Blog Posts

26 October, 2019

When should reading instruction begin?

Teacher question: What does research say about early literacy and when to begin? I am aware that kids may reach the stage of development where they're ready for reading at different times. What does the research say about the "window" for when a kid can learn to read? What are the consequences if they haven't started reading past that time?  Shanahan response: Oh, fun. The kind of question that generates strong scholarly (sounding) opinion, with no real data to go on. The advocates on both sides will bloviate about windows of opportunity, developmentally-appropriate practice, potential harms of early or later starts, and how kids in Finland are doing. Despite the impressive citations that show ...

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19 October, 2019

How Decodable Do Decodable Texts Need to Be?: What We Teach When We Teach Phonics

Teacher question: I know phonics should be taught explicitly and we have looked through several sources to determine the patterns to teach in first grade. I have been pouring through leveled texts and have found a high concentration of blends, digraphs, long vowel/silent 'e', and predictable vowel teams in text as low as levels 4 and 6. We are not teaching these patterns until well into the year, but expect our incoming first graders to read Level 3/4.  We are usually about 10 weeks into the year before even starting blends. At that point the text level expectation is around an 8. So, we keep flagging kids for more ...

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05 October, 2019

I'm a Terrific Reading Teacher, Why Should I Follow the Research?

Teacher question: What does it mean that something has research support? I’ve been a teacher for years and I’ve taught hundreds of children to read. Now I’m being told that in our district we are expected to teach in some new way that has research behind it. I like how I teach reading and I don’t want to change. Why should I? Shanahan response: I suspect that there are a lot of teachers who agree with you. Someone like me claims that a particular approach is essential, but they see learning proceeding well without this supposedly indispensable element. Why trust some researcher who doesn’t even know your kids, when you can trust your own ...

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28 September, 2019

Five Things Every Teacher Should Know about Vocabulary Instruction

Blast from the Past: This entry was first published September 28, 2019 and was re-issued on October 17, 2020. As a young man, I set out to improve my vocabulary since I knew it would improve my chances of getting into graduate school. Over a period of about a year, I learned about 400 new words (all recorded on index cards for practice). This was not a research study, I really needed to master these words. My personal impression: I couldn't believe how much my reading and listening comprehension improved during that period; things that I "kind of" understood previously ...

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21 September, 2019

What Do You Think of the Reading Workshop? or How Not to Teach Reading Comprehension

Teacher question: I saw you make a presentation recently, and I was surprised to hear that you did not like the conferencing that is provided in Readers Workshop. That is the method that our district requires. Isn’t it research-based? Shanahan responds: No, it definitely is not research based. I can’t find a single study that supports its use. I can’t even find any study that supports programs that include this approach. Of course, a lack of research support for a particular method doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Perhaps the technique has never been studied, or if it was investigated maybe the study had some important flaw. I don’t think that’s the ...

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14 September, 2019

Why Not Teach Reading Comprehension for a Change?

Teacher question: I saw you speak recently and in your definition of reading comprehension you used the term “affordance.” How would you define affordance as you use it concerning text?   Shanahan responds: Usually, I’d just shoot off a quick email explanation with a question like this. However, in this case, the question affords me the opportunity to explain why so much “reading comprehension instruction” is wrongheaded and why it fails to accomplish its goals of improving reading achievement. I believe that standardized reading comprehension testing has warped and distorted our conception of reading comprehension. Instead of focusing on how to enable kids to make sense of the ideas expressed in text, we’ve tended to ...

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07 September, 2019

Should We Grade Students on the Individual Reading Standards?

Teacher question: What are your thoughts on standards-based grading in ELA which is used in many districts? For example, teachers may be required to assign a number 1-4 (4 being mastery) that indicates a student’s proficiency level on each ELA standard. Teachers need to provide evidence to document how they determined the level of mastery. Oftentimes tests are created with items that address particular standards. If students get those items correct, that is evidence of mastery. What do you recommend? Shanahan response:  Oh boy… this answer is going make me popular with your district administration! The honest answer is that this kind of standards-based grading makes no sense at all. It is simply ...

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17 August, 2019

The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part II

Last week, I posed 5 questions as the first half of the Great American Phonics Quiz. I hope you did well on those items that focused on whether students could learn to read without phonics, what kind of contribution it makes to learning, whether phonics instruction needs to be systematic, and whether analytic or synthetic phonics was best. Here is the second half of the Great American Phonics Quiz.  Good luck. 6.    Lack of adequate phonics instruction is likely the reason why so many American students are failing to become proficient readers. True or false? Recently, I received an angry note from a gentleman concerning the dearth of phonics ...

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10 August, 2019

The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part I

Schools are so tied up with testing these days, and this being the season of “monitoring assessments,” maybe a back-to-school phonics quiz would be a good way to welcome you all back. I was having so much fun writing these test questions that I considered either putting in for a job at ETS or including a Part II next week... I decided on the latter. Admittedly, the length was a concern. Breaking it up into two parts seemed most politic: that way the Fair Testing people and Diane Ravitch may not come after me. Let’s see how you do. The answers are all research-based!  1.    ...

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03 August, 2019

Should We Assess Expression When Evaluating Fluency?

Teacher question: When measuring oral reading fluency by, say, having kids read a grade-level text for one minute, I take note of speed and accuracy.   1. Should I also measure expression? I certainly know expression is part of fluent reading, but isn’t a kid trying to read fast and accurate not really able to read with perfect expression? For example, they might take nice pauses and commas and question marks but slow down their words per minute score. 2. Should I also measure retell? Keep in mind my concerns in my first question. Plus, fluency and comprehension seem like they would be difficult to measure simultaneously on just a one-minute ...

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