In the 1960s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began a rigorous analysis of beginning reading in an effort to identify how effectively to avoid or to address learning problems.
This coordinated effort is generally credited with much of the progress that has been made in understanding the role that skills like phonological awareness play in reading and the value of explicit phonics instruction.
One important finding of that effort: addressing only students’ phonological/orthographic needs during the primary grade years leaves those students vulnerable to continued reading disability (due to a lack attention to their language development). There either are usually undiagnosed language deficits early on, that become more evident later, or the inattention to non-foundational skills limits their growth during these years.
I don’t think anyone can read that body of research without concluding both that kids need substantial attention to foundational skills early on, AND that solely focusing on such skills would be harmful.
The National Reading Panel was pressed into service to review research on what works in reading at the request of the U.S. Congress, under the auspices of NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education.
Unlike many of the critics at the time, panel members, who were unpaid volunteers, were not allowed to have any potential conflicting commercial interests. That panel reviewed 51 studies of the teaching of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, and 32 studies of oral reading fluency.
The panel concluded that students would benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in each of those foundational skills during the primary grades. However, it should be noted that in no case within those studies did anyone consider those skills as separable from the rest of reading. For example, when studying phonics, the students in the control groups and the phonics groups were receiving instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, writing and the like. The only difference was that the experimental group would be getting phonics or some more ambitious version of phonics.
Thus, the panel’s conclusion that these skills need to be taught was determined in the context of these skills being taught along with other reading skills. Such a heavy focus on any of these skills to the omission of the others likely would have led to very different conclusions.
Over my career, I have worked with some of the biggest proponents of foundational skills teaching:
Patricia Cunningham, Linnea Ehri, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Christopher Lonigan, Louisa Moats, Michael Pressley, Christopher Schatschneider, Sally Shaywitz, Steve Stahl, Keith Stanovich, Joseph Torgesen, Sharon Vaughn, and others.
These brilliant men and women disagree — with me and with each other — on many issues, but they seem to all be in agreement that the foundational skills are NECESSARY for learning to read (so you’d better make sure kids are instructed in them), BUT THAT THEY ALONE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT for learning to read (so you’d better do more for kids’ reading than teach them foundational skills).
I have long been an advocate for providing children with 120-180 minutes per day of literacy instruction. I divide that time roughly in quarters: 25% devoted to words and word parts (e.g., letters, sounds, decoding, PA); 25% to oral reading fluency; 25% to reading comprehension; and 25% to writing. That means that primary grade kids would receive about 60 to 90 minutes per day of foundational skills instruction (combining the word work with the fluency work).