Why An Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Makes Kids Sick

  • foundational skills
  • 07 August, 2016

Principal’s question:

District leadership has advised primary teachers to focus on the Foundational Skills Strand, and de-emphasize the other strands. The belief is that if students go into Grade 3 having mastered foundational skills, they will be prepared to master the rigor of the other strands.

As the principal, the message I'm considering sending is to teach all strands, closely monitoring foundational skills with DIBELS, immediately addressing gaps. Students who are meeting foundational skills standards may spend more time in other strands while those struggling get focused support in assessed areas of foundational skills difficulty. Does that sound reasonable?

I'm concerned that de-emphasizing the other strands will make it hard for students to catch up in third grade, and many students may lose interest if not exposed to a variety of thought-provoking work. On the other hand, I understand the immense importance of systematic, explicit instruction in the foundational skills- and know they must be a focus in early years.

All that said, can you give a guideline as to the percent of the E/LA time that should be spent on foundational skills for the "typical" primary student? Our district adopted Benchmark Advance, which looks to me as though it does NOT emphasize the foundational skills. I would like to give teachers a time guideline for initial whole-group instruction in foundational skills so we know how much we may need to supplement with other curriculum.

Shanahan’s response:

           Imagine if district leadership advised the cafeteria crew to focus on calcium only, and to de-emphasize the other nutrients? Their belief might be that if students reached the age of 8 without strong teeth and bones, they would not be prepared for the later rigors of eating grains, meats, and vegetables.

           You’d be writing to me to find out if it’s okay to serve cereals with the morning milk and green beans at lunch. And, let's face it, these kid's autopsies would likely reveal strong teeth and bones.

           Sadly, this analogy is apt.

           Of course, one can put all the primary grade focus on some skills to try to advance progress in those skills, just as one could put all the emphasis on some nutrients to promote some health needs over others. Doing so won't accomplish the real goal, but it might fool some observers into thinking it has been reached.

           Here are some facts worth knowing:

  1. In the 1960s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began a rigorous analysis of beginning reading in an effort to identify how effectively to avoid or to address learning problems. This coordinated effort is generally credited with much of the progress that has been made in understanding the role that skills like phonological awareness play in reading and the value of explicit phonics instruction. One important finding of that effort: addressing only students’ phonological/orthographic needs during the primary grade years leaves those students vulnerable to continued reading disability (due to a lack attention to their language development). There either are usually undiagnosed language deficits early on, that become more evident later, or the inattention to non-foundational skills limits their growth during these years. I don’t think anyone can read that body of research without concluding both that kids need substantial attention to foundational skills early on, AND that solely focusing on such skills would be harmful.

  2. The National Reading Panel was pressed into service to review research on what works in reading at the request of the U.S. Congress, under the auspices of NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike many of the critics at the time, panel members, who were unpaid volunteers, were not allowed to have any potential conflicting commercial interests. That panel reviewed 51 studies of the teaching of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, and 32 studies of oral reading fluency. The panel concluded that students would benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in each of those foundational skills during the primary grades. However, it should be noted that in no case within those studies did anyone consider those skills as separable from the rest of reading. For example, when studying phonics, the students in the control groups and the phonics groups were receiving instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, writing and the like. The only difference was that the experimental group would be getting phonics or some more ambitious version of phonics. Thus, the panel’s conclusion that these skills need to be taught was determined in the context of these skills being taught along with other reading skills. Such a heavy focus on any of these skills to the omission of the others likely would have led to very different conclusions. 

  3. Over my career, I have worked with some of the biggest proponents of foundational skills teaching: Patricia Cunninghma, Linnea Ehri, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Christopher Lonigan, Louisa Moats, Michael Pressley, Christopher Schatschneider, Sally Shaywitz, Steve Stahl, Keith Stanovich, Joseph Torgesen, Sharon Vaughn, etc. These brilliant men and women disagree—with me and with each other--on many issues, but they seem to all be in agreement that the foundational skills are NECESSARY for learning to read (so you'd better make sure kids are instructed in them), BUT THAT THEY ALONE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT for learning to read (so you'd better do more for kids' reading than teach them foundational skills). 

           I have long been an advocate for providing children with 120-180 minutes per day of literacy instruction. I divide that time roughly in quarters: 25% devoted to words and word parts (e.g., letters, sounds, decoding, PA); 25% to oral reading fluency; 25% to reading comprehension; and 25% to writing. That means that primary grade kids would receive about 60 to 90 minutes per day of foundational skills instruction (combining the word work with the fluency work).

           There are variants on this scheme. For example, Joe Torgesen touched it up by advocating 2 hours of daily literacy instruction, with up to a third hour dedicated to remediation in those foundational skills. Thus, your idea of giving some kids more foundational work beyond the amount that everyone receives in class makes great sense and can easily be accommodated in this plan. However, ignoring essential skills that can't easily be tested to focus on ones that can be, won't help kids much.

           I sympathize with your administrators. They want a quick fix. Sadly, the positive third-grade reading data that they are imagining would at best be briefly hiding their failure. Sort of like painting over the rot in a wooden porch; the paint will make it look nice, but it won't keep the steps from soon collapsing. In addressing a problem, you must recognize what is necessary, as well as what is insufficient.

           Pass the green beans, please!


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jo-Anne Gross Apr 06, 2017 05:10 PM

I am so happy with this posting,Phew!
The part I like best is painting over the rot..
The percentages are great.

I believe you`ve helped everyone a great deal,especially the kids.

There is STILL a lot of skipping the foundation going on. 8/7/2016

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:11 PM


There is no excuse for skipping the foundations, just as there is no excuse for only emphasizing them. We've got a big job to do to get teachers to teach literacy more completely.


tim 8/7/16

Tarsia Rhyne Apr 06, 2017 05:12 PM

I agree that there is a lot of skipping the foundational skills going on. Your cafeteria and calcium analogy says it best... their autopsy's will show strong teeth and bones! Funny! As I kindergarten teacher, I know too well that a student's DIEBELs score is just one tool used to determine if he or she is performing at grade level because DIBELs only assess foundational skills. TRC is used to assess other skills, such as reading comprehension. I have seen so many instances where students appear to have mastered all of the DIBELs skills, making them "on level," but are still below level on TRC. So yes, foundational skills are very important for beginning readers, but they are a part of a packaged deal! 8/8/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:12 PM

Tarsia-- I've seen that... and I've seen the opposite (as the letter included in this entry shows). Both done with the idea that we are helping kids. Neither of these foolish positions helps kids. 8/8/16

Judy Plum Apr 06, 2017 05:13 PM

Thank you for this response. Unfortunately applying appropriate attention to phonological & word study skills and fluency has developed into a fixation that often excludes other very important areas of literacy such as comprehension, writing, and reading experience & engagement. The reported poor results of RtI, with some students actually losing ground, I think reflects this myopia. In my experience as a reading teacher (now retired), students were constantly drilled & assessed on foundational skills, while these other skills were considered unimportant until middle school. In addition, a young student with a serious comprehension or writing issue rather that word study, was often not considered, or worse denied, appropriate intervention because universal benchmarks such as DIBELS and AIMSWEB didn't address these areas so these skills (I guess) were considered unimportant to reading progress.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:13 PM


I agree with you. Although I think that DIBELS and AIMSWEB can be useful tools for ensuring that kids get a sufficient amount of decoding and fluency instruction (hooray), when badly used they may have the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of language, comprehension, and writing instruction that these skills need to be applied within. Big mistake.

tim 8/8/16

Susan K Gittinger Jun 29, 2020 11:54 PM

I was encouraged and relieved to read this post. Reading is greater than the sum of its parts and when you don't even include all of the parts you are setting students up for failure. In the name of 'data driven instruction' it seems we so often pick and choose the data that is easiest to address and in which we feel we can show those short term gains. For years I have sat in SIT meetings and said, "I know this student's Dibels scores are great, BUT I also know that she is not comprehending the fourth grade material, especially content area material, as well as she should." In the end, Dibels wins far too often.

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Why An Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Makes Kids Sick


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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