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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.

The Learner Characteristic that Leads to Different Learning

September 12, 2017

Last week, I pointed out that research had found few interactions in literacy learning. That is, research hasn't actually uncovered many situations in which different kinds of kids learn differently — despite many claims to the contrary.

The idea that research would identify important aptitude-treatment interactions has been trumpeted for a long time (Cronbach & Snow, 1977). It just hasn’t panned out, for the most part, when it comes to reading instruction.

Individual differences are extensive in reading — and in lots of variables that have a big impact upon learning (e.g., IQ, SES, language). Nevertheless, these variables tend to have a pretty consistent impact upon literacy progress.

There certainly are some interesting instructional interactions—like the fact that kids seem to learn more when taught in smaller groups than in larger ones(Schwartz, Schmitt, & Lose, 2012). But that impact doesn’t vary by the type of kid. Children generally learn more when taught individually than when taught in somewhat larger groupings — no matter who the kids are.

But does that mean that there are no important individual differences when it comes to learning to read? Not exactly — and that’s where it gets interesting. There is at least one important characteristic that consistently has distinguished learners from one another and that influences how much is learned; and, in that sense, the idea that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all makes a lot of sense.

What distinguishes learners?

To help answer that, let’s turn our attention to some studies by Carol Connor and her colleagues. Over the past decade or so, their work has been demonstrating that one particular child characteristic does lead to learning differences in reading, and that characteristic is …. wait for it … what the students already know about reading.

For example, there has been no more consistent research finding than that explicit phonics instruction is beneficial to young readers (NICHD, 2000). Teaching the relationship between letters and sounds and spelling patterns and pronunciations have been found to improve decoding ability, spelling ability, oral reading fluency, and even the reading comprehension of first-graders. 

But that isn’t what Connor and her colleagues found (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004).

They examined first-graders’ decoding growth and whether there were interactions between the kind of instruction provided and what children already knew about decoding and vocabulary. As they described it:

“We predicted that children with stronger fall vocabulary or decoding skills would achieve stronger decoding skill growth in classrooms that provided more child-managed implicit decoding instruction and less teacher- managed explicit decoding instruction. In contrast, we expected children with weaker fall vocabulary or decoding scores to achieve stronger decoding skill growth in classrooms that provided more teacher-managed explicit decoding instruction and less child-managed implicit decoding instruction.” (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004, p. 310).

The kids who were more advanced in literacy and language at the beginning of the year didn’t respond as well to explicit phonics instruction. These kids did better when provided the opportunity to apply those already-obtained phonics skills by engaging in real reading and writing activities, especially those that students could manage themselves (such as independent silent reading, or independent completion of worksheets).

Their less knowledgeable classmates evidenced the opposite learning pattern. They, being less advanced, learned the most about decoding when their teachers provided them with explicit teaching in letters, letter-sound associations, phonological awareness, spelling or decoding words — especially when the teachers themselves managed these activities.

Other studies have found the same pattern with phonics instruction — that it is significantly more beneficial for kids who are low in phonics knowledge (Wolff, 2016), and this is true even with older struggling students (Solis, Vaughn, & Scammacca, 2015). Connor and her colleagues found something very similar with reading comprehension instruction for third-graders (Connor, Morrison, Fishman, Giuliani, et al, 2011): poorer readers gain a comprehension benefit from reading coherent text, while text coherence doesn’t seem to enhance the reading of better readers, presumably because they are already skilled enough to provide that themselves (Lien, 2013). And, other researchers have reported similar patterns (Müller, Richter, Krizan, Hecht, & Ennemoser, 2015).

I suspect that the occasional demographic interaction that does turn up in reading studies is not due to real differences in learning nor to statistical aberrations.

What is really going on is due to differences in what the students happened to already know about reading at the time of the study (Crowe, Connor, & Petscher, 2009). Thus, a method that looks to be particularly advantageous for poverty kids or second-language learners may just be apt for kids with a particular level of literacy attainment.

If one were to try out the same method with better-achieving kids from those same demographic groups, the supposed advantage would likely disappear.

It is rare that students will benefit from being taught what they already know, and more support — instructional or textual — will usually be most helpful for those who need that support than for those skilled enough to get on by themselves.

When we think of all of the demographic differences — real and invented — that supposedly divide us (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, religion, region, learning styles), maybe we aren’t that different after all. What it takes to become literate appears to be pretty much the same for all of us. We all need to learn the same things about reading and text to be literate and we all benefit from the same kinds of instruction.

But while that appears to be true, learning — learning to read, learning to use reading to learn about our world — affects us. Learning changes our brains, our interests, our abilities, and it’s those changes, ultimately, that need to be adjusted for in our teaching.

If children already know their letters and sounds, devoting time to such instruction is a lost opportunity. This time would be better dedicated to guiding kids to apply those skills to writing or text reading; or to teaching more advanced skills.

If youngsters can already read a text with a relatively high degree of accuracy and comprehension, such as is the case with texts at the so-called independent or instructional levels, then there is little opportunity for kids to learn from those texts (Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000). Kids who are placed in books in that way are at a learning disadvantage; one would expect greater learning to accrue from more challenging book placements. 

And, if youngsters can already read a text fluently, practicing fluency with it won’t help much. It would make greater sense to do this work with a harder book (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003) or to shift the attention to comprehension or writing.

Is it true that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all when it comes to learning?

If we’re talking about what kids need to learn to become literate or what kinds of instruction are likely to effective in guiding kids to master reading, then the answer is, we’re pretty darn similar, and one size is just fine.

However, what we learn changes us. Instruction should be respectful of those differences in knowledge and skill because doing so can provide learning advantages. Teachers should use assessment information to ensure their teaching focuses on guiding kids to master what has not yet been accomplished. In that sense, research supports the notion of instructional differentiation and one-size-definitely-does-not-nor-ever-will-fit-all in reading instruction. 


Connor, C.M., Morrison, F.J., Fishman, B., Giuliani, S., Luck, M., Underwood, P.S., Bayraktar, A., Crowe, E.C., & Schatschneider, C. (2011). Testing the impacts of child characteristics X instruction interactions on third graders’ reading comprehension by differentiating literacy instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 46, 189-221.

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 in Reading, 8, 305-336.

Cronbach, L., & Snow, R. (1977). Aptitudes and instructional methods: A handbook of research on interactions. New York: Innovations.

Crowe, E.C., Connor, C.M., & Petscher, Y. (2009). Examining the core: Relations among reading curricula, poverty, and first and third grade reading achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 47, 187-214.

Kuhn, M.R., & Stahl, S.A. (2003). Fluency: A review of development and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3-21.

Lien, C.S. (2013). Text coherence, reading ability, and children’s scientific understanding. Bulletin of Educational Psychology, 44, 875-904.

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Merisuo-Storm, T. (2006). Boys and girls like to read and write different texts. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 50, 111-125.

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Müller, B., Richter, T., & Krizan, A., Hecht, T., & Ennemoser, M. (2015). Word recognition skills moderate the effectiveness of reading strategy training in Grade 2. Learning & Individual Differences, 40, 55-62.

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Solis, M., Vaughn, S., & Scammacca, N. (2015). The effects of an intensive reading intervention for ninth-graders with very low reading comprehension. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 30, 104-113.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables