Phonics & decoding

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question: Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week. We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?

Shanahan response:

What Phonological Awareness Skill Should We Be Screening?

Teacher question: I read a research study (Kilpatrick, 2014) that questions the value of segmentation tests for measuring phonemic awareness, because such tests did not correlate well with first- and second-grade reading achievement. At our school we have used DIBELS in Kindergarten and Grade 1 to identify children at risk for reading difficulties. Is this really useful or are we identifying kids as needing help when they do not? Should we be using measures of blending and manipulation instead?
Shanahan's response:

Why Sequence Is Not Always So Important

Teacher Question:  Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds?

Shanahan responds:

Many teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers expect the proper ordering of letters and letter sounds in a curriculum to be more than a matter of convention or style. This question comes up often.

It is hard explaining to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics. But that actually is the case.

Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

Teacher question: In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?

Shanahan's response:  If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.

Kids Need to Read Within Instruction

If you have ever had surgery, you probably have had the weird experience of signing off on a bunch of medical paperwork. The oddest form is the one that gives the surgeon permission to assault you. Think about it. Usually we don’t want people poking at us with knives. Doctors can’t do that either, unless we give our permission. Otherwise, every tonsillectomy would lead to a 911 call.

That means context matters. Stick a knife in someone in an OR and that is cool, do the same thing down at the local tap and you'll do 5-7 in the state penitentiary.

Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?

Teacher question:  

You are confusing me. You have said that we should “never do in small group what could have been done as well as whole class,” but you also say that phonological awareness and phonics instruction are more effective when they are taught in small group. What should be taught in small group and what can be taught in whole class?

Shanahan's response: 

Lindamood Bell Reading: Effects Are Potentially Positive, Mixed, Says US DOE Clearinghouse

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences describes an update for the Lindamood Bell approach to reading instruction (LiPS®). Findings show some potentially positive effects and some mixed effects.

Can Be Important

Teaching Letters in Kindergarten

Teacher question:

Our kindergarten is using a reading program that has some wonderful lessons. However, we also feel that the pacing doesn't match current expectations for kindergarten students. For example, the program doesn't introduce high frequency words until December and it only teaches 25 words for the entire year. The first lesson for teaching letter names doesn't come until December. What does current research say about when letters, sounds, and sight words should be introduced in kindergarten?

Shanahan response:

Does Preschool Improve Later Literacy Achievement?

Here we go again.

Last week, Dale Farran and a team of researchers at the University of Tennessee concluded that preschool education gets kids off to a great academic start, but by the end of kindergarten the results start to wear off. And, by the end of second grade you can’t even tell that the kids had attended preschool or not.

That suggests that preschool education is a lousy investment — if the goal is to improve students’ later reading and math achievement.

Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in Learning to Read Process

Question from a teacher:

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.


"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain