Blog Posts

10 October, 2020

Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read

Teachers’ question: I’m confused. I’ve heard you say that we should teach phonemic awareness and letters simultaneously. Other “experts” say that phonemic awareness is strictly an auditory skill and that including letters slows children’s learning. Help! I have some children who, no matter what, don’t seem to be making any progress with phonemic awareness. These three are the only ones who have not progressed to phonics instruction. What should I do? Shanahan’s response: This is one of those, “Do we follow theory or data” questions. I’m a data man, myself. Many educators tout the idea that phonemic awareness (PA) is an auditory skill and that ...

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03 October, 2020

Why We Need to Teach Sentence Comprehension

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost; For the want of a shoe the horse was lost; For the want of a horse the battle was lost; For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost;-- And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”                         -James Baldwin This oft used litany reminds me of reading: For the want of phonemic awareness the decoding was lost; for the want of phonics the fluency was lost… you get the idea. The abilities that comprise reading are hierarchical, each nested in the other (though it is not as linear as the horseshoe nail formula—we don’t completely ...

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26 September, 2020

Here's Why I Wouldn't Teach Less Reading to Improve Social Studies

This week the Thomas Fordham Institute released a new provocative report, Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension. It says U.S. schools spend “excessive amounts of time” teaching the English Language Arts (ELA) and not enough time on social studies. In fact, they claim that this imbalance is lowering reading achievement. Kids will read better if they get less reading instruction and more social studies teaching. I’ve long argued for what they call out here as excessive. To reach the reading levels we aspire to, children need lots of reading and writing instruction (and, at least for English learners, lots of ...

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19 September, 2020

What about Personalized Learning in Reading?

Teacher question: I would love to know what you think about the movement in personalized learning in K-8 schools. A few schools in my district have been moving to this approach for math instruction and I'd be interested in hearing your ideas of how this would look in reading and writing instruction. Thanks! Shanahan responds: Your question reminds me of the first time I tried to cook chicken. I was in a hurry so I figured if I turned up the heat, I could cook it faster… and that works – but only on the outside of the chicken. The inside, I discovered, was ...

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12 September, 2020

Seatwork that Makes Sense for Reading

Teacher question: I work with students in small groups daily and need the rest of the students to be engaged in meaningful practice of their new literacy skills. What types of activities would be best for this practice? Shanahan response: The benefits of small group instruction are obvious. Teachers can make the learning experience more apt and intense – the small numbers allow for more responsiveness, more vigilant monitoring, and fine tuning of the teaching. The downside of small group instruction should be equally evident. While the teacher is working with one small group, the rest of the kids are on their own. Much ...

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22 August, 2020

Teaching with Complex Text: Haven't You Ever Heard of the ZPD?

Teacher question: I’ve read what you’ve written about the instructional level. You claim that there is no such thing. Haven’t you ever heard of the “zone of proximal development (ZPD)?” Shanahan responds: I’ve heard of it, but if you think what I’ve written is contradictory to it, then I suspect you don’t really understand the ZPD construct or its relationship to this aspect of reading. Let’s start with the “instructional level” idea first. A century ago, it was common practice for reading teachers to place children in different reading books based on their abilities. For instance, one Wisconsin survey from 1918 shows that the majority ...

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15 August, 2020

Silent Reading Comprehension is Worth Teaching – Even at a Distance

Reading instruction is a faddish thing. We reading teachers can be as passionate and fickle as a gaggle of teens cooing over Billy Eilesh or TikTok. We go through periods of using textbooks or avoiding them; embracing phonics or eschewing it. The educational pendulum swings to and fro. A new reading program or approach is discovered, seems to be everywhere, then one wonders whatever happened to it…. Wisconsin Design, SRA cards, Whole Language, learning styles… the beat goes on.   One thing that never seems to change, however, is the ubiquity of “round robin reading.” This is the practice of having one child ...

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08 August, 2020

Distance Learning: Improving Instructional Interactions in Guided Reading Lessons

Teacher question: [Over the past two weeks, I’ve received several questions about distance learning and remote instruction. Here is just one example]:  “I may not be face to face with students for the entire year. Any help you can provide will be sincerely appreciated.” Shanahan’s response Let’s imagine that you have been asked to help improve reading achievement at a local school. You start out conducting classroom observations to see if you can figure out what could be improved that might make a difference. There are many things you can look for. I inclined towards the basics: How much reading instruction are the kids ...

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25 July, 2020

Will Challenging Text Put a Crimp in Students’ Motivation?

Teacher question: I know you advocate the idea of teaching reading with more complex text. But what about motivation? Won’t this approach discourage students? Shanahan response: I do support the idea of teaching reading with grade level texts. The theory that there is a magical way to match kids to books that will increase learning simply hasn’t panned out. Studies of the instructional level find that it at best makes no difference – that is, kids learn as much from grade level text as they do from instructional level ones. And, in the worst cases, the studies show that those easier text placements ...

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18 July, 2020

Lost Reading Instruction Blues: What's a Worried Parent to Do?

Parent question: As a parent, I’m worried about my children being out of school during the pandemic. Our district still hasn’t decided whether or how to open again this fall, so it isn’t even clear if they will be going back to school. They did their distance learning most of the time this spring, but those online meetings with the teachers and the assignments they had to do don’t seem to be enough. What should I be doing at home? Shanahan respond: Usually the questions I’m asked can be answered from research or my own experiences as a teacher or school administrator. That’s ...

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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.