Our Younger Readers are Doing Better, So What's He Upset about Now?

  • early interventions
  • 02 April, 2017

Great report about beginning reading achievement in the most recent issue of Educational Researcher. D’Agostino & Rodgers show that, beginning literacy skills have improved annually from 2002 through 2013. Beginning first-graders have steadily improved in letter identification, phonemic awareness, concepts about print, writing vocabulary, word reading, and text reading. These gains were not just evident for the average or typical student, but for the relatively low achieving ones—though the gains for the latter have lagged those of their more advantaged peers. The researchers suggest—though do not claim to prove—that these data reflect an increased emphasis on literacy instruction in preschool and kindergarten, probably due to the reports of the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel.

            Except for the fact that the low learners haven’t been advantaged as much as the typical learners, this all sounds like good news to me. However, as is usually the case with reading achievement, there are some key things that educators should be concerned about as we go forward.

1.    Research is a great starting place for reading improvement efforts.

            These results are heartening because they suggest that there can be clear learning benefits from pursuing research-based solutions to learning problems, as long as there is a substantial, continuing, wide-ranging effort to bring those solutions to classrooms. Often we know things from empirical study, but they don’t get implemented. That evidently was not the case here.

            Think of all the efforts over the past 15-25 years to enhance early reading instruction. The Reading Excellence Act, Reading First, Early Reading First on the national front, and the many state level initiatives to address these needs. Of course, there have been less-touted initiatives to infuse the National Reading Panel research into Title I and Head Start, and think of the individual efforts of thousands of teachers and school administrators.

            In the current political and economic climate it might not be possible or likely that we’ll see additional efforts of these types to expand the scope of these findings. Nevertheless, it should be absolutely clear that it can be done and focusing on the reliable findings of extensive research is more likely to succeed than pursuing the idiosyncratic agendas of random reading gurus who are willing to put their own opinions above the accumulated empirical evidence.

2.    We need to follow all the reading research, not just the convenient parts.

            One of the concerns that D’Agostino and Rodgers expressed has to do with the fact that much better improvement was obtained with letter names, phonemic awareness, and word reading than was true for text reading,

             I think that pattern of outcomes is to be expected given that these were beginning first-graders. Kindergartens would have a lot more support in providing phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, than they would for writing or oral reading fluency.

            However, that narrowness of focus is inconsistent with the research findings. The National Early Literacy Panel found evidence concerning the importance of advancing young children’s oral language (towards improving later reading comprehension), and the What Works Clearinghouse concluded (Shanahan, et al., 2010) that reading and listening comprehension instruction in kindergarten made great sense. Similarly, I would argue that given the level of word reading these children appear to be accomplishing, there would be no reason to delay fluency instruction either. Past instruction in this skill tended to start in Grade 1, but that was based on the literacy practices of the time; when few kids were learning to read in kindergarten.

            We need to embrace the notion of outcome-focused reading instruction aimed at teaching children to read words, to read text fluently, to comprehend text, to write text, and to expand oral language proficiency… preschool through grade 3. All of these are important. The idea that our emphasis should be on one or another of them at the expense of the others makes no sense.

            I suspect the reason that letter names and letter sounds get the major attention has more to do with the availability of screening measures that allow teachers to easily see whether kids are making progress. We are never likely to see such assessments of higher order abilities like reading comprehension, so it is important that teachers have explicit amounts of time devoted to instruction in all of the areas that children have to learn.

3.    Early leads may not translate into wins.

            Again, hooray for the educators who have so steadily and so surely improved the literacy performance of these youngsters. However, too often, these kinds of early gains do not translate into higher achievement. In fact, it is quite likely that they will not.

            Unless first- and second-grade curricula and instruction are adjusted to accommodate for the advanced beginning literacy skills of these entering children, then I am certain that they will languish. As young children attain these higher levels by the end of kindergarten, that should mean that first-grades spend less time on letter names and phonemic awareness instruction than in the recent past. Likewise, it may have made sense before to delay fluency instruction or reading comprehension instruction until later in first-grade, when the boys and girls could read, but these data argue that kids should be getting the full literacy curriculum in grade 1, from the beginning.

            These teachers and parents have increased the quality of young children’s literacy. Now, first-grade teachers need to build quality on quality—raising the ante with these better-prepared kids. And, then each grade needs to build upon those increasing advances as kids work their way up the grades. Remember, early reading instruction is not a vaccination—one shot won’t protect them. Education doesn’t work that way. Instruction has to continue to build quality on quality to the point where more kids are at high levels of performance by the time they leave school.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sandra Shavlik Apr 02, 2017 08:56 PM

Monitoring the ongoing progress is essential for the following two years. Too many of the intervention students I work with move. It's with a hope and prayer they will land somewhere within a good system. We need to increase effectiveness far and wide to support the next generation. Public policy seems to head in an oppositional direction with the charter movement and once again our poorest children are the victims.

Ellin Oliver Keene Apr 03, 2017 09:29 PM

This is such a great piece, good news, solid recommendations.... until this bit:

Nevertheless, it should be absolutely clear that it can be done and focusing on the reliable findings of extensive research is more likely to succeed than pursuing the idiosyncratic agendas of random reading gurus who are willing to put their own opinions above the accumulated empirical evidence.

You assume five things here, each erroneously.

1. That everyone knows who you believe to be "random gurus" and what chacterizes "random gurus" in your opinion. Does this mean popular speakers and those writing professional books for teachers? You do not specify, but one can infer from this language and tone that you do not respect those individuals.

2. That those who speak and write who are not researchers (is this who you meant by gurus?) do not base their work on research.

3. That those who you deem to be gurus necessarily have an idiosyncratic agenda.

4. That teachers are not thinking critically enough to make sound judgments about which practitioners (a far less offensive term than gurus) provide solid, practical advice for workable classroom practices.

5. That opinion does not play a role in wise decisions teachers make every day based on their knowledge of research and, critically, their understanding of the students in front of them.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 04, 2017 02:59 AM

Don't take it too personally, Ellingson. I'm referring to the large number of popular speakers and writers who tell teachers fairytales based on their beliefs--particularly when those beliefs run counter to what we know through research... the idea that young children are harmed by reading instruction, that phonics is harmful or hurts kids' love of reading, that kids are better served by reading on their own than reading with a teacher, that Daily 5 is a solid instructional plan, that kids learn best when taught at their instructional level, that...well I could go on...but I hope that helps.

Harriett Apr 04, 2017 06:45 PM

That's a great list--but do go on. Unfortunately, fairytales are turning into "alternative facts".

Jo-Anne Gross Apr 05, 2017 01:54 PM

I think you`re wonderful to have written this!
Harriet`s point about fairy tales turning into alternative facts-good one.

I think a certain publisher/like the conductor of a symphony-has spread the wrong song sheets to the masses.

Jacquie McTaggart Apr 09, 2017 09:10 PM

I don't think it's surprising that early grade literacy scores are improving - and in some cases, dramatically. In nearly every school I visit primary students are reading beautifully. I am concerned, however, as to whether or not we are instilling the love of reading - the kind of love that creates lifelong readers. My observations in intermediate, middle and high school classrooms suggest that is not happening. Perhaps ALL students would profit if every teacher at every level and in every strand made FUN a reading standard.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 08:57 PM


How will someone ever like reading if they can't read very well?

You are worried that we aren't teaching kids to be lifelong readers... the problem with that as a goal is that it let's us off the hook for the next 60 years. That's when we'll know if what we're doing is working and then we'll be able to adjust it. The problem is that many of the things that teachers are doing to make kids love reading aren't doing that (like using class time for recreational reading)--they aren't instigating kids to read on their own at rates any higher than without the teacher effort. It is certainly possible that kids won't like reading more now, but that those things will kick in 20 years from now, but I doubt that.

Finally, there are many ways to participate in a culture: reading is one of those... singing, dance, baseball, hiking, flower arranging, painting, running, are a few more... why should public schools focus so heavily on trying to get kids to pursue the cultural avenues that you and I like, rather than some of those? Seems pretty self-referential and narrow. I understand why we teach reading (and, I assure you, governments did not create public schools to get kids to love reading), and why practice can be beneficial to enhancing achievement, but the idea that the public should dedicate its funding to making kids love reading more than working on engines or planting gardens escapes me.


Timothy Shanahan May 01, 2018 12:29 AM


I can’t find the F&P recommendation that reading should be taught with a range of text difficulties or their or Calkins’ recommendations that whole class instruction be the focus of considerable amounts of reading instruction. Again, it would help to know specifically to finfpd those quotes.


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Our Younger Readers are Doing Better, So What's He Upset about Now?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.