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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.

What Kind of Early Reading Intervention Should We Provide?

November 16, 2020

Teacher question: It seems there is currently a focus on intervention solely for the word recognition side in the early grades. The explanation is that most students who struggle, struggle with decoding, and I of course agree. However, I would add that many of those also struggle with language comprehension, with language development deficits that are measurable and observationally apparent in conversation with them as preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders. The district’s current assessment model pretty much excludes them any assessment of language comprehension.

I was told that one of the main reasons that children struggle later with reading comprehension is from the missed opportunities for language development from lack of ability to read over the elementary years. So, if they can learn to read, their language comprehension will improve. While I do not disagree that this occurs (Matthew effect...), I do disagree that this is the main source of the language comprehension issue, when we can see it clearly before hardly any of the children are readers. Can you help me?

Shanahan's response:

I love the broad strokes of the “simple view of reading.” It eschews detail and embraces the big picture. According to the model (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) — and its predecessor (Venezky, 1972) — there are two things that determine reading comprehension. There is decoding (the translation of print to pronunciation) and language comprehension (the ability to understand oral messages). Readers can make sense of text to the extent that they are able to render oral language from print but then they must be able to understand that oral language.

If I can’t decode well then there won’t be much of a message to work with at all. We must make sure kids can decode proficiently. Nevertheless, no matter how well I decode, whether I comprehend depends on my language abilities.

For instance, consider this French sentence:

“Le président américain donne du fil à retorde aux traducteurs et aux journalistes français.”

I can read that sentence aloud adeptly enough that my French friends will know what I’m saying. My French decoding may not be perfect, but it’s more than serviceable.

Despite my adequate decoding, my understanding falls apart due to my ignorance of what “donne du fil à retorde” means. I can pronounce all of the words, and I know the sentence is about President Trump and that he was giving something to French translators and journalists. But that gap in my knowledge of this French idiom is determinant.

It should be obvious from this example that there are two places reading can go wrong: in the decoding or in the language.

Reading is more complicated than the simple view makes out because decoding and oral language each include multiple components themselves, each differing in their scopes and developmental trajectories. Decoding includes knowledge of letters, phonemic awareness, orthographic-phonemic relations, spelling patterns, conditional rules, exceptions, fast mapping or statistical sampling, and so on. While language includes vocabulary, morphology, syntax, cohesion, discourse structure, world knowledge… well, you get the idea.

Nevertheless, it is broad strokes of the simple view that make it so useful. As a policymaker it helps me frame a response to children’s learning needs. Some kids will have trouble learning to read, and that there are two distinct categories of reading failure suggests the need for two distinct categories of intervention.

That makes sense … and yet … that isn’t necessarily what is really happens in many schools. Most young struggling readers – no matter the etiology – will exhibit problems with decoding. This is because, initially, decoding is what is needed to make the process go.

Accordingly, most schools send in the decoding/fluency cavalry early on when there’s trouble.

But it’s different with oral language. Language deficiencies may not even be noticed until the students can decode reasonably well and the text demands begin to outstrip their language attainment, even though studies suggest these language problems to be long standing (Catts, Compton, Tomblin, & Bridges, 2012).

More recently, Mercedes Spencer and Rick Wagner have published an impressive array of studies focused on struggling readers with average decoding ability (Spencer & Wagner, 2017; Spencer & Wagner, 2018; Spencer, Wagner, & Petscher, 2019).

Obviously, we are in need of two streams of intervention: one focused on decoding and one on oral language.

Unfortunately, the powers that be in many districts have decided that early language gaps will best be addressed by decoding interventions alone. It’s an interesting theory, but one far from proven and the evidence suggests that this is a bad way to go.

There are three possible explanations for how this all works:

  1. Language problems show up early but are not detected by teachers and psychologists focused on ferreting out decoding problems.
  2. Language problems are latent, not expressing themselves until children are 8- or 9-years-old (an age by which most kids have gained adequate decoding skills).
  3. The language problems are late developing but result from the diminished amount of reading caused by the early decoding problems (the so-called Matthew effect).

Which is it?

The honest answer is that we don’t know.

For instance, my friend Herb Walberg postulated the Matthew effects idea long ago (Walberg & Tsai, 1983) based on a biblical quote taken from the Book of Matthew (“the rich get richer”). In reading, that means the kids who read earliest get to read more which builds their vocabulary giving them a growing advantage over the early strugglers (Stanovich, 1986).

This theory is accepted as fact by many, and there are some data that are consistent with the idea. However, there is at least as much evidence that challenge the Matthew effects contention (e.g., Cain & Oakhill, 2011; Pfost, et al., 2014; Protopapas, et al., 2011; Protopapas, et al., 2016).

What have school leaders done in the face of such uncertainty? In far too many cases, they have replaced the simple view of reading with what I’ll call the “even simpler view of reading.” According to them, one can bake this cake with a single ingredient, decoding. Get that right, and the rest will follow.

I suspect that such dogged single mindedness is one of the reasons that reading problems persist into high school for so many of these early strugglers. Increasingly evidence is suggesting that these significant language delays are there from the start (Catts, et al., 2012; Morris, 2020).

It seems to me that a high-quality multi-tiered response systems shouldn’t play dice with the universe. We shouldn’t be saying, “Gee, a large percentage of struggling readers have trouble with decoding, so let’s have interventions that teach decoding.” No, instead we should be saying that “there are two major abilities required for reading success and that we must have interventions aimed at both areas of need.”

According to the simple view, reading development is two-pronged. Success in developing strong readers is going to need to be two pronged as well. Take a look at some of the cool early language assessments and materials Trina Spencer and Howard Goldstein have developed (Brookes).


Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2011). Matthew effects in young readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities 44, 431-443.

Catts, H. W., Compton, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Bridges, M. S. (2012). Prevalence and nature of late-emerging poor readers. Journal of Educational Psychology 104(1), 166–181.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education 7(1), 6–10.

Morris, R. (2020). Predicting response to reading disabilities intervention. In Grigorenko, E.L., Shtyrov, Y., & McCardle, P. (Eds.), All About Language. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Pfost, M., Hattie, J., Dörfler, T., & Artelt, C. (2014). Individual differences in reading development: A review of 25 years of empirical research on Matthew effects in reading. Review of Educational Research 84(2), 203–244.

Protopapas, A., Parrila, R., & Simos, P. G. (2016). In search of Matthew effects in reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities 49(5), 499–514.

Protopapas, A., Sideridis, G. D., Mouzaki, A., & Simos, P. G. (2011). Matthew effects in reading comprehension: Myth or reality? Journal of Learning Disabilities 44(5), 402–420.

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2017). The comprehension problems for second-language learners with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Reading 40(2), 199-217.

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2018). The comprehension problems of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 88(3), 366–400.

Spencer, M., Wagner, R. K., & Petscher, Y. (2019). The reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: Evidence from a regression-based matching approach. Journal of Educational Psychology 111(1), 1–14.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21(4), 360–407.

Venezky, R.L. (1972). Language and cognition in reading. Technical Report No. 188. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin. ERIC 067 646

Walberg, H. J., & Tsai, S.-L. (1983). Matthew effects in education. American Educational Research Journal 20(3), 359–373.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller