My state is banning instructional practices… or, how to look like you are teaching effectively…

  • guided reading informal reading inventories 3-cueing
  • 04 November, 2023

Teacher question:

I am working through my state’s “Literacy Plan.” There are several instructional practices that get the “thumbs down” here as being “not in alignment with evidence-based instruction.” The list is long and includes guided reading, leveled readers, and informal reading inventories. I’m curious what your take on those practices is? 

Shanahan response:

Thanks for sharing.

The list you sent was long and I agree with your state on some of the items (e.g., three-cueing, miscue analysis, balanced literacy – whatever that is), but I suspect those who are calling the shots are reacting more to social media buzz words than to any real knowledge about classroom teaching or reading research.

Let’s just explore those three examples that you highlighted above – guided reading, leveled readers, and informal reading inventories.

Should those really be banned or seriously discouraged by state education departments?

I get that everybody wants to be “cool” but banning practices because the Twitterverse doesn’t seem to like them is a dopey way to make policy.

What’s the problem with “guided reading?”

I suspect this one is at least in part a definitional issue. Perhaps it’s more of a complaint with Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s use of the term. Their concept of guided reading carries lots of baggage, including the emphasis on matching kids to texts by reading levels, minimization of explicit and planful instruction, and the emphasis on 3-cueing systems.

If those were the hallmarks of guided reading, then your state would be on the mark.

However, the term “guided reading” is now more than a century old, and the concept the term has been used to describe is much more specific and sensible than the F&P version. I think if we go with its more widely used meaning, it is a concept well worth preserving. That doesn’t mean that guided reading in practice is always a good thing – no, I’d admit many teachers use it badly. But I’d rather see your state providing guidance to teachers in how to implement guided reading well in their classrooms than banning or discouraging the practice.

RELATED: Are Qualitative Assessment and Student Self-Assessment Useful in Reading Instruction?

What is guided reading?

The term refers to the group reading of text under the guidance or direction of a teacher or group leader. Most often, this guidance takes the form of a series of questions asked by the leader.

Guided reading experiences as such provide readers with social opportunities to practice their reading comprehension as well as to gain knowledge from the texts being read.

Originally, guided reading was an adult education practice. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, created a successful guided reading group, the Junto, in the 18th century. This was a tool of self-education used by Franklin and his leather-aproned buddies. They’d read books communally and then discuss their content and value. Franklin even provided a list of questions that could be used to guide the reading discussions.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that guided reading formally became a part of the daily practice of American elementary schools; that was when basal reader publishers began providing lesson plans for the selections in their textbooks. Teachers were to convene instructional groups that would read the selections together and then talk about them by answering the teacher’s questions. 

These kinds of communal reading experiences have a long history in education at all levels and in many cultures. It is hard to imagine teaching someone to read without including this kind of guided or directed reading practice.

Of course, there are a variety of versions of guided reading. In the U.S., especially in modern times, it’s not unusual for kids to be encouraged to develop varied interpretations of the shared reading stories. While in some cultures, one of the purposes of the guided reading is to ensure that everyone accepts an official text interpretation. You’ll see more questioning in the former case, and more leader explanation in the latter.

Even within American culture, there are important variations on the kinds of reading guidance provided. The teaching of comprehension strategies, for example, usually introduces strategies within the context of guided reading lessons. The teacher demonstrates how to use a strategy and then students try to use it with a group read selection.

Often, in such lessons, the point is less to gain the text information and more to learn to apply the strategy.

Textbook versions of guided reading have often emphasized the mastery of comprehension skills. This has been done by having teachers ask certain kinds of questions as this supposedly would improve the students’ ability to answer such questions. (This approach isn’t particularly effective. But its failure has not been due to guided reading, but to the wrongheaded idea that question answering is a generalizable or transferable skill.)

These days comprehension skills and strategy teaching are often criticized by those who think that time would be better used in helping students to increase their knowledge of the world. However, these critics aren’t opposed to guided reading, they are just advocating a different emphasis to the practice. That’s where concepts like close reading come in, a guided reading approach that emphasizes a more thorough analysis of text content. Not surprisingly, guided reading of text is a widely used approach to review content information in science and social studies classes.

Personally, some form of guided reading of shared texts would be a centerpiece of my reading comprehension instruction (which would be accompanied by strong instructional efforts to build word knowledge – including phonics, morphology, and vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and writing/spelling).

Of course, if it makes your state department of education happy, I’d gladly refer to guided reading as “directed reading.” Perhaps they’d be more comfortable with that (you don’t see many mentions of directed reading on social media). That’s what one of the basal reader companies did in the 1950s to differentiate their group reading lessons from those of the “Dick and Jane readers.” A rose by any other name… well you know.

I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but I guess I’m saying that I think your state would be making a mistake to discourage guided reading.

he next practice to be avoided – according to your state – is the use of “leveled readers.”

This one makes me nervous, because I don’t think anyone has written more than I about the problems of teaching kids at their instructional level in grades 2-12.

But, even with that admission, I’m a little lost about how we teach kids to read without having kids read texts.

No, I get it, the mandate isn’t against using text to teach reading, only against using leveled text.

However, what texts don’t have levels? What texts can’t be placed upon a continuum of difficulty?

Let’s face it, some texts are harder than others. Yes, and some are easier. And, we can measure or estimate those levels.

Studies show that even decodable texts have difficulty levels – are we going to ban those, too?

There are various problems with leveled texts, and I agree that we should be careful not to make those mistakes again, but the notion that schools should rid their shelves of books with levels would mean that no books would have a place in education.

What mistakes must we avoid?

Well, the F&P approach to book leveling encouraged the use of so-called “predictable texts” with beginning readers. Predictable texts repeat whole sections of text to make them easily readable… “I like candy. I like toys. I like bikes. I like swimming.” Such books have value but not for teaching reading.

Research shows that such books discourage students from looking at the words, and it can be hard to learn to read if you don’t look at the words.

The F&P leveling scheme didn’t pay much attention to decodability and that’s a mistake, too. Early reading books need to be relatively easy, and that ease should come from decodability and word repetition (using certain words again and again throughout a text).

Also, leveled readers have been used to ensure that students were placed in books that would be relatively easy to read – books that were supposedly at the students’ instructional levels. Research shows this to be a weak approach to instruction in Grades 2-12 (not totally ineffective, that is kids can learn from such texts, but higher reading levels can be accomplished using more challenging text – that is, books at higher levels). I’d teach most students reading using texts at their grade levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. However, if the books aren’t leveled how will we know which ones are most appropriate for a grade level?

Leveled readers aren’t the problem so I wouldn’t ban them… though some of the ways those leveled readers have been used should go!

Okay, the last item on this list is the informal reading inventory (IRI). This instrument has students reading grade-level representative passages aloud and the teacher calculates the oral reading accuracy and the students’ comprehension of the passage to determine a student’s reading level.

Historically, the IRI was used to place students in reading books. Usually this meant placing them in books out of grade level (you know, fourth graders being taught to read with second grade books). As I pointed out earlier, this approach hasn’t panned out, so testing to make such placements would not be how I would use IRIs today.

I’ve long argued for teaching reading with grade level texts. In my version of guided reading, the teacher would review a text prior to the group reading. She would try to identify those text features that may block student reading success (e.g., words the students might have trouble decoding, unknown word meanings, literary devices, complex syntax, subtle cohesive ties, unusual text structure, knowledge gaps, and so on). Her guidance should then both make visible the problems her students had with the text and provide them with tools for successfully dealing with those barriers.

Examples of this kind of support would include things like showing students how to use context to figure out a key word meaning or how to break down a complicated key sentence so that it can be comprehended (tools students could use with other texts).

The benefits to having IRI estimates of student reading levels is that it informs the teacher as to who is likely to need the most help and how much help might be necessary. If I’m teaching a group of 4th graders with a 4th grade book, it would be useful to me to know that half the group was reading at a second-grade level. I’ll need to provide more support to a group like that than I would with a group in which most of the kids are reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level. I’d schedule the time differently in those cases and I might be on the lookout for different kinds of barriers in those situations. In one case, I might do more oral reading fluency work, for instance.

Your state’s approach here reminds me of lists of vegetables to avoid serving children, since kids don’t like vegetables. I’d rather have suggestions of ways to prepare those vegetables so that even finicky kids might enjoy them. (“Skip the creamed spinach, it’s too much like baby food. But spinach and strawberry salad can be a hit among the preschool set.”)

The problem with discouraging the use of guided reading, leveled books, and informal reading inventories is that it ignores the pedagogical value of those tools. It focuses teacher attention on tool avoidance (trying to look like somebody thinks they should look), rather than on how to deliver effective instruction. Personally, I’d make use of all these tools in my teaching. Please pass the spinach.

Listen to Podcast: Shanahan on Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Barb Schuh Nov 04, 2023 12:34 PM

The problem is that people will use only the deep fried vegetables if it's allowed. With a limited amount of instructional time and a large number of students failing to learn to read, the teacher should be using the best practice at all times. If a doctor is giving you medicine that isn't proven to work but people just like it, that's not helpful. Why are teachers afraid to drop poor practices and spend time on more effective ones?

Pie Corbett Nov 04, 2023 12:35 PM

Taking away teachers choice to teach guided sessions is knee jerk madness. How I loathe those who tell teachers what to do / most of them never been near a classroom or if they did, it was so long ago that they are telling teachers to do things that they have never done themselves. Too many pontificators, too much in sway of research and not enough focus on what effective schools do. Effective teachers will use both shared and guided work. To remove the possibility of teaching children in a group is bonkers.

Judith F Ayers Nov 04, 2023 01:01 PM

I’ve long argued for teaching reading with grade level texts. In my version of guided reading, the teacher would review a text prior to the group reading. She would try to identify those text features that may block student reading success (e.g., words the students might have trouble decoding, unknown word meanings, literary devices, complex syntax, subtle cohesive ties, unusual text structure, knowledge gaps, and so on). Her guidance should then both make visible the problems her students had with the text and provide them with tools for successfully dealing with those barriers.

Examples of this kind of support would include things like showing students how to use context to figure out a key word meaning or how to break down a complicated key sentence so that it can be comprehended (tools students could use with other texts).

Thanks, again, Dr. Shanahan!

Bruce Howlett Nov 04, 2023 01:07 PM

Steve Dykstra on a Literacy View podcast said her fears that the science of reading camp may end up creating a strong backlash by promoting these types of state mandates.

Balanced Literacy proponents often point out that many practices promoted by the science of reading are also as thinly supported by research. They reference Stevens and Austin's work on Orton-Gillingham and Wilson that says states that these approaches should not be used to promote state mandates. With multi-sensory instruction, syllable types and decodable readers only weakly supported by research there is much to question on the SoR side, too.

With integrated multicomponent instruction supported by Ehri, Wolf and many others showing such promise as well as cognitive learning principles such as spaced retrieval and mixed interleaved practice why are so many clinging to weak traditions instead of adopting more robust methods?

Barb Schuh Nov 04, 2023 01:18 PM

Bruce - I think your comments about spaced retrieval and mixed practice are spot on. No amount of phonics instruction is going to help if we don't add effective practice methods into our instruction.

Deann Kuchler Nov 04, 2023 01:19 PM

I had the honor of studying under you in the early 90’s at UIC, great memories! I was just having this conversation with my reading team yesterday. We had the opportunity to look at our state draft literacy plan and all the above mentioned were cringe- worthy to our team. No leveled readers? What do they read? No guided reading? Can we call It small group instruction, (though I love the directed instruction you mention) as not every child needs the same thing? You mention IRI’s, we were alarmed at no running records in our conversation. When would teachers have opportunities to listen to and evaluate students needs if some form of this is not done? We came to a lot of the same conclusions you shared. As we continue to work with our teachers on effective reading instruction, you validated a lot of our thinking. We are grateful.

A Parker Nov 04, 2023 01:19 PM

I agree… effective teaching is different than the name of the practice. I love when teachers lift a practice to the needs of their kiddos. The use of today’s so called best practices can fail if teaching is still ineffective to needs.

Jo Anne Gross Nov 04, 2023 01:31 PM

I’m responding to Bruce here as well as Dr.Shanahan.
I am a SoR lover of best practice.I’ve had a clinic, have 25 clinicians and what I saw made me weep.
However, I left Twitter because I couldn’t stand the choir.
It’s not healthy.
I just returned not looking for followers but to see how it’s playing out.
I think the new mandates are fascinating as an evolving phase of SoR.
We train in school boards and have a curriculum that teachers can follow.
We are strictly doing intervention , the Tier 1
Classroom is varied and anything can happen but strong early Tier 2-3 that’s explicit can catch them.
Teachers tell me that after grade 1 there’s no sign of SoR.
Things are messy.

Julie Nov 04, 2023 01:34 PM

I cannot count the number of times I have responded to posts that include recommendations that include a warning about the evils of "guided reading." How often do we take an idea that we perhaps improperly or incompletely understand and rigidly apply it believing we are in the right? Sadly, the history of reading instruction in America is full of examples of educators implementing sometimes bizarre practices about teaching reading in the name of what they believe to be the latest instructional fad. There is one thing I would like to know, though and I do appreciate Tim's insights, knowledge, experience. To the issue of teaching everyone from grade level text, I would add that this is complex. I have never seen more students lagging so far below grade level, they test at levels equivalent to K on measures of reading development, and this is in grades 3 and 4. While I am a believer in the value of knowledge, in opportunities to teach children to think, reason, etc. and I don't believe it is ever necessary to stop reading to children, even when they CAN read, I fail to understand how we can accommodate students who are far, far below grade level in grade level texts in our ELA classrooms. Anyone take a stab at this? I agree that if the student is a little below we can use strategies to scaffold, etc, but when the 3rd grader can read 20 words?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 04, 2023 03:39 PM

L Z--

The idea of a "grade level" book was pretty vague since the 1830s when the concept first emerged in American education. However, the Common Core State Standards (which were adopted by the majority of U.S. schools) commissioned analyses that established a standardized range of readabilities that grade level texts must meet (6 different readability measures were used for this).

Look for "Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New Research on Text Complexity" -- you should have no trouble finding that online. Essentially, they attempted to establish levels that, if students were to go through the whole Grade 2-12 continuum they would be able to be successful in college or the workplace when they left school.


MaryEllen Vogt Nov 04, 2023 03:39 PM

As usual, excellent explanations and practical suggestions, Tim! In CA, the baby’s about ready to be thrown out with the wash water…again. Your voice of reason calms my jittery nerves about where we’re headed. Thanks for your thoughts, as well, Bill R.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 04, 2023 03:49 PM

Your apt examples and thoughtful questions highlight how politicized these discussions become. Following the research closely provides us with two benefits. First, by having instruction parrot the approaches that have led to higher achievement, we increase the chances that we will succeed with our students. Second, we can avoid the kind of pointless arguing that is currently taking place (allowing for much more professional discussion and decision making).


Dr. Bill Conrad Nov 04, 2023 01:40 PM

As usual, you do a great job in translating the variety of reading instructional practices for teachers. So few researchers work as hard as you do in connecting reading research to real world teaching!

I love to see your focus on reading assessment with descriptive feedback, interventions, and monitoring!

Why do you think that there is still such a huge chasm between educational researchers and practitioners? It appears that we still have a raconteur profession that is still very alchemistic rather than scientific! And the children pay the price!

Barbara Davidson Nov 04, 2023 02:04 PM

Great piece, Tim! Your insights are always helpful and illuminating.

L Z Nov 04, 2023 02:34 PM

I’m curious to know what a sound definition or example is of “grade level” books. With such a range of classroom realities (and ranges of readers within the class) is there a national consensus here?

Lauren Nov 04, 2023 03:10 PM

If you really think about it, classroom teachers are educational researchers. Every day they teach lessons to students and they observe what works and what does not work. They also observe that one instructional practice works well for some students, and other instructional practices work better for other students. They are continually adjusting and refining best practices to achieve the best learning outcomes for all students. Rather than amusing story tellers, these are professionals with deep knowledge and experience educating children. When the crazy train comes along saying the primary children will benefit from a phonics only curriculum which focuses only on decoding, seasoned teachers know that this is absolutely ridiculous. Yes, I will state the obligatory "phonics is important and should be taught systematically", but it is not the only aspect of reading instruction.

The fact that states are banning leveled reading and guided reading simply demonstrates that these decisions are being made be people without the appropriate educational background, experience, or qualification to make these decisions. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them.

At our school we are also seeing that in grades 3-5 we have unusually large numbers of students who are struggling with reading. These are students who missed all of kindergarten, first, or second grade as well as several months of the previous grade due to the pandemic. If you visit a primary classroom and see all the language arts learning that goes on in the course of the year, you begin to understand that you can't get that whole year of learning back. Those students missed essential instruction at an important developmental period in their lives. They are students who were probably going to have a little bit harder time learning to read anyway, but the missed instructional time has made it much worse and harder to catch up.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 04, 2023 03:52 PM

Barb S.--
The problem here isn't the teacher unwilling to give up ineffective practices, but consultants and state bureaucrats who clearly don't know the research who embrace -- or reject -- practices not on the basis of data but ideology.


William H. Rupley Nov 04, 2023 03:12 PM

Excellent comments combining logic and research that is often lacking when implementing the science of reading research. I and my coauthors in our publications have always defined balanced reading as reading instruction aimed to create competent readers who not only can read with accuracy and speed but also understand and engage with the texts they read. To do so requires instruction in phonology, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Areas of reading instruction with which you have consistently be an advocate.

Bill Rupley

Jen Nov 04, 2023 04:07 PM

Did commenter Julia use Shanahan's words, or did Shanahan edit his post to included commenter Julia's words? ???? I agree with comment regarding anticipating text issues and comprehension problems with grade level text in small groups, but who made the comment first?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 04, 2023 04:39 PM


There have been no revisions to this entry.


Mat Nov 04, 2023 07:17 PM

Great article Tim! One thing I’ve been curious about for a king time is why the notion of grade level text is seen as so fundamental in the US, whereas in the UK and Australia, to the best of my knowledge, does not exist!

You probably ask how is it done there- I guess schools make decisions about book selection based on previous experience and assessing particular books by looking at the text complexity. There are simply no level bands using lexiles that state which books fall into which grade level as in the US.

Why is something so necessary in one country and not even a thing in the UK and Australia?

Harriett Janetos Nov 04, 2023 09:30 PM

Lauren, can you please cite someone--anyone--who has actually said this (and I mean the part about phonics ONLY)?

"When the crazy train comes along saying the primary children will benefit from a phonics only curriculum which focuses only on decoding"

Here's how I wrote about this strawman argument in Getting Reading Right: On Truths, Truce, and Trust:

"We must teach both the upper and lower strands of Scarborough's Reading Rope: five strands in language comprehension and three in word recognition. No phonics advocate has ever claimed exclusivity; hence, the ongoing efforts by proponents to address this strawman argument bandied about by phonics foes."

Denyse Nov 05, 2023 12:47 AM

SoR has only been successful because of social media. So many great reading instructional practices have been slide lined- The outcomes from NRP highlighted the need for better and more systematic phonics teaching …in all its forms and synthetic for reading( sounding out words) not throw out everything and focus only on phonics. I can’t see the problem with using 3 cueing- using graphophonics, semantic knowledge and syntax to decode - just don’t ask children to guess words before decoding and guess from pictures -
‘decodable texts mirror levelled text beyond cvc letter sound books - and all books are decodable, and yes we do need some level guidance on text complexity and difficulty.
Teaching is now do strongly affected by those outside teaching who are not teaching a whole class of learners to read. It is easy to fight for phonics only - and then say not phonics only … so what else? All the other skills and strategies to develop vocab and comprehension are, dare I use the words’, whole language’ strategies.
Build teacher knowledge of all things phonics as phonics is essential and nonnegotiable in developing better literacy teaching practices ….. but not make the focus of reading/literacy success on phonics only.

Kirsten Zinecker Nov 05, 2023 01:04 AM


Thank you for providing the link to your article - I enjoyed reading your comments, as well as the those of the readers responding to you. I especially appreciated the comment by Dave, who referenced the text "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons". As an educator who decided to homeschool my own children 20+ years ago, I used that text successfully to teach two of my three children to read effortlessly (my oldest had gone to kinder and 1st grade so was already reading). I am now a reading interventionist in a public school, and always ask my students "What sound?" when decoding words, or "What sound goes here?" when building or writing words. When I show students a letter, I want them to think and say the sound first. I've had good success using this with struggling readers.

Curious Nov 05, 2023 06:34 AM

Tim - Thank for this. I especially appreciate the comments re IRIs.

My sense is that many folks are advocating for CBM measures (like Dibels, Acadience, etc) as an alternative to Informal Reading Inventories (like Jerry Johns IRI, QRI, etc). Do you have any suggestions for how to think this through? Is it an 'either /or situation?

Deborah Lynam Nov 05, 2023 02:40 PM

Reminds me of the line “lower-case g, lower-case r guided reading” I heard in many of the trainings I’ve attended over the years. It was definitely intending a differentiation. “Perhaps it’s more of a complaint with Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s use of the term.”

Timothy Shanahan Nov 05, 2023 04:17 PM


Tests like DIBELS are very useful for identifying which students may be lagging behind in various foundational skills (eg., phonemic awareness, decoding, oral reading fluency). Such tests would not reveal the degree to which a student -- especially beyond grade 1 or 2 -- would be likely to struggle with a particular set of texts (hence my defense of the value of such instruments).


Timothy Shanahan Nov 05, 2023 04:23 PM


The problem with teaching 3-cueing is that you are teaching students to read like poor readers rather than effective readers. Students not only should not guess before trying to decode, they shouldn't be guessing if at first the decoding doesn't work. (I doubt that SoR is only being successful because of social media -- though, of course, that is part of it. No, I think there are enough parents upset about how their kids are doing in reading and enough of a gap between what many schools have been doing and what research says is most effective to explain a big part of what is going on. We need to do better.)



Harriett Janetos Nov 05, 2023 04:25 PM

"I especially appreciated the comment by Dave, who referenced the text "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons". As an educator who decided to homeschool my own children 20+ years ago, I used that text successfully to teach two of my three children to read effortlessly"

You're in good company, Kirsten. John McWhorter also used it to teach his daughter to read.

Yoko Mia Nov 05, 2023 04:41 PM

Hi. Thank you for this excellent article. Can you please explain what you meant about teachers asking comprehension questions when you wrote: (This approach isn’t particularly effective. But its failure has not been due to guided reading, but to the wrongheaded idea that question answering is a generalizable or transferable skill.)

Jenna Pifer Nov 05, 2023 08:40 PM

If a 12 year old piano student is just starting to play at level 1, should he practice from the same book as the 12 year old who has been playing piano for years? Not all 12 yr old students have the same amount of reading practice either. It doesn't make sense to have them both in the same book. The same can be said for any skill. Not all football players make the team. Some don't have the skills they need yet. It doesn't make sense to have all 12 year olds reading at the 6th grade level. Frustration will result, and that leads to students hating reading.

Jessica Handy Nov 05, 2023 11:56 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
This is a welcome blog and a thoughtful response to a literacy plan draft that is still quite "drafty;" thus, I think this is valuable feedback that should help inform the final result.

However, I will say in defense of this literacy plan draft, the discussion around its development in particular has been significantly different, more inclusive, and less sound-bite-driven than the approach many states have taken. After the first draft was circulated, six listening sessions were held. I attended all the in-person ones and at every one of them, there was a request for clarity about what practices are going on in classrooms that are not aligned with evidence, a frustration with new shiny silver-bullet initiatives without also talking about what practices need to be "de-implemented." This list is an attempt to respond to that very loud and clear mandate from the field for clarity, not to "be 'cool'" by "banning practices because the Twitterverse doesn’t seem to like them."

That said, it obviously needs quite a bit of refinement, if not a complete overhaul. Even among the things that are listed as aligned practices, e.g. "explicit and systematic phonics instruction," there is nuance that should be noted, e.g. not for the whole literacy block to the exclusion of everything else. Your blog is a phenomenal trove of information translating complex research into user-friendly summaries (like this one,, which captures the gray area about how much phonics is enough vs too much.)

I hope the next iteration of this chart comes closer to emulating the impeccable balance you achieve in your posts of providing direct answers to questions posed while also capturing the nuance. Maybe you could write it for them. :)

Lindsay Nov 06, 2023 12:04 AM

Instead of an IRI couldn’t an ORF assessment provide similar information? If I’m a 4th grade teacher and my students are reading below the 50th percentile with less than 95% accuracy then I know their comprehension is limited, and I can probe at different grade levels.

The problem with IRIs is that they promote the practices that we are trying to move away from- skills based comprehension instruction, limiting students to their ind., inst., & frust. levels, and miscue analysis in which the remedy is 3-cuing (specifically seen in Johns’s Basic Reading Inventory).

I’ve seen that teachers aren’t able to separate the assessment results from these practices.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 06, 2023 02:53 AM


I hav e no problem with an ORF test, but would still want the comprehension information from the IRI. How well kids do with a text is more than how well they can recognize the words -- it is how well they can do that and translate it into comprehension. The point is simply to find out how well the student can read the kind of text that you are going to use for teaching.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 06, 2023 02:58 AM


That all sounds great... until you look at the research and find that kids learn more when they are placed at what you describe as their frustration levels... Why let your unproven beliefs hold kids back?


Timothy Shanahan Nov 06, 2023 03:01 AM

For many years, teachers taught reading comprehension by having students read texts and answer particular types of questions (e.g., main idea, supporting details, drawing conclusions, inferences) with the idea that practice with those kind of questions kids would learn how to answer such questions effectively when they read. Research shows that approach to not be particularly effective, since those question types are not generalizable. Better to focus on language abilities (vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, structure).


Michelle Ewald Nov 06, 2023 01:07 PM

Thank you for responding to this question with an even-keeled approach backed up by historical literacy research and information from before the current SOR social media frenzy. The other term that I see bashed recently is "balanced literacy," which in my mind hadn't been perceived as a negative concept until recently. When I learned about balanced literacy in my graduate studies, I always understood it to refer to using whatever approach works for an individual reader's needs. Isn't that a positive approach when it leads us toward differentiating and meeting student needs? Your post about guided reading seems as if it could lead to a mini-series addressing misunderstood and misused literacy terms.

Annie Nov 06, 2023 01:28 PM

I appreciate your article in a time of many throwing out the baby with the bath water. I don't agree with giving struggling readers grade level text. A child reading at a first grade level in third grade will be more damaged by having them work through a 3rd grade level text. What are you showing them? That they can't read.
While if you give them text where they are more successful they will feel the confidence to keep trying while they are learning more about phonics, sight words, etc. Many kids struggled in the 50s all on the same page and those kids gave up.

Jacob Shiffrin Nov 06, 2023 04:00 PM

As always, I love the blog posts and it has given me a lot to think about. I do notice throughout that the research cited is 2-12. One of the questions I get from teachers that I work with is how does this research, particularly in comprehension, impact them as teachers of the lower grades? Based on what I'm reading, it sounds like research clearly tells us to beware teaching kids at their "instructional level" in 2-12. What does research tell us about teaching kids at their "instructional level" in K-1? My instincts tell me that the emphasis would be on decodable text in K-1 and that once students have mastered decoding the instructional approach would mirror those approaches in 2-12. That said, once upon my instincts sent me to F&P practices so I'd love some research insights instead!

Timothy Shanahan Nov 06, 2023 11:58 PM

Research has not been so explicit about text complexity in K-1. My take on this is that the feature of text that makes it difficult for beginners is its decodability. That means use relatively easy text but text that will support kids development of those beginning decoding skills. I would use a combination of decodable texts and texts with a heavy repetition of individual words. Once kids have the decoding skills of an average end of year Grade 1 student, I would start to introduce more complex text.


Mary Baker-Hendy Nov 06, 2023 07:28 PM

Thank you for this reassurance and clarification! I keep telling the special education teacher interns to grab those leveled readers that are headed to the basement. Many of these series are great supplemental reading (to their decodable readers) for students learning to read words and help them gain confidence and fluency. The F&P are actually enjoyed by young readers, they have reoccurring characters and themes that the children enjoy and look forward to reading. And that advice comes from someone who has been teaching foundational skills systematically and explicitly for over 30 years. Children need to be reading!

The nixing of IRI’s is also unfortunate and I have directly commented to the NCTQ on their poor ratings of some very valuable reading inventories, such as the QRI. I advocated for a more thoughtful critique, such as not recommending the miscueing aspect of the assessment. If a student’s accuracy rate is low in oral reading it should be followed-up with a PA and Phonics Survey for more usable information, you do not have rely on a complicated miscuing system. It is unfortunate that we have to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ as the value of performing a reading inventory with a struggling reader is so informative, particularly for special education teachers.

There is so much information you can learn about the student’s reading practices that inform instruction, such as their general fund of knowledge, their ability to reference text for information, whether they can answer implicit questions, as well as explicit questions. You can measure if an older student is able to read silently and comprehend or if this is a skill they need to develop by learning to monitor their reading. You can read a grade level passage to a reader to measure their listening comprehension and inform you how well they are comprehending spoken language. If a student’s fluency rate is low, it will inform the accommodations needed in the classroom and give you a greater understanding of how difficult it is for them to keep pace and learn in the classroom. Most importantly, these authentic assessments that mirror the demands of the classroom, direct a teacher’s instruction. When you find out that a 7th grader is orally reading at the 3rd grade level, but can comprehend at grade level, it motivates and inspires you to improve and intensify your instruction so a student can reading proficiently and reach their potential. Mary BH

Timothy Shanahan Nov 07, 2023 01:39 AM

No, what you are going to do is not show them that they can't read, you are going to enable them to read. The idea that kids already have to be able to read a text well before can teach them to read that text is crazy. We are holding kids back and reducing their possibilities of learning.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 07, 2023 01:42 AM


The problem with balanced literacy is that it has no meaning. It is a made up term that no one uses in the same way. For years, it has been the excuse for omitting phonics instruction. No one has any idea what is supposedly being balanced. There is no point in using terminology that has no agreed upon meaning.


Thomas Santangelo Nov 07, 2023 12:47 PM

Very helpful article in that you are trying to salvage the good parts of Guided Reading (GR). The problem I am having is that F & P literally wrote the book "Guided Reading" and many of us have the cover of that text emblazoned in our memories. I remember I had to get two copies, one for the book lists alone! So while we probably should be thinking of GR in its historical context with Ben Franklin, etc., modern marketing and influences have drastically changed our perceptions of reality. Similar to how the term "Global Warming" has given way to "Climate Change", perhaps we might consider terminology with less baggage. Since roughly 2006 I have been substituting "Small Group Reading Instruction" for Guided Reading. I think it is important to include the word "instruction" as it at least connotes an attempt at delivering a sequence of instruction as a part of the group session. When you combine GR with leveled readers it can be easy to leave out instruction as the quest is to "match readers with books". The session then becomes all about "comfort level", and instruction takes a back seat. But that is a topic for another post!

Patty Sheppard Nov 11, 2023 04:55 PM

As always, your article challenges my thinking and current practice as a reading coach! How should this information about selecting leveled texts inform our decisions about reading interventions for our struggling readers? At our school, we generally pull the lowest 10% of our readers for small group intervention using Read Naturally at a lower grade level. Are we doing these struggling readers a disservice because we are not providing interventions using grade level text? Note: they do receive core reading instruction at grade level.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 11, 2023 05:30 PM


Research reports that students make bigger gains with repeated reading and other fluency instruction approaches when they work with text that is at their frustration levels -- not their instructional levels. I would argue that the instructional approach being used in your intervention is a good one, but that you might be better off using grade level texts (such as texts that the students is about to read in the classroom) or at least texts someplace between his/her "reading level" and the grade level texts.


A Cartwright Nov 12, 2023 12:29 PM

I am finding that around as many as 25-30% of students in classrooms in the schools I am visiting are reading more than a year below grade level. (Literally, kids are reading 2 and 3 years below grade level) Using 3rd grade level texts in my experience has been overwhelmingly frustrating for those readers in those instances because the gap is so large that it is difficult to give that much support. Would it not be better in those instances to use texts that are somewhere in their grasp?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 12, 2023 05:15 PM

Limiting what kids can learn is not a good solution. Studies show that those students who are at the supposed "frustration level" learn more than those boys and girls who are placed at an instructional level.


Lauren Nov 22, 2023 03:26 PM

Hi Harriett,

I did not check back with this blog. Just to answer your question. The phonics only proponents are in my own district. I was told not to use leveled picture books. I was told to use only systematic phonics passages with no pictures. I think that things are coming into a little better balance now, but for awhile people got pretty unreasonable about this. It's not a strawman argument. It's just reality.

Jill Kerper Mora Nov 22, 2023 08:32 PM

The backlash against the Science of Reading spoken about in a comment above has already begun, and with good reason. The SoR Movement's has overplayed its hand with their "red light-green light" approach. The proponents of SoR are setting themselves up as a sort of invisible and anonymous regulatory agency with the authority to say "what research says..." to ban instructional approaches, strategies and literacy-learning activities. Take for example SoR proponents' the attack on "three-cueing" and miscue analysis. One organization claims that miscue analysis is "contrary to research" when in fact, miscue analysis IS research. It is research when academic researchers use miscue analysis to analyze the mismatch between a reader's oral reading production and the exact wording of the text. These mismatches, termed "miscues" by some researchers, are categorized into three categories (grapho-phonics, semantics, syntax) according to the researchers' hypothesis about the possible origin of the reader's misunderstanding of a particular language subsystem. Miscue analysis research is a vast database with oral reading performance from thousands of readers reading authentic texts. When a teacher in a classroom uses miscue analysis in assessment to identify areas of weakness or difficulty in his/her students' use of the subsystems of language as cues to meaning of words. Miscue analysis is action research that is useful and informative for vocabulary and grammar instruction.

The SoR Movement has produced no empirical evidence or credible theoretical challenge to discredit or refute the validity and utility of miscue analysis research. However, that hasn't prevented the proponents of SoR from falsely claiming that miscue analysis is not "evidence based." Dual language teachers are among those who are at the forefront of the backlash against the SoR's overreach through attempts to discredit and prohibit their use of valuable metalinguistic knowledge development approaches and strategies for teaching literacy to multilingual learners.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 22, 2023 08:55 PM


You are correct that research has not disproven miscue analysis as a reasonable description of the mistakes that students make when they read. However, the notion that this translates into information that should guide instruction has not been supported by research. In fact, the idea of teaching students to try to guess words on the basis of semantic and syntactic information is to teach students to approach reading in a manner not consistent with how proficient readers read. If such instruction were beneficial one would think that advocates of the approach would have produced some positive results about its benefits after more than 50 years.


Jill Kerper Mora Nov 22, 2023 10:51 PM


For teachers of multilingual learners who are learning English as a second language as they learn to read and write English, miscue analysis is very valuable and important. In the knowledge base for second language acquisition and second language reading, miscue analysis is used to identify the metalinguistic knowledge that the learner/reader needs for oral language production and comprehension as well as for understanding the language of text. In my field we do not generally think of miscue analysis as an "approach." This is because language itself is doing the "cueing" and instruction involves developing students' knowledge of how language conveys meaning through its subsystems: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics. Just a few weeks ago I gave a presentation at a dual language conference where I gave an example of the Spanish word "camino" to demonstrate how all of these subsystems of language are required for a reader tol comprehend the particular meaning of the word in its linguistic and pragmatic context. Every word has phonological, semantic and syntactic features that are used by proficient readers to derive a word's meaning. Every feature of a word that is necessary for comprehending the word in oral language is also necessary for comprehending the written word through the orthography of the language of the text.

The implications for language/literacy instruction of miscue analysis research do not suggest any particular "approach." In fact, miscue analysis data is "approach neutral." The insights that teachers get from miscue analysis "over the shoulder" or in the process of informal reading inventory and running record analysis can suggest points of vocabulary and grammar instruction for individual students as they discover areas where targeted metalinguistic instruction is needed.

IMO, Professor Ken Goodman's use of the term "psycholinguistic guessing game" by Ken Goodman created a convenient straw man for his opponents. However, there is a considerable body of research on "linguistic prediction" in neuroscience and "lexical inferencing" in second language reading research and metalinguistics that validate the miscue analysis database, especially when we consider miscue analysis in conjunction (triangulated) with eye movement research and neuroscience research. I would be glad to send you a bibliography I have compiled on this body of research.

What research methodology would you propose for researchers to disaggregate instruction in metalinguistic ability/awareness/ knowledge of how the subsystems (cueing systems) of language work to convey meaning to investigate its effectiveness or lack thereof?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 22, 2023 10:57 PM

That's the argument, but until there is instructional research showing a benefit from such teaching, I'll recommend against it. 68 years is enough time for such a study to have been done. That none of its true believers have thought it worthwhile to evaluate its effectiveness is damning. It's problem isn't the label "guessing", but research studies that don't match with the claims.


Jill Kerper Mora Nov 22, 2023 11:12 PM


Unless and until you can cite instructional research with empirical evidence that direct, explicit instruction to development learners' metalinguistic knowledge (knowledge of how language works) is NOT beneficial, I question your decision to recommend against it. For example, Dr. Louisa Cook Moats' (2001) book "Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers" has complete chapters on phonetics, phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax. Do you think Dr. Moats proposes that this is essential knowledge for teachers but that they should not use this knowledge for instructing their students?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 22, 2023 11:32 PM

If you have read any of my work over the past 40 years, you'll know that I very much. believe in teaching language to improve reading -- just not in trying to teach kids to apply all of those language skills when they are trying to read words. Instead, it seems to make sense to teach kids to rely much more heavily on the orthographic/phonological aspects of language when engaged in that task -- just like the best readers do.

Jill Kerper Mora Nov 23, 2023 12:33 AM


I was reading your blog responses on the question of readers using context to derive the meaning of words., and I am thinking that in reality we are on the same page about the core issue here, which is meaning-making and comprehension. How heavily students rely on orthographic/phonological information from written words in context depends on whether or not the pronunciation of the word (correct or approximated) triggers the meaning of the word in their mental lexicon. Since the students in the classrooms of the teachers I work with are second language learners of English (or Spanish), it is frequently the case that pronouncing a word, having accurately decoded the written word, does not produce "word recognition." That is the case with the Spanish word "camino", which can be translated as a noun road, path, way or "I walk" (verb). In order for a second language learner of Spanish to tell whether "Camino" is a noun or a verb requires reference to the sentence in which it is used. Or, in actuality this is a complete sentence: Camino. This is because Spanish conveys meaning through morpho-syntactic forms. So the Spanish reader (native speaker or L2 learner) must pay attention to the o ending to know that the verb means "I walk." Without this knowledge, if the reader attempts to make sense of "camino" as a noun, s/he loses meaning while reading. A heavier reliance on orthographic/phonological aspects of the word does not solve the problem of connecting meaning to a string of letters. In addition, if the word is spelled with an accent mark can on the o, as in caminó, it means he/she/it walked (past tense.) A native English speaker learning Spanish orthography has to be taught explicitly to pay attention to accent marks, which signal either pronunciation (phonology) or the grammatical function of the word (syntax). Even the best readers in Spanish have to pay attention to accent marks and derive meaning accordingly. So linguistic cueing is not an either/or proposition: either grapho-phonics or semantics or syntax. English decoding for word recognition is much more challenging, especially for ESL learners who are not yet fully proficient in English.

I offer you this example in the hope that you can understand the perspective of teachers of bilingual learners who cannot assume that the grapho-phonics cueing system by itself is sufficient for L2 learners to comprehend the language of a text. This is why there is resistance and pushback among teachers of multilingual learners against the "ban" on "approaches" and strategies that are valuable for metalinguistic knowledge instruction supported by proponents of the Science of Reading. These teachers are always teaching language(s) when they teach reading and writing.

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