The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part II

  • 17 August, 2019

Last week, I posed 5 questions as the first half of the Great American Phonics Quiz. I hope you did well on those items that focused on whether students could learn to read without phonics, what kind of contribution it makes to learning, whether phonics instruction needs to be systematic, and whether analytic or synthetic phonics was best.

Here is the second half of the Great American Phonics Quiz.  Good luck.

6.    Lack of adequate phonics instruction is likely the reason why so many American students are failing to become proficient readers. True or false?

Recently, I received an angry note from a gentleman concerning the dearth of phonics and the low reading proficiency rates on NAEP. He was frustrated by an American education system that, in his opinion, had been unresponsive to these “facts.”

We went back and forth and at some point, he relaxed and started asking me questions. It turns out he was a dentist and what he knew about these topics he picked up from Twitter chatter and other “authoritative” sources.

My guess is that if we did a better job of teaching phonics it would be unlikely to increase the numbers of proficient readers very much. In other words, I think this item is “false.”

Since 1971, fourth-grade reading scores in the U.S. have fluctuated, and these fluctuations have tended to be upwards during pro-phonics periods and downwards when phonics has been on the outs in American schools.

I suspect that this pattern is not coincidental.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, fourth-grade scores steadily advanced. Then, America’s schools fell in love with “whole language,” and discouraged phonics and spelling instruction; fourth-graders did worse in reading than at any time during these 50 years! In the ’90s, many states adopted phonics requirements and the feds added to this in the early 2000s… both of those efforts witnessed climbing reading scores.

That suggests that phonics can make a significant contribution to early learning success.

However, no matter how heavy the emphasis has been on phonics, fourth-grade reading proficiency rates have never come close to being universal for young children.

The benefits of phonics instruction—as with any other advantageous instructional approach—are marginal. Instructional studies consistently find that adding phonics improves achievement, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who get phonics does great and all the other kids fail. There are real benefits and yet they are much more limited than my dentist assumed.

And what of eighth-grade reading scores during these on-again off-again emphases on phonics?

Apparently, those advantaged fourth-graders never reach eighth-grade. Adolescent reading levels haven’t budged whether or not we’ve been teaching phonics.

Phonics can give kids a better reading start, but they also need instruction in fluency, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing—and they need to gain lots of knowledge about our social and natural worlds—if they are to become fully literate.

A stronger emphasis on phonics is likely a necessary element in achieving full reading proficiency, but it is far from a sufficient one.

7.    There is a particular instructional sequence that should be adhered to when teaching phonics. True or false?

 In the previous quiz, I said kids did best when teachers followed a specific sequence of instruction. Teachers shouldn’t be trying to guess what phonic elements and spelling patterns to teach.

So, what is the best sequence, and why don’t school districts simply adopt programs that teach that sequence?

While research reveals the value of a set instructional phonics sequence, no particular sequence has been found to outperform any other. In other words, schools should adhere to a phonics sequence, but which sequence they adopt doesn’t seem to matter much.

Over a long career, I’ve seen some harmful sequences, but these incidents are atypical. For instance, I remember a couple of programs with very different sequences (one starting with vowels and the other consonants). Not necessarily a big deal, but I saw a school allow teachers to use either program. Some of the kids never were taught vowels and others never got many consonants. That’s pretty dopey. Teachers in a school should work with the same sequence, whichever one it may be.

There is no particular instructional sequence that needs to be followed (so this item is false), but you do need to adhere to a planned instructional sequence, and I bet teachers tend to teach these skills more thoroughly when they are following a program.

8.    Kids should learn to read some number of words before phonics instruction is introduced. True or false?

This is one that I was told when I went into teaching. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but then I heard someone making this claim more recently.

I can’t find any research pursuing this question, though it is evident from the dozens of studies of phonics instruction (NICHD, 2000), particularly those done with preschoolers (NELP, 2008), that kids can make great progress with phonics without mastering any words prior to the onset of phonics teaching. This one is definitely false.

I’m not against having kids memorize some words, but I agree with the National Research Council (1998), that the amount of attention to this should be pretty limited. They recommended about 20 words in kindergarten (including the child’s name)—along with their phonics, and I have long recommended 100 high frequency words in grade 1… though again with phonics playing an important role in that.    

Teaching a few words in addition to phonics can allow kids to make a faster transition into reading (hence, the 20 kindergarten words) or can facilitate fluency (those high frequency words that are exceptions to the usual spelling/pronunciation patterns, like the, done, and have). But don’t wait for kids to learn such words before introducing phonics.

 9.    Phonics instruction should include writing or spelling activities. True or false?

This one is true, and we’ve known it to be true for a long time.

There are examples of successful phonics program that don’t include dictation, spelling, or writing, but programs with this element seem to do a bit better.

Back in the 1960s, Jeanne Chall concluded that such writing and spelling activities were beneficial. And, more recently, the National Reading Panel (NRP) wrote:

“Methods that teach children to manipulate phonemes with letters are more effective than methods limiting manipulation to spoken units. Teaching children to segment phonemes in words and represent them with letters is the equivalent of invented spelling instruction.” (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-41)

Several of the phonics studies the NRP reviewed had a spelling or writing dimension, too.

I checked with What Works Clearinghouse, and of the 16 programs that had clear evidence showing effectiveness in promoting decoding ability, at least 9 of those included writing and/or spelling activities.

10.    Decodable text is an essential part of phonics instruction. True or false?

The term “decodable text” refers to having students read texts that they can fully or almost full decode based only upon the phonics skills taught up to that point in time.

These days many reading authorities promote decodable text as an important part of phonics instruction. And, the idea is an attractive one. You teach decoding skills and then you give the kids practice in implementing these skills.

However, research has not been especially supportive of this idea. Studies that have evaluated the impact of different levels of decodability have found no learning benefits, and none of the major research reviews of phonics instruction have even pondered about the value of such text.  

Not only hasn’t decodable text improved kids’ reading achievement—or even their decoding ability, but there are reasons to be concerned about its potential for overuse.

English is a phonemically and orthographically complex language. Even within syllables, readers have to be able to consider alternative pronunciations for particular spellings. Studies have shown that the patterns evident in beginning reading materials have long range impacts on later decoding ability, and when those instructional patterns are inconsistent with the statistical properties of English it can lead to systematic and persistent reading and spelling error.

A noted educational psychologist pointed out to me that these findings are consistent with cognitive research on massed versus distributed practice. By massing practice (that is, making sure there is a lot of practice with the already-taught skills), performance appears to improve rapidly. However, more enduring learning results from distributed practice (that is practicing with less consistent text).

Practicing with decodable text early on might be useful, but it is important to shift quickly to texts that provide less consistent practice.

I think the best way to do that is to have young children reading a more diverse set of texts (such as traditional controlled vocabulary readers or language experience stories) along the way.

Decodable texts suggest which spelling patterns are worth paying attention to, and the less decodable texts keep kids honest in applying these skills and start them on the road to statistical learning, so they can figure out how best to weigh the comparative value of the various patterns they are learning.

This one is false.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito Aug 17, 2019 01:53 AM

This part of your post really caught my eye "A stronger emphasis on phonics is likely a necessary element in achieving full reading proficiency, but it is far from a sufficient one." Really sums things up. On the one hand it is evident that we are NOT doing an adequate job of providing phonics instruction in the early grades (you've blogged around this point many times and made a compelling arguments that this is the case). On the other hand there is no "one size fits all" solution. BUT it is evident that much more time needs to be spent on phonics instruction in the early grades. I continue to like your idea (taken from NRP I believe) that we include phonics, fluency, comp and writing in equal parts from the outset of 1st grade. I think widespread adoption of that idea would have a SIGNIFICANT impact on improving reading instruction. It is an idea that I think folks from all sides of the great debate could and should get behind. Been looking for "common ground" for quite some time, and I think your idea could very well be the beginning of that common ground.

Joan Sedita Aug 17, 2019 01:06 PM

Tim, once again thanks for a great blog post. My comments are related to your question #6 about why so many American students are failing to become proficient readers. The main reason that improving phonics instruction alone is not enough to see stronger gains as students move into upper grades is that many teachers do not know how to explicitly teach other components of literacy instruction (i.e., sentence and text structure, vocabulary and overall language skills, close reading skills, how to make inferences, writing about reading, comprehension monitoring and strategy instruction embedded in content reading materials). All of the questions and comments about phonics instruction can be applied to these other literacy skills as well. From 1975 to 1998, I had the opportunity to work at the Landmark School in MA (and help start Landmark College in VT) where each year 500+ students with language-based LD across all grade levels were quite successfully taught the reading and writing skills they did not learn in their public school systems. In the early years of the school the focus was on explicitly and systematically teaching decoding skills because these were so glaringly missing. But once those skills were in place, we found that the lack of reading experience and the same language-based weaknesses that caused decoding problems also had an impact on other literacy skills. So we applied the same instructional principles to these other skills -- explicit, systematic instruction, gradual release of responsibility, etc. As was the prevailing thought in the 1970's, we started teaching comprehension strategies in isolation, i.e., trying to teach a discreet skill such as "drawing conclusions" using workbook-type materials such as the Barnell Loft series. But we quickly learned that teaching these skills in isolation did not work. Every teacher of every subject had to embed this teaching into content instruction using content-related reading material. In the early 1980's we partnered with several local public middle and high schools to send some of our older students to content classes in the afternoons. At first, I would communicate with these public school teachers to let them know about some of the strategies we wanted our students to carry over into their classrooms (e.g., two-column note taking, vocabulary learning strategies, etc.). At the time, I was young and thought that the "gen ed" students at these schools were able to intuit these skills/strategies on their own and our Landmark kids were the only ones who needed explicit instruction because of their learning disabilities. However, to my surprise many of these teachers responded back asking if we could help them learn how to explicitly teach these skills to all their students. Bingo.... my first realization that, while some students may intuit these skills on their own (just as some may figure out phonics with minimal instruction), all students benefit from explicit instruction so why not give it to everyone? That was over 35 years ago, and unfortunately things have not changed much. Just as many teachers come out of college unprepared to teach decoding skills, they are even more unprepared to teach all the other literacy components. The National Reading Panel's schema of the five components (and models such as Scarborough's rope) remind us that we need to teach more than just decoding skills, echoed by Tim and many of the comments posted by others. I just wish there would be more discourse about how, just as with phonics, teachers need training to learn how to teach these other vital skills. It's not enough to assume kids of all ages will figure out these skills on their own.

Bernadette Aug 17, 2019 01:41 PM

Thank you so very much ! I appreciate your time, dedication, expertise, and commitment to supporting teachers and learners.

Kay Kausalai Wijekumar Aug 17, 2019 01:52 PM

Tim, Thanks again for a thoughtful and timely piece on phonics instruction. As the previous persons noted, your thoughts about careful and systematic phonics instruction is an important pre- co-requisite for reading. As our research on text structures shows, students trained on seeking important ideas while reading, connecting the ideas logically in a main idea scaffolded by the text structure, and even extending to inferences with the text structures makes an important positive effect on comprehension. (Please see Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2017 and Dr. Mark Schneider's Comments at about our reading intervention Intelligent Tutoring for the Structure Strategy (ITSS)

I do want to note something that keeps concerning me about these standardized tests that are used to measure reading through the years. The test items are expressly selected based on the ability to rank order students and not necessarily to measure mastery of certain skills. As such, if all the students are in fact making progress and showing improvements, then new test items are selected to differentiate and rank the new performance. So the tests keep shifting throughout the times. Someone recently suggested to me that the tests are all designed to keep the bell curve in tact and as such comparing the scores over years is not telling us much about whether students are in fact stagnant in their reading performance!!

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Don Potter Aug 17, 2019 02:13 PM

I have taught reading with decodable text and without decodable text, but I always taught phonics. My experience tells me that a little intensive phonics at the start goes a very long way toward producing strong readers. My friend, Elizabeth Brown, and I have written 62 decodable stories with a very high rate of decodability. In fact, are only 11 so-called sight words (irregular high frequency words) taught in the program before their phonetic element is taught. That is an amazingly high degree of decodability. But I teach the entire program to first graders in four months so that we can begin reading natural text before the end of the first semester. I think it become detrimental to extend the use of decodable text past the first semester of first grade. I have taught my program, Blend Phonics Lessons and Stories, in as little as one month to a first grader, who went on to become an outstanding reader.

Mary Aug 17, 2019 02:49 PM

I love these posts. Would you be able to give me some examples of the more natural language experience reading that I could offer my soon to be second grader who is just learning the phonemes. She is decoding simple nonsense words and "silent e" words. Writing is a huge challenge and she avoids at all costs!

Chris Ridgeway Aug 17, 2019 02:53 PM

The best thing I ever did was to start teaching Chinese students online to speak English. It made me so much more aware of the connection between phonics, fluency, grammar, comprehension, etc. Literacy is complicated and involves the meshing of a variety of skills and knowledge. The absence of any one can seriously impede the expansion of literacy later on.

M Zecher Aug 17, 2019 04:21 PM

Thank you again for such an informative and thought provoking post. I am trained in teaching explicit phonics and decoding skills but that move toward fluency is very important. Teachers who work with those missing phonics skills must understand that goal of phonics is blending and automaticity. In the hierarchy of language skills, being able to fluently decode allows the reader to focus not only on the syllables and words but larger syntactical units of meaning. When I work with older learners, I move them to decoding polysyllabic words, phrases, clauses, sentences and text as quickly as possible. Spelling and written language must be simultaneously taught and we must expose them to thoughts and ideas to form the basis for comprehension. Too many people misunderstand phonics instruction and believe it is only sound by sound reading. The goal is automatic and fluent decoding so that the reader can examine those components which are not as easily recognized. If too many words are unrecognizable in the text, comprehension breaks down. The cognitive load of guessing and re-reading can derail working memory needed for understanding and comprehending. As an aside, many teachers do not realize that two of the six syllable types make up the bulk of syllables read above the fourth grade. Building automatic decoding skills at the syllable level and incorporating that into word and vocabulary study along with morphology can help older learners.

Scott Baird Aug 17, 2019 06:52 PM

Tim, this sums it up. This is brilliant! “Phonics can give kids a better reading start, but they also need instruction in fluency, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing—and they need to gain lots of knowledge about our social and natural worlds—if they are to become fully literate.”

Harriett Aug 18, 2019 12:23 AM

There is a very interesting article in the interdisciplinary journal Reading and Writing , "The influence of Decodability in Early Reading Text on Reading Achievement: A Review of the Evidence" (2012) by Cheatham and Allor. The authors argue against "single-criterion" decodable text. They write:

"The studies point to the need for multiple-criteria text with decodability being one key characteristic in ensuring that students develop the alpahbetic principle that is necessary for successful reading, rather than text based on the single criterion of decodability . . . One major conclusion of this review is that decodability should be considered a characteristic of text and not a type of text used with beginning readers."

They advocate for future research in measuring decodability, looking at the degree of decodability needed for various learners in different stages of development, and studying the impact of the decodability of text during independednt reading times as well as the impact of text characteristics other than decodability. They conclude by reiterating that "the evidence supports Hiebert's call for multiple-criteria text that addresses a variety of text characteristics, including decodability, high frequency words, degree of word repetition, meaningfulness, etc." They re-emphasize that "the field needs to consider decodability as a text characteristic rather than a type of text."

Timothy Shanahan Aug 18, 2019 05:08 PM

Interesting comment. Reading comprehension tests do a good job of telling us who comprehends well, but they are not able to parse out skills. I think it would be very interesting to see a comprehension test that ignored the traditional skills approach, but asked questions that depended upon understanding certain vocabulary words in the text, the making sense of particular grammatical structures in the texts' sentences, the connections of cohesive links across the passage, and for information that was dependent on the text's structure, etc. I wonder if that would do a better job and would result in more interesting and perhaps diagnostic results.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 18, 2019 05:10 PM


I would suggest adding language experience stories to the mix. This blog entry, noted below, has some good advice as well.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 18, 2019 05:10 PM

Thanks for this citation, Harriet, I hadn't come across that article (or don't remember doing so at any rate). It is right on the money.


Dave Ray Aug 19, 2019 06:39 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
I appreciate your insight. Are there examples of effective reading/literacy phonics instruction in schools that you would recommend? (A school described in an article? A description of your work in Chicago school district?)

Also, how do we best integrate the learning disability research of people like Dr. Berninger into this phonics topic? Some kids need intensive intervention. You have shared your thinking previously about the role of differentiated gen ed instruction, such as Dr. Carol Connor's work. In her research (as you know well), the small group gen ed reading intervention looked very different for kids needing word level decoding work vs kids with language needs. Would you have suggestions for how to highly differentiate small group instruction/intervention?

Thanks again for keeping us grounded in research.

lisa jimenez Aug 20, 2019 01:02 PM

These posts and comments have been very helpful to me. I am an ELD/Special Ed teacher from way back. One practice I have found after good decoding skills, is using an analytical approach to grammar, functional grammer, so that students can start at the kernel sentence and move out to complex sentences. I see my students signaling themselves when they can't understand a long sentence using what has been taught,, trying to find at least the subject and predicate ( main idea) of the sentence. I believe this type of grammar instruction is valuable to reading comprehension but I don't think there is research that supports this. Would there be?
Thank you

Tim Shanahan Aug 21, 2019 02:58 AM

No, Lisa, that kind of thing is unlikely to help with decoding, but it is likely to help with reading comprehension. It definitely has a role to play and there are studies showin* that kind of thing can be beneficial.

lisa jimenez Aug 21, 2019 08:17 PM

Thank you, I misspoke and meant to say AFTER achieving good decoding skills. Could you point me in the direction of research in this area as, I have not found any and in fact, in a lot of our professional development it is said to have no benefit to writing or specifically to reading comprehension.
Thank you again.

Tim Shanahan Aug 22, 2019 12:57 AM

Lisa- look for research on sentence combing and sentence reduction.


Mary Harwood Aug 28, 2019 06:57 PM

Thank you again for a thought-provoking post. I'm wondering why you chose to leave phonological awareness out of this discussion, since it is such an important component of learning to read. Isn't it true that phonics programs which include an emphasis on developing phonological awareness produce better results than phonetic programs which don't include phonological awareness?

Mary Harwood Aug 28, 2019 07:00 PM

Thank you again for a thought-provoking post. I'm wondering why you chose to leave phonological awareness out of this discussion, since it is such an important component of learning to read. Isn't it true that phonics programs which include an emphasis on developing phonological awareness produce better results than phonetic programs which don't include phonological awareness?

Tim Shanahan Sep 02, 2019 12:49 PM


Yes, including PA improves success with phonics...but I did talk about how much more successful that marriage is when letter names are part of the equation.


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The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part II


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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