Can I Still Rely on the National Reading Panel Report?

  • Reading comprehension Phonological awareness Vocabulary afterschool programs
  • 13 August, 2017

Teacher question:

I coordinate reading interventions for my district. I have been told to stop referring to the National Reading Panel, as it is old and no longer relevant. Our universal screener is based on the 5 components of reading, and our basal interventions are also aligned to the "big 5". I don't think there is any way for me to stop referencing the NRP. Would you please comment?

Shanahan's response: 

That’s about as dopey as it gets.

  The National Reading Panel reviewed a great deal of empirical study in the late 1990s (we published the NRP Report in 2000). There was not a lot of controversy around the report, though there were a handful of critics who complained about various things the Panel did or did not do.

  However, whenever anybody reanalyzed the data they ended up with pretty much the same conclusions about what needed to be taught.

  Science is different than skirt lengths or necktie widths. It doesn’t go out of date by taste, but only once some new findings supersede it. We used to think that the speed of light was variable until Einstein proved that it wasn’t. Now we’re stuck with that idea until someone can come up with better evidence that helps us to understand it better.

  We have learned a lot in the intervening period—17 years is a long time—but even with that, newer reviews or my own reading of the various individual studies in the research literature that have been published would suggest that those five things that NRP wrote about continue to garner research support. If NRP found that phonics instruction was beneficial for young kids, and someone does a new study showing that it even helps some older struggling readers, that wouldn’t impeach the NRP findings—it would simply extend or broaden them.

  In fact, most of the studies of phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies completed since NRP have tended to confirm the generalizability of the findings to an expanded range of students (e.g., younger kids, older kids, second language learners).

  NRP did conclude that there was no convincing evidence that giving kids free reading time during the school day improved achievement—or did so very much. There has been a lot of work on that since NRP but with pretty much the same findings: either no benefits to that practice or really small benefits (a .05 effect size—which is tiny). Today, NRP would likely conclude that practice is not beneficial rather than that there is insufficient data. But that’s arguable, of course.

  What I’m saying is that the evidence supporting instruction in the five areas in which NRP concluded were beneficial continues to accumulate—meaning that the case is even stronger today supporting the need for those kinds of teaching. The evidence is stronger now than it was in 2000.

  Whoever is telling you to ignore the NRP Report knows very little about reading or reading research and is really doing kids a disservice by pretending to know something about those things. 

I checked into Google Scholar today and looked up how many citations for the “National Reading Panel” there had been during 2017. The response: 699 citations this year alone (more than 16,000 since the year 2000). Those 2017 citations are appearing in high impact, scholarly journals like Developmental Psychology, Learning & Instruction, Reading & Writing, Journal of Research in Reading. I guess the scholarly community hasn’t gotten word from your school district that this is inappropriate.

  Bottom line? It is still a good idea to explicitly teach kids to hear the sounds within words (phonemic awareness), to decode (phonics), to read text aloud accurately, with appropriate speed, and with expression (fluency), to know the meanings of words, and to use reading strategies when reading text in order to understand it better (reading comprehension).

  Given that this report seemed to settle many of the arguments swirling around those things, and that the NRP Report has been ranked as third most influential educational document (right behind the NAEP tests and the international comparisons in mathematics), I think you are safe still relying on the NRP—until science comes up with something better. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Aug 14, 2017 12:02 PM

Thanks, Tim. I've added your post to the General Forum of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:

Best wishes,


Becki Conner
Aug 14, 2017 06:21 PM

Thank you for this Tim. I always go back to this...
When it comes to teaching reading, it's not about personal preference. It's about following the map of scientific theory and well-researched principles.

Always love reading and hearing your opinion!


Phoebe Gohs
Aug 14, 2017 06:25 PM

Absolutely! And thank you for addressing the question - it seems as though in popular culture just by nature of being a few years old a thing is deemed no longer relevant. In the case of the NRP - new research continues to CONFIRM that you got it right in 2000!

Patricia Mathes
Aug 15, 2017 02:31 PM

What Dr. Shanahan is saying is very important. The scientific evidence that has been collected in the intervening 17 years since the NRP was published confirm and expand what was published. We still teach Newtons Laws of Motion, which were published in 1687, becasue they have proven to be true. The date at which they were first presented doesn't make them any less true today than they were at the time of publication. The purpose of science is of help us determine what is truth, and what is incorrect theory. We test our theories. Those that stand up to rigorous testing are considered truth, unless additional rigorous, repeatable evidence suggest otherwise. Time does not change truth.

Julie Evanish
Aug 15, 2017 07:56 PM

That is the problem with the field of education, instead of building on what works, some are always looking for the next new thing. Sometimes the old thing, is the best thing for teaching children. Thank-you, Timothy Shanahan!

Thomas Zurinskas
Aug 16, 2017 08:41 PM

From my notes, the big problem with English is its spelling.
Another big problem is phonetics with its cryptic phonetic spelling such as the IPA or British Council recommends for students - horrible. Instead, the US VOA, which is an official org for US, eschews special symbols . So does the UK synthetic phonics (which is close to being phonetic). The final answer is truespel phonetics. . An IPA replacement is needed. Change is due ., just like the change of printing the IPA Journal from French to English in 1970. The new criteria are here . Whether or not English spelling evolves, truespel can provide a second view of a word to retain in memory to help link reading and pronunciation. Kindergarten kids need and crave phonetic spelling that they can use and make up invented phonetics themselves . Truespel tutorials are free with a free two-way converter at . Truespel is the way to go with phonetics and form an intermediary spelling for all languages.

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 17, 2017 02:16 AM

Thanks, Dr. Mathes, very well said.

Aug 23, 2017 12:07 AM

"Nearly two decades ago, the commonsense correlation between students’ reading achievement and the time
they actually spent reading was called into question by the now much-maligned 2001 National Reading Panel,
which was unable to find a direct correlation between the two. You can read a close analysis of the NRP’s findings
and problems in their research, in Krashen (2004), and you can learn more about the NRP and No Child Left
Behind, and their links to corporate reading companies and adoptions, in Allington’s Big Brother and the National
Reading Curriculum (2002). In the wake of the NRP’s recommendations, the National Assessment of Educational
Progress exams showed that students’ reading results flat-lined. In short, despite the NRP’s single brief attempt to
suggest that you could teach reading without students actually reading much, years of subsequent experience
confirm what decades of research—and common sense—have held all along. Students need lots of time to read."

Culkins, L. , & Ehrenworth, M. (2017). A guide to reading workshop: Middle school grades. Portsmouth, NJ: Heinemann.

Dec 22, 2017 09:46 AM

The bottom line is that it’s been about 17 years and most of our schools have completely ignored the NRP because of politics. The majority of districts have almost zero idea how to teach reading.
I’m at a district this year that still uses and swears by Reading Recovery, (thanks to Hillary calling for more RR in her book decades ago) I see kids going backwards on their scores, and nobody in this country gives a damn. It is insanity.

Jan 15, 2018 01:48 PM

Please don’t disregard current and historical research on independent reading. Reading is like riding a bike you need to actually ride it to learn not just talk about the parts and how.

Jun 29, 2018 12:12 AM

I do agree that there is relevancy for the "big five". However, I do believe that these components should not be taught in isolation. The main framework around reading is for understanding. Hence, there should be overlapping and deliberate integration of these components .
As I see it the new framework for literacy is an improvement to the old components and should be welcomed.

leonora lubaton
Sep 19, 2018 09:59 PM

Yes, I would say, we are blessed to have the NRP and all those who have supported and challenged their ideas. With the well founded researches, old and new, one can tell where the two poles are coming- love for the children. Let's continue discussing and discovering for our children. But, obviously, the Big 5's are the foundation of the generation. Thank you.


carol moran
Nov 28, 2018 03:47 PM

Thank you for your input. I'm a high school reading specialist and have encountered too numerous students that are still having issues with phonics, vocabulary, and obviously reading comprehension. The empirical research does speak for itself. Best practice IS best practice, and thank you to those researchers who keep the steam in the train as we move forward.

Carol Moran-Carroll

Jennifer Kelly
Dec 04, 2018 02:02 PM

As a literacy coach, specialist and classroom teacher for two decades, I agree with most of the report. However, I do take issue with the panel's emphasis on encouraging students to read at home rather than independently in school. I do appreciate, that the report identified the importance of instruction coinciding with independent reading. The lack of instruction was the model of DEAR time and SSR, that did not work. However, I do believe that there is value in teaching a specific lesson or strategy and then having students practice that strategy in their self-selected texts. I do not believe the importance of students building agency as readers was emphasized enough in this report. I also feel that the emphasis on reading at home, while ideal, is not the reality for many of nation's children. My second issue with the report is regarding speding time teaching dictionary skills. While the example of the teacher modeling a dictionary that was given in the report was an okay example, yet completely outdated in this era of technology, I believe Beck and McKowen and R. Allington, respected researchers in the field, would disagree with with emphasizing dictionary skills as a worthwhile approach.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Can I Still Rely on the National Reading Panel Report?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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