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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

What do you think of “phonics first” or “phonics only” in the primary grades?

Teacher question: At my school, the district inservice has made a big deal out of Scarborough’s rope. Nevertheless, when it comes to daily instruction, we (the primary grade teachers) have been told that decoding is the most important thing and that we are to emphasize that. They’ve sent us to LETRS training, purchased instructional programs on phonics, and require testing students’ “nonsense word fluency” frequently. At what grade levels is it appropriate to teach the “language comprehension” portions of the rope?

Shanahan’s response:

In 1915, near where I’m writing this, a passenger ship, the SS Eastland sank, drowning 844 passengers – many of them children. It was the greatest disaster in Chicago history and the greatest loss of life of any single shipwreck on the Great Lakes …. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I agree with your district that young readers — if they are going to be young readers — need to learn to decode and phonics and phonemic awareness instruction is essential during the primary grades to ensure that students develop proficient decoding ability.

But it seems to me that in your school district’s prodigious and well-meaning efforts to ensure that happens, they are ignoring Scarborough’s rope, Gough & Tunmer’s simple view, Duke & Cartwright’s active view model, the report of the National Reading Panel, $100 million worth of research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and a slew of other more recent research studies.

They’ve left the “bop out of the bop-sh-bop-sh-bop.” Or, more accurately, they’ve left the science out of the “science of reading.”

Most people would chalk this overreach up to “reading wars.” That could be what’s happening; maybe there’s a “true believer” in your district who thinks that only decoding matters – and is willing to make that happen no matter the costs.

However, I’ve been hearing about this “decoding first” or “decoding only” action often lately — from parents, state department of education officials, and teachers. Reading instruction over my career has tended to follow a pendulum. As interest swings one way or the other, instructional practice gets twisted out of shape.

I remember back in the 1970s and 80s. The federal government invested heavily in research on reading comprehension. That produced a lot of terrific studies, and for a while it dominated the reading journals — both the research journals and those aimed at practitioners.

In 1980, it was nearly impossible to find a contemporary high-quality article on phonics teaching. The comprehension researchers weren’t anti-phonics, they just sucked all the oxygen out of the room. A beginning teacher at that time would have thought the only thing she was supposed to teach was comprehension strategies.  

Not surprisingly, publishing companies followed that lead. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t publish information on how to read words or how to teach students to do so. They were just following the market, publishing the shiny new stuff that everyone was interested in right then — rather than trying to make sure that all the important aspects of teaching reading were addressed sufficiently.

That’s what’s going on now. The press and media are emphasizing decoding because of serious gaps in the practices of many schools, so parents are asking questions about it and curriculum directors are making darn sure that they have a good story to tell. Since no one appears particularly concerned about prosody or vocabulary or whether kids are reading enough science text, all hands-on deck are about addressing the decoding gap.

We certainly have work to do to make sure that phonics is taught, that teachers have supportive, high-quality instructional materials aimed at that, and investing in professional development on decoding is wise, too.

But that’s the easy part.

The trick to doing that successfully, however, is to do it without tipping the boat over.

Ah, the SS Eastland, let’s get back to that. The ship that day was loaded with families going out for a excursion on the lake, a Sunday entertainment. Unfortunately, once boarded the ship listed heavily to starboard (it was leaning uncomfortably to the right). The passengers responded as might be expected … they moved quickly to the other side of the boat — which tipped it over.

It sounds like your district is trying to address a real problem. But under pressure and anxiety, they are shifting all the ballast to one side of the boat. Ignoring or delaying language comprehension instruction is not the smart way to correct the decoding problem. In fact, it might eventually sink the boat.

Is there really any reason to believe that teaching phonics first or that only teaching phonics for a year or two is a good idea? If you have phonics stuff to sell, it probably seems like it is. But if you have any interest in the science of reading (that is, you want to base your actions on data rather than sales talks and unintentional media hyperbole), then it’s clear those scorched earth approaches are bad pedagogy.

If you don’t think that I’m right about this, look at this evidence:

1. Jeanne Chall, the Harvard professor most known for her analysis of the research on phonics instruction (Reading: The Great Debate, 1967), promoted the role of phonics more vocally and more articulately than any scientist of her generation. Nevertheless, the phonics instruction that she promoted through her own work never delivered phonics in a vacuum. Her research revealed that students, to become readers, needed to progress in multiple skills area simultaneously.

2. In 1990, Marilyn Jager Adams published the landmark, “Beginning to Read,” her magnificent summary of the research on the early acquisition of reading ability. Not surprisingly, this work — like Chall’s — has been a major pillar of movement to teach phonics explicitly and thoroughly from the beginning. However, this incisive review of research explicitly rejects the idea of either “phonics first” or “meaning first” approaches. It describes such approaches as “misguided” and “simplistic,” and documents the lack of empirical supporting either of those approaches.

3. Hollis Scarborough’s rope, which you mention, treats word recognition and language comprehension equivalently. However, you could read that visual metaphor for reading development two different ways. You could read it left-to-right, which would suggest that both sets of skills develop simultaneously and interactively from the beginning. Or you also might read it from top to bottom, suggesting that language comprehension comes later in the process, built upon a foundation of phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight vocabulary. Recently, Hollis clarified the intended meaning in a Q&A available on YouTube. She said that the publisher of the original graphic left out one important item. There was to be an arrow at the bottom labeled time, and it was to point left-to-right. Her understanding of the research is in accord with those of Chall and Adams — decoding needs to be taught early in the developmental process, along with those comprehension abilities.

4. The National Reading Panel report (2000) is oft cited as the major support for phonics instruction. We found (I was a member of the panel) that explicit, systematic phonics instruction helped students to become better readers — based on a meta-analysis of 38 studies. But most of those studies provided the phonics instruction embedded in or accompanied by a more comprehensive reading program (the same was true of all the other components of reading that NRP examined). If you have any doubts, Linnea Ehri, the scientist who led the alphabetics part of the effort, has focused her research not only on how kids learn to recognize words (ever hear of “orthographic mapping”?), but also on more comprehensive approaches to decoding like Reading Rescue.

5. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that once instruction had successfully raised kids to average levels of decoding ability — levels that should have resulted in successful reading — more than half the students still struggled. Decoding was essential, but insufficient for success. That’s why Reid Lyon, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, Joe Torgesen, and so many others endorsed more comprehensive approaches to meeting children’s reading needs (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). They were quite explicit that the teaching of these components takes places simultaneously, not consecutively or sequentially. It would be cruel to put all the emphasis on one part of the process, while allowing kids to languish with the other parts (sort of like providing calcium by taking away the protein).

6. Perhaps you think that what I’m saying may be true for some kids, but not for kids with dyslexia. You’d be wrong there too if you examined the rigorous and well-grounded research of folks like Sharon Vaughn and Maureen Lovett. They must not have gotten the memo that kids only need decoding supports early on; look at the interventions they’ve developed for students with dyslexia.

7. Not long ago, on a listserv where I lurk, someone argued that it was okay to teach phonics to kids who already could decode satisfactorily (“it couldn’t hurt”). Research shows that engaging those kids in comprehension and language activities instead of teaching them again what they already know, generates greater learning progress (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004). Nothing wrong with supporting phonics instruction but being so cavalier about the education of other people’s children is insensitive and offensive. (Yes, unfortunately, I’ve witnessed that same kind of insensitivity and gracelessness from those excusing their own disregard for the decoding needs of kids.)

8. The value or possibility of teaching foundational skills and language skills simultaneously is not just for reading either. Karen Harris and Steve Graham shared some of their recent work with me that shows that first-graders do quite well with a more comprehensive approach from the beginning (Harris, Kim, Yim, Camping, Graham, et al., in review).

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The scientists who know the most about this are big proponents of teaching phonics, but they don’t buy in to the idea that its phonics first or phonics only. Those ideas comes from folks who are trying to push a pendulum, make a sale, or — perhaps, like your district — who want to respond to community pressure without taking the trouble to examine the science of reading.

How to proceed? The way I handle it is by apportioning time to parts of the literacy curriculum. I follow the research and advocate teaching phonics for about 30 minutes a day (just like in most of the studies summarized by the National Reading Panel). Comparable amounts of time should be devoted to the other important components that reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to read text fluently. Doing it that way, kids get what research says is an effective dose of phonics instruction, and they don’t miss out on all the other things that they need if they are to become good readers.

In Chicago, when I was the director of reading, we began every workshop with an overview of all the skills needed to read. It was explained repeatedly that today’s PD was on ______ but not because that was the most important or the only component of reading. It was important, it mattered, and it was the topic of the day, but it had to fit together with the other pieces (that also were essential and that mattered every bit as much). Worked for our kids.

Please share this article with your administrators. Perhaps we can persuade them to do less tail covering and more to meet the literacy learning needs of our diverse children.

Let’s not sink the boat in our zeal to make it look like we are doing a great job with phonics.

Selected comments

Comment from Jane

I’m a literacy coach at a charter in Pennsylvania. The city where the charter is located was recently listed as the most dangerous city to live in Pennsylvania. Marginalized students roam the hallways with little interest in learning. One of our biggest challenges is retaining teachers; therefore, causing constant interruption in quality, intentional instruction.

I’ve read your article thoroughly. I would love your advice and guidance on a yearly occurrence on our campuses. A large percentage of our students can not read. I’m working with a 4th grade teacher with a class of 25 children. 15 of those students possess IEP’s. Only two of the children are pulled out for resource services. Therefore, a plan needs to be constructed to effectively help all 23 students. The historical data on her class shows they are 2 grade levels below and even lower.

We just purchased the CKLA program and begin implementation on September, 12th. We’re being told Tier 1 instruction needs to be on grade level. Do you feel 30 minutes of phonics instruction would be beneficial to add into the whole group block?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Jane —

If the students are still reading at a first or second grade level (or are testing low in decoding and spelling abilities), I would definitely include 30 minutes of decoding instruction for those children in Tier 1. There is recent evidence that indicates that if you don’t get kids to an acceptable level of decoding, then none of the rest of what you do with reading instruction will make any difference. Your district needs to test those boys and girls to find out where they are in decoding, and instruction should be adjusted accordingly.


Comment from Stacey

So do we have our high readers work on phonics routines alongside the class or have them do another activity during this time? Our daily decoding routine is modeled after Phonics Lesson Library and matches the skill in Journeys.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Stacey —

What Carol Connor and her colleagues found was that the students who had already accomplished sufficient decoding progress also tended to be able to work well away from the teacher. Those students were able to carry out reading assignments, writing assignments, and to work in groups with others on projects, and so on. The kids who were low in phonics needed instructional time with the teacher.


Comment from Rosalie

So…can you please design the best teaching system for us all to follow?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Rosalie —

The closest I will ever come to that is likely my framework which simply requires that teachers spend 2-3 hours per day teaching reading and writing. That time should be divided either into 4 or 5 roughly equal time chunks so that decoding/vocabulary, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing (and, possibly, oral language) can be taught. Teachers would hone their craft by trying to make each of those aspects of instruction adhere to the best research that we have at the time (and that will change over time as new research is done). That mix of teaching would be the same at each grade level, but exactly what is taught in each and what is prioritized would change with development.


Comment from Julie

What a breath of fresh air! Thank-you, Tim. In my view, and I have said it to those I interact with, we teach comprehension all the time, all day long (almost literally) in every class and content area. We teach the knowledge and strategies that we know impact and determine comprehension. We never leave that “stone unturned.” I recently questioned the advice I am finding here, there, out about and around that parents should be wary if their child’s school teaches “guided reading.” Guided reading is turning up on lists of ‘no-nos.” If we do not provide guidance to our students during reading, whether it be during the ELA block, science or social studies, how are we guiding them in the development of the knowledge, strategies and skills that are crucial to comprehension?

The notion that we may not use “guided reading” is tragic. This is the boat tilting off balance. Another point you made that I celebrate is why teach phonemic awareness and phonics lessons to the children who have already mastered the skills and activities? OK, perhaps it won’t hurt, directly, but indirectly we prevent them from gaining the progress we might allow were we to encourage those students to read or write while we teach targeted lessons to the children who need them? I attribute some of the enthusiasm for 1) insisting there should be no guided reading; and 2) teaching phonics lessons to the children who already apply phonics knowledge to decoding and reading text successfully to perhaps an incomplete picture of the “science of reading” to date. Recently I found myself in a pretty heated exchange in a group when I questioned the advice to ditch guided reading.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Julie —

Keep your eyes open. Sometime in the future I plan to write another piece on guided reading. Unfortunately, the term has been taken over by particular authors. The push back (I hope) is against their version. But very much like the phonics issues raised here — the tendency is to throw the baby out with the bathwater … ditching both the good and bad features of that practice.



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Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Katch, L. E. (2004). Beyond the reading wars: Exploring the effect of child-instruction interactions on growth in early reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(4), 305-336.

Fletcher, J. M., & Lyon, G. R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W. M. Evers (Eds.), What’s gone wrong in America’s classrooms (pp. 50-77). Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press. 

Harris, K. R., Kim, Y., Yim, S., Camping, A., Graham, S., & Fulton, M. L. (Under review). Yes, they can: Developing transcription skills and oral language in tandem with SRSD instruction on close reading of science text to write informative essays at Grades 1 and 2

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 11, 2022