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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How can I teach RAN to improve my students' reading?

April 21, 2020

Teacher’s question:

Our school psychologist tests all of our boy and girls for RAN. He says it is the best predictor of reading ability. How can I improve my students’ RAN performance?

Shanahan’s response:

If someone tells you that you can teach RAN, run!

RAN refers to “rapid automatized naming.” Back in the 1970s, researchers wanted to measure cognitive processing speed, so they came up with a variety of RAN measures. Typically, students are asked to name known colors, objects, letters or words, and their performance is timed. The studies showed that rapid naming was a good predictor of reading ability and was an important indicator in dyslexia (Denckla, & Rudel, 1976).

Since then, there have been hundreds of studies of RAN confirming this result.

In a meta-analysis of 137 studies of 28,826 participants, it was concluded that RAN was one of the best predictors of reading ability, but that there was “still no consensus regarding the mechanisms responsible for this relationship” (Araújo, Reis, Petersson, & Faisca, 2015, p. 869).

In other words, we know RAN is important, we just don’t know why. Some experts think it has something to do with phonological processing, but there is evidence at least as persuasive that is implicated in orthographic processing (Georgiou, Parilla, & Papadopoulos, 2016; Georgiou, & Parilla, 2020). There is even evidence from the neurosciences suggesting that, while it may affect phonological and orthographic processing, that it is actually a separate thing altogether (Chang, Katzir, Liu, Corriveau, et al., 2007).

Reading is a complex process with lots of moving parts. The speed with which we can analyze letters and retrieve sounds, and combine this information in short term memory matters, but so does the timing of these varied processes. It won’t work if the parts aren’t well coordinate. Speed and timing.

Norton and Wolf (2012) have offered what I think to be the most persuasive analysis of RAN. They indicate that fluent comprehension is “a manner of reading in which all sublexical units, words, and connected texts and all the perceptual, linguistic, and cognitive processes involved in each level are processed accurately and automatically so that sufficient time and resources can be allocated to comprehension and deeper thought” (p. 429).

In other words, whatever it is that RAN measures is implicated in many parts of the reading process.

One interesting thing the researchers have discovered about RAN is that it is more closely related to fluent text reading than to accuracy of word reading. It is important that students be accurate; that they be able to read the words right. But reading is more than just fast word recognition, it is a more integrated process than that.

Your eyes scoop up some information from a text and that information is communicated to your brain where it needs to be integrated with phonological information. But while it is doing that, your eyes are leaping forward to the next scoop of visual data.

This parallel or simultaneous processing is an important part of reading. Dyslexics, even when they are able to identify words accurately, don’t coordinate this parallel processing as well as good readers, and RAN is more closely correlated with this aspect of reading than with accuracy (Pan, Yan, Laubrock, Shu, & Kliegl, 2013).

In other words, your school psychologist is on to something important.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can teach RAN. The relationship of RAN to reading is so complex that only one research team has even bothered to try to teach it (no one who has studied it thinks that we can teach it successfully in any way likely to matter). In that one study, they trained students in rapid letter naming with no reliable impact on either RAN or reading (Kirby, Georgiou, Martinussen, & Parrila, 2010).

Norton and Wolf point out that although it has been shown that instruction can improve performance on most reading and language measures, those interventions have not resulted in much RAN improvement.  

That doesn’t mean there aren’t well-meaning (but not very knowledgeable) folks out there with sure-fire schemes to improve RAN. Here are a few examples of that kind of thing:

Please avoid them. Save your time and your students’ time. Focus on teaching those things that improve reading achievement. RAN is a great predictor of success, but it is not what you need to teach.  

Maryanne Wolf has concluded that if you want students to accomplish that earlier mentioned fluent comprehension, you can’t single RAN out like that for specific focus.

What she does argue for are two things:

First, teach all of the components of reading that we know improve reading achievement. If reading requires the kind of coordination of processes, then you need proficiency in each process.

Second, teaching that emphasizes the coordination of parts makes sense, too. Teaching oral reading fluency through activities like repeated reading may be exercising their positive effects by helping students to develop that coordination, though she admits that such teaching may sometimes only lead to faster reading, rather than more coordinated or fluent reading.


Araújo, S., Reis, A., Petersson, K. M., & Faísca, L. (2015). Rapid automatized naming and reading performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 868-883.

Chang, B., Katzir, T., Liu, T., Corriveau, K., Barzillai, M., et al. (2007). A structural basis for reading fluency: white matter defects in a genetic brain malformation. Neurology, 69, 2146–2154.

Denckla, M. B., & Rudel, R. G. (1976). Naming of objects by dyslexic and other learning disabled children. Brain and Language, 3, 1–15.

Georgiou, G. K., & Parilla, R. (2020). What mechanism underlies the rapid automatized naming-reading relation? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 194, 1-9.

Georgiou, G. K., Parilla, R., & Papadopoulos, T. C.  (2016). The anatomy of the RAN-reding relationship. Reading and Writing, 29, 1793-1815.

Kirby, R., Georgiou, G., Martinussen, R., & Parrila, R. (2010). Naming speed and reading: A review of the empirical and theoretical literature. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 341–362.

Mazzocco, M. M. M., & Grimm, K. J. (2013). Growth in rapid automatized naming from grades K-8 in children with math or reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilties, 46(6), 517-533.

Norton, E. S., Wolf, M. (2012). Rapid automatized naming (RAN) and reading fluency: Implications for understanding and treatment of reading disabilities. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 427-452.

Pan, J., Yan, M., Laubrock, J., Shu, H., & Kliegl, R. (2013). Eye–voice span during rapid automatizednaming of digits and dice in Chinese normal and dyslexic children. Developmental Science, 16, 967–979.

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