Phonics and Flexibility

  • set for variability set for consistency phonics
  • 17 September, 2022

Phonics and Flexibility - Can They Really Go Together?

Teacher question:

I am surprised that you are such a staunch advocate of phonics. English is a very complex language and teaching young children the sounds and letters won’t change that. Most letters and spelling patterns in English are not regular (not only the Dolch words, but lots of other words, too). It is just discouraging having to spend so much time teaching skills that can’t possibly work. I’ve taught for a long time, and I feel so sorry for these children given what I am required to teach now. I am so discouraged that I want to retire. This makes no sense. You could help teachers if you would just speak out against this silliness.

Shanahan response:

Take a breath.

Your observations aren’t crazy, but your conclusion is way off. Maybe I can help with that.

I recognize the complexities of English – that’s what you are right about. But there is also a great deal of systematicity or regularity to the language as well. So much regularity, in fact, that phonics can be quite useful – if you (and your students) grasp how phonics works or its raison d’être.

That’s why so many studies have found that teaching phonics boosts reading ability, which is why I promote it.

Many observers, like you, recognize that even in the best of situations readers trying to sound out words are going to make a lot of mistakes. There are many irregularities, exceptions, and conditionalities in the English spelling system, and a good deal of its regularity is not due to phonology.

For instance, think of a spelling pattern like ea (in words like beat, great, and bread). How is a student supposed to know which sound to use when he/she comes across a pattern like that? Of course, they’ll err sometimes, trying out the wrong sounds, making the wrong choices.

That isn’t a problem though.

The point of phonics isn’t to provide readers with exactly correct pronunciations of words, but only close approximations (Cunningham, 1975-1976). Its aim is to get readers to look at all the letters in a word (Venezky, no date)– not the word’s shape or first letter or the pictures on the page. Phonics instruction should tip students off to some of the more frequent and useful orthographic patterns, but it never attempts to impart them all. An ambitious phonics program usually introduces no more than 60-70 patterns over 2-3 years, not a 10th of all the patterns linguists have identified.

The patterns that are taught are ones that are consistent enough to be useful and that come up frequently enough that they can provide reading support.

Additionally, introducing frequent and somewhat consistent patterns awakens an awareness of the existence of such patterns. Humans have amazing pattern recognition capabilities (that’s why some can learn to read simply by memorizing a bunch of words), but more kids will become sensitive to patterns if instruction tips them off that they are there.

You may have noticed that proficient readers don’t usually sound out words, and every first-grade teacher has observed students who struggle to remember words early in the year, but who later master new words without effort. Again, the point of phonics isn’t to enable overt sounding out, though that is unavoidable early on. No, the point is to reshape memory so that students remember words easily.

Finally, phonics should sensitize students to alternative sound-symbol relations and spelling patterns. That way when misreading a word like bread as “breed,” the student has available some other pronunciation choices for that ea.

Proficient decoders must be flexible, sensitive to orthographic patterns, comfortable with approximate results, and self-correcting. This has long been understood by researchers (e.g., Gibson & Levin, 1975). Critics of phonics expect too much of it and, consequently, reject it as being too primitive to overcome the limits and meet the expectations that they themselves have supposed.

Likewise, some educators and phonics promoters make the same mistake. They confuse phonics – a relatively simple and effective way for getting reading started – with phonetics, the complex science of speech sounds. This may result in curriculum and instruction that is overly consistent – ignoring, nay denying, irregularities in the system. That approach may deter some children from accomplishing the real purposes of phonics.

Though the need to deal with these complexities in a flexible manner has long been recognized, it has generated very little research – until the past few years. Recently, there has been a great deal of correlational investigation into the importance of cognitive flexibility in decoding. Enough convincing, high-quality work to conclude flexibility to be an essential property of proficient decoding ability. Kids who lack that kind of flexibility are at a disadvantage.

I wish I could say that the instructional research offers a discrete and specific instructional prescription for transforming all kids into flexible decoders. We’re not there yet. But several appear promising – at least under some conditions, and none appear to be either sufficient in and of themselves nor mutually exclusive of the others (Colenbrander, Wang, Arrow, & Castles, 2020).

How can we develop proficient decoding ability without engendering a too-rigid response from our students? How can we teach the systematic nature of the spelling system while fostering the cognitive flexibility needed to take full advantage of it? Certainly, a program of explicit phonics instruction is central to that goal, but some additional supports may help with the flexibility part of that.

Here are some practical ideas:

1. Teach Sight Words.

Have kids memorize high frequency words, particularly those that are spelled irregularly. I know some critics claim such memorization is harmful, but Colenbrander and company rightfully challenge those claims. Their well-researched conclusions: “Instruction of a small set of frequent, functionally useful irregular words, in addition to instruction in regular grapheme-phoneme correspondences, has been shown to be effective for typical readers and children with reading difficulties. There is no evidence that teaching irregular sight words alongside regular grapheme-phoneme correspondences is harmful for children or results in ‘unlearning’ of existing grapheme-phoneme correspondences. There is also some evidence that sight word instruction can result in generalization to words that are similarly spelled” (Colenbrander, et al., 2020, p. 98). Building a stock of irregularly spelled words in memory may help students to recognize some of the complications of the spelling system. (Don’t go crazy with this. Five minutes a day is probably more than enough time to ensure that all first graders know the 100 most frequent words and that second graders know the 300 most frequent words).

2. Teach Mispronunciation Correction.

Several recent studies have focused on guiding students to correct mispronunciations in reading. Oral reading creates opportunities for such correction, but the lessons in these studies have been more explicit and specific, focusing only on irregular words. Basically, students are taught how to correct their mistakes. “If what is first produced does not sound like something already known from listening, a child has to change one or more of the sound associations (most probably a vowel) and try again” (Venezky, 1999). Approaches that have been tried include having students correct puppets’ reading errors, guided analysis of the mispronounced words to connect their spellings with their pronunciations (my favorite), and strategic steps in which students question themselves as to whether a word is correct or not and what other words sound like that.

3. Cognitive Flexibility Tasks.

Cartwright and colleagues have found that engaging students in word reading tasks that require sorting based on multiple criteria improves cognitive flexibility and reading fluency. For instance, students must sort four words into a 2X2 matrix, grouping the words simultaneously based on their initial consonant and semantic category. Thus, fish and face would be grouped together in the same row since they both begin with f but would go in different columns since face goes with tooth and fish with toad in terms of meaning. I can’t really figure out why this has worked so well or so consistently, but what the heck, it apparently helps.

4. Word Sorts.

Don Bear and colleagues have long proposed word categorizing activities that both emphasize consistency and generalization as well as the exceptions (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2020). As they put it, “compare words that ‘do’ with words that ‘don’t’.” Thus, when kids are studying: she, he, we, and me, it makes sense to include exceptions to the pattern if there are any, in this case: the. Or, sometimes it is less about the exceptions or what they call “oddballs,” and more about introducing alternatives pronunciations bow, cow, how, now, pow, sow, vow, wow, chow versus bow, crow, flow, low, mow, row, sow, tow, show. That kind of lesson complicates things in a useful way for young readers.

5. Morphology Instruction.

One of the complicating factors in English orthography is that its regularity is based on more than phonology. Our spelling system represent sounds, but also meanings. The words themselves, of course, convey meaning, but the spelling does too. Think of how we usually indicate plurality. In oral language we add a sibilant sound at the end of a noun (/s/ or /z/). But we don’t do that in our spelling system. English spelling doesn’t attempt to represent the two different sounds, but instead to preserve the consistency of the plural meaning across words like cats and dogs. Many supposedly irregular words represent that consistency of meaning. Research shows that supplementing phonics instruction with explicit teaching of those kinds of semantic patterns can be beneficial (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). Here I like best structured word inquiry.

6. Be Careful not to Overdo Decodable Text.

The purpose of decodable text is to provide practice in the application of phonics skills. To provide such practice, decodable texts tend to present a heavy dose of words with regular spelling patterns; a greater concentration is common in regular texts. We don’t want to mislead students into thinking that reading is quite that consistent and that sounding out words guarantees accuracy. I’m not recommending foregoing any potential practice benefits that may be derived from decodables (though research has not found them to improve learning), but I do suggest not limiting student reading to these texts. Those who claim it is harmful for children to try to read any texts that may include words tha may not yet be able to fully decode should provide evidence either that this is a problem or that a steady diet of decodables helps students to learn to read. Until then, let’s hedge our bets and cast the reading net a bit wider from the start – not necessarily to make the reading any harder (we are talking young children), but to expose them to more of the complicating features of how phonics works. Irregularly spelled words, if repeated frequently, are easy enough to learn. Structured word inquiry is great for this.

I know you think phonics can’t help students given the complexity of English. Research on learning says that is a baseless concern. However, research also indicates that phonics works best for readers when they recognize the need for flexible responses to words – recognizing the complexity and conditionality of spelling, monitoring their reading for errors, and considering alternative pronunciations.

I think it would be wise for you to embrace phonics instruction, but complicate a bit, so your students don’t miss the point. I think you’ll see that it really can help and I hope you can make some combination of these instructional approaches to flexibility work for your students as well.


Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 229-251.

Cartwright, K. B., Marshall, T. R., Huemer, C. M., & Payne, J. B. (2019). Executive function in the classroom: Cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teachers-dentified low-achieving readers. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 88, 49-52.

Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., Nation, K., & Castles, A. (2022). Teaching children to read irregular words: A comparison of three instructional methods. Scientific Studies of Reading, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2022.2077653

Colenbrander, D., Wang, H. C., Arrow, T., & Castles, A. (2020). Teaching irregular words: What we know, what we don’t know, and where we can go from here. Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 37(2), 97–104. https://doi. org/10.1017/edp.2020.11 

Cunningham, P. M. (1975-1976). Investigating a synthesized theory of mediated word identification. Reading Research Quarterly, 11(2), 127-143.

Dyson, H., Best, W., Solity, J., & Hulme, C. (2017). Training mispronunciation correction and word meanings improves children’s ability to learn to read words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(5), 392–407.

Edwards, A., Steacy, L. M., Seigelman, N., Rigobon, V. M., Kearns, V. M., Rueckl, J. R., & Compton, D. L. (2022). Unpacking the unique relationship between set for variability and word reading development: Examining word-and child-level predictors of performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(6), 1242–1256.

Kearns, D. M., Rogers, H. J., Koriakin, T., & Al Ghanem, R. (2016). Semantic and phonological ability to adjust recoding: A unique correlate of word reading skill? Scientific Studies of Reading, 20(6), 455–470.

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Shaul, S., & Schwartz, M. (2014). The role of executive functions in school readiness among preschool-age children. Reading and Writing, 27(4), 749–768. doi:10.1007/s11145-013-9470-3

Steacy, L. M., Edwards, A. A., Rigobon, V. M., Gutierrez, N., & Marencin, N. C. (2022). Set for variability as a predictor of word reading: Potential implications for early identification and treatment of dyslexia. Reading Research Quarterly. doi:10.1002/rrq.475

Steacy, L. M., Rigobon, V. M., Edwards, A. A., Abes, D. R., Marencin, N. C., Smith, K., Elliott, J. D., Wade-Woolley, L., & Compton, D. L. (2022). Modeling complex word reading: Examining influences at the level of the word and child on mono- and polymorphemic word reading. Scientific Studies of Reading. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2022.20771

Steacy, L. M., Wade-Woolley, L., Rueckl, J. G., Pugh, K. R., Elliott, J. D., & Compton, D. L. (2019). The role of set for variability in irregular word reading: Word and child predictors in typically developing readers and students at-risk for reading disabilities. Scientific Studies of Reading, 23(6), 523–532. 

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Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2021). Introducing phonics to learners who struggle: Content and embedded cognitive elements. Reading and Writing, 34, 2059-2080.

Vadasy, P. F., Sanders. E. A., & Cartwright, K. B. (2022). Cognitive flexibility in beginning decoding and encoding. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR). DOI: 10.1080/10824669.2022.2098132

Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling. New York: Guilford Pres

Venezky, R. L. (no date). The structure of English orthography: Letters, sounds, spellings, and meanings. Children of the Code,


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lise Sep 17, 2022 05:52 PM

I am surprised (and discouraged) that in 2022 there still are teachers who don't understand the importance of teaching phonics and phonemic awareness.

I explain it to teachers this way:

We speak in syllables (natural and implicit) but we write in phonemes (not natural so it must be explicitly taught).

That's how the alphabetical principle works. Y-ou m-u-s-t h-ea-r th-e s-ou-n-d-s t-o wr-i-te, and know how to build meaning from sounds.

If we don't teach to listen to sounds instead of syllables, many kids won't figure out on their own how to translate syllables into sounds.

My experience is that when teachers don't believe in phonics, they make it an "unenjoyable" learning experience for their students. (The discouraging part)

There's a reason 40% of 4th graders are not reading at grade level! Sigh.

Lauren Sep 17, 2022 05:58 PM

My comment is simply a thank you for writing on these topics and including new references!

Laurie Sep 17, 2022 06:50 PM

Thank you for your comments on avoiding the overuse of decodable texts. Teaching phonics and the phoneme/grapheme connection explicitly to early readers is important, but in my district it has gone a little too far. We are abandoning thousands of dollars worth of beautifully illustrated leveled books, in favor of decodable texts with no pictures. I have also felt that the use of controlled vocabulary decodable texts can only go so far. At some point you must expose students to regular texts where they are confronted by some words that they must "figure out" using other strategies. I taught phoneme/grapheme decoding so well that I have one student who sounds out every single word she comes to letter sound by letter sound. I have to figure out how to get her to move away from that now. Meanwhile, I'm afraid to get caught using leveled, picture books while I'm teaching. It is a little bit like some kind of "McCarthyism" where the pendulum has swung way too far in the current reading war chapter, yet everyone is afraid to speak out. Someone is making a lot of money on these decodable texts...and they don't have to hire an illustrator to paint any pictures.

AMIE HANNON Sep 17, 2022 06:55 PM

Hi! I'm a 5th Grade Language Arts teacher who is interested in knowing more about this part of your fascinating article:
"guided analysis of the mispronounced words to connect their spellings with their pronunciations (my favorite)". I want to make sure I'm understanding correctly so that I may implement, so could you please provide an example or further detail?
Thank you!

Marie Sep 17, 2022 07:12 PM

Great blog, Dr. Shanahan!

When would you say that David Share's Self Teaching Hypothesis plays a part in the learning to read process?

Also, it's so common in first grade for many children to move from decoding every word to being able to read effortlessly in a short period of time. Is it best to remove those children from the systematic phonics instruction so they can focus on other reading skills or would you say it's important not to leave any phonics gaps?

Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 07:32 PM

I assume that when students are able to "remember' ((or, to recognize) words immediately after only having seen them one or twice before they are likely at that point of self teaching. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that additional work on word recognition though phonics and/or morphology would be entirely out of the question -- since the words they encounter get more complicated. Some students seem to deal with that additional complication with little hazard, while others require additional decoding support.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 07:39 PM


There are various ways of doing this, but Colenbrander and her colleagues generously provide a script used in their study. Go to this site and the MPC training script. That should give you one good example.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 07:47 PM


Thanks for that about the references. On a topic like this one, in which research seems to be burgeoning, if you track down these references you'll likely find at least an equal number of additional ones in their references... and if you wait a few months, you'll likely find even newer sources. I remember learning about mental sets for variability (which these days is often referred to as mispronunciation correction or cognitive flexibility). It is so good to see so many scientists finally exploring the implications of that concept.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 07:53 PM

I don't know if you read last week's blog, but you might want to take a look if not. These days we are experiencing both teachers/ schools/districts that are avoiding or minimizing phonics despite the research -- and teachers/schools/districts/parents/media that are so vociferous in their push to get phonics implemented everywhere that they are going beyond the research. As you can see in my response here, I think some phonics instruction is so doctrinaire that it misleads students. I don't know who to blame for that over promotion -- is it due to teachers like this one who clearly don't know that phonics is beneficial or is it due to the ones who think phonics is the answer to everything and so push too hard in promoting phonics? I don't know the answer, but I wish they'd all knock it off and focus on teaching students decoding skills explicitly and systematically -- while still focusing on reading comprehension, writing, oral reading fluency (and teaching students to use their decoding skills flexibly and conditionally).


Kirsten Zinecker Sep 17, 2022 09:57 PM

I always read your blog entries and everyone's comments with great interest, but I have never submitted a comment myself. This topic, however, has sent me searching the internet for further reading, especially on the aspect of cognitive flexibility. Under practical ideas, you mention a sorting task with a 4 square matrix where students sort by "grouping the words simultaneously based on their initial consonant and semantic category". Do you know of any lists of words ready to use for this sorting task? (before I make the effort to create my own!) Thank you for always giving me something on which to ruminate!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 10:41 PM

I don't... even the one I used came from the Cartwright paper... but I bet it won't be that hard to come up with words that can be grouped by both sounds and meanings... perhaps start with meaning categories and go from there.



Lisa Sep 18, 2022 12:56 PM

My favorite Sunday morning activity is Shanahan & coffee, never disappoints! Do you think it would be beneficial Tim, to focus on vocab and knowledge building in Tier 2 with current intervention students who, no surprise here, also demonstrate weakness in decoding and fluency by creating fluency passages from their whole group instruction text? If I chose passages that include specific vocabulary words and key understandings, I could build constrained skills while simultaneously supporting comprehension of whole group text. I could then include phonics and morphology (Cartwright, Colenbrander , investigations from this same material. Is this a good approach for using meaningful text to support instruction? I would also work on explicit & systematic decoding and encoding instruction based on individual phonics diagnostics supported with letter tiles, Elkonin Boxes, word ladders, yadda yadda yadda, along with quality decodables (they do exist). I have a week to create targeted (for some multiple) groupings to address students currently needing T2 and T3 support. I have 30-40 min. periods daily to create targeted interventions and want to be sure my practices are effective. Any suggestions or direction is appreciated.
Thanks Tim, this is my favorite PD!

Amelia Larson Sep 18, 2022 02:23 PM

Thank you Tim! You always deliver. I do have a wondering about implications for multilingual learners/emergent bilinguals. When it comes to teaching mispronunciation correction, what are additional variables to consider?

Carol McKinley Sep 18, 2022 04:40 PM

I always learn from your blogs, and often share them with colleagues. I am a literacy coach in Ohio trying to disseminate accurate information about what we should be doing to help our students become proficient readers and writers. 2 recommendations in this blog made me pause:
#1 I have been urging all my K-2 teachers and parents to NOT have their students memorize the whole word (especially irregular words like 'said"), but rather orthographically map the phonemes to the graphemes. So, your first recommendation of teaching sight words by having students "memorize high frequency words," threw me for a loop, Can you help me understand when to OM and when to have kids memorize whole words?
#6 We also have been shifting to lots more decodable text in K-2, depending on each student's phonics skills. We are trying to read grade level complex text during read alouds to promote comprehension, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. If children can read CVC, CVCe, blends, digraphs, r-controlled vowels, regular & irregular vowel teams in one- and two-syllable words with fluency, we move them into LATER leveled books and trade books. (We too have spent thousands of dollars on leveled books!) But, those early leveled books (A-D) are written in such a way as to undermine what we are trying to accomplish with decodables. Can you clarify for me how to include both decodables and leveled text in our small groups?
Thank you again. I want to support my teachers with accurate, efficient, effective practices.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 18, 2022 04:58 PM

1. Despite those earnest claims by some, there is no evidence that memorizing any words is harmful in any way (in fact, the research goes the other way). In any event, in my experience the best way to help kids to memorize words is to make sure that they are paying attention to all of the letters in the word -- and connecting those to sounds is very reasonable, too.
2. There are few studies of the effectiveness of decodable text -- and while, it makes sense to keep texts relatively simple initially when kids are starting out, there is no research supporting decodability per se (in fact, the best study we have found no difference in the benefits drawn from texts that were 85% decodable versus those that were 15% decodable). That doesn't mean kids should be working with predictable text (research does find that those do harm). Simplify texts both by decodability and by repetition (introducing "irregular" words that are going to be repeated frequently is beneficial).
Recognizing the limits of what you had been doing and then changing that is a sign of strength. Going off the deep end and rejecting research supported approaches in that effort looks a lot like "virtue signaling" -- trying to look good even if what you are doing isn't particularly helpful to kids.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 18, 2022 05:01 PM


I don't know any research on these issues with English learners, though such students were in some of the samples in these studies. I have no reason to think these would be any less of a concern with second language students (though they MIGHT be less problematic with kids who can already read in another language).


Harriett Janetos Sep 18, 2022 05:03 PM

This is great stuff, Tim--top to bottom--especially this line: Proficient decoders must be flexible, sensitive to orthographic patterns, comfortable with approximate results, and self-correcting.

I want to single out orthographic patterns with regard to word sorts. Your recommendation about sorts is excellent because it's the same pattern, different sound. However, the sorts in the Words Their Way program, for example, generally involve sorting words with different patterns but the same sound. The problem with this activity is that unless the teacher can hear the students reading the words, all they have to do is shuffle their cut-out words around under the correct spelling without practicing linking the spelling to sound, which we know is so important for orthographic mapping. In fact, just last week I advised a 4th grade teacher not to spend so much time finding out which 'stage' her students were at, photocopying sets of words for all the different groups, and then having them cut and sort them without her guiding the process. Instead, I advised her to concentrate on teaching whole-class, grade level word skills (like morphology) and making sure that vocabulary words she introduced allowed her to emphasize orthographic analysis of each word, which in turn allowed her to address any serious phonics deficits in a small group under her guidance. As Linnea Ehri says: "Findings show that when spellings attach to pronunciations and meanings in memory, they enhance memory for vocabulary words. This research underscores the importance of systematic phonics instruction that teaches students the knowledge and skills that are essential in acquiring word-reading skill." (The Science of Learning to Read Words: A Case for Systematic Phonics Instruction, Linnea C. Ehri, Reading Research Quarterly, 2020)

We often talk about whether to do phonemic awareness activities with letters. I'm on a campaign to make sure we do all phonics activities with sounds.

One more thought. For more guidance on teaching sight words I recommend:

Rethinking Sight Words, The Reading Teacher
Katharine Pace Miles, Gregory B. Rubin, Selenid Gonzalez-Frey
First published: 13 November 2017

Timothy Shanahan Sep 18, 2022 05:15 PM

I agree with all of that Harriet... it might be okay to do some of the kinds of sorts that you mention, but I think their best use is in familiarizing kids with exceptions, alternatives, and irregularities (and the lists they have in the back of the book help a lot with constructing those -- whether or not that is what the authors would do with those lists).



Laura Sep 18, 2022 07:03 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
Your advice to not limit students to decodable text very much mirrors my own experience working with my daughter, who has both dyslexia and ADHD.

During the course of second grade she was able to both catch up to grade level, and then surpass it, after daily phonics with decoadable text practice in and out of school, and continuing to work with texts and books on grade level according to lexile level, in and out of school.

I have worried that we did something incorrect in advocating that both be used- her teacher and reading interventionist each believed only one type of text should be used at all times. Of course, I can't de-emphasize how much scaffolding was necessary- we pre-taught certain heart words, and she used a tablet app in school that could read hard words outloud to her as needed.

I hope this area of reading is researched more throughly!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 18, 2022 10:24 PM


Me, too. We need more such research... researchers have not been especially interested in the role of text types in student learning which is unfortunate given the results of existing studies. In any event, there are consultants etc who wouldn't know a research study if it bit them on the leg telling teachers and parents that kids won't learn to read if there are any words they confront any words that aren't easily decoded immediately. Shameful behavior on their part. I'm glad you had the courage to do what made sense to you instead of following the scare tactics. (Of course, as shameful as that promotion can be, so can some what has generated its opposition -- the promotion of texts that encourage kids to look at the pictures, etc. instead of the words).


Dave Hauge Sep 19, 2022 12:09 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
I appreciate your comments regarding flexibility. I am a former Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and a former kindergarten teacher. I've always appreciated Clay's emphasis on flexibility. She emphasizes the importance of developing an "It could be this or it could be that" attitude. Her work encourages children to draw on more than just the letters on the page. However, a reader should never rely solely on a picture or grammatical structure, such flexible infereneces need always be cross checked with text. She has written that reading "begins when we look at print and ends when we stop looking."

What bugs the heck out of me is the apparent lack of flexibity in the research community, the administrative community, and the teacher community. By now you'd think we all might know that kids won't learn to read with a steady diet of invention rooted in meaning, memory, structure, and beautiful little books about Baby Bear. But we also all should know that a steady diet of controlled text and phonics mumbo jumbo will lead kids to hate reading. It will be a great day when we stop arguing over nonsense like who owns the right to say they are following the "Science of Reading". It'll be a great day when we all can be flexible enough and we all know enough to say that maybe this kid needs that, or maybe he needs this.

I'm grateful for your thoughtful blog, even though I don't always agree with you.

Kind Regards,
Dave Hauge

Kimberly Entzminger Sep 19, 2022 12:55 PM

Thank you for your common sense approach to teaching and using research. We have moved towards structured literacy over the past few years, complicated by COVID, and recently have been grappling with using decodable text. Should it be the only thing we use in K-1? Should we use decodable texts with everyone? If not, how do we change it up? Charting a new path is difficult, but I cut and pasted the part about decodable text to share with teachers. My gut instinct said that we cannot lose sight of the goal of reading which is to help students become proficient enough to read whatever they want or need to read. We can't do that if we always keep them completely in text based on only what they have been taught so far. Thank you for the insight.

Heather Sep 19, 2022 01:26 PM

Hi Dr. S,
What would you say is a good resource so teachers can effectively learn the phonics rules themselves?

Lori Sep 19, 2022 03:16 PM

Of course young children need to be taught phonics, but the wild pendulum swing toward the 'phonics only' or 'phonics first' camps by groups like Decoding Dyslexia discounts research by those such as Theodore Clymer. His study and subsequent article in the November 1996 edition of The Reading Teacher, 'The Utility of Phonic Generalizations in the Primary Grades ' demonstrated that many commonly taught phonics generalizations have very limited value. Of the 45 most commonly taught generalizations, only 18 were consistent enough to be useful. This fact was also demonstrated by Nell Duke in 'Limitations of Broad Phonics Generalizations: When Two Vowels Go Walking, the First One Doesn't Necessarily Do the Talking.'
I'm happy that your internal pendulum is swinging at least a bit more toward center again. An emphasis on self-regulation and self-correction is a good start. But let's not lose sight of the fact that reading itself requires the simultaneous use of phonics while anticipating language and making meaning in the head. Making sense of what one has read shouldn't be a byproduct after the fact. It should constantly be taking place during the act itself. Otherwise, how can one detect their mistakes and work to correct them? Much decodable text is void of any opportunity create meaning, and if readers can't make sense of what they're reading, we're implying that the message isn't at all important- only decoding is. Teachers' professional judgement needs to be valued regarding the use of decodable readers for the youngest students. Only high quality decodables with natural language structures and opportunities for meaning making should be used. Otherwise, we are creating a generation of readers who find no joy in the task whatsoever.

Peter Bowers Sep 19, 2022 04:56 PM

Hey Tim,
I very much appreciate your pointing to "structured word inquiry" (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) in your post. I am the first author in the Gr. 4/5 vocabulary intervention that introduced this term. I also makes a living working with teachers and students based on this framework, so I am clearly not an unbiased commentator or structured word inquiry. But it is also the case that I've been studying and teaching with this framework intensely for a long time. It was in 2001 as a Grade 4 teacher in my 9th year in the I encountered Real Spelling (current form available here and my first exposure to the fascinating logic of English spelling when one studies the way it represents the interrelationship of the meaning, history and pronunciation of words.

I note that you address structured word inquiry (SWI) under the topic of morphological instruction. This is a common and understandable frame as morphology is prominent and essential to this instruction. However, in my work with teachers and in my published research I emphasize that SWI is not properly thought of as "morphological instruction" instead it is "orthographic instruction." It is simply instruction which strives to help teachers and students understand how our orthography system works.

You write, “One of the complicating factors in English orthography is that its regularity is based on more than phonology. Our spelling system represent sounds, but also meanings.”

I would put this a different way. Yes our spelling system represents more than phonology. But I don’t think of this as a “complicating factor” but instead as a clarifying factor. When instruction builds on the understanding that English spelling favours consistent spelling of the meaning units (morphemes) over consistent spelling of the pronunciation units (phonemes) we can help children understand spellings typically taught as “exceptions” or “odd balls.” Your example with the ‘-s’ suffix is an apt one. We can’t explain why “dogs” uses a final ’s’ rather than a ‘z’ if we restrict instruction to pronunciation cues. But if we teach how morphology and phonology interact we can explain this grapheme choice quite easily. But this principle that we use to teach spellings like "dogs" also works to explain the spellings of words like "does" or "sign" or why "action" has a 't' not an 'sh'.

And this is the point I wanted to highlight here. While SWI often seems like “morphological instruction” I argue that it is also a means to improve our instruction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences. We have interesting corroborating evidence of this from the meta-analyses of morphological instruction by Goodwin & Ahn (2010, 2013) who found that the greatest effects of including morphological instruction were for phonological outcomes. Those effects even outperformed effects for morphological outcomes. As they wrote about our meta-analysis of morphological instruction (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010)...

“Similar to Bowers et al. (2010), results suggest that early morphological instruction may be particularly helpful perhaps because of the synergistic relationship between phonology and morphology and the larger repertoire of root [base] and affix meanings available for use. If a reciprocal relationship exists between morphological knowledge and makes sense to jump start this knowledge from an early age” (Goodwin & Ahn, 2013, p. 23).”

I’m also interested in your attention for the need for “flexibility” for word learning in terms of learning grapheme-phoneme correspondences. I agree, but I think we can help children by helping them see why the “flexibility” of the pronunciation ‘ea’ digraph in related words like “please” and “pleasant” is not a “bug” that they need to get used to — but actually a feature of our orthography system that helps us link words with related meaning with consistent spelling even when the pronunciation changes. While the pronunciation of the word “please” on its own suggests the ‘ee’ digraph as much as it does the ‘ea’ digraph, we can help a child understand why we use the ‘ea’ in “please” because we need the grapheme that can represent any of the pronunciations of that base. Learning how meaning cues from morphology (and etymology) clarify grapheme choice in this word family can be applied to studying the whole system.

In case your readers are interested in getting a better understanding of how SWI uses morphological instruction to improve phonological instruction I would recommend this 18 minute TEDx video. In it I model how to understand the spelling of many words typically treated as words children need to memorize. See that video here:

In terms getting a handle on the theory, research and practice of SWI I recommend my most recent published article (Bowers, 2022) that can be found at this link. This article is intended as a short, accessible piece for educators and researchers new to SWI.

And finally, on the role of morphology for memory for words, you and your readers may be interested in our recent paper (Ng, Bowers, P.N. & Bowers, J.S, 2022), “Melvin Ng, Peter N. Bowers and Jeffrey S. Bowers (2022).  A promising new tool for literacy instruction: The morphological matrix.” (Find this article here:

This study was on the role of morphology on memory for words with adults. We presented sets of words in three conditions (1) not morphologically related, (2) morphologically by affix, and (3) morphologically related by base. The morphological conditions used a matrix-like representation. We found presenting words in either morphological condition was better for memory than the non-morphological condition. The key finding, however, was that memory for words was significantly better in the base-centric condition than the affix-centric condition. While there is lots of research evidence that we should be teaching about morphology, this is the first study I know of comparing ways of presenting morphology.

I appreciate how you use your platform to share shades of grey in thinking about complex topics.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 19, 2022 05:51 PM


Try these books:
Beck & Beck, 2012. Making sense of phonics.
Moats, 2020. Speech to print
Venezky, 1998. American way of spelling.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 19, 2022 05:55 PM

Kimberly --

Here are a couple of sources you might find useful on decodable text.


Harriett Janetos Sep 19, 2022 07:21 PM

Thanks, Pete, for the link to your TEDx video. I think it gives a good example of where flexible pronunciations can be useful. You briefly mention the word 'journal' and how it might relate to the word 'journey'. But as a reading specialist working with struggling readers, I need to first address the point of failure. My students might attempt to read 'journey', a word they could very well know the meaning of, so that they read 'jour' to rhyme with 'sour'. This is where I say, "You said 'jour', try a different sound". Once students arrives at the correct pronunciation, they can see if the word is part of their lexicon or whether they can figure it out by context. This is why I really appreciate Seidenberg and McClelland's Four-Part Processing Model: orthography, phonology, meaning, context.

Laura Sep 21, 2022 03:26 AM

Dr. Shanahan,

Thank you for your response! I advocated using both decodable and grade level texts because of you. When I fell down the reading rabbit hole two years ago of trying to figure out how to help my daughter, I learned about the science of reading. I also ran across an article by you on another website, detailing that children who are behind in school benefit far more from grade level texts than from reading only at ability level. When meeting with my child's teachers a year later to discuss her intervention plan, I was a dog with a bone: no matter what, she needed to engage with grade level text as a reader, not just a listener. Decodables made a lot of sense, and I whole heartedly agreed she needed those as well. But I wouldn't let her reading be limited to only decodables and everything else soley read out loud to her. I felt strongly that she had to keep trying to decode at her grade level, with lots of help.

In fact, I understand now why teachers have a hard time emotionally giving up 3 cues. It feels gut-wrenchingly awful watching a kid struggling to decode again and again. It's hard, but you just have to keep pushing.

Lori Sep 21, 2022 08:34 PM

Have you researched the pros and cons of teacher 2 letters a week to PreK? We have started teaching 2 a week and honestly, I am not a buy in...YET! Im not saying I wont be, I just feel like we could do so much more with a letter a week and always have. Its only the 6th week of school so I can't make a TRUE and TRIED decision yet but I am certainly apprehensive.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 21, 2022 09:35 PM

As far a I know, there is no empirical research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of letter-of-the-week teaching at any level. The usual complaints against letter of the week is that (1) it tends to focus mainly on memorizing letter names (and sometimes sounds) decontextualized from reading and writing; and (2) teachers who do that tend to ignore or downplay the importance of phonemic awareness. There is no question that speeding things up a bit increases the possibility of using the letters to write words and to try to read words. I think rather than quibbling over 1 letter or 2, the discussion should be around the adequacy of how well and how much phonemic awareness is being taught, and whether the letter teaching is linked to that? -- and whether the ABC instruction is teaching just the ABCs or if this is linked to early reading and writing? If the answers to those questions are sound then it really shouldn't matter much whether you are introducing 1 or 2 letters per week in PreK.


Lorri Sep 22, 2022 03:53 AM

Thank you for your response! I do feel like we do a great amount of phonemic awareness so it should balance out! I’m
Not one that’s afraid of change. I’ve just been worried that it’s too much in a week with 2 letters and am curious to see how it compares to 1 a week and IF there’s really no change at all. I trust our leaders and am not bucking the system at all… just was curious your thoughts on it all! THANKS again for your input!!

Max Riter Oct 06, 2022 08:26 PM

Comment for Kirsten Zinecker in the above comments regarding the 4 square matrix teaching word flexibility. Cartwright wrote a book outlining an intervention of that activity called, "Word Callers" (Kelly B. Cartwright. I recently ordered a used copy of the book, unfortunately void of the intervention components. I am fascinated and eager to try it out. I wanted to share that resource as you were interested to learn more.

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Phonics and Flexibility


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