Blog Posts

21 March, 2020

Which Text Levels Should We Teach With?

Teacher question:  I’m confused. I’ve worked with Lexiles for years and my district provided us with a chart showing the levels of books to use for each grade level. Then Common Core came along with a different chart that put different book levels with each grade level. I don’t live in a Common Core state, but I’m still not sure which chart to use. Can you help me? Shanahan response:  It’s funny, but no one has ever asked me that before. What makes it funny is that you’re not alone. Most educators have no idea of the reason for those two charts. Let’s start with the ...

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14 March, 2020

Prior Knowledge, Or He Isn't Going to Pick on the Baseball Study

Teacher question: You wrote recently that it was a good idea to teach comprehension skills, but our school district says we shouldn’t, that it’s prior knowledge that matters. Do you know the baseball study? Have you read Natalie Wexler’s research? It is really difficult to trust research when everyone tells us something different. Shanahan response:  I feel your pain. There are research results and there are interpretations of research results. What research has been done, what these studies have found, and whether these studies were any good shouldn’t be points of disagreement. But interpretations of what a study means or what actions you should ...

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07 March, 2020

Why Following the Simple View May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question: I am an instructional coach for a reading intervention program.  We are a pull-out program for K-8 LD students.  We are implementing an evidence-based approach in our word level reading instruction, but we are struggling to lock down a framework to address reading comprehension.  As we pull students out of the core curriculum (1-3 hours daily for 2 years), we want to make sure that we are building skills that will transfer to any academic setting.  Do you think it is worthwhile to spend time addressing comprehension? Or should we just be chipping away at our students' word level reading issues since ...

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22 February, 2020

How Can We Take Advantage of Reading-Writing Relationships?

Teacher question: Everyone says reading and writing are connected. But our school focuses on only reading. We have a reading program (we don’t have a writing program). We test the students three times a year in reading, but never in writing. Writing isn’t even on our report card, though I guess it is part of Language Arts. What should we be doing with writing? Shanahan response: You came to the right place. I think your school is making a big mistake not giving sufficient attention to writing. When I was a teacher my primary grade kids wrote every day. When I became a researcher, I ...

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15 February, 2020

How to Knock Down Five Strawman Arguments Against Phonics

Recently, the Washington Post published an article about the latest hostilities in the “reading wars.” Washington Post Article. I noticed it because the columnist, Jay Matthews, quoted from this blog. The column did a good job of surfacing the disagreements, but what really caught my eye was the comments section. More than 50 readers had weighed in – defending phonics or trying to clothesline it. As a longtime phonics advocate, I was especially sensitive to the illogical arguments against decoding instruction. They were mostly the same arguments I’ve heard for the last 50 years of my career. I might think these to be illogical arguments, but they appear to be persuasive ...

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01 February, 2020

If Students Meet a Standard with Below Grade Level Texts, Are They Meeting the Standard?

Teacher question: When working with state educational standards are the expectations for the student to be able to accomplish each of the standards with grade level text. Some of us believe that if a fourth-grade student can determine the main idea in a second-grade text that the student has mastered that standard. Please help us settle this argument. Shanahan response: Actions like identifying a main idea or summarizing a text or comparing characters’ traits are considered to be skills. Text levels (like fourth-grade text or Level L or 950Lexiles) are degrees of text difficulty or complexity. Readers have to implement their reading skills within texts of varying levels of complexity. If a ...

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25 January, 2020

Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement?

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 ...

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18 January, 2020

Did Reading First Reveal Phonics Instruction to be Futile?

Teacher Question: I’m a big phonics promoter. Recently, someone challenged me saying that the fact that Reading First didn’t work shows that emphasizing phonics is a bad idea. Can you help? Shanahan replies:  In 2001, the President and the U.S. Congress agreed on the creation of a $5 billion program to enhance reading instruction K-3 in especially low performing Title I schools. That program was called Reading First. Every state got a portion of the funds based on their poverty statistics and there was a list of schools and school districts that were eligible for this money based on reading performance on their state tests (3rd grade scores). The grants were sizable, ...

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11 January, 2020

Who’s Right about Text Complexity, You or the Institute of Education Sciences?

Teacher question: I read your recent article on teaching with complex text in Perspectives in Language and Literacy and I agree with you. But I also read the IES Practice Guide that said that we should make sure kids are reading texts at instructional and independent levels (on page 33). Who’s right? Shanahan responds: Uh oh, don’t want to get into a food fight with those guys. Fortunately, I don’t think there is any real disagreement here at all, but I can see why you might think so – the IES guide emphasized one issue and I another, and neither of us coordinated that information in any way that ...

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04 January, 2020

Does "Modeling" Have a Place in High Quality Literacy Teaching?

Blast from the Past: First published on January 4, 2020. Usually my Blasts from the Past are older than this one. However, it seems worthwhile to reissue this now for two reasons. First, Schutz & Rainey, 2020 published a wonderful analysis of modeling (Reading Teacher) about the same time this blog first appeared. They emphasized showing, situating, and abstracting -- with a strong focus on the "invisible parts" of reading (what we do inside our heads). Nice piece of work. Second, and, perhaps, more urgent is the fact that with so much distance teaching going on modeling appears to be ...

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He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.