Phonics & decoding

The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension

When I was 18 years old, I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major — that came later — but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.

But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.

Why an Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Isn't Healthy for Kids

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.

The Slow Path Forward: We Can — and Do — Learn from Reading Research

We in education tend to have very strong beliefs. And, those beliefs can overwhelm our knowledge — or even our willingness to gain knowledge.

How Can Reading Coaches Raise Reading Achievement?

Teacher question: I have just been hired as a reading coach in a school where I have been a third-grade teacher. My principal wants me to raise reading achievement and he says that he’ll follow my lead. I think I’m a good teacher, but what does it take to raise reading achievement in a whole school (K-5) with 24 teachers?
Shanahan's response:
It’s easy. Just do the following 9 things:

1. Improve leadership

On Teaching Nonsense Words

Lil Wayne can do rap, but he’d definitely be out of place at a Gospel Convention, sort of like a love affair with a happy ending in a Taylor Swift lyric.

So what’s out of place in reading education?

My nominee is the act of teaching kids to read nonsense words. Don’t do it. It doesn’t belong (it may even be worse than orange and green together).

Why, you might ask, would anyone teach nonsense words? I attribute this all-too-common error to a serious misunderstanding of tests and testing.

Where Does Content Fit In Literacy Learning? Learning to Dance and Talk at the Same Time

Years ago I took ballroom dance. I used to write about those experiences in this space. It was a great opportunity for me as teacher, since with dance I struggled greatly (something there is about having your legs bound for the first year of life that makes graceful movement a challenge).

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question: Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week. We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?

Shanahan response:

What Phonological Awareness Skill Should We Be Screening?

Teacher question: I read a research study (Kilpatrick, 2014) that questions the value of segmentation tests for measuring phonemic awareness, because such tests did not correlate well with first- and second-grade reading achievement. At our school we have used DIBELS in Kindergarten and Grade 1 to identify children at risk for reading difficulties. Is this really useful or are we identifying kids as needing help when they do not? Should we be using measures of blending and manipulation instead?
Shanahan's response:

Why Sequence Is Not Always So Important

Teacher Question:  Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds?

Shanahan responds:

Many teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers expect the proper ordering of letters and letter sounds in a curriculum to be more than a matter of convention or style. This question comes up often.

It is hard explaining to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics. But that actually is the case.

Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

Teacher question: In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?

Shanahan's response:  If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.


"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan