Years ago, when the National Reading Panel (NRP) report came out, Congress tried to impose a national literacy sequence on American schools. Their plan only allowed phonemic awareness instruction until kids could fully segment words. Then the law would let us teach phonics… but no fluency until the word sounding was completed. Eventually we’d even get to comprehension — at least for the most stalwart boys and girls who hung in there long enough.
A very ambitious plan; one that suggests a clear developmental sequence in how reading abilities unfold.
But much as Emperor Canute couldn’t order the tides to do his bidding, the U.S. Congress was powerless to determine the correct sequence of development for reading (these days it seems even more impotent than then).
Learning to read is a multidimensional pursuit. Lots of things have to happen simultaneously. That’s why in my scheme, teachers are always teaching words (decoding and meaning), fluency, comprehension, and writing — not one after the other but simultaneously. Kids who are learning to decode should also be learning the cadences of text and how to think about what they read. All at the same time.
There have been claims about order of learning in reading, but they haven’t tended to pan out when studied. When I was became a teacher, one of the basals was setting its phonics sequence based on when the sounds appear in oral language.
Babies tend to “duh-duh-duh” before they “muh-muh-muh,” so it had us teaching the “d” sound before the “m.” (Irrelevant side note: I suspect “dad” is the invention of generous moms who told their mates that the baby’s first word was referring to him — the Cro-Magnon Tim would have bought the story, too).
It might sound scientific to teach the “dees” before the “ems,” but it isn’t. No one has ever found that one order of phonics skills is more beneficial than another/ The NRP found that sequence mattered when it came to phonics teaching — and that may have tripped up our House and Senate (they confuse easily ) — but NRP didn’t find that one sequence was any better than another.
Yes, teachers need a curriculum, and a curriculum will have to prescribe an orderly succession of letters and sounds. But that succession is an arbitrary one. Kids do better when teachers follow a systematic program of instruction for these foundational skills. They just don’t do any better with Program A’s sequence than they do with Program B’s.
That doesn’t mean anything goes in phonics. Studies do find that it helps to NOT pair up highly similar letters for instruction. Keep those b’s and d’s far apart; confusability matters in learning.
Usability matters, too. John Guthrie and Mary Seifert showed that whatever the order of phonics instruction, kids tend to learn the patterns that appear in the texts they read. You can teach long vowels before short vowels, but the young’uns will learn the short ones first, because the texts they read will usually be stuffed with CVCs — not CVVCs or CVCCs.
And what is true for foundational skills is true for comprehension, too. Cyndie Shanahan and I have speculated that general reading comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring, visualizing) will usually precede disciplinary strategies (e.g., sourcing in history, connecting the prose and graphics in science). Some researchers (Fagella, et al., 2011) have even claimed that this order is necessary for struggling learners.
But we are beginning to see that even if low readers have not mastered the general strategies, they can still benefit from disciplinary ones. The order that these are currently learned is imposed by the curriculum — not by any natural learning sequence. Don’t be afraid to teach disciplinary literacy strategies to students who haven’t yet shown that they can apply the common ones.
To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan’s blog .