Blog Posts

17 November, 2018

Phonics for Second-Language Learners?

Teacher letter: 30% of our children are second-language learners—mainly from Mexico and Central America. The reason that I’m writing is that our school’s RtI program only provides tier 2 interventions that are aimed at teaching decoding. That means when our 1st and 2nd graders are having trouble in reading (and many of them are), they get more phonics teaching. What do you think of providing so much phonics to Spanish speakers? It makes no sense to me, but no one will listen.  Shanahan response: Great letter! I, too, have seen this at many schools—and many of my colleagues who specialize in bilingual education tell me that this kind of over-referral of ELLs ...

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10 November, 2018

How do I Teach Main Idea?

Teacher question: Last week, I read your blog about how to teach theme to students by having them track character changes across a story and determine what lesson the character learns to determine the overall theme. Can you offer advice on determining the main idea of an informational text? Specifically, for third grade, students must determine the main idea, recount the key details and explain how the key details support the main idea. What is the best way HOW to teach this to third graders?  Shanahan response: Teaching “main idea” might seem simple, but it’s actually kind of complicated. Not everyone even agrees on what label to use. Are we talking about main ideas, ...

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03 November, 2018

The Whys and Hows of Research and the Teaching of Reading

I talk a lot about research in this space. I argue for research-based instruction and policy. I point out a dearth of empirical evidence behind some instructional schemes, and champion others that have been validated or verified to my satisfaction. Some readers are happy to find out what is “known,” and others see me as a killjoy because the research findings don’t match well with what they claim to “know.” Members of this latter group are often horrified by my conclusions. They often are certain that I’m wrong because they read a book for teachers that had lots of impressive citations that seem contradict my claims.   What is clear from ...

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27 October, 2018

Gradual Release of Responsibility and Complex Text

Teacher question: I am working with schools who are strongly committed to the “I Do, We Do, You Do” method of teaching reading, and attempt to use this method when working with the reading of complex texts. I have noticed that this approach doesn’t often exist with “highly aligned curricula.” My questions are: What is the role of modeling as it relates to complex text? What does good modeling look like with a complex text that doesn't simplify understanding of a text down to just using one reading strategy? I would appreciate any insights you have here. Thank you!  Shanahan's response: Cool question. I don’t think that is a bad way to think ...

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13 October, 2018

Do Learning Centers and Seatwork Improve Reading Achievement?

Teacher questions: I am an elementary literacy coach. A trend I am seeing in our K-2 classrooms are center activities not aligned to measurable outcomes. My question is, in a room of 24 first graders, when the teacher is pulling a small group to deliver targeted instruction, what does research say is best for what the other students to be doing? I'm struggling to find a model that we can confidently start driving towards.   I am often asked about what the "other students" should be doing while teachers meet with small groups. I refer to What Works Clearinghouse studies to see gains for different programs and approaches. I can't find ...

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07 October, 2018

Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?

Teacher question: Do we read digitally as well as we read paper texts?  Shanahan response: I’ve been asked this provocative question three times in three weeks. Once I was presenting a workshop on how to teach college-bound high-schoolers to handle complex text on tests like the ACT. This group wanted to know if it mattered whether students were tested digitally or with paper (studies estimate significant differences in performance favoring paper).  Last week, I was on a panel at Reading is Fundamental’s National Reading Coalition, a meeting of literacy providers, policymakers, and business leaders. This time the question was posed by Kathleen Ryan-Mufson, Director of Global Citizenship for Pitney-Bowes, a major player ...

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28 September, 2018

What do you think of Guided Reading for secondary school?

Teacher question: I read about the "research base" for guided reading, and Fountas & Pinnell’s exposition of this research mostly contains only position papers--no empirical, peer-reviewed research. I realize that many of the guided reading strategies can be found in research that predates F & P, but what about the effectiveness of guided reading itself? The reason I’m asking is because “guided reading” is now being promoted for high school. What do you think of guided reading for adolescents? Shanahan's response: As usual, it all depends on how you define things. What do you mean by guided reading? The F & P version of guided reading is certainly the most known ...

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17 September, 2018

Is it Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?

Teacher question: I don’t get the reason for trying to make students read “like historians” or read “like scientists.” Many of my students aren’t likely to even go to college and even if they did they probably won’t be historians or scientists. I understand why it makes sense to teach students how to study a history or a science textbook so they can pass the tests on those, but “read like a…”, why? Shanahan response: You are definitely correct that most students will never become literary critics or English professors, mathematicians, historians, or scientists. Some will, but most will not, and even when ...

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08 September, 2018

Is There Really a 30 Million-Word Gap?

Teacher question: I attended one of your recent presentations. You cited the Hart & Risley canard that there is a 30 million-word gap. Aren’t you aware that study has been rejected? There is no word gap. Poverty kids have as much language support as other kids. Shanahan response: Research can get things wrong. That’s why researchers—unlike practitioners and policymakers—are usually so interested in themethods of a study. Study a problem one way, you get one answer. Study it another way,perhaps a different answer emerges. Try to understand why the two studies diverged and youstart to gain a deeper understanding of the problem. That’s why I ...

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25 August, 2018

Should We Teach with Decodable Text?

Teacher question: Please share your thinking as well as research referencing the occasional use of decodable texts for small group reading instruction in grades K-2.  Shanahan response: This is not a highly researched topic. There have been only a handful of studies into the effectiveness of decodable texts since the term was first used back in the 1980s. And, truth be told, they are kind of mess; with little evident agreement about what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what outcomes we should expect to derive from it. Research has less solved the problem—is it helpful to use decodable texts with beginning readers—than demonstrated how complicated even simple ideas ...

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One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.