news did not show that does not change that the push is from a broad base and the “moms” term has the connotation of not being “expert” but these citizens have actually done more research on reading and know more than you give them credit for. They know dyslexia better too, as they follow the research of Harvard’s Nadine Gaab and MIT’s John Gabrieli, they have read Mark Seidenberg and recognize the neuroscience of Stanislas Dehaene.
The group in Arkansas and in fact many of the groups rejecting the failed instruction that leaves more than half of our third graders without third grade reading skills is well informed.
Dyslexia is real and can be accurately identified at age 4 and 5 ( see NIH studies by Gaab and Gabrieli). But these are not the only kids missing out on foundational skills through the products marketed as “balanced” that leave out phonics or sprinkle it on as a last option and not very explicitly or systematically. In fact many of the old guard for whole language, are the 57 signers of that letter are financially linked to these products.
These parents and educators in Arkansas are more informed than the 57 on what the National Reading Panel includes. They are not “only about phonics” - although PBS picked up on that aspect. These parents are engaging policy makers to understand all the pillars of reading and the “Science of Reading “ lists them all.
The group in Arkansas networks with Alaska, Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, all 50 states, a group for military families and some Canadian provinces. We learn from neuroscience experts on the reading brain, we learn from professionals in the field like Louisa Moats, David Kilpatrick, the Florida Center for Reading Research and the Reading League.
We are not misguided, zealots “Seeing” one thing work for some kids. We are well informed professionals from all walks of life including education, who may also have been parents, and are citizens who are sick of the lack of improvement in third grade reading and eighth grade reading over time.
We are sick of funds spent training teachers in products like Reading Recovery that are not really fit for their intended use based on current valid neuroscience and how human brains acquire reading. Both typical and a-typical brains benefit from direct instruction at the sound level. These folks you portray as just reacting from what they see.. see kids failing to learn to read. But they seem to know more about phonemic awareness, the alphabetic code, the neural network that develops the visual word form area and how we can help readers be more fluent as to acces the rich language needed to access comprehension of literature than many teachers they face at team meetings. They are empowering teachers and parents to expect that our education systems be better, be based in real science and move beyond reading wars into the 21st century, teaching all kids to read. The 57 and those who would defend them would like these groups across the country to be uninformed bumpkins, or helicopter moms, it would be easier to dismiss us but we are not. We are “reading to learn” adults in a world where Stanislas Dehaene wins the Brain Prize in neuroscience and we can access that information instantly. We are adults who can read that the National Institute of Health published clear science that early identification of real brain structural differences are easily screened at age 4 and 5 to identify risk for dyslexia. We can read that 28 percent of third graders in Alaska can not read. We can read that teachers report they are not prepared to teach reading. We can read that even in Massachusetts where NAEP scores are considered good, too many are not reading; there has been no improvement in closing the largest gap and reading is not improving for kids who are at risk. Reading is not improving in America.
We can read and we are lobbying for teachers and kids to have access to the science of reading without the profiteering tilt of experts like the 57 who are selling products that do not meet the needs of too many kids and do not follow the science from phonemic awareness, systematic explicit (synthetic ) phonics, language background like grammar, syntax, morphology and of course vocabulary as well as frequent early access to literature and the rich literary language.
We do not care to be brushed aside as “mere reading wars phonics advocates” by the whole language old guard. If you thought we do not read, research and know why we ask for the science, you are mistaken.
This report by PBS was not about moms pushing phonics it’s about citizens being better consumers of reading instruction, doing their homework and making more scientifically based decisions in public spending. Citizens enabling children to learn to read by reading up on the science, connecting with real experts in cognitive development and sharing that knowledge with policy makers through the democratic process and improving literacy.

Harriett Jun 10, 2019 03:13 PM

Well, someone needed to say it--thanks, Nancy. Bottom line: we can't depend on serendipity if we want our teachers and reading specialists to understand the science of reading. They need to be systematically and explicitly taught this science in their teacher training programs. The Dehaenes, Kilpatricks, Seidenbergs, etc., should be an integral part of this training, front and center. Too much is at stake to leave this to chance, and those of us who have had to go it alone know that road isn't an easy one.

Vicki Jun 10, 2019 07:23 PM

Thank you, Nancy Duggan... so well stated!

Tim Shanahan Jun 11, 2019 03:21 AM

Nancy— that’s fascinating. Obviously PBS missed what was going on with those moms. I tried not to speak for them, but you obviously believe there is no reason to show such sensitivity. You obviously know them, and know how PBS slanted their complaints. The legislation in Arkansas doesn’t that those mothers supported doesn’t appear to match well with your claims here.


Michael Pye Jun 11, 2019 09:52 PM

Tim you implied Harriet cherry picked studies comparing analytical and systemic phonics. She quoted two and a reason why they concluded one over the other. Are there studies that show analytical phonics work better? Do some studies just say that they are equal? If it is the second then it would be reasonable to conclude that evidence supports SSP when combined with the large scale studies like Clackmannanshire that show that SSP works better then whole language.

Just because we can't rule out that both phonics approaches work equally doesn't mean that we don't have more evidence for one over the other. Imagine a drug trial between two different branches of drug compounds. After showing one works better then the other there may be other variants of that drug which work better or as well but a doctor would correctly bias towards using the one that had been compared (this happens a lot). When buying household products, especially high value items like house and cars we often employ this kind of reasoning.
A child's future reading ability is more then sufficient justification for using this method of deduction.

Tim Shanahan Jun 11, 2019 11:35 PM

Michael— no there are meta-analyses of dozens of studies finding that overall there is no significant difference in outcome.adding these two small studies to the mix is not enough to change that finding (thus, if you look at all 40 phonics studies there is no difference).


ann Jun 12, 2019 12:22 AM

Many of us moms have left lucrative careers to educate ourselves in how to teach our own children. Many of us have studied advocacy and special education law - just so we can understand the jargon around the weighted IEP table. Many of us have needed to dabble in homeschooling just to give our kids a reason to wake up in the morning. Many of us spend thousands of dollars on excellent private evaluations only to be denied a fair chance for our kids. (Then we proceed to spend thousands on tutors.) Many of us see our soon-to-be graduates still on IEP's - still not prepared for college. So, what are we to do?

Tim Shanahan Jun 12, 2019 01:25 PM

It shouldn’t be that way, Ann, it shouldn’t be that way.


Katarina S. Jun 12, 2019 02:05 PM

I wholeheartedly appreciate your analysis here. I am wondering about your thoughts about some of the articles being written that seem to link together the terminology "balanced literacy" with the whole language approach. Specifically, I am describing this piece (that has recently been used within a school district I am working with to promote a "renewed" emphasis on systematic phonics instruction):

There is a part of this article that reads as misinformation to me pertaining to what is termed as "balanced literacy" throughout the article:
"If there was one principal who was sure to resist [explicit and systematic phonics instruction], it was Kathy Bast, the principal of Calypso Elementary School. She was known as the district's No. 1 balanced literacy champion. 'Decoding was never part of anything I ever did'"

Reading your blog post, you seem to be advocating for a balanced approach to literacy, meaning that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is a part of a greater whole rather than being the focus of the curriculum. That’s how I’m interpreting this. However, there are articles and blog posts similar to your own which are written by folks who are conflating the terms/concepts of balanced literacy and whole language and other ideas about teaching literacy. They don't actually seem to have a nuanced understanding of what these terms actually mean from a historical perspective of reading and literacy as a field of study. These kinds of articles are being used in school districts to move away from a such a balanced literacy approach, getting further and further away from the less discrete but nevertheless important parts of reading, such as an emphasis on students' background knowledge (drawing from it, building it through time with texts), developing purposes for reading, and attending to the socioemotional elements of reading. It would seem counterintuitive *not* to teach phonics, but it would also seem to be counterintuitive *only* to develop students into word-callers without the reservoirs of background knowledge and strategic knowledge needed to comprehend texts. While background and strategic knowledge as well as the socioemotional elements of literacy are less easily measurable, it is theoretically clear that through affective neuroscience that our own emotions undergird cognition and learning beyond mere recall (specifically drawing from the body of work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang) and so would also impact learning to read and write. We do need to pay attention to developing our students as readers with purpose rather than only accurate word callers. I don't think you are arguing against that, but I do think that the articles that are being written as hit pieces towards balanced literacy are not well-informed and are doing a whole lot of damage to students in our schools as readers and writers. I think we need to be even more intentional and direct about debunking such misinformation when it surfaces, in a way that all stakeholders in education can readily understand and can find relevant.

I do worry that even though you advocate for an approach to teaching children to read that includes (but stretches well-beyond) systematic instruction in phonics, use of the IDA's work ("their instructional principles concerning structured phonics instruction are impeccable and sensible and, until we gain more empirical evidence") warrants further examination. First, the IDA is not simply promoting an approach to phonics here, they are promoting an approach to LITERACY ("Structured Literacy"). Again, this speaks to a conflation of terminology that is being taken up by school districts not to mean phonics instruction but to mean instruction in literacy in general. And that is what the IDA article that you've used here describes.

For what it’s worth, there is not a lot to argue with in terms of what is on the paper in the IDA article; my critique lies in what is *not* there as well as the myriad interpretations of its contents. First, I don't see any place (on p. 4) within this framework for time spent with texts actually practicing the skills they learn. Sure, practicing phonics and other word identification skills decontextualized is fine for a short amount of time, but that's not where the rubber meets the road, so to speak - that happens in texts that students read with some kind of purpose.

Then, I see the word "activities" and I worry how this will be interpreted, not just for phonics instruction but for instruction of all kinds because structured literacy is a framework for teaching reading, writing, listening, and speaking, not just phonics. Again, I worry that there will be an interpretation that will focus on decontextualized skills practice in terms of such “activities” in all of these areas rather than simply using such activities a tool within a larger pedagogical toolbox for literacy overall.

Again, the biggest critique of the IDA piece shared as a whole is that it is lacking nuance about elements of literacy learning and instruction in terms of operationalizing such principles. Perhaps this is by design, leaving it open to interpretation. However, it is clear that these interpretations for some districts are moving towards a code-centric, decontextualized skills practice approach rather than attempting to strike some balance between the code, meaning, text, and student (and their context) – a balance that will be different for all students. I appreciate that the IDA pays some attention to this (“Different kinds of reading and writing difficulties require different approaches to instruction. One program or approach will not meet the needs of all students”). And while they do not seem to endorse a single Program with a capital P (like Orton-Gillingham or Wilson or others common in the dyslexia conversation), they *do* only provide a single approach to teaching literacy above (“Structured Literacy”) and frame this as “an approach to reading instruction” while not describing any other approaches or even mentioning them. That framing can read as an endorsement of a single approach to teaching reading.

While these might seem like small criticisms within the IDA document (and others like it), they can have big consequences when interpreted by districts.

Again, I appreciate your thinking here as well as the space to respond and do some parsing out of these ideas for myself. I am a literacy educator and researcher looking for a place to enter into the conversation as I begin working with districts to review and revise their ELA/literacy curriculum. When there appears to be so many heavily biased articles (at best) and misinformation (at worst) guiding our school administrators, it can be difficult to know where to start. I do plan to share this blog post with them.

Cali Nichols, COKID Jun 12, 2019 02:28 PM

Hi Tim. I take issue with your statement “Again, and again, I hear supposed dyslexia “experts” and advocates claim that phonics is essential or that learning to read can’t happen without phonics.”
I have not heard any dyslexia expert or parent advocate say this. We all know about 40% of kids will learn to read with whole language. By choosing to use the whole language approach, our education experts are only teaching about half the kids to read, and doing it without phonics instruction. By the way, what is considered being able to read? My dyslexic son could read before intervention, he was just really bad at it. He guessed at all the words based on the picture, context and his background knowledge. Parent advocates have always said that phonics is imperative instruction for DYSLEXIC students to learn to read. It is essential. All kids would benefit, though. So, I think you really misrepresented advocates and dyslexia experts with that statement.

Harriett Jun 12, 2019 03:27 PM

The new reading wars seem to be between balanced literacy and structured literacy. The spin by each opposing side says balanced literacy only dabbles in fleeting, unsystematic phonics and structured literacy focuses on decontextualized word-calling. So what's an overwhelemed teacher to do? Is structured literacy in fact quite balanced? This may make a good future topic for consideration.

Michael Pye Jun 12, 2019 04:14 PM

Thanks Tim the metanalysis's would be strong evidence of parity assuming the individual studies where sensitive enough. Where whole language and analytical phonics ever compared on the large scale that SSP and whole language where (I have been assuming not)? If so did the results show the same benefit or less? That would be interesting because if SSP worked better on large scale studies, but had no advantage on other studies, then we would have an interesting discrepancy. If they worked as effectively then it likely is phonics not SSP that works. I admit this would really surprise me as it would challenge a lot of the theoretical arguments I believe in. Unless analytical phonics is also being packaged in a very explicit and structured way (as a believer in explicit instruction it is this component which I have suspect improves outcomes). Hope this makes sense.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2019 02:39 PM

Katarina S.--

Thanks for your thoughtful inquiry. No, I definitely would not describe my approach as "balanced." I would probably use a term more like a "comprehensive research-based approach."

One reason for my reticence is one that your posting points out: nobody knows what the term means, though it sounds positive. Indeed, I have seen it mean that "we teach more than phonics," but I've also seen it mean, "We don't teach phonics." You state: "They don't actually seem to have a nuanced understanding of what these terms actually mean from a historical perspective of reading and literacy as a field of study."

That's interesting because the historical source of term emerged in the 1990s from a book published by Michael Pressley and Ellen McIntyre. Basically, they were trying to settle the Reading Wars. Their idea was that what was needed was political compromise between the two sides (Whole Language and basic skills). They thought that teachers should spend half the time teaching those things that research supported and half the time doing those things that teachers thought would motivate kids to become readers (whether there was any research evidence for that or not). I thought at the time, and continue to think, that to be a horrible idea. Kids need all the instruction to be effective--not just half of it; and teachers, like other professionals, have to discipline themselves to focus on those things most likely to accomplish the intended outcomes rather than what they enjoy doing most.

These days what most people seem to mean by balanced is that they do a little bit of phonics (sometimes almost nothing) and then lots of other activities that they like to do (guided reading, reading to kids, 1 minute conferencing, etc.). I think focusing teachers on instructional methods instead of on learning outcomes is likely to be damaging.

Research has made it clear--through substantial numbers of studies (especially including experimental studies showing that teachers can make particular kinds of instruction beneficial to kids)--that to be literate kids need to be able to: (1) perceive phonemes; (2) use letters and spelling patterns (and sounds and pronunciations) to decode words and spell words; (3) read text accurately, with sufficient speed and prosody to allow comprehension (4) interpret language meaningfully including vocabulary, morphology, syntax, cohesion, and structure; (5) use cognitive strategies intentionally to increase understanding and memory for text; and (6) write or compose their own ideas in coherent and effectively communicative ways.

Research shows that we can teach each of those outcomes effectively--mostly through some kind of explicit instruction and guided practice. My commitment is to ensure that each of those things is taught to kids (that's the comprehensive part) and that be done in the most effective and efficient manner (that's the research-based idea).

So despite being a big phonics advocate (since the research overwhelmingly supports the idea that kids need to learn to decode and that a substantial dose of systematic phonics instruction early on has been shown to be particularly effective in accomplishing that goal... it sets my teeth on edge when anyone claims phonics is the key element in learning to read (it is only one of them), that phonics is the only thing that matters (nope, there is a whole list of things that need to be accomplished), that particular approaches to phonics have been proven to be best (many of these claims are simply untrue or unknown--and claiming them loudly doesn't solve those problems), etc.

But it also drives me nuts when under the banner of balance, teachers focus on cool teaching activities with little connection to any of those key outcomes noted above.



Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2019 02:43 PM


If you've never heard that, you should get out more. Also, you can make up any numbers that you want (and pretend to be scientific). If you read the research literature you would find that what you are proposing is not as effective as you claim (and you won't find any scientist who agrees with your claim).

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2019 02:46 PM


That all might be true... but the opposite might be true as well. I would hold off declaring victory until the game is actually played. Science depends upon hypotheses, of course, but as part of the process of conducting science, not as the outcome that we prescribe. Explicit systematic phonics should be a major part of any primary grade reading program... there are many approaches to phonics that fill this bill. Over time we might find the differences that you believe would be there, and we should adjust accordingly.



Michael Pye Jun 16, 2019 09:24 AM

Er, Tim I just asked the questions to distinguish and refine my understanding. The last part was simply admitting my bias and admitting my assumptions so I can change my mind.

As a teacher I'm hunting for triangulated ideas. Strong and clear theoretical underlinings to help me for a schema, well run comparative trials to evaluate opportunity cost and finally evidence of the idea being used to great effect in context.

To do all of that around literacy, which is not my speciality, I need fine grain distinctions. I do trust your analysis but I want to know why.

Up to now I have been under the impression that SSP is the most evidence based approach to phonics. If analytical phonics works as well that would be massive. But if studied comparing the two can't find a difference but large scale trials show SSP works, assuming no such trials for analytical phonics have been done, that it is logically correct to conclude SSP is superior.

The existence of large scale comparative trials in analytical phonics is the key here and I'm hoping you know.

Michael Pye Jun 17, 2019 07:18 AM

Know if such trials have occured.

Melissa Fox Jun 17, 2019 02:58 PM

Only to be helpful; paragraph 12 has a typo I believe; “thosee” ????

Susan Vincent Aug 19, 2023 12:46 PM

I’ve worked in early literacy education for over 30 years. I began in a “whole language” district, but we still taught phonics and skills (Rebecca Sitton, handwriting instruction, sound boxes, etc..) I’ve lived through all the pendulum swings. Through it all, we taught both synthetic phonics and analytic phonics. Both. I don’t understand the continuing argument over which is best, as if we have to make a choice, and never show young readers a variety of ways to solve words.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 01:42 PM

For many teachers, the idea of balanced literacy was that you would provide students both direct instruction of skills (including phonics) and attempts to motivate reading through the use of authentic text and free reading. Over time, some (too many) of those efforts devolved into either not including phonics or attempts to minimize its instruction. (I knew we were in trouble with that when teachers began asking me what would happen if they added phonics to their"balanced" reading program?) The response provided to this PBS segment was nonsensical because the schools that were the focus weren't providing phonics. Many schools do provide phonics (including balanced literacy schools), but when they are not, it is reasonable to call them out. Your approach makes sense.


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