Category Archives: Allington

2019 Medley #12: Reading

Reading Wars, Emergent Literacy,
Third Grade Retention Laws

What is reading? Is it more than decoding? Is it only comprehension? Reading Hall of Fame member Richard Allington has a nuanced discussion about it here.

When should we teach reading? Do four-year-olds need “reading instruction? Five-year-olds? High achieving Finland doesn’t teach five- or six-year-olds to read…unless the teacher determines that they’re ready. In the U.S. it’s one-size-fits-all in kindergarten (aka the new first grade).

When children have trouble reading at age nine or younger, what should we do? Do we remediate them? Or do we retain them in grade for another year?


The “Reading Wars” have ignited again. We start with an article from Australia which divides us into two simplistic sides — a pro-phonics tribe and an anti-phonics tribe. While attempting to sound unbiased the author assumes we all know that “science” is on the side of the pro-phonics tribe and it’s only those foolish “regular educators; teachers and educationists in schools” who refuse to see that systematic phonics is the “only way.”

I taught reading for 35 years and always included phonics even when I was using the “whole language” method of Reading Recovery. The difference is how you use phonics instruction.

‘When two tribes go to war’: the reading debate explained

Over time, as the scientific evidence in favour of the efficacy of phonics instruction became overwhelming, the whole language movement relaunched themselves as being in favour of ‘balanced literacy’. All five Big Ideas were important, including phonics (which they now claimed was being taught in most schools, but more as a method of last resort).

Moreover, phonics instruction (where necessary) should occur naturally during ‘real’ reading activities involving quality children’s literature and certainly should not be taught explicitly and systematically.

The author uses information from the U.S.’s National Reading Panel (2001) when discussing the “five Big Ideas” — that is, the five major pillars of “scientific reading instruction” identified by the National Reading Panel…

  • phonological awareness
  • phonics
  • fluency
  • vocabulary
  • comprehension

The National Reading Panel Summary, arguing for explicit and systematic phonics instruction, said,

The meta-analysis revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read. The ability to read and spell words was enhanced in kindergartners who received systematic beginning phonics instruction. First graders who were taught phonics systematically were better able to decode and spell, and they showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text. Older children receiving phonics instruction were better able to decode and spell words and to read text orally, but their comprehension of text was not significantly improved.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the National Reading Panel found. The Summary, written to favor phonics, overstated the findings. The full report (p. 2-116) tells a different story.

Because most of the comparisons above 1st grade involved poor readers (78%), the conclusions drawn about the effects of phonics instruction on specific reading outcomes pertain mainly to them. Findings indicate that phonics instruction helps poor readers in 2nd through 6th grades improve their word reading skills. However, phonics instruction appears to contribute only weakly, if at all, in helping poor readers apply these skills to read text and to spell words. There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above 1st grade.

Stephen Krashen offers a couple of responses to the Australian article…

Sent to the Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2019.

Basic Phonics appears to be the position of Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson, authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:

“…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships…once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive.”

Beginning Reading: The (Huge) Role of Stories and the (Limited) Role of Phonics

Stephen Krashen
Language Magazine April, 2019

The inclusion of some phonics instruction does not constitute a “balanced” approach or an “eclectic” approach: All components of the complete program, stories, self-selected reading and a small amount of direct phonics instruction are in the service of providing comprehensible input. Stories and self-selected reading provide [comprehensible input] directly: They are assisted by a variety of means for making input comprehensible: some conscious knowledge of the rules of phonics is one of them. It is, however, very limited.

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

Gerald Coles (Reading The Naked Truth) offers a discussion of the Reading Wars and how the errors of the National Reading Panel are still haunting us.

Propelling the skills-heavy reading instruction mandated in NCLB was the 2000 Report of the National Reading Panel. Convened by Congress, the panel concluded, after a purportedly exhaustive review of the research on beginning-reading instruction, that phonics and direct-skills instruction was the necessary, scientifically proven pathway to academic success. In Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (2003), I reviewed all of the “scientific” studies cited in the National Reading Panel report and documented how the panel repeatedly misinterpreted and misrepresented the findings in study after study. The following are just a few examples:

  • The boost in reading associated with early phonics instruction did not last beyond kindergarten.
  • The overall data in the studies reviewed actually contradict the report’s conclusion about the “better reading growth” in skills-emphasis classrooms.
  • Systematic phonics teaching was not superior to whole-language teaching in which phonics was taught as needed.

Again, I would emphasize that I always provided phonics instruction for my students and there are times when systematic phonics can be used to benefit students. However, it’s important to remember that “Systematic phonics teaching was not superior to whole-language teaching in which phonics was taught as needed.”

[For more about the National Reading Panel and its report see:


Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy

Just because someone went to school doesn’t mean they know everything about teaching. There’s more to reading instruction than worksheets and book reports. There’s more to language development and the skills needed for learning to read than letters and phonics.

Many developmentally appropriate preschool teachers have been asked, “Why don’t you teach reading?” The question is innocent. But teachers often come away frustrated, as most of what they do is focused on building successful readers. Often, outside observers are looking for reading worksheets and primers and long stretches of direct phonics instruction. The trick is, in these early years, so much is being done to build successful readers, but it is in the form of emergent or early literacy skills, which are much less visible to the untrained eye.


In Indiana and 18 other states in the U.S., when third graders have difficulty passing a standardized reading test, they’re required to repeat third grade.

We know, however, that retention in grade, especially when used as a one-size-fits-all approach to reading remediation, is not effective.

States Are Ratcheting Up Reading Expectations For 3rd-Graders

Noguera sees a disconnect in the increased expectations and flat school funding. “We often hold kids accountable,” he says. “In this case, with retention. We hold teachers accountable for not raising test scores. But the state legislature doesn’t hold itself accountable for putting the resources in place to make sure schools can meet the learning needs of kids.”

Force and Flunk, Tougher Kindergarten Lead to Parental Dissatisfaction with Public Schools

States are requiring schools to retain third-graders who are having trouble reading, but reading instruction in the early years of schooling is often inappropriate and lacking resources for identifying and helping at-risk children. In other words, the children are paying the price for the failure of the adults in their world to provide developmentally-appropriate instruction and sufficient help for those who struggle. What follows, says Nancy Bailey, are parents who blame the school and perpetuate the myth of “failing schools.”

When kindergartners don’t like reading and do it poorly, public schools fall short on remediation programs. Even if a child has a learning disability they might not get the needed services because so many children struggle due to being forced to read too soon!

Kindergarten never used to be where and when children were expected to master reading! Mostly, children learned the ABCs. Kindergarten was a half day involving play and socialization, like Finnish children are schooled today.

But with the looming fear of third grade retention, parents are alarmed for good reason. Kindergarten is no longer joyful or the “garden,” its original German definition. It’s dominated by assessment and forced reading and writing exercises that raise fear in children. This is due to the concern that children won’t read by third grade and will fail the test and be retained.


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One Size Does Not Fit All

More than four dozen literacy experts have signed on to a letter expressing concern over the lack of balance in PBS Newshour’s segment about dyslexia.

Among the signers of the letter are Reading Hall of Fame members, Richard Allington, Pat Cunningham, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Michael Graves, Stephen Krashen, P. David Pearson, Gay Su Pinnell, David Reinking, and Barbara M. Taylor.

The entire letter can be found at Concern_letter_to_PBS.pdf and is listed with all signers.

One objection the signers have with the PBS episode is the assumption that there is only one way to teach reading that works for every child, and that other variables and individual characteristics of students are unimportant. The show also implies that America’s teachers don’t know how to teach reading, once again, misdirecting blame onto teachers for a lack of achievement among students.

There are a wide variety of out of school factors which could result in reading difficulties such as vision problems, lack of literacy experiences in the home, exposure to environmental toxins such as lead, and family trauma.

Dyslexia is defined differently in different places and by different people, so one single method of teaching reading is insufficient to cover all differences. Because of the confusion and differences in defining dyslexia, the American Psychiatric Association has removed dyslexia from it’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

The letter goes into detail on these and other issues.

Paula Kerger, PBS, President and CEO

Sara Just, Executive Producer, PBS NewsHour

Dear Ms. Kerger and Ms. Just,

We, the undersigned, write to express concern about the PBS NewsHour segment on dyslexia, broadcast on April 30. As experienced senior scholars in the field of reading and literacy education, we found this segment to be inconsistent with the NewsHour’s stated aim of balanced and trusted reporting.

Our professional work is devoted to studying literacy and how it can be developed in schools to enrich the lives of all students. So, we well understand and share parents’ and others’ anguish and frustration when children are identified as experiencing reading difficulties. Competent reading and writing are fundamentally important in and out of school, and difficulties can shape children’s concepts of themselves as learners, while affecting virtually every aspect of their everyday experience.

Our concern is that the NewsHour received inadequate and incomplete scientific advice when producing the segment on dyslexia. The result perpetuates inaccuracies, misconceptions, and distortions related to reading, how it is taught, and the complexity of reading difficulties. It suggests erroneously that there is scientific certainty about dyslexia and how it should be addressed instructionally. In fact, the research evidence is equivocal and there is much room for debate about whether dyslexia is an identifiable condition, whether it can be reliably diagnosed, and whether there are instructional approaches that are uniquely effective in ameliorating it…

…We are particularly concerned about the dyslexia segment’s suggestion that a narrowly conceptualized instructional approach is unequivocally effective, not only for individuals categorized as dyslexic, but for all individuals learning to read. Such a suggestion perpetuates a view that there is a single approach guaranteed to transcend the incredible diversity of factors and individual characteristics that might explain why learning to read is easy for many but incredibly difficult for some. It is widely accepted that learning to read English texts entails instructional attention to sound-symbol correspondence and other phonemic aspects of reading. But, the amount and form of that attention, how it is balanced with other aspects of reading and learning to read such as motivation, and how it might deal with the orthographic irregularities of English spelling, cannot be reduced to a single, narrow, unquestioned approach. In particular, we worry that such a narrow view might divert teachers from attending to other scientifically based facets of good literacy pedagogy, such as attention to oral language, knowledge acquisition, motivation and self-efficacy, and sheer exposure to print. Again, such issues, in one form or another, have periodically blossomed into public controversies across decades and are often nurtured among the general public by shallow or misleading media reports such as the NewsHour’s segment.

We are also dismayed that the NewsHour segment implicitly questioned, even if unintentionally, the professionalism of teachers and American schools in regard to teaching reading. It was suggested that teachers were ignorant of or resistant to the scientific certainty of dyslexia and how reading can be effectively taught, not only to those children diagnosed with dyslexia, but to all children. Beyond the absence of such certainty, as we have explained above, the segment unfairly provided no opportunity for a rebuttal from qualified representatives of those groups. They could have pointed to a complementary body of scientific research that supports alternative explanations of reading difficulties and instructional approaches that have been shown to be effective for a wide range of students with reading difficulties. That lack of balance was exacerbated when the segment included emotional comments about how children’s needs were not being met…


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Filed under Allington, dyslexia, reading, Stephen Krashen