What do you think of “phonics first” or “phonics only” in the primary grades?

  • phonics
  • 10 September, 2022

Teacher question:

At my school, the district inservice has made a big deal out of Scarborough’s rope. Nevertheless, when it comes to daily instruction, we (the primary grade teachers) have been told that decoding is the most important thing and that we are to emphasize that. They’ve sent us to LETRS training, purchased instructional programs on phonics, and require testing students’ “nonsense word fluency” frequently. At what grade levels is it appropriate to teach the “language comprehension” portions of the rope?

Shanahan responds:

In 1915, near where I’m writing this, a passenger ship, the SS Eastland sank, drowning 844 passengers – many of them children. It was the greatest disaster in Chicago history and the greatest loss of life of any single shipwreck on the Great Lakes…. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I agree with your district that young readers – if they are going to be young readers – need to learn to decode and phonics and phonemic awareness instruction is essential during the primary grades to ensure that students develop proficient decoding ability.

But it seems to me that in your school district’s prodigious and well-meaning efforts to ensure that happens, they are ignoring Scarborough’s rope, Gough & Tunmer’s simple view, Duke & Cartwright’s active view model, the report of the National Reading Panel, $100 million worth of research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and a slew of other more recent research studies.

They’ve left the “bop out of the bop-sh-bop-sh-bop.” Or, more accurately, they’ve left the science out of the “science of reading.”

Most people would chalk this overreach up to “reading wars.” That could be what’s happening; maybe there’s a “true believer” in your district who thinks that only decoding matters – and is willing to make that happen no matter the costs.

However, I’ve been hearing about this “decoding first” or “decoding only” action often lately – from parents, state department of education officials, and teachers. Reading instruction over my career has tended to follow a pendulum. As interest swings one way or the other, instructional practice gets twisted out of shape.

I remember back in the 1970s and 80s. The federal government invested heavily in research on reading comprehension. That produced a lot of terrific studies, and for a while it dominated the reading journals – both the research journals and those aimed at practitioners.

In 1980, it was nearly impossible to find a contemporary high-quality article on phonics teaching. The comprehension researchers weren’t anti-phonics, they just sucked all the oxygen out of the room. A beginning teacher at that time would have thought the only thing she was supposed to teach was comprehension strategies.  

Not surprisingly, publishing companies followed that lead. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t publish information on how to read words or how to teach students to do so. They were just following the market, publishing the shiny new stuff that everyone was interested in right then – rather than trying to make sure that all the important aspects of teaching reading were addressed sufficiently.

That’s what’s going on now. The press and media are emphasizing decoding because of serious gaps in the practices of many schools, so parents are asking questions about it and curriculum directors are making darn sure that they have a good story to tell. Since no one appears particularly concerned about prosody or vocabulary or whether kids are reading enough science text, all hands-on deck are about addressing the decoding gap.

We certainly have work to do to make sure that phonics is taught, that teachers have supportive, high-quality instructional materials aimed at that, and investing in professional development on decoding is wise, too.

But that’s the easy part.

The trick to doing that successfully, however, is to do it without tipping the boat over.

Ah, the SS Eastland, let’s get back to that. The ship that day was loaded with families going out for a excursion on the lake, a Sunday entertainment. Unfortunately, once boarded the ship listed heavily to starboard (it was leaning uncomfortably to the right). The passengers responded as might be expected… they moved quickly to the other side of the boat – which tipped it over.

It sounds like your district is trying to address a real problem. But under pressure and anxiety, they are shifting all the ballast to one side of the boat. Ignoring or delaying language comprehension instruction is not the smart way to correct the decoding problem. In fact, it might eventually sink the boat.

Is there really any reason to believe that teaching phonics first or that only teaching phonics for a year or two is a good idea? If you have phonics stuff to sell, it probably seems like it is. But if you have any interest in the science of reading (that is, you want to base your actions on data rather than sales talks and unintentional media hyperbole), then it’s clear those scorched earth approaches are bad pedagogy.

If you don’t think that I’m right about this, look at this evidence:

1.     Jeanne Chall, the Harvard professor most known for her analysis of the research on phonics instruction (Reading: The Great Debate, 1967), promoted the role of phonics more vocally and more articulately than any scientist of her generation. Nevertheless, the phonics instruction that she promoted through her own work never delivered phonics in a vacuum. Her research revealed that students, to become readers, needed to progress in multiple skills area simultaneously.

2.     In 1990, Marilyn Jager Adams published the landmark, “Beginning to Read,” her magnificent summary of the research on the early acquisition of reading ability. Not surprisingly, this work – like Chall’s – has been a major pillar of movement to teach phonics explicitly and thoroughly from the beginning. However, this incisive review of research explicitly rejects the idea of either “phonics first” or “meaning first” approaches. It describes such approaches as “misguided” and “simplistic,” and documents the lack of empirical supporting either of those approaches.

3.     Hollis Scarborough’s rope, which you mention, treats word recognition and language comprehension equivalently. However, you could read that visual metaphor for reading development two different ways. You could read it left-to-right, which would suggest that both sets of skills develop simultaneously and interactively from the beginning. Or you also might read it from top to bottom, suggesting that language comprehension comes later in the process, built upon a foundation of phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight vocabulary. Recently, Hollis clarified the intended meaning in a Q&A available on YouTube. She said that the publisher of the original graphic left out one important item. There was to be an arrow at the bottom labeled time, and it was to point left-to-right. Her understanding of the research is in accord with those of Chall and Adams – decoding needs to be taught early in the developmental process, along with those comprehension abilities.

4.     The National Reading Panel report (2000) is oft cited as the major support for phonics instruction. We found (I was a member of the panel) that explicit, systematic phonics instruction helped students to become better readers – based on a meta-analysis of 38 studies. But most of those studies provided the phonics instruction embedded in or accompanied by a more comprehensive reading program (the same was true of all the other components of reading that NRP examined). If you have any doubts, Linnea Ehri, the scientist who led the alphabetics part of the effort, has focused her research not only on how kids learn to recognize words (ever hear of “orthographic mapping”?), but also on more comprehensive approaches to decoding like Reading Rescue.

5.     The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that once instruction had successfully raised kids to average levels of decoding ability – levels that should have resulted in successful reading – more than half the students still struggled. Decoding was essential, but insufficient for success. That’s why Reid Lyon, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, Joe Torgesen, and so many others endorsed more comprehensive approaches to meeting children’s reading needs (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). They were quite explicit that the teaching of these components takes places simultaneously, not consecutively or sequentially. It would be cruel to put all the emphasis on one part of the process, while allowing kids to languish with the other parts (sort of like providing calcium by taking away the protein).

6.     Perhaps you think that what I’m saying may be true for some kids, but not for kids with dyslexia. You’d be wrong there too if you examined the rigorous and well-grounded research of folks like Sharon Vaughn or Maureen Lovett. They must not have gotten the memo that kids only need decoding supports early on; look at the interventions they’ve developed for students with dyslexia.

7.     Not long ago, on a listserv where I lurk, someone argued that it was okay to teach phonics to kids who already could decode satisfactorily (“it couldn’t hurt”). Research shows that engaging those kids in comprehension and language activities instead of teaching them again what they already know, generates greater learning progress (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004). Nothing wrong with supporting phonics instruction but being so cavalier about the education of other people’s children is insensitive and offensive. (Yes, unfortunately, I’ve witnessed that same kind of insensitivity and gracelessness from those excusing their own disregard for the decoding needs of kids.)

8.     The value or possibility of teaching foundational skills and language skills simultaneously is not just for reading either. Karen Harris and Steve Graham shared some of their recent work with me that shows that first-graders do quite well with a more comprehensive approach from the beginning (Harris, Kim, Yim, Camping, Graham, et al., in review).

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The scientists who know the most about this are big proponents of teaching phonics, but they don’t buy in to the idea that its phonics first or phonics only. Those ideas comes from folks who are trying to push a pendulum, make a sale, or – perhaps, like your district – who want to respond to community pressure without taking the trouble to examine the science of reading.

How to proceed? The way I handle it is by apportioning time to parts of the literacy curriculum. I follow the research and advocate teaching phonics for about 30 minutes a day (just like in most of the studies summarized by the National Reading Panel). Comparable amounts of time should be devoted to the other important components that reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to read text fluently. Doing it that way, kids get what research says is an effective dose of phonics instruction, and they don’t miss out on all the other things that they need if they are to become good readers.

In Chicago, when I was the director of reading, we began every workshop with an overview of all the skills needed to read. It was explained repeatedly that today’s PD was on ______ but not because that was the most important or the only component of reading. It was important, it mattered, and it was the topic of the day, but it had to fit together with the other pieces (that also were essential and that mattered every bit as much). Worked for our kids.

Please share this article with your administrators. Perhaps we can persuade them to do less tail covering and more to meet the literacy learning needs of our diverse children.

Let’s not sink the boat in our zeal to make it look like we are doing a great job with phonics.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Katch, L. E. (2004). Beyond the reading wars: Exploring the effect of child-instruction interactions on growth in early reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(4), 305-336.

Fletcher, J. M., & Lyon, G. R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W. M. Evers (Eds.), What’s gone wrong in America’s classrooms (pp. 50-77). Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press. 

Harris, K. R., Kim, Y., Yim, S., Camping, A., Graham, S., & Fulton, M. L. (Under review). Yes, they can: Developing transcription skills and oral language in tandem with SRSD instruction on close reading of science text to write informative essays at Grades 1 and 2. 

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Stacey Sep 10, 2022 01:34 PM

So do we have our high readers work on phonics routines alongside the class or have them do another activity during this time? Our daily decoding routine is modeled after Phonics Lesson Library and matches the skill in Journeys.

Lwj Sep 10, 2022 02:10 PM

This still leaves a lot of room for interpretation and application. So if, for instance, your particular situation has mostly “ worksheet” phonics added on to the rest of the parts of instruction, you may have quite a few Tier 2 students develop. I may have to balance my pull out time with more decoding time for a student, knowing that in 6 months or a year, their instruction will lack decoding. My district, for at least 6 years, has had no spelling instruction, no handwriting instruction and limited to varying adherence to phonic knowledge. Consequently, we have too many in lower tiers than should be there. All parts are important; however, we have to apply this diagnostically.

paul worthington Sep 10, 2022 02:26 PM

Great question, powerful response Tim. Indeed the phonics pendulum has swung again sadly to the exclusion of comprehension. We have professional development going on in over half the states in the Union and most of the DOE's in those states are perseverating on Phonic's instruction, via legislative program approval policies (i.e. Arkansas), to the exclusion of comprehension and vocabulary instuctional practices. Especially enjoyed the reminder references to Chall, Adams, Lyons, Ehri, et al. and the counsel to not shift our weight to the other side of the boat. I'm not optimistic that we'll get through this without a lot of casualties.

Mark Pennington Sep 10, 2022 02:27 PM

The ship analogy is particularly helpful. I'm not sure if "It's a Mississippi miracle or bust!" is necessarily the best approach for districts to make the SOR shift.

Two other ship analogies come to mind. 1. It takes quite a while to turn an aircraft carrier 180 degrees. 2. Even a single degree change in the rudder produces a significant difference in destination.

Amelia Larson Sep 10, 2022 02:38 PM

THIS!!! Thank you Tim....It is too bad the word balanced was corrupted! It was such a good word! Wish we could rescue it!

Jane Charlton Sep 10, 2022 02:52 PM

I'm a literacy coach at a charter in Pennsylvania. The city where the charter is located was recently listed as the most dangerous city to live in Pennsylvania. Marginalized students roam the hallways with little interest in learning. One of our biggest challenges is retaining teachers; therefore, causing constant interruption in quality, intentional instruction.

I've read your article thoroughly. I would love your advice and guidance on a yearly occurrence on our campuses. A large percentage of our students can not read. I'm working with a 4th grade teacher with a class of 25 children. 15 of those students possess IEP's. Only two of the children are pulled out for resource services. Therefore, a plan needs to be constructed to effectively help all 23 students. The historical data on her class shows they are 2 grade levels below and even lower.

We just purchased the CKLA program and begin implementation on September, 12th. We're being told Tier 1 instruction needs to be on grade level. Do you feel 30 minutes of phonics instruction would be beneficial to add into the whole group block?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:31 PM


Balance would have been a good word if it had not been used as an avenue for ducking out on responsibility for teaching decoding. At one time, the idea was that you were balanced if you both included decoding and you emphasized motivation... now I hear teachers saying they are going to add phonics to their "balanced literacy" program. In nutrition terms, it is like adding vegetables to a balanced diet -- if there were no vegetables before there was nothing balanced about it.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:36 PM


The equal time coverage of key elements of reading and writing is for Tier 1 instruction. Indeed, Tier 2 instruction, for most kids, should be targeted more specifically on their individual needs. That means Tier 2 for certain kids, may only be phonics, or fluency, or whatever. That is the role of the pull out teacher -- to balance the kid, not the curriculum. Things are different than that in the classroom. The Tier 1 teacher who says, we didn't teach phonics before so now we'll only teach it so things get into balance, will just cause future problems.


Lise L'Heureux Sep 10, 2022 03:03 PM

Bonjour Tim!

You always have a way of painting the science of reading with great colour. I was once, many years ago, a phonics first believer, and I'm happy to say I'm cured. ??

(Very sad for those families & their loved ones).

I will be sharing for sure!

Bonne rentrée!

Elizabeth Robins Sep 10, 2022 03:06 PM

How fascinating. For want of that arrow, much essential debate regarding the initial need for phonics - awakening and cementing the child's knowledge of and practical use of the code - alongside letter formation, rich storytelling, How fascinating - and a great shame, too. The debate surrounding that arrow would havevyielded a healthy debate fron its inception

"Recently, Hollis clarified the intended meaning in a Q&A available on YouTube. She said that the publisher of the original graphic left out one important item. There was to be an arrow at the bottom labeled time, and it was to point left-to-right."
Sheesh! An enormous publishing error, as its inclusion would have yielded much needed discussion from the start. Maybe even obviating much bad feeling from 'Balanced' Reading' adherents. After all, it is seeking to capture a balanced approach to teaching reading. It acknowledges the importance of alerting earliest learners to the code basis of reading, alongside how this translates into a healthier initial and increasingly independent interaction with what is read.

Harriett Janetos Sep 10, 2022 03:48 PM

As to Paul's point about phonics instruction crowding out vocabulary, what we are oftentimes forgetting is that phonics should be an integral part of vocabulary instruction. Integration is key. I recommend:

Supporting Language and Vocabulary Development for Early Learners, Susan Chambre, 2021

"When we see new words, we create print, pronunciation and meaning amalgams. Vocabulary instruction underutilizes the mnemonic value of orthography. The key to orthographic mapping is pronunciation of a word while looking at it, then meaning is attached."

Harriett Janetos Sep 10, 2022 05:53 PM

Here's the corrected link to the Susan Chambre video:

Supporting Language and Vocabulary Development for Early Learners, Susan Chambre, 2021

Betsy MacDermott Duffy Sep 10, 2022 06:34 PM

Just when you thought the last blog post could not get any better or more informative!!! Every teacher should be subscribed to this site. Thanks, Tim!

Lisa Schreyer Sep 10, 2022 07:17 PM

Dr. Shanahan, you once again brilliantly provide explanations for educators to embrace the wholeness and complexity of all that the science is teaching us. And, we get a good chuckle in as well!
I was recently tasked with introducing our K-2 staff to the science of reading, rather small task for a mere reading interventionist, I know. My goal was to introduce and not frighten. I focused on Scarborough’s rope, Gough & Tunmer’s simple view, Duke & Cartwright’s active view model, the report of the National Reading Panel, orthographic mapping, knowledge building, Geodes and Lindsey's framework for decoding instruction in lieu of leveled readers. (Looking forward to your webinar with TRL next month!). The feedback was incredibly positive, requesting more PD and further study. The district is supplying the texts for a book study I will be creating. I selected "Above The Fray" as I feel it is teacher friendly and will not intimidate professionals who may feel ignorant. Educators want curriculum that is aligned to the research grounded in science. I am humbled, terrified, and exhilarated to begin this journey. My next selection, I'd love to focus on using Shanahan on Literacy posts and research articles; for now, it seems decoding instruction is a need for K-2 staff. Grateful for this continued education! Lisa M. Schreyer, M.Ed.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:24 PM


If the students are still reading at a first or second grade level (or are testing low in decoding and spelling abilities), I would definitely include 30 minutes of decoding instruction for those children in Tier 1. There is recent evidence that indicates that if you don't get kids to an acceptable level of decoding, then none of the rest of what you do with reading instruction will make any difference. Your district needs to test those boys and girls to find out where they are in decoding, and instruction should be adjusted accordingly.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:39 PM

What Carol Connor and her colleagues found was that the students who had already accomplished sufficient decoding progress also tended to be able to work well away from the teacher. Those students were able to carry out reading assignments, writing assignments, and to work in groups with others on projects, and so on. The kids who were low in phonics needed instructional time with the teacher.


Lois Letchford Sep 10, 2022 09:46 PM

I just love your response! Teaching reading is a complex task, requiring us to help kids connect all aspects of reading to become “skilled readers”

Robert Femiano Sep 10, 2022 10:45 PM

As an ‘inner-city’ K-2 public school teacher for 30+ years I found the quickest and surest route to teaching reading begins by ensuring each student first understands how writing was devised as a code. This requires the learner (including bilingual, special needs, gifted, and speech-impacted children) to initially recognize that words are composed of individual sounds, because it is these small bits of speech (phonemes) that are encoded using the alphabet and students need to see this connection. Once they understand that their speech can be written, then reading will makes sense to them. (And we’ll never hear that “hey teacher, this book don’t work” cry.)

Starting with phonics (explaining that a certain letter ‘makes’ this sound) creates the impression that the code was created out of thin air and entirely misses the opportunity for the learner to see how reading is based on speaking and writing. But once a student can verbally segment words into sounds, then introducing the alphabet makes sense as a way of putting these spoken sound onto paper, which can then be read by them and others. Further, introducing the 26 letters leave open the possible confusion that English speech typically contains 44 phonemes which means we can make more sounds than there is alphabet.

The most important controlling sound in a word is the vowel. For example: cat, cut, and coat vary wildly in meaning but the medial sound is only what distinguishes their meaning. Unfortunately, it is not so easy for students to tune-into and isolate this important phoneme, but nonetheless, this is where to begin if one wants to help students understand ‘how reading works’. Whether adult or child, this is the key to helping beginning readers see the interrelationship between speaking, writing and reading.

As to the classroom: for say 20 minutes per day, in small groups of 6 or 7 students, I (in late kindergarten or early first grade, or anytime a student is struggling reader) focus on 3-letter words, learning to isolate (and eventually swap) vowel sounds. All work is done orally, where I say a word (e.g., hat, cop, big, etc.) and the students has to repeat the middle sound, given a choice of two sounds. For example, “Your word is ‘hot’. The sun is hot and boiling water is hot. Do you hear /ah/ or /oh/ in hot?” If they say the wrong answer, I substitute it and say it aloud so they hear the difference. “If it was /ah/ it would be hat”. It sometimes helps to stretch the vowel sound, as in “hoooot.” I will always connect it with meaning and allow others to verbally add to it, and of course encourage the other students to silently try to figure it out while waiting for their own turn.

Once students understand that words can be encoded, sound by sound, they are ready for phonics with meaning or comprehension. Showing students the patterns that exist, especially among vowel spellings, greatly speeds up the remainder of phonics, which should be completed no later than 2nd grade in possible. For example, studying “ai” words (fair, paid, wait…) or “ou” words (ouch, sour, pound…) in a grouping allows easy memory access to similar words and decoding unfamiliar words such as “flail” or “doubt”. Each word is discussed then written and often drawn on individual lap whiteboards. They are read back at end of group where maybe 15 words were studied. One follow-up activity include copying and illustrate sentences the next day that reuse these words, along with a few new ones to decode.

Making sense of the English system of writing is a powerful accelerant in launching beginning readers. Yes there are inconsistencies, but once the students feel empowered by recognizing how reading works, these become mere speed bumps, not road blocks. Without it, they can quickly fall “off track” and turn off to reading, while blaming themselves for “not getting it”.

Julie Lewis Sep 10, 2022 07:27 PM

What a breath of fresh air! Thank-you, Tim. In my view, and I have said it to those I interact with, we teach comprehension all the time, all day long (almost literally) in every class and content area. We teach the knowledge and strategies that we know impact and determine comprehension. We never leave that "stone unturned." I recently questioned the advice I am finding here, there, out about and around that parents should be wary if their child's school teaches "guided reading." Guided reading is turning up on lists of 'no-nos." If we do not provide guidance to our students during reading, whether it be during the ELA block, science or social studies, how are we guiding them in the development of the knowledge, strategies and skills that are crucial to comprehension? The notion that we may not use "guided reading" is tragic. This is the boat tilting off balance. Another point you made that I celebrate is why teach phonemic awareness and phonics lessons to the children who have already mastered the skills and activities? OK, perhaps it won't hurt, directly, but indirectly we prevent them from gaining the progress we might allow were we to encourage those students to read or write while we teach targeted lessons to the children who need them? I attribute some of the enthusiasm for 1) insisting there should be no guided reading; and 2) teaching phonics lessons to the children who already apply phonics knowledge to decoding and reading text successfully to perhaps an incomplete picture of the "science of reading" to date. Recently I found myself in a pretty heated exchange in a group when I questioned the advice to ditch guided reading.

Nicole Vitale Sep 10, 2022 08:22 PM

Thank you, Tim. I’ve been trying to explain this to others for a while now. We even have the data to prove it.

Rosalie Fleming Sep 10, 2022 08:29 PM

So...can you please design the best teaching system for us all to follow?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:07 PM


The closest I will ever come to that is likely my framework which simply requires that teachers spend 2-3 hours per day teaching reading and writing. That time should be divided either into 4 or 5 roughly equal time chunks so that decoding/vocabulary, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing (and, possibly, oral language) can be taught. Teachers would hone their craft by trying to make each of those aspects of instruction adhere to the best research that we have at the time (and that will change over time as new research is done). That mix of teaching would be the same at each grade level, but exactly what is taught in each and what is prioritized would change with development.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:09 PM

We do have the data to prove it. Unfortunately, for some, if you don't promote phonics over everything else then they won't do phonics at all (or they'll be indifferent to it). The trick is time. If you can get folks to strive to teach a certain amount of phonics thoroughly and well (and then to teach the other components thoroughly and well). Then we -- and the kids -- have a chance.



Timothy Shanahan Sep 10, 2022 09:13 PM


Keep your eyes open. Sometime in the future I plan to write another piece on guided reading. Unfortunately, the term has been taken over by particular authors. The push back (I hope) is against their version. But veery much like the phonics issues raised here -- the tendency is to throw the baby out with the bathwater... ditching both the good and bad features of that practice.


Dr. Bill Morelan Sep 10, 2022 10:54 PM

Here's a huge "thank you" for summing up what so many of us have been thinking ... and fighting against! You've always been one of my favorite researchers, not only due to your consistent focus on students (which some seem to forget is our reason for being), but also for your willingness to go where the research takes you and not pull any punches. This is absolutely a must-read for EVERY K-3 teacher as well as their administrators, and I plan to share the link with every elementary teacher and administrator I know!

Tara Paisley Sep 11, 2022 02:29 AM

I have to agree that phonics instruction alone is not the answer. Reading is multi faceted and therefore needs all the parts addressed. That was my problem with Whole Language. It left out the phonics component in favor of everything becoming sight words.
My most recent job was reading tutor. The program used covered phonics, phonological awareness, sight words, spelling, and reading. It was leveled so that kids who had the phonics down, but were still struggling could work on syllables and breaking up multi syllable words. In addition, part of the program included an adult reading to them (we did this as a group) and asking comprehension questions. It also introduced them to vocabulary. We didn’t necessarily test on this portion, but it was just as important as the individual lessons.

BJK Sep 11, 2022 02:48 AM

I love reading your explanations filled with research and evidence, Tim.
How do we help 7/8th graders who still perform way below their grade level in reading?
In my district, we’ll be teaching decoding to these older students w/very little emphasis on comprehension. I’m really worried about our ship… and do we have a chance at such “old” age?? (7/8 gr)

Sheryl Ferlito Sep 11, 2022 11:36 AM

As usual, your blog is excellent and thought provoking. I appreciate the comments and your responses as much as the blog. Thank you!

Anon Sep 11, 2022 11:52 AM

I need to post this anonymously because my state department of education has been promoting a consulting firm that uses a militant approach to teaching reading. Based on DIBELS, they insist that Scarborough’s Rope is a staircase of skills and a child has to master one before moving along to another. So for example, if NWF-CLS flags on DIBELS, the instructional focus for that child becomes decoding nonsense words and there is no instruction on vocab or comprehension in the foreseeable future. This approach makes district DIBELS scores shine, but state test scores are still mediocre. Perhaps because complex thinking does not enter too many students’ instructional diets until it is too late!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 05:33 PM

We need to test those older students to see (1) how good their decoding skills are, and (2) how far behind they are. Recent research shows that if middle and high school readers are too low in decoding, they make no reading progress from any approach. Kids that low definitely need a systematic phonics program that explicitly teaches them how to decode. The rest of the kids can benefit from other kinds of remedial programs more focused on vocabulary, comprehension, etc.


Lynn Sep 11, 2022 06:35 PM

I wish there were more high quality comprehensive programs available that included all aspect's of reading.

Matt Renwick Sep 11, 2022 06:42 PM

I am a 16-year school administrator, and I found this response to a phonics-first/only approach informative.

Specifically, I appreciate the inclusion of Duke & Cartwright’s active view model. It embraces a more comprehensive and complex view that extends upon the decoding/comprehension debate. Might be wrong, but I believe this theory will become even more important over time as we prioritize motivation, engagement, self-regulation, etc. within literacy instruction.

Hopefully we can eventually move beyond the binary thinking for teaching readers.

Amelia Larson Sep 11, 2022 06:52 PM

Agree Tim! That's why I love this blog so much!

JoAnne Gross Sep 11, 2022 07:31 PM

Kids that are behind can listen and talk and listen about stories, knowledge and vocabulary till they can read at grade level.
Every child can learn.
Thanks to Dr.Tim Shanahan for your blog, your persistence and your sharing of vital information for teachers and administrators.

AnnEli Sep 11, 2022 07:34 PM

Children practice phonics as they sound out (stretch) words in order to make stories of their own. Teaching for reciprocity between reading and writing is a powerful accelerant. It supports language comprehension when children compose their own ideas into a sentence. Once we achieve the reading direction that includes all aspects of Scarborough’s rope, perhaps we can talk about writing’s power in learning the sound-letter relationship.

Steve Sep 11, 2022 07:54 PM

I will start by saying I am but a simple caveman parent (hopefully you see the SNL reference and that I am trying to be cheeky here) who worries that sometimes we are spending more time debating terminology than fixing what is wrong in the classroom. I love that you mentioned the baggage associated with "Balanced" and how that word when paired with "Literacy" winds up being something in practice that is anything but.

I worry that phrases like "phonics first" or what I understand to be "phonics first, fast and only" when it was initially coined, may be another phrase where the meaning is also in the eye of the beholder. I suspect most people here would agree that "phonics" (or sound symbol association rules) should be the tools that we give young students to decode and that when they first start reading they should only be decoding (they should not be looking at pictures, guessing based on "word shapes" etc). I had always understood the "only" part of this phrase to refer to that dynamic, that we should not encourage other strategies like guessing and students should be pushed to (slowly if need be) decode based on the rules they have been taught. I don't think the word "only" was meant to mean phonics at the exclusion of other strands of the reading rope. As you note in your answer to Jane and BJK, if this foundations of decoding instruction is not done adequately (and early on) you will have to do it later. I like the way you say or "none of the rest of what you do with reading instruction will make any difference." I've always taken that sentiment to align with the word "first" in the dreaded phrase we are all discussing here. The reality is that without some deep exposure to this code, like the complete absence we see in many "Balanced" Literacy classrooms, more students than not will struggle with "the rest of what you do with reading instruction."

And based on my 3 kids in school now (one with dyslexia) and a pretty good understanding of how kids were taught in the 1970s (when my two siblings with dyslexia went through public school), I would say there is not only no phonics instruction in today's Balanced Literacy classrooms, there is almost no systematic "the rest of what you do with reading instruction." I have seen way too many classrooms across 2 states we have lived in where ELA "instruction" is nothing, no systematic attempt to teach decoding, comprehension, spelling, fluency or anything else that is on the reading rope diagram. The best analogy I have heard is that the approach is akin to making kids read sheet music and listen to recordings and then expecting them to become concert pianists (and like it).

So while I do worry about pendulum swings and that it would be bad for K-5 classrooms to spend their entire literacy blocks on phonics, I think we are still a long way from that being a real risk in the places where my kids have been in public school (WA and CA). I also don't think a phrase is the real risk here- even if we were all using that phrase with the same meaning- and instead have deep concerns that we are missing the need to update and improve teacher training programs. To me the larger problem is the teachers in the districts my kids have been in received almost no formal training in how to teach kids how to read. Not only were they not taught anything about phonics and how to devote a relatively modest amount of time (for many students) to teaching the rules for sound symbol association in a systematic manner in K-2, they were also taught little about how to teach the other elements of Scarborough's Rope like vocabulary and language structure. My kids were in an immersion program and I was dumbfounded how little the teachers would use linguistics to help the kids bridge knowledge in one language to English. And don't get me started on how important background knowledge is, how that is a "social determinant" that probably predicts ability to grow comprehension yet how little that concept is addressed in early ELA programs.

Jill Kerper Mora Sep 11, 2022 09:07 PM

Dr. Shanahan,

I am certain that we met a decade or two ago at a National Reading Conference when you and I were both foot soldiers in the Reading Wars. But, in addition, I was soldiering away in the war against bilingual education (BE), through ballot initiatives to ban BE in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. It was very revealing to me that the phonics warriors and the anti-bilingual education soldiers were often one and the same crowd. But with time, here in California at least, we were able to rescind the ban on BE in 2016 and restore many effective dual language programs. My concerns with the latest Phonics First initiatives are based on concerns about English Learners whose English language proficiency is, by definition, not at a peer-aged native-speaker level. Consequently, these students (18% EL in CA today) are learning to read in English although they do not understand and speak the language fluently. What makes the phonics warriors automatically make the assumption that these students' problem with comprehending English text is that they haven't been taught to decode? So, I ask them: If phonics is the answer, what is the question?

Harriett Janetos Sep 11, 2022 09:10 PM

Before we race ahead and supplant (rather than supplement) the Simple View of Reading with the Active View of Reading, we should know exactly what we're doing and why. Here's how Hoover and Tunmer explain it:


The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading
Wesley A. Hoover, William E. Tunmer
First published: 28 October 2021 https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.446

A recent article in this journal claims that the simple view of reading represents a long-outdated account of what underlies the ability to read. Its authors argue that if teachers are to be better informed about what is known about reading then the simple view must be replaced by a more current model, one that captures the substantial progress that has been made in our understanding through the science of reading. In this comment on that article, we discuss the authors’ perspective on the simple view and the three advances in research they claim invalidate it, clarifying misconceptions and critically reviewing presented evidence. We argue that the SVR, centered on the proximal causes of reading capacity under a large grain-size perspective, has garnered strong empirical support, has achieved an important level of consensus within the field regarding its validity, and has shown utility in helping education professionals understand and maintain focus on the most important cognitive capacities underlying reading success. We also argue that the proposed replacement represents a weaker, unproven model that could lead education professionals astray if applied in practice.

Jeff Bowers Sep 11, 2022 09:38 PM

Letters in words have two functions. They represent sounds (when they function as graphemes) and they represent meaning (though morphology and etymology). When it comes to reading instruction, proponents of phonics consistently argue that teaching GPCs should occur before teaching other spelling regularities. People like Adams even questioned whether morphology should be part of reading instruction. So in this sense, phonics is committed to phonics first. Yes, proponents of phonics claim that children should also be taught vocabulary, listen to teachers read fun and engaging texts, etc., but these are oral skills rather than skills linked to written words. Indeed, the standard theoretical motivation for phonics is the simple view of reading. Children are taught to decode with written words and taught verbal skills. But there is nothing about reading instruction with WRITTEN words other than GPCs at the start. Do you agree with this?

This teaching GPCs in isolation of other properties of written words fundamental to phonics. Whether it is a good idea is a scientific question, and the evidence that it works well is very weak when you looks at the literature with an open mind.

Jeff Bowers Sep 11, 2022 09:54 PM

Let me put this another way. The key difference between phonics and SWI is that phonics selectively focuses on GPCs, where SWI focuses on GPCs in the context of the meaningful organization of spellings. When it comes to instruction with *written* words, it is the focus first on GPCs that defines phonics.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 10:04 PM

I hope you didn't take it that I was arguing that either the simple view or the reading rope were wrong -- just that many on-the-ground reform efforts while using those graphics to argue for the importance of phonics, then are ignoring the comprehension components. In some cases, states are investing millions of dollars in efforts to upgrade the phonics instruction (which is fine), but are doing it in a way that is undermining efforts to teacher all of the research-based components of reading. They are often doing this with the claim that phonics has to come first, that its the only element to worry about for the first couple of years and then... someday... they'll turn attention to other parts of reading (sure they will). Those graphics are fine, its the reform efforts in some schools that are deficient (because they aren't looking at the whole graphic or simply don't understand what they are looking at).


Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 10:12 PM

I certainly agree that only emphasizing or over-emphasizing decoding is likely to be especially problematic for children who are learning English (or who have some kind of language deficiency -- which are not the English learners, per se). I think I was the first researcher to show that though explicit phonics was beneficial to second language learners, the effect sizes for such instruction tended to be lower. Being able to decode into a language one doesn't know is simply less beneficial than decoding into a language someone is learning. Too often English learner are dumped into Tier 2 phonics programs not because they are low in phonics, but because they can't speak English and in a phonics-is-all-that-matters atmosphere, there is nothing we can offer these students. We can do better.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 10:17 PM

My purpose in talking about those models was to show that they all champion more than phonics from the very beginning. None of them are meant to be models that dictate how or what we teach -- just what goes into the reading process. Nevertheless, none of these models are complete (there are aspects of the reading process that are omitted, even in the active view), and none even attempts to prescribe what specifically should go into instruction or how that should be prioritized beyond major strokes. One of the pluses of the Active View is that it notes components (like vocabulary) that don't fit comfortably in the decoding or language comprehension sections alone (they straddle both).


Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 10:23 PM

At one time, I would have argued for a long delay in the introduction of morphology (except for some rather obvious and relatively simple or gross items like plural markers and past tense markers). However, you pointed two studies that offered morphology teaching relatively early on -- after a certain amount of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction had taken place-- that found positive learning results for the kids. I'm easy to convince. If you can show me that it works, I'm on board. I do think some advocates of such teaching too vociferous in their rejection of the value of phonics or in their promotion of ideas like early etymology (which still lacks a research base). I definitely believe phonics should be taught, but someplace -- not at the very beginning -- but early on, morphology instruction should be provided -- as should there be lessons in dealing with the conditionality of how phonemes relate to graphemes.


Jeff Bowers Sep 11, 2022 10:42 PM

Thanks for your response Tim. I think terminology is obscuring our differences somewhat. On my view, phonics is committed to the claim that GPCs are taught before morphology. It is not phonics if you teach GPCs in the context of morphological families. That is SWI. Both approaches teach GPCs, but they teach them in different ways, with phonics teaching GPCs first. I agree with you that more evidence is needed to support SWI, but this is why it is reasonable to say phonics is committed to phonology first. Or phonics first.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 10:48 PM


My take on this isn't phonology first as much as it is simple words first, which limits or reduces the immediate value of morphological approaches. If much of the work is going to be done with 2- and 3-letter words for awhile, then getting into how meaning effects spelling, etc. will be limited in value by definition. There is no reason, however, to avoid working on vocabulary, listening comprehension (and as soon as possible, reading comprehension), things like finger-point reading to put the roots into fluency, and writing. One shouldn't stay too long with those CVs and CVCs before one has to start looking at morphology, pronunciation conditionality, and the like.


Jeff Bowers Sep 11, 2022 11:13 PM

Sure, that is the phonics approach.. But there is little evidence it is the most effective approach, and no evidence that is better than SWI. Time will tell, Jeff

Harriett Janetos Sep 11, 2022 11:46 PM

Totally agree with you, Tim. And really appreciate the message in this blog, how some are advocating for change based on the word recognition components of the science of reading but are doing so in a way that undermines, as you say, efforts to teach all the research-based components of literacy.

My comment on the Active View of Reading was in response to this statement:

"Might be wrong, but I believe this theory will become even more important over time as we prioritize motivation, engagement, self-regulation, etc. within literacy instruction."

Harriett Janetos Sep 12, 2022 12:20 AM

Your explanation, Tim, of beginning reading is absolutely confirmed by my two decades working with K-2 students. Complicating what you describe by introducing morphology from day 1 makes no sense to those of us who work with children on a daily basis. You say:

"My take on this isn't phonology first as much as it is simple words first, which limits or reduces the immediate value of morphological approaches. If much of the work is going to be done with 2- and 3-letter words for awhile, then getting into how meaning effects spelling, etc. will be limited in value by definition. There is no reason, however, to avoid working on vocabulary, listening comprehension (and as soon as possible, reading comprehension), things like finger-point reading to put the roots into fluency, and writing. One shouldn't stay too long with those CVs and CVCs before one has to start looking at morphology, pronunciation conditionality, and the like."

Sandy Backlund Sep 12, 2022 01:02 AM

Exactly. Thank you.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 12, 2022 01:10 AM


That's absolutely right. The way to change that is to conduct studies that show teaching young children to analyze morphological elements from the beginning is more profitable for learners. With such data, it would be wise to change our approach. Without such evidence it would be better to focus on phonology initially to get that part of the process started.


Rosalind Kotz Sep 12, 2022 02:28 AM

When I was in elementary school (1961) we had separate classes for reading (alphabet, words, sentences and comprehension), writing (script), vocabulary/spelling and grammar. I remember that the lessons were fairly short. (30-45 mins) But we had all of them each day. Does anyone else remember this type of structure? There was very little science and I'm not sure when math began but there was music (singing), recess (outdoor play) and auditorium (plays and speakers, etc.) I was able to read anything after this (starting in 4th grade).

RasoNan Sep 12, 2022 02:44 AM

Saying that in this district, "phonics is most important"- maybe because they needed training and to add in what was missing? Most important does not mean there is no language comprehension. The attention to phonics in this question seems like a loaded question to stir a pot. "Important" does not mean "only". Perhaps it's a new and unpopular addition? We don't know. In the 5 hour day there is plenty of time for language comprehension, vocabulary development, stories. I'd like to see the schedule that is only phonics.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 12, 2022 01:14 PM

There are a number of ways you might see phonics being overemphasized...
1. Does your school have ongoing monitoring assessment in phonemic awareness, decoding, and oral reading fluency but none in language, vocabulary, or comprehension?
2. Does your school provide Tier 2 interventions that address PA, decoding, and/or oral fluency? I so, do they have any for the kids who lag in language, vocabulary, or comprehension?
3. Are teachers told that students are not allowed to read anything except decodables for some length of time (several months?, a year?) despite the lack of research support for this practice?
4. Is your state spending millions of dollars on LETRS training for all of the teachers, but nothing on any of the other aspects of reading?
5. Has your school adopted a commercial phonics program that takes more than 45 minutes per day to teach?
6. Does the superintendent, curriculum director, reading supervisor, or principal tell teachers that phonics is the most important thing they have to accomplish and that phonics teaching is the key in the primary grades -- without any kind of explanation of where it fits in the literacy curriculum?
All of those (and many more) are examples of what this teacher was complaining about. Any time one aspect of the curriculum is sold as a magic bullet, the one thing that is necessary or important or that will be carefully observed/tested, things are going to get twisted out of shape. That's why the most knowledgeable scientists in the field caution against overdoing it with phonics -- not because they are anti-phonics but because they recognize that phonics alone will not be sufficient to teach most students to read well.


BJK Sep 12, 2022 01:33 PM

Thank you very much for your response, Tim.
But what about the 7/8th graders students who are at benchmark for decoding, but still perform very low on normed, standardized tests? In my district, such students will be working only at T1 in their classrooms (not with us, interventionists). I am guessing we are prioritizing older students with no decoding skills, which is great, but Im feeling uncomfortable leaving the low-comprehension/no-motivation ones behind. Hence worried about the ship....

Trish Bandre' Sep 12, 2022 01:43 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
Can you guide me toward the youtube Q & A with Hollis Scarborough that you mentioned in the post? I've done some searching, but if you could narrow my search a bit, I would be appreciative.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 12, 2022 01:59 PM




Timothy Shanahan Sep 12, 2022 02:02 PM

Those kids who are behind but who are doing well with decoding need a strong emphasis on the reading comprehension/language side of the equation. (1) Oral reading fluency work with texts that the students find challenging; (2) vocabulary instruction; (3) reading comprehension work with grade level texts and with teacher scaffolding to help them to read those texts successfully; (4) writing about those texts -- summarizing, analyzing, critiquing, synthesizing. There are blog entries on each of those topics on my site.


Sam Bommarito Sep 12, 2022 02:15 PM

You said "But it seems to me that in your school district’s prodigious and well-meaning efforts to ensure that happens, they are ignoring Scarborough’s rope, Gough & Tunmer’s simple view, Duke & Cartwright’s active view model, the report of the National Reading Panel, $100 million worth of research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and a slew of other more recent research studies." That quote from you is joining others from you on my office wall (starting to run out of room!). Many of my followers- who tend to be centrists, liked the post and especially liked the ship ananology. Posts like this give me more hope than ever that there really is more common ground than most folks think. Thanks for the post and also for the highlights from what various major figures in the history of reading instructions have said. Well done! From: @doctorsam7 (Sam from St. Louis)

Max Riter Sep 12, 2022 04:22 PM

An exercise we did with our elementary staff. The original sentence comes from the book, Lulu's Misterious Mission, by Judith Viorst and Kevin Cornell. Sentence 6 is the full sentence version. We asked the staff to start with number 1, the simple sentence version and read down to the final complex version to see where their students' comprehension would start to falter.

1. Her plan was to find a hiding place.
2. Her plan was to find a hiding place in the neighborhood.
3. Her plan, when she reached the ground, was to find a hiding place in the neighborhood.
4. Her plan, when she reached the ground, was to find a hiding place in the neighborhood while Ms. Solinsky waited for her inside.
5. Her plan, when she reached the ground, was to find a hiding place in the neighborhood while Ms. Solinsky waited for her inside, waited and waited until she finally went upstairs.
6. Her plan, when she reached the ground, was to find a hiding place in the neighborhood while Ms. Solinsky waited for her inside, waited and waited until she finally went upstairs and found that open window.

The point was to launch into professional development, co-developed with our speech pathologist, about the language developmental stages at the sentence level, ranging from simple, to compound, to complex, to compound-complex. If students cannot comprehend language to the full range, it won't matter how much time teachers spend teaching reading comprehension strategies. Also, we chose this sentence because the decoding demand and vocabulary is fairly low, emphasizing the point that it is the language complexity at the sentence level that is the issue. Ignoring the Language Comprehension even early on as a concession to some perceived later gain as Tim is suggesting is a bad idea.

David Wakelyn Sep 12, 2022 08:38 PM

For folks who haven't been to Chicago, the river is maybe 20 feet deep. When large structures tip quickly, even in a seemingly safe space, they can cause a lot of damage.

This post made me wonder if one of the reasons we see modest results in interventions for struggling readers after 3rd grade for struggling readers is too many of them hammer away at phonics when the problems can be more about fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Trish Bandre' Sep 12, 2022 08:48 PM

Thank you for the youtube link. For others who may want to watch/listen, the discussion about the deletion of the arrow on the graphic begins at 28:45 in the time count. I found the whole talk to be interesting and worth my time.

Denyse Ritchie Sep 12, 2022 11:43 PM

Thank you Tim.
Really informative, very affirmative. A great share.

Marie Sep 13, 2022 01:20 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

You gave a list of ways to tell if a school district is overemphasizing phonics instruction. One way you listed was, "5. Has your school adopted a commercial phonics program that takes more than 45 minutes per day to teach?"

That is exactly what our district has done, but the phonics instruction also includes spelling, handwriting, and phonemic awareness. I also spend 25 minutes on fluency and 30 minutes on comprehension, vocabulary, and oral language for a total of 100 minutes a day. How would you describe this balance for a first grade classroom?

Peter Dewitz Sep 12, 2022 05:46 PM

I think the current emphasis on phonics instruction misses critical questions. How much phonics, for which kids and for how long. You cited the work of Connor (2004) and her colleagues but her work continued for another 15 years. They found that focusing on differentiating, tasks, teaching and time produced strong reading growth over time. Child-instruction interactions are important. . Look at Connor's later work specifically her articles in Prevention Science in 2019 and her article in Psychological Sciences in 2013. I have now encountered several district that push whole class instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for a good part of the morning. I think your boat analogy is spot on.

Maureen Donnelly Sep 12, 2022 06:04 PM

This article is a thing of beauty. Thank you for articulating this so well. I'd also add, particularly for young children and/or emergent readers of all ages, that we not only have to keep our focus on comprehensive instruction, we also have to engage them (particularly those who face learning barriers) as partners, thinkers, and agents so that they can begin to assemble a disposition toward reading. I can't help but think that phonics first or phonics only does not serve that end. And that's a real bummer.

Max Riter Sep 12, 2022 07:07 PM

Clarification: "Ignoring the Language Comprehension even early on as a concession to some perceived later gain as Tim is suggesting is a bad idea." --meaning that Tim is suggesting this is a bad idea. not that he suggests doing this, which I believe to be a bad idea.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 12, 2022 08:15 PM

You are correct that reading instruction in any of the components will not accomplish what you describe. However, high quality phonics instruction can give youngsters a real sense of power and control and that ain't nothing.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 13, 2022 06:31 PM


That doesn't sound like a bad plan (but except for the handwriting and spelling, you don't mention writing). That's an important additional piece. I would argue for 30 minutes of PA/phonics, 30 minutes of writing (including its foundational skills, handwriting and spelling), 30 minutes on comprehension/vocabulary/oral language, and your 25 minutes of fluency work is fine. As kids move up the grades and PA/phonics begin to disappear from the curriculum -- I would focus that time on vocabulary, morphology and spelling. The handwriting focus goes away too, which opens the entire writing time for composition.



Jamie Sep 14, 2022 12:55 AM


I'm responding to the following comment you made.

4. Is your state spending millions of dollars on LETRS training for all of the teachers, but nothing on any of the other aspects of reading?

Curious if you have taken LETRS? Can you tell me what the 'other aspects of reading' are that LETRS doesn't cover?


Peggy Sherman Sep 14, 2022 01:51 AM

I am not a teacher or consultant anymore but I am a grandmother who sees all the different ways they are taught reading in 3 different districts. I certainly appreciate this article for sure. Since the pandemic I am finding that parents had to do a lot and did not always know what else to do for everything was on the chrome book. Reading a book was not a priority and now I can’t get my grandkids to actually pick up a book and read. They did do their phonics at home these last couple of years, but their dependence on the computer is very annoying to me. In fact I went to an open house for my first grader going to second and asked about the use of the big books and the collections and was told they can use if they wish but all demos are presented on the whiteboard.
I know I am rambling but the computer is now the child’s focus. How do teachers get the children to see how important reading really is???

Timothy Shanahan Sep 14, 2022 02:09 PM


I have not gone through that training and you are correct that it addresses more than phonics. However, reading instruction training that spends more time on spelling than on oral language, comprehension, or writing would not be my idea of very thorough preparation for meeting the needs of most children. Perhaps that is why LETRS hasn't done so well in research studies that have looked at its ultimate impact on children. Despite media emphasis of the use of LETRS in Mississippi (where it has apparently been one part of a successful reform), there has been media inattention to those places that have adopted it unsuccessfully. In terms of what is missing, I would point out that language is much more than vocabulary and that a better job could be done there to start. I also can't imagine how reading comprehension instruction could be handled well this briefly -- though I have no doubt the phonics and phonemic awareness coverage is thorough.


Karyn Anderson Sep 15, 2022 01:48 PM

Your article confirms my beliefs and I want to share it. However, I wish your citations were more current.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 15, 2022 03:37 PM


In arguments over whether the earth is flat or round, people keep bringing up Galileo's research... you'd think there'd be something new to cite on that. Once something is well proven, scientists stop collecting additional data. That's just the way it is.


Harriett Janetos Sep 15, 2022 04:57 PM

I recommend:

Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert, 2018
Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation
Volume 19, Issue 1
Psychological Science in the Public Interest

Full Access: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/1529100618772271

The article is current and comprehensive and has numerous citations.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 15, 2022 05:58 PM

Harriet-- That's a terrific article, but in fairness none of the "numerous citations" actually deal with the issues raised in this blog entry. Nor, do they include more recent studies showing the effectiveness of phonics instruction (for those kinds of points, Castles et al. cites the same work that i do).


Harriett Janetos Sep 16, 2022 12:49 AM

Fair enough. I was thinking more along the lines of your larger point about the importance of balancing all the literacy 'pieces' to keep the ship afloat, and I thought, for example, that a decade-old book like this one might be helpful:

Carroll J. M., Bowyer-Crane C., Duff F. J., Hulme C., Snowling M. J. (2011). Developing language and literacy: Effective instruction in the early years. West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Or this recent article:

Nation K. (2017). Nurturing a lexical legacy: Reading experience is critical for the development of word reading skill. Npj Science of Learning, 2, 1–4. Crossref

And certainly, Ending the Reading Wars itself emphasizes a comprehensive approach. But I do understand your point.

Mona Voelkel, NBCT Sep 26, 2022 01:53 PM

Excellent article! I use a “morphophonemic” approach to teaching phoneme/grapheme correspondence and vocabulary and plan for 30 minutes per day of instruction as part of a comprehensive approach to reading instruction, which also includes assessment, reading and writing workshop with comprehension/strategy, small group instruction, daily interactive poetry reading, to address all the pillars. I appreciate your walk through the research. Might you also do an article on how a workshop approach can be a part of an effective approach to reading instruction, as the demonizing of this approach based on the work of Graves, Murray, and others, including yes, Lucy Calvin’s, who deeply understood the connection between reading and writing, has been troubling. Thank you for this timely article!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2022 03:31 PM

I know of no research supporting the "workshop approach" to teaching reading. The workshop approach to teaching writing does have some support (particularly for peer editing etc.), but not as much as explicit strategy instruction. Plus some of the nostrums proffered by workshop proponents (like Lucy Calkins specifically) -- such as discouraging students from writing about what they read -- practice actually found to be beneficial in a large number of studies.


Nadeen Ruiz Mar 10, 2023 03:49 PM

Thoughtful, accessible, important piece. I do always run through articles like this through my profoundly deaf daughter’s experience— an advanced reader and writer in the primary grades, and, as I often say to convey the situation, “couldn’t have heard a consonant if her life depended on it.” (I wrote about literacy development back in 1995.) I do believe theories of reading should incorporate my Deaf family and friends, not only my daughter (college graduate, department’s Master’s award, history high school teacher, avid reader and writer), but now my 8 year-old granddaughter. The space for them is not quite here in this article, but at least there’s more room at the theory table.

Melissa Graham Oct 28, 2023 08:42 PM

I think this article is a bit presumptive in that just because a district is trying to add balance by being sure that teachers are explicitly and systematically teaching phonics, does not mean that they are communicating to teachers that they should ignore comprehension until phonics skills are mastered. As a literacy coach, I'm offended by this article because it isn't helping teachers to understand structured literacy and how to purposefully teach and facilitate all aspects of reading skills throughout the day. For example, in Kindergarten and Grade 1, comprehension work is best suited within a daily instructional read aloud where all children have access to high level text and the teacher can intentionally engage them in vocabulary, knowledge building and comprehension work that they wouldn't otherwise be able to do on their own unless they've already cracked the code and mastered phonics skills. As children move up the phonics staircase, they are able to take on more and more of the comprehension work in the texts they are reading on their own BECAUSE they have been taught to read the words and have developed a certain level of fluency. Scarborough's Reading Rope regardless of how you read it, if read by a knowledgeable teacher on the science of reading, clearly shows that you are addressing both language comprehension and word recognition in tandem, as evidenced by how the threads from the top and bottom are constantly being woven together. What primary teachers need guidance on is using the instructional minutes they have in the day with a high level of intention. Guided reading, which used to encompass everything and the kitchen sink in one lesson, did not ensure that kids were mastering anything at all. They were simply being guided through a book that a teacher deemed to be at their level based on a running record, that was not research or evidence based, and the teacher taught into whatever challenges that particular book presented to students. There was no guarantee that kids would encounter those very same challenges in the next book that they read, nor that they would be able to apply the haphazard decoding strategies that were reinforced by the teacher during that particular book because too many things were being taught. Instead, small group reading time should be considered as a differentiated reading block where based on data, each child is engaging in reading practice around a skill that is at their highest level of need on the phonics staircase, once they have mastered multisyllabic words (which a teacher would know by post assessing), then students can move into the fluency and comprehension group or vocabulary and comprehension group (refer to Differentiated Reading Instruction by Walpole and McKenna). I don't think anyone who is advocating for a structured literacy approach would not understand or be supporting the need to grow children's comprehension skills throughout their entire reading journey. The question instead is, how are you scaffolding that instruction until children are able to read well enough that they can engage in it on their own. I'd love to see an article instead laying out for teachers how to best use their instructional minutes within a school day.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 28, 2023 09:40 PM


You sound like a very angry person. You really should try to get control of that.

Presumptive, me? I was responding to a teacher question. You seem to presume that she doesn't know what she is talking about, while I assumed just the opposite. Perhaps you know her or have visited her school. She indicates that her school leadership has told her that only phonics is important. Your presumption is that they told her that because they were trying to get a balance of phonics and comprehension instruction. I don't know how you could draw such a conclusion from her letter (it looks like a comprehension problem to me -- perhaps you can work on that).

In any event, your description of effective comprehension work in Grades K and 1 seems pretty inconsistent with the reading comprehension research done in Grades K and 1. I think you are going far beyond the research and recommending what you like rather than what the science of reading has shown to be best for kids.

Good luck.


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