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Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 8 Comments

“Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.” This is a quote from Emily Hanford’s September, 2018 podcast and article published in APMreports by American Public Media. Her piece highlights the lack of teacher knowledge about science-based reading instruction, due in part from not being taught reading science in teacher preparation schools, and in part from incorrect beliefs about how children learn to read.

Not long after the APM report, the New York Times published a related opinion piece by Hanford in October. Both pieces caught my attention and created a stir across social media in the literacy education community. There is much of what Hanford says that I agree with, and it is refreshing to see the spotlight shine on the problem of teachers not knowing (or choosing to not use) what we know from science about how to teach children to read.

Here are some quotes from Hanford’s APM and New York Times pieces:

“The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk. But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain isn’t wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters – phonics. …But this research hasn’t made its way into many elementary school classrooms.”

“The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again.”

“Our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn. It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level. How do we know that a big part of the problem is how children are being taught? Because reading researchers have done studies in classrooms and clinics, and they’ve shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science.”

Hanford points out that many teachers describe their approach to reading instruction as “balanced literacy” which basically means “give kids lots of good books, and with some guidance and enough practice, they become readers.”

The Problem Starts With Colleges and Universities

Hanford explains that many teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it. Referencing a 2016 published article in the Journal of Childhood & Developmental Disorders Hanford says that faculty at some schools of education have ignored the scientific knowledge that informs reading acquisition, and the pre-service teachers who are being educated at these institutions fail to receive the training they need. She also references a study completed in 2016 by the National Council on Teacher Quality that reviewed the syllabi of teacher preparation programs across the country and found that only 39 percent of them appeared to be teaching the components of effective reading instruction.

Explicit Phonics Instruction is Not Enough

We know that children who do not learn phonics and develop fluent decoding skills will never be good readers. We also know that, while some children need more explicit instruction and guided practice to master these skills than others, all children benefit from phonics instruction. But phonics instruction alone is not sufficient to develop readers who can comprehend what they are reading. Hanford agrees that children also need explicit instruction in vocabulary and comprehension strategies, including exposure to quality text.

Kathleen Mikulka wrote a piece in the Hechinger Report in October in response to Hanford addressing this issue saying, “Phonics instruction that is all worksheets all the time and those little decodable books is boring. All picture books all the time is great fun, but students are being shortchanged without the phonics piece. Balanced literacy has come to mean a whole language approach with a little bit of phonics presented “as necessary.” Since balanced literacy means different things to different people, we need to come up with an alternative name that encompasses the best of both worlds. This new program should be reading instruction, including systematic and explicit phonics, read aloud, guided reading, and free-choice reading.” 

Effective Use of Reading Blocks

In a recent blog post (January, 2019) titled Why aren’t American reading scores higher? Tim Shanahan makes some spot-on comments that should be considered when thinking about the Hanford pieces.

Shanahan says, “We simply don’t spend enough time on those things that make a difference in making kids proficient. Most American elementary schools these days pride themselves on their 90 minute reading blocks… but much of that time gets devoted to things that do little to promote children’s reading ability:  the kids are supposedly reading on their own or doing keep-busy-but-keep-quiet sheets while the teachers are working with other kids. I’d love it if instead of a 90-minute block, we’d commit to providing 90 minutes of teaching and guided practice to each child each day.  This instructional time should be devoted to explicit teaching and guided practice aimed at developing knowledge of words (including phonemic awareness, phonics, letter names, spelling, morphology, vocabulary); oral reading fluency; reading comprehension; and writing. “

He ends his piece with this quote:

“If we want more of our kids to be reading proficiently at the levels needed in the 21st century, it will take a lot of dedicated teaching of the key things that matter in learning.”

Hanford has reminded us that one of those key things that really matter is instruction that is based on reading science!

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Debbie

    What strategies, websites, and books do you recommend for a adhd rising 7th grade boy that has always struggled with phonics and reading comprehension- especially in inference situations. I typically read a page to him and he reads a page for about 15 minutes a night.

    • Joan Sedita

      Debbie, You should visit the Reading Rockets website ( and the website ( where you will find a wealth of information for parents (and teachers) about resources, programs, etc. for helping students who struggle with reading skills. Joan

  2. Ann Woloschak

    Phonics WAS taught until the late 1980’s-early 1990s. Many educators tried to tell “the powers that be” that getting rid of phonics was not a good idea, but they were jeered and ridiculed to the point that if you said the word “phonics”, you were anathema! Now, we find-surprise! surprise! that these experienced educators were right!!!! You can NOT blame this generation of educators for resisting phonics! It is what they were vigorously taught in teacher prep programs!

    I agree that we need to get the word out that phonics is best educational practice for reading instruction! This should be a lesson to the powers that be. Unfortunately, I doubt that will happen!

    • Corrie McGee

      I’m very late to this article – But THANK YOU Ann! I thought I had made my primary school up- I knew we did phonics! (80s) Bless you teachers that resisted. When my own children went to school as readers and came back toting a ring of words, I was shocked. In my time, those would have been spelling and vocabulary words-Sight Words? Absolutely crazy- You just throw words on the wall like spaghetti and see if they stick-

  3. nelda reyes

    Amen to this article! Brilliantly and simply written to relay exactly what I try to tell everyone that I come across. Thanks for writing what I’ve suspected all along. Now, what do we do about it? I myself have tried to set up meetings with the people in charge at the college level and district level, But people in those positions know nothing about literacy and only know about leadership which in my opinion get us no where. The Universities are turning around individuals with their Masters and PHD’s that can’t lead the schools into literacy.

  4. Stella

    I mentor a lot of new teachers who are coming with little understanding of the literacy block. What would you recommend to these teachers to help them be less afraid to teach Reading?

    • Joan Sedita

      Stella, For many teachers who are not sure of how to plan a literacy block, the problem is that they don’t have sufficient background knowledge about science-based best-practices for teaching all of the beginning reading components to young students, including: oral language, vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, text structure, and comprehension. A good survey course that fills in this knowledge is an important starting point. Planning a literacy block is all about figuring out how much time will be devoted to addressing all of these components.

  5. Ray

    I am a K-2 Dual Language Educator in Alaska…90 minutes of ELA is NOT enough!!!!



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