Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement?

  • 25 January, 2020

Interesting question.

Before I answer, let me ask one:  What keeps Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, up at night?

You know Amazon, the trillion-dollar corporation that delivers something like a 5 billion packages a year.

I’m at a professional meeting. The chair asks what “levers” we have for improving reading achievement in the U.S.

It’s an easy question. There are so many possibilities.

The first one most folks think of is, the teacher. If teachers did better kids would do better.

There are a lot of alternative levers: school administrators, politicians, bureaucrats, publishers, universities, assessments, standards, curricula, media, screens, mom and dad…

As these discussions go, this one isn’t bad. Lots of levers, little blame.

But I’m not sure the levers question is the right one. I’ve grappled with all of those levers — “successfully” sometimes.

And, yet, as relevant as each and every one of those can be, I’m thinking about what Jeff Bezos worries about.

What’s that?

The “last mile problem.” Amazon must get packages to customers. Moving packages from warehouse to airport is easy. Flying them to Dubuque or Portland is straightforward, too, as is moving them from those airports to those shipping sites.

But now it gets complicated. We are to the last mile problem… getting that box to your house (the last mile) is the complicated part of the equation.

Classroom implementation is the last mile in reading reform.

For instance, a major reform effort a decade ago created new state educational standards, an important lever. The new standards emphasized teaching kids to read texts of particular levels of complexity. More than 40 states signed on, and publishing companies (another important lever) adjusted their reading programs accordingly…

But then the last mile…. National surveys show that teachers persist in teaching with instructional level texts, instead of grade level texts. So much for levers.

It isn’t just Jeff Bezos that should be losing sleep.

Your question about why it’s so hard to raise reading achievement points out the last mile problem in my opinion.

Imagine a veteran second-grade teacher, Ms. Jones. She’s always received good evaluations from her principals, the parents are happy to have their kids in her classroom, and whatever this or that test may say, she can see that her students make progress. They can read.

Now, the leveraging starts. We want that teacher to teach more phonics, or less. We want her to build knowledge instead of reading skills, or to work with harder books. Leveraging thrives on urgency, and its black-and-white rhetoric often sounds like, “If teachers don’t do what we say, kids won’t learn.”

But Ms. Jones has 15-years’ experience that tells her that the rhetoric is BS!  

She doesn’t do whatever the leverage is touting, and yet she knows for a fact that her children are learning to read. Her own success is one brake on reform — why change if what you are doing is working? — but the overwrought rhetoric is a second. Why change if you can’t trust the people who are urging you to change?

Let’s face it. Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.

In the 1960s, researchers cooperated in a couple of dozen linked studies to determine what gives kids the biggest boost in reading achievement. They considered lots of possibilities: basal readers, phonics, programmed readers, linguistic readers, language experience approach, and so on.

The outcome?

All of those approaches worked and pretty equally. Oh, there were some differences—those that provided explicit decoding teaching did a bit better, as did those with a writing component. But, basically, everything worked.

Of course, these days a lot of those first-grade programs are obsolete… they’ve been replaced by reading workshops, guided reading, multiple cueing systems, decodable texts, research-based this, and child-centered that… and, guess what? They all work, or at least to some extent they do.

Recently, School Achievement Partners released an analysis of Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study. I helped with that. We scrutinized the degree to which the program was in accord with the research on reading instruction, including how most effectively to serve English Learners. The response of many teachers who are using that program is that the research must be wrong because they know their students are learning. And, they are. Just not as well as they could be or should be.

Learning to read in English is coming to terms with a writing system. That it is a system means that someone can figure it out. Instruction helps with this figuring out, but some kids are advantaged enough that they can do okay even with low instruction approaches.

The instructional research summarized by the National Reading Panel didn’t show that phonics instruction worked and that nothing else did, or that if you don’t get phonics, you’ll be illiterate. It showed that providing explicit phonics instruction in grades K-2 improved kids’ reading success – in other words, there were either fewer reading failures or marginally higher average achievement across the board.

The same is true for phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension strategy, and fluency instruction. I promote teaching kids to read with grade level texts instead of instructional level ones, but not because the more demanding text regime ends with reading, and the easy-text approach with failure. I’m clutching for the marginal advantage.

The U. S. is a highly literate nation. Almost all of us can read – no matter how we’ve been taught. But we’ve constructed a society around literacy. Reading is deeply implicated in our academic, economic, civic, and social lives. Achieving the levels of reading that we have in the past is insufficient. Ms. Jones has done well, but if today’s boys and girls only read as well as her students did a decade ago, they’re being disadvantaged.

That’s where Ms. Jones and the last mile become significant. As long as our rhetoric fails to correspond with her experience, we can lever all day long, but won’t deliver significantly higher reading achievement on scale because the last mile won’t be implemented.

The last mile rhetoric shouldn’t be a hair-on-fire message, but one that acknowledges both the current successes and the need to do better.

“Ms. Jones, we need your help. Studies show that kids can do better in reading if they receive a substantial amount of high-quality phonics instruction. Research also shows that hasn’t been happening in enough classrooms. We know you’ve been successful in teaching reading, but the goal line has moved. We need to get kids to higher levels than in the past and that’s going to require some changes. Doing what we ask won’t change everything (and it’s not a criticism of your past efforts), but it will be better for your students and we all want that.”

Perhaps the strong rhetoric will move the levers, but remember we also have to persuade Ms. Jones in the last mile.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Norka Padilla Jan 25, 2020 06:12 PM

Thank you for your wisdom, guidance, and research that keeps inspiring us to do better. I would add- that as school/educational leaders we must change the structures, policies, and procedures that will build a professional culture that inspires educational excellence by providing relevant teacher professional development in "safe to learn" conditions. We must stop accepting minimal teacher competency as meeting standard. Teachers want to do better. As leaders we must grow teachers through coaching, professional development, monitoring, and accountability- all in service to social justice for our students/communities at the intersection of standards alignment and equitable practices.

Sam Bommarito Jan 25, 2020 06:20 PM

I just couldn't agree more. Starting with the 1st grade studies and through and including a great deal of other similiar research we've consistently found that teachers have made more difference in achievement scores than methods. That doesn't at all mean methods are unimportant. Some methods REALLY DO work better than others. The thing of it is folks like Ms. Jones will get the most out of any method, meaning she is likely able to make even some of the less desirable ones work at an ok level. Your suggestion about what the district could do with Ms. Jones is gold. Ms. Jones knows more about the nuts and bolts of different implementations and how they might play out, and likely has already discovered things about implementation that the "my way or the highway" advisors that sometime accompany some of these magic packages just don't know about. She likely has much better credentials than they have. BTW, wouldn't hurt at all to also ask Ms. Jones about what she is already doing, she knows the nuances of how to make things work for your particular kids. So treat her (and sometimes its him) as a professional and a valuable resource. She belongs on the districts planning committee if she wants that extra duty. This posting of yours is another one that's going up on my office wall as a reminder of things to consider. Thanks for your insight!

Shirley Jan 25, 2020 06:35 PM

I appreciate your wisdom and the fact that you affirm what I believe to be true about the Teachers College programs. Even before my district adopted “Lucy,” though, there was a huge emphasis on using instructional rather than grade-level texts with students. I’ve never felt comfortable with limiting options but see the point of providing kids with readable texts. My question for you is, “How do we make text accessible if the child cannot read it?”

Barney Brawer Jan 25, 2020 06:51 PM

One area that rarely gets sufficient attention is what I call "analytic writing": students writing not only personal narratives such as "My Birthday Party at 6 Flags" -- a genre which rarely calls for academic vocabulary or analytic exposition. For second graders, the birthday party essay can be a fine topic. But not as the main kind of writing, year after year, in grades 3 through at least middle school. For comparison, "Why did Massachusetts, which had abolished slavery as incompatible with 'All men are created free and equal' in its 1781 state constitution, accept a US Constitution in 1787 that permitted slavery?" That is an analytic question. It calls for extensive knowledge. It has no obvious or simple answer. Which kinds of writing are our fifth graders taught to do?

In my 50+ years as an educator, I have met tons of kids who read pretty well, but write terribly. I have never met a young person who writes well but reads poorly. Serious analytic writing is a key foundation on which to build academic success. Why does it receive so little of our focus and effort?

Rachel Scanga Jan 25, 2020 07:12 PM

Perhaps my favorite blog to date! Thank you for being ever the common sensical voice of educational reform- and the greatest influence on my professional thinking.
I’m ready to go that last mile!

Matthew Jan 25, 2020 07:30 PM

I'm a newcomer to this debate, but I think another lever is the idea that we can all sit around and sing kumbaya to each other and somehow our reading achievement increases. I tell you what I'm doing, you tell me what you're doing, and viola, problem solved. No, this takes a mindset shift that we don't know all there is to know and that we are so deeply ingrained in what "we've always done" that considering what's outside of that is tantamount to mutiny. I just want to do what's best for kids and get them to read in the best possible way I can.

David D. Paige Jan 25, 2020 08:02 PM

Thanks Tim, great explanation. My perspective has been to ask what is most likely to be effective with the largest percentage of kids? Time is of the essence before kids begin thinking they aren’t good readers, or worse. The “Last Mile” analogy is great (and my wife works for FedEx). I also think that delivering appropriate, assessment-informed instruction is one difficult task that requires highly skilled teachers for which we have a forth of training expertise.

Sam Bommarito Jan 25, 2020 08:06 PM

Shirley. Look at the structure of guided reading ala F&P. It includes whole group Read Alouds. That's where strategy instruction and modeling should begin. These can and should be grade level texts. ALSO- if you include Science and Social studies texts as part of this read aloud time you solve at least some of the problem mentioned by P.D.Pearson- i.e. reading stealing time from S&S. There's more to guided reading that the small group part (or there should be!!!). BTW that also means there is an important place for whole group instruction inside a guided reading structure. Just a thought.

Mary Rys Jan 25, 2020 08:36 PM

As always, your insights are articulate and crystal clear. One key point you mentioned is one that I think bears scrutiny inasmuch as it affects the “last mile” concern. Your parenthetical comment “(and it’s not a criticism of your past efforts)” is key to understanding why teachers do not trust those advancing new or shifted actions and priorities. Many educators will listen, learn and absorb new ideas but will put the brakes on implementation when their experience, knowledge and efforts are discounted (and often disrespected) by those advancing such changes. “If I am wrong, educate me, don’t humiliate me” is a sentiment I have heard and seen posted by many colleagues and is a point that should be pondered and taken seriously if we want to encourage and improve teachers’ efforts to go that “last mile”.

Harriett Jan 25, 2020 08:43 PM

This is a topic I've been thinking long and hard about since discovering a month ago "Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction" by Jeff Bowers.
I'm hoping you'll address his main points and recommendations at some point.

MM Jan 25, 2020 09:43 PM

Bravo!! Well said, well written, Mr. Shanahan. It seems to me the super-power lever is the teacher. In your scenario with Ms. Jones, and in Sam's comments, the key is what she is doing with what she has (materials, students, parents, administrators, BOE, etc.). She is a talented teacher who should be supported, and imitated.

Collective Teacher Efficacy is the number one influence on student achievement, according to Hattie's research. Yet how many schools provide the six enabling conditions (Donohoo 2017) necessary for support and encouragement? I only know my experience of 25 years in the public school system. I've often thought that teachers succeed despite bungling policy makers, ignorant (though well-meaning) administrators, aggressive or MIA parents/guardians, and a long list of barriers we hurdle on an hourly basis. Most of us do it because we love our role and count it a privilege.

I loved what Mr. Brawer commented about the importance of teaching writing. Indeed, why DOES analytical writing instruction fall far short? I'm a Title I teacher this year whose seventh grade students are placed as a result of scoring poorly on our state's ELA test. The section on which almost every student fell far short was the writing portion. Therefore, I teach writing, correct? No, I teach reading. The administration explained to me that by helping students read closely, they will learn to write more complex essays. I can't wait to see their fabulous scores this year!

Thank you, Mr. Shanahan, for continuing to provide excellent insight and inspiration. Please continue!

Bill Wright Jan 25, 2020 11:02 PM

If we could discipline the kids, teaching would be so much easier and effective. Almost any system works if you are able to apply it consistently and powerfully. I was trekking in Nepal and kids would run up to me and read from their tattered books. I would correct the pronunciation (converting them to the desired Texan dialect) and they would be delighted. Probably need to include some parents in that solution! I am disgusted with many of them. (Many curriculum options are geared to overcoming the attention deficit created by too much TV rather than dealing with learning. My uninformed opinion)

Edith Dalla Fontana Jan 25, 2020 11:12 PM

It's always a pleasure to read what you write in your blog
It’s so enriching
“Maestro de los maestros”We say in Spanish meaning you are paramount.
Thanx a million

Annie Vorthmann Jan 25, 2020 11:16 PM

I couldn't agree with you more!! Just wondering, what do you consider a substantial amount of high-quality phonics instruction?

Alison Clarke Jan 26, 2020 12:56 AM

I’m interested in the statement “the US is a highly literate nation”. According to PIAAC data, 43.1% of adults have low levels of literacy, see https://nces.ed.gov/datapoints/2019179.asp. The report says, “This translates into 43.0 million U.S. adults who possess low literacy skills: 26.5 million at level 1 and 8.4 million below level 1, while 8.2 million could not participate in PIAAC’s background survey either because of a language barrier or a cognitive or physical inability to be interviewed.” Table comparing countries’ adult literacy rates is here www.compareyourcountry.org/adult-skills

Bill Howe Jan 26, 2020 02:10 AM

Is there perhaps, another factor that may not just impact reading, but other aspects of learning as well. Note, I did not say Education, but learning. I separate the two as there are differences. Teaching implies constant instruction ad guidance from teachers. This also limits and separates Education from the outside world. It implies that important learning can only happen in formal Education. This is not only false but places stress on teachers to take on the role of instructors till the end of formal education. This places the emphasis on learning to the teachers. Some might say that this is their job! No, our job is to enable learning. They are not the same. Teaching does not invest the children in their own learning. Rather than continually teach curriculum, what if we used curriculum as a tool to effect learning? Once a child is able to learn independently, they can apply those skills to future learnings and in their lives beyond school. After all, that is where they are heading. We can’t hold their hands forever, nor should we. We are not doing them any favours by teaching all the time. It is passive, boring and not to useful. Enabling thinking skills will do much more for reading than improving teaching skills. Now we would have two people working on the problem, not one.

Donna Jan 26, 2020 02:51 AM

I believe that reading achievement would go up in the US if every school had a reading specialist who knows the reading research and is trusted by the teachers at the school. This specialist could work closely with teachers, administraters, and parents to insure that all students become the best readers they can be. S/he could be responsible for providing professional development, coaching individual teachers, monitoring students who are struggling, and teaching some groups to provide a double-dose or specialized instruction. This type of support would help make progress with the "last mile".

Robbi Cooper Jan 26, 2020 03:14 AM

Hmmmm - not going to be popular but I really want ALL students to be successful readers and I am part of the Decoding Dyslexia movement. I can't get past the assumption that Mrs. Jones thinks or Shanahan implies "They can read" - NO, not according to National Scores. In a typical classroom statistics are screaming otherwise - too many are NOT reading - the movement to change the way reading is taught is not just doing better and "moving the line forward". We have to stop the assumption that Mrs. Jones is painted to think "yet she knows for a fact that her children are learning to read. Her own success is one brake on reform — why change if what you are doing is working? " Her Brake on the system may be that she was never taught to teach reading correctly to serve all students, her brakes are faulty teacher prep programs and fluffy curriculum, her brakes (her learned techniques and go to supplemental reading resources) may just need to be recalled and swapped out for ones that have been proven by science to work. Until Shanahan and others start looking at the cogs in the system - it's not the last mile that is preventing reading acquisition for all students it's much deeper than that. And I'm pretty sure Bezos is up at night for other reasons.

Tim Shanahan Jan 26, 2020 05:11 AM

Read some of my blog entries on how teachers have successfully taught children how to read harder books. If the kids have to be able to read them before you’ll be able to teach kids reading,then nothing will ever happen.



Tim Shanahan Jan 26, 2020 05:15 AM

PIAAC also finds that nearly 100% of adult Americans can read, and those low readers can actually do quite a bit. You are correct that not all Americans can speak English, and that there are still people with severe mental retardation, blindness, etc. that prevents them from being able to be tested. Don’t just look at the statistic and the label but look at the tasks that they could do.


Tim Shanahan Jan 26, 2020 05:21 AM


See my response to Allison. When you see those statistics saying that such high percentages of people are low in literacy everything is relative. Look at what they are able to do and the kinds of jobs they’re holding down. Your assumption that there is only one way that students can successfully taught to read suggests that you don’t have very deep experience with this. Go visit a few hundred classrooms, test several thousands of kids, and you’ll see what I mean. Your all-or-nothing view of how reading teaching works is part of the problem...


Mav Jan 26, 2020 11:50 AM

Are we ever going to address the facts that new and veteran teacher have in many cases NEVER received an in depth class on phonics instruction. Only if they get a masters in reading is it addressed

Robbi Cooper Jan 26, 2020 04:22 PM

Tim Thanks for replying,

It's not an "all or nothing argument" many are making when we stress the need for students to be taught the basic building blocks of reading to fluency via proven science and I am glad you brought that assumption up when you reference my "All or Nothing" as an "Argument". I want to equated that assumption too getting scolded by our parents, we tend to instantly tune out instead of reflect. As you are aware, Literacy is a deep process, accurate reading is one facet that is necessary to develop deep literacy skills. To accurately read you must be able to fluently decode unfamiliar text. There are many students that need to grasp the skills to understand how to read accurately in a very specific, direct explicit approach one that does leave students to guessing at letter sound combinations or words - and there are many of them in every class. The basic skill of reading - decoding - (being able to accurately sound out words) is necessary for students to then fluidly read when given unfamiliar text at which point, allowing them to develop other necessary skills enabling a path to true literacy. True literacy - gaining meaning from text and being able to reason with multiple texts leads to learning and so much more. Being able to read (decode) unfamiliar text is a necessary component to create a literate society. Try making chocolate chip cookies with out eggs - Getting the decoding ingredient right is a necessary ingredient. If you want good literacy skills for all - all need basic skills mastered and one key reason why our literacy rates are falling flat.

I share your goal of developing literacy - beyond my push for basic reading skills. We stressed deeper access and focused time on discussing and reading a variety of literature for my own son while he was struggling to learn the basic reading (decoding) skills - it's not all or nothing but it's Nothing without ALL - for many students like my son you can't leave the basic reading skills to chance. Until those basic skills are well developed they must be A focus - not the only focus. To progress in developing literacy in students who have not mastered basic reading skills needs to be done in a way that does not lead to or rely on guessing. We developed our struggling sons fluid access to text via audio books. Audio books allowed him access to rich stories and develop a rich vocabulary from context. With audio books he consumed a novel a week. He built literacy skills deliberately, not through silent reading, guessing and a disconnected reading experience. Audio books allowed for fluid and accurate access to text (while separate time focused on years of building independent decoding skills). Reading is one action in developing literacy and for many must be specifically taught to proficiency and those are skills Mrs. Jones may have not learned in many of todays colleges of edcuation - Literacy is so much deeper and the ultimate goal. We want it all! Not all or nothing.

Dawn Miller Jan 26, 2020 02:20 PM

I couldn't agree with this more. What K-2 Instructors often don't see is the level of achievement those same kids have from 4th grade and higher. They may have "learned to read" in their class, but I found with my son he didn't have a strong enough foundation. When he hit 4th grade, his house began to fall apart and it was obvious there were many missing components in his foundation. I think teachers would understand this concept better if they were able to see some of the problems their former students have had as they progressed through their education....after them.

Maggie Oliver Jan 26, 2020 02:32 PM

The "last mile" analogy is brilliant. I can now see the overall picture--the forest. This understanding will be a basis of how I think and plan for my young learners.

Jennifer Jan 26, 2020 06:12 PM

Would love a link to these posts you referred to below:

Read some of my blog entries on how teachers have successfully taught children how to read harder books. If the kids have to be able to read them before you’ll be able to teach kids reading,then nothing will ever happen

Adrienne C. Jan 26, 2020 06:24 PM

As a middle school ELA teacher in my 14th year of teaching this grade level, I want to expose my students to grade level texts and hold myself accountable for teaching grade level standards. However, holding myself accountable also means holding my students accountable. Complacency in learning is fostered by students and parents who just see the grade, and not the progress. Many of my “stronger” students (as measured by years of A’s in reading and writing) read and write below grade level. I think we need to overhaul the way we grade to encourage students to put in the work needed to grow. Teachers can’t be expected to do this without administrative support. I can’t focus on helping my students read and write better when they and their parents are just focused on a grade. I also can’t be the first one to give a child a C without support from my administrators. And the teacher down the hall from me, who also teaches sixth grade ELA - she need to be on board with raising her standards and holding herself and her students more accountable, too. I can’t fight this battle alone within the walls of my own classroom. For me, the problem is not a lack of high-quality reading instruction or materials. It is a lack of guidance and directives for how to use the materials and how to hold students accountable for meeting the standards.

Joyce Shaw Jan 26, 2020 07:25 PM

I'm loving the science behind reading that the neuroscientists like Mark Seidenberg and Tim Conway explain so well. However, even in the UK, phonics had to be put into law because teachers resisted it ... preferring to teach 'guess the word by looking at the picture'. I know Americans don't like to disrespect their country but unfortunately the rest of the world is finding out that the U.S. is (NOT) a highly literate nation as 40% of children can learn to read with minimum instruction and approximately 60% of the country are reading below par. They need to be taught the letter sound correlation before they can move on to more complex reading of syllables etc which will benefit ALL children learning to read. As the rest of the world looks on in disbelief at existing 'guessing games' the US is slowly but surely wakening up to the fact that they are failing huge swathes of intelligent children while parents bankrupt themselves to get adequate and proper private instruction.

Sandra Wilde Jan 27, 2020 12:18 AM

You haven’t even defined for your readers what you mean by grade-level and instructional-level texts, let alone made a case of any kind.

Tim Shanahan Jan 27, 2020 06:16 AM

Type instructional level or complex text into my search engine and you’ll find plenty... also check out the articles and powerpoints in the publications section of my website.


Kim Entzminger Jan 27, 2020 02:55 PM

In my experience I have found that fear of the unknown often prevents teachers from going that final mile. With so much emphasis on test scores and achievement, it is often difficult for teachers to try something new. In other words, "If I do what I have always done, then I know what the outcome will be" versus "If I try a new approach I'm not sure what will happen and what if it isn't as good as the results I've gotten in the past." It is a frightening place to be when accountability is at the forefront of everything we do. Thank you for presenting this in such an easy to understand way. It's not that what we have always done didn't work, but about looking at what the research tells us works best for the children that we teach.

rick nelson Jan 27, 2020 10:13 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
Want improved reading results? Start here: Buy Ms. Jones curriculum that works and train her in how to use it.
Ms. Jones does not pick her reading program. She did not design her training.
According to a recent Education Week survey, primary grade teachers are indeed highly likely to be using a reading program in class that cognitive scientists predict will get poor results, especially for children whose parents have limited resources to supplement instruction.
But decisions about textbook purchases are nearly always made above the classroom level. Ms. Jones must teach with the materials she is given.
Can a teacher teach systematic and explicit phonics if she is not supplied with decodable texts?
Ms. Jones teaches reading in the way she was taught to teach reading. Recent studies have made clear that rarely do textbooks teaching primary teachers cover what science says about how most students most effectively learn to read.
So prepare to pay for mid-career training in the science of teaching reading, and for teacher time required to learn it. That the teacher may need the training is not her fault.
Prepare for the training to be extensive because, as Louisa Moats tells us, teaching reading is rocket science.
In the future, to save on the costs of mid-career training? State legislatures ultimately control teacher credentialing. They fund schools of education with taxpayer dollars. Should they not insist that schools of education teach the science of reading? Hasn’t that science has been known for 20 years?
Much of what you write on reading instruction is helpful, Dr. Shanahan. The column above was not.
Ms. Jones and her colleagues are the victims. Stop directing them to use programs that don’t work. The LAST mile is NOT the problem.
-- rick nelson

Tim Shanahan Jan 28, 2020 01:15 PM

Sounds like you have a lot of experience with this Rick. Could you point out where you’ve intervened like this and raised reading achievement? I’d like to compare notes since I have. Also I’m curious where you found that research on decodables, I haven’t been able to find that in the scientific literature. Also interested in the data on extensive phonics training? I understand your frustration, but changing schools requires more than frustration and bluster.


rick nelson Jan 28, 2020 04:29 PM

Tim –
Please clarify your questions.
Are you asking whether decodables work, or are needed to teach phonics systematically, or whether they are widely in use? I’m puzzled because I think you are on record as knowing the answers to all of those questions: As one example, you were one of the analysts in the recent SAP study of the widely used but not-aligned-with-science Reading Workshop materials from Lucy Calkins.
Are you asking whether most teachers have received training in what science says is are the 5 central components of reading instruction? I think you are familiar the NCTQ series of studies on that question.
For the record: I author textbooks designed to help students read science with improved comprehension in order to prepare for STEM majors. To do so, the books apply findings of cognitive science on how to help students develop fluency in reading and writing that includes precise technical vocabulary. The ratings of the books on Amazon speak for themselves. The simple truth is that listening to what cognitive science about learning is of great help in designing instruction. Science works.
As a elected representative of K-12 teachers, I lobbied for and testified in favor of bills in my state to support elementary teachers in learning the science of reading. The bills passed and I believe have been a factor in the high rankings for my state (Virginia) on the reading NAEP.
To improve instruction, begin by giving teachers curriculum materials that align with what science says are the best professional practices in teaching, and provide teachers training in how to use them. Teachers rarely have the power to choose their reading programs. Teachers are not the problem.

John Anderson Jan 29, 2020 07:31 AM

I try this program with my little boy and it is working great so far.

Kim Jan 30, 2020 05:38 PM

Regarding grade level texts (vs instructional level texts) - would you say this applies when the student is reading significantly
*above* grade level too?

Heather Jan 31, 2020 01:51 AM

I agree with everything you were saying… But if we aren’t going to use instructional level which is where the kids can read with some support and we are going to have them read grade level texts how do we make these texts assessable for students who are reading well below grade level. I’m talking for example, a second grader reading at instructional level C or D. How are we supposed to give them a second grade passage if they will not be able to read it. Isn’t that just going to frustrate the child and make them hate reading? I can see as the teacher reading aloud grade level or above texts but not leaving a child alone to read a much to difficult text to themselves.

Pearl Feb 01, 2020 10:23 AM


Re reconsidering the effectiveness of phonics, the author noted:

"The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of
whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction."

I did not read his paper, but will note that phonics instruction alone is not enough. Phonemic awareness, especially advanced phonemic awareness (deleting, substituting, reversing phonemes) is critical to becoming a fluent reader. If the reviewed programs did not include a phonemic awareness component, this could account for his conclusion.

Here's an article on the importance of phonemic awareness in learning how to read: http://www.sedl.org/pubs/sedl-letter/v14n03/3.html

Bennett W. Lasko Feb 07, 2020 02:14 PM

Great insights here. This was very helpful to me as a school board member to better understand the challenges our team faces and how curriculum initiatives actually play out “on the ground.”

Jackie Pohl Feb 07, 2020 04:21 PM

Mr Shanahan,
Do you believe that some students are dyslexic? Do you believe that there are varying degrees of being dyslexic? I am a recently retired teacher who still reads reading research because far too many students still struggle with reading. After teaching for five years I went back to get a master's as a "reading specialist." For ten years I worked at the kindergarten level trying to catch possible reading difficulties at the vary beginning of the school year. I also paid for my own training in the Orton-Gillingham method and our school started Dibels testing the same year. The intention of this program was to find problems quick and reduce the number of students needing help. First, it worked. We had brought our numbers of students suggested for continued reading problems by half or more. We desperately need to begin earlier in preschool and find students there that struggle to remember sounds or hear them diffierently due to a variety of causes. Some students have hearing issues. Other students hear vowel sounds at home that are quite different than those that our good readers use. I believe our greatest chance of getting our children to read is to begin well before kindergarten. However, we don't train preschool teachers how to do this work. Is the training any better now than years ago? Do these preschool teachers have the time to intervene? Why aren't we demanding more reading eaducation programs for preschool teachers AND why are we paying them higher salaries so they too can feel the respnsibility and resolve to help these children earlier? We need to ask for more money to get these problems addressed earlier. I ask you, what can I do as a retired teacher to make a difference? My passion for reading difficulties has not diminished in the least since I stopped teaching a few years ago. We can do better. This last article throws lots of possibilites out there but teachers need desive strategies. What do you suggest? Their are other countries that do a better job teaching. Why are we not studying those methodologies and making changes here in America?

Ann Feb 11, 2020 01:52 AM

Every beginning reader needs phonics instruction. They need instruction and opportunity to use what they know to decode and encode text. They may also have significant deficits in vocabulary and oral language, so they need dialogue reading with complex text, language experience, and high level socio-dramatic play. They need access and opportunities to read independently with easy and hard books.
They need a teacher who can teach for transfer, teach to independence, and teach with joy.
Weaving the threads of literacy is so much more complex than any approach or program.

Karen Feb 21, 2020 02:24 AM

Mav, thank you! A lack of teaching the constructs of language in teacher preparation programs is, in my experience with teachers, the number one problem.

Jolynn Apr 22, 2020 08:46 PM

I liked what you had to say about the last mile, Ms. Jones is the last mile. If we can get the teachers the professional development and training, the help in the classroom and the reading programs that they need to do a good job with that last mile, that would be something! I feel that we are continuously throwing new reading programs at the teachers that they don't have the time to learn, let alone teach. Our teachers/Ms. Jones, are overtaxed. How would you solve this problem? I feel that bureaucrats and politicians are the most to blame, as they receive funding from many sources to ply their "new" particular programs. The teachers are always handed something new to learn and teach and are exhausted just trying to catch up with it all! I liked what you had to say, that it falls to us as educators to make sure that they, the students, learn to read. I plan to focus on what I can do personally, to help them with that!

Karie May 01, 2020 01:11 AM

I love the last mile analogy. We need to help our teachers and staff be successful in that last mile with students. There are many tools and programs out there. But there is also a lot going on behind the scenes. Sometimes teachers or aides are told to switch programs or methods with very little or no training. I have been a reading aide for 3 years now. We have used a different program every year. It can be very overwhelming. We all want to do the best for our students but feel like we are learning along with them. It is hard to catch up. I have seen students that do well in younger grades only to get to 4th and 5th and fall through the cracks with basic skills they should have mastered earlier. I think a lot of it has to do with funding and where those resources are coming from. This article was very informative and makes me want to support our students and staff by planning better for that last mile.

SIlas Demary Sr Jun 05, 2020 04:54 PM

Awesome article, I think though we should reqire all children to have to go to head start or have some early interventions before they are enrolled in any school!!

Melissa O’Brie Aug 04, 2020 11:28 PM

Can you explain the difference between grade level text and instructional level text? I’m assuming instructional refers to F&P Leveled Texts?

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Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement?


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