How love became a weapon in the reading wars

How love became a weapon in the reading wars

When I read almost any article about education, I cannot help but be struck by the language that is used—and not used—to discuss the goals of schooling. Teachers, for example, are almost invariably described as teaching students to love reading, or to get excited about reading—not to actually read, or to read well, or to become more reflective or thoughtful readers. The emphasis is squarely on the emotion surrounding reading rather than on the act of reading itself, or on the intellectual development it entails.

It seems to me that this has become such an accepted way to speak about education that its presumable implication—that obviously, yes, loving to read involves being able to read, and that teachers should convey such overwhelming enthusiasm for books that children will fall in love with them as well—is taken for granted.

I think, however, that the precise wording of the statement is actually quite significant. In fact, I would argue that it should be taken both seriously and literally. Understood this way, it points to a fundamental gap in the way different groups (roughly corresponding to Balanced vs. Structured Literacy) conceive of the purpose of reading instruction, and that in turns shapes the two sides’ beliefs about what classroom practices and pedagogies are deemed acceptable.

Now, as a voracious, compulsive reader since the age of seven, I can easily testify to the transporting, mind-opening, utterly addictive capacities of the printed word. I’m the person who got sent to the principal’s office in elementary school for reading in class when I wasn’t supposed to—more than once. Love of reading is not a thereoretical concept for me. What I would like to do here, however, is make a distinction between love as a desirable outcome of instruction, and love as its primary, overriding aim.

In a post on the Right to Read Project, Margaret Goldberg points out that a love of reading is not something that can actually be taught, particularly when children are struggling with the most basic aspects of the task; rather, they must be taught to crack the code of reading so that they can begin to experience reading as a source of pleasure. As Goldberg points out, “[e]nthusiasm is a part of good teaching, but communicating a love of books isn’t the same thing as teaching reading.”

Essentially, the standard narrative gets things exactly backwards: it is assumed that children must “discover” how to read and be taught to love, whereas in reality children must be taught to read so that they can discover a love of reading on their own.

So allow me to make a radical proposition: The point of reading instruction is not to teach children to love reading. The point of reading instruction is to teach children to read. 

Far too often (although by no means always), adult discussions of early reading instruction are framed in terms of whether children will be able to have the experience of losing themselves deeply in a good book. But although reading can involve great enjoyment, the consequences of knowing how to make sense out of marks on a page extend far beyond the ability to devour, say, Harry Potter. A child who cannot read below a basic level will almost certainly become an adult who struggles to decipher things like the instructions on a medication bottle, or articles in a newspaper written above a tabloid level.

In a brilliant piece about the smugness and condescension that often accompany pronouncements about the necessity that children be taught to love reading, the Australian reading specialist Lyn Stone discusses the distinction between reading for pleasure vs. reading as a life skill:

Make no mistake, being literate is an essential part of being able to function in a complex society. But a love of reading is a personal thing, not a quality of life deal-breaker. Parents all over the globe fret about their children reading for pleasure because of this fallacy. For goodness sake, relax. Literacy and love of literature are two completely different things. The former is essential and the latter is personal.

Not every child is going to love reading, just as not every child is going to love sports, or science, or art, and there is something rather odd about a system so fixated on dictating children’s emotional response to a fundamental life skill.

What I find most worrisome, however, is the way in which the insistence on love and excitement has been weaponized as a means to block the use of teaching methods that would almost certainly result in millions more children learning to read.

To question the assumptions that have undergirded American education in the century since William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia Teachers College proposed his “project method” is to invite accusations of rigidity, of coldheartedness, of destroying a love of reading, of not caring about children as unique individuals, etc. And make no mistake, these are powerful and entrenched beliefs. The notion that progressive ends in the long term might involve less-than-progressive means in the short term is largely not entertained.

As E.D. Hirsch explains in The Knowledge Deficit:

The dominant ideas in American education are virtually unchallenged within the educational community. American educational expertise (which is not the same as educational expertise in nations that perform better than we do) has a monolithic character in which dissent is stifled…At the beginning of the twentieth century century, the parent organism, Teachers College at Columbia University, exported professors and [romantic principles], resulting in an intellectual sameness across the nation’s education schools. Even today, criticism of of those fundamental ideas is hard to find in these institutions.” 

And in Leaving Johnny Behind, Anthony Pedriana points out that between the mid-1930s, when the last strictly phonics reader went out of print, and 1955, when Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, any serious questioning of romantic conceptions of education was for all intents and purposes absent:

While many continued to debate issues pertinent to early reading training during this time, I find it interesting that this progressive period did not precipitate the kind of ideological confrontations we saw when [Horace] Mann first proposed his ideas. Perhaps it occurred so gradually that most educators were oblivious to its evolution. But another explanation might lie in the fact that the constructs of progressivism were difficult to oppose. Those who had the temerity to confront them ran the risk of being characterized as sort of anti-child-centric or anti-meaning-based thug.

Particularly in the 1945-55 period, the lack of challenge to these ideas is not at all surprising. During the post-war years, there was a concerted campaign to define American culture as open, tolerant, and forward-thinking, in opposition to the Communist menace. In this context, the “rigid,” systematic teaching of sound-letter correspondences could easily be construed as a threat to liberty and democracy themselves.

What Does It Mean to Be “Child-Centered”? 

Because the whole language/balanced literacy side has claimed the mantle of child-centeredness, the phonics camp is automatically placed on the defensive. It must bend over backwards to convince people that no, teaching children sound-letter relationships can be done kindly; and that explicit, systematic instruction will not permanently obliterate their love of reading or their ability to think critically and independently.

In that context, “child-centered” is employed as a euphemism that that serves to allow all sorts of harmful pedagogical practices to proceed unchecked (although in fairness, many practitioners are unaware that they are harmful), and that acts as a buffer against criticism.

As I wrote about in a recent post, the original impetus for child-friendly teaching methods was well justified—the Dickensian schoolmasters of the nineteenth century did in fact browbeat their young charges, subject them to hours of drudging repetition, and punish them harshly when they failed to comply. It would be hard to fault the progressive reformers of the early twentieth century for doing their best to stamp out such methods. The problem is that long after this type of teaching had disappeared, it continued to be held up as a shield for deflecting legitimate questions about the effectiveness of practices that result in millions of children being unable to decode texts beyond a basic level. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around a fifth of the American population, or 65 million people, is now functionally illiterate.)

What began as a legitimate and necessary grievance became a knee-jerk response to an outdated reality, and then finally a weapon for a defending methods that can be just as harmful as anything dreamed up by a nineteenth-century pedagogue. Anxiety, low self-esteem, shame, self-loathing, delinquency… Children who insist that they are stupid and incapable of learning, who hide in the back of the classroom, who become disruptive or develop stomach pains that send them to the nurse’s office, anything to avoid reading in front of their classmates. The emotional, social, and ultimately economic consequences are devastating and long lasting.

It should go without saying that these are not outcomes that a system based on children’s genuine needs would produce. But “child-centered” has in effect become code for practices designed to provide easy and immediate gratification; that fail to distinguish between short-term amusement and long-term aims; and that indulge the belief that learning should always be easy and fun. Essentially, this is education as fantasy. As Pedriana puts it, “if we wish to honor children’s lifelong needs, we need to let them know that, when it comes to achieving at high levels, the operational words are practice, practice, practice… How can we expect children to develop this kind of discipline…if we never put forth this expectation?”

To be clear, this is not about arguing that kindergartners should spend hours sitting at desks, or in front of computers, doing worksheets. That’s far from appropriate either. It is, however, about the avoidance of any activity not believed to provoke joy and excitement as the immediate goal. Whether the classroom activities that actually occur do in fact create joy and excitement—never mind actual reading ability—is beside the point, as is the question of whether purportedly non-child-centered activities actually lead to boredom and lack of engagement. What matters is that explicit, systematic instruction is held to destroy a love of learning in theory.

It also does not help when teachers do their best to sabotage a structured program in order to “prove” its lack of effectiveness, as occurred at Pedriana’s school. If teachers go out of their way to present material in an unengaging way, or refuse to try to understand the logic behind a sequenced approach, then obviously even the most rigorously designed program will produce less than stellar results.

This is not to imply that teachers do not genuinely want children to learn to read; however, a serious problem arises when received ideas about teaching come into conflict with instructional methods directly opposed to those ideas. Unfortunately, there is often no practical way to reconcile those two things without sacrificing effectiveness of instruction. The assertion that “Yes, of course—of course—we want children to learn to read” is accompanied by a tacit, “But only as long as the methods used are consistent with our notions about learning.”

In an attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance, this often leads to earnest pronouncements about every reading program having some value, or about the necessity of every teacher “doing what’s best for them.” But behind these anodyne statements lurks a threat: “If we cannot teach in a manner consistent with our principles, then we will change the definition of what it means to read.” Or even: “Rather than teach children in a way that we believe destroys a love of reading, we would rather that some children not learn to read.”

A big part of the issue here is that when children are five or six, the gap between grade-level performance and “a little behind” is often less stark than it becomes later on. For many teachers who work with the youngest readers, the long-term consequences of ineffective instruction are mostly an abstraction. They do not see middle- or high-schoolers who continue to read largely by guessing, who lack the tools to decode more advanced vocabulary, and who are convinced that they are stupid or deficient because they are unable to do things that their classmates learned long ago. For teachers who do not observe these things firsthand, critiques of Balanced Literacy may consequently seem ungrounded, or unfair, or “biased.”

When I told fellow blog contributor Valerie Mitchell that I was writing this piece, she commented to me that the insistence on children’s learning to love to read often has something of a slightly manic, obsessive quality, almost as if it were coming from a jilted lover. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but it seemed like she might be onto something. I’ve been turning the reaons for this over in my mind, and the best explanation I can come up with is that progressive educational theory is largely based on the primacy of intrinsic motivation.

Essentially, learning that is internally motivated is held to be “authentic,” while learning that is externally motivated is less real. So if children do not love reading, then their reading cannot truly result in learning, or their learning will not be genuine.

Consequently, a teacher’s job is not to instruct students directly, but rather to inspire them so that they will be motivated to teach themselves. Because text is the source of so much knowledge, a love of reading is the best way to ensure that students can naturally be their own teachers.

If students do not love to read, however, then they will not be inspired to teach themselves, and teachers will have no choice but to motivate them externally. Thus, the whole instructional model is jeopardized.

This is where theory meets reality and comes up short—hence the tendency to double-down on it.

Among the many problems with this kind of thinking is that it confuses cause and effect. The assumption is that if children are “taught” to love reading, then they will be able to read. But in fact, the reality is just the opposite: kids (people, actually) generally only love doing things when they are able to do them. It is unfair—cruel, in fact—to withold essential instruction from children and then insist that they enjoy an activity when they struggle with it. When children later discover what they have not been taught, some of them are downright furious. (As one of Richard McManus’s students hissed upon being taught letter-sound relationship for the first time, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”)

To be perfectly fair, many highly effective instructional materials for teaching reading are not exactly thrilling fare for adults. And yes, teaching to mastery involves a lot of repetition because that’s how people learn things. But to worry about what’s interesting for adults is to miss the point: being a teacher means putting one’s own immediate, grown-up interests aside and figuring out how to engage students while giving them what they actually need. In the long run, it does no one any favors for children to get the message that even modest, eminently surmountable struggles are something to be avoided.

As Margaret Goldberg put it, albeit in a slightly different context, “it’s not enough to mean well.” And that, for me, is what it comes down to. It is insufficient for the educational community to crouch behind a wall of good intentions, insisting that because we only want children to love reading, we cannot be held accountable. Love can go awry in all sorts of ways, and the intentions do not make the consequences any less devastating. In the 1950s, at least, the neural processes that underlay the reading process were still largely a mystery; today, while there are still aspects of reading that are not fully understood, the fundamentals have been well established for many decades. To use love as an excuse for willful ignorance is, well, inexcusable.

The Three-Cueing System and the Most Disordered Form of Reading

The Three-Cueing System and the Most Disordered Form of Reading

As I’ve written about before, what launched me onto this whole insane journey into the seamy underbelly of American reading instruction was my observation of high-school students who seemed incapable of reading in a linear, left-right manner; whose eyes raced randomly around the passage; and who also misread, skipped, and guessed without seeming to realize that they were doing so. So even though I’ve touched on this topic before, it’s so severe and so under-recognized that I think it merits a discussion of its own.

Students who read this way are not simply “struggling”—they have been taught to read according to a theory that fundamentally misconstrues what reading is, and as a result, the manner in which they process text may be so fragmented and incoherent that it cannot fully be called “reading” in the normal sense of the word.

Back in 2009, and for a long time after, I could not begin to fathom what sort of instruction could produce this type of bizarrely scattered approach to text. If not for a semi-chance encounter almost a decade later, at a conference that I almost didn’t attend, I might never have understood its origins in the three-cueing system at all. I also encountered other reports of it so rarely that there were moments when I began to question whether I’d just imagined the whole thing—despite the fact that I’d witnessed it repeatedly for years. It felt a bit like I was gaslighting myself.

So it was with a shock that I read the following passage in a piece by Lyn Stone, a private reading tutor in Australia. Discussing her re-remediation of children who had already gone through the Reading Recovery program (used for several decades in Australian schools and still used in some districts in the US), Stone describes the hallmarks of these students’ reading:

When actually reading a text and coming across an unfamiliar word, their eyes would leave the word and start scanning around, again, looking for a picture clue. When they weren’t doing this wild, panic-stricken scanning, they would sometimes blurt out a word that began with the same letter as the unfamiliar word and carry on reading. 

This is a precise description of how some of my former SAT and ACT students read—teenagers without learning disabilities, from affluent families, attending good schools, and earning good grades. Although they were years past reading picture books, the habit of moving their eyes away from the words in order to search for clues was so automatic that they were unaware that they were doing it, or that there might be any other way go about things. To them, “panic-stricken scanning” was reading.

As I read further, I also couldn’t help but be struck by Stone’s description of her reaction to observing her first Reading Recovery lesson, conducted by a friend. It conveys the same astonishment, the same disorienting sense of could something this fundamentally wrong actually be happening? that I experienced upon learning that children were being taught to read by looking away from the words:

[I] sat there in shock and surprise. As part of my job as a mentor at Lindamood Bell Learning Processes, I would sit back and evaluate other clinicians, so I was used to novices making rookie mistakes. That is not what this was.

I myself have had observers suggest a slightly different approach for a problem encountered by a student and I have embraced that approach with success; a need for tweaking you might say. That is not what this was.

It was quite evident that my friend had spent many hours practising the elements in the lesson. She was no rookie. She delivered clear and precise instructions with confidence and ease. Her pacing was flawless, her manner was perfect, her equipment was organized and on hand and she really did come across as a seasoned professional. She and [the student] had an excellent rapport and she genuinely cared about him and treated him with gentle deference at all times.

But for the first time in my career, I spent my observation time holding myself back from screaming, “What are you doing?! How is that going to help this child? What on Earth are you doing?”

I have not reacted so strongly to any teaching I’ve witnessed, before or since (except other Reading Recovery sessions on YouTube).

Stone then recounts how the student, upon misreading a word was repeatedly instructed to look at the first letter of a word, then to think about “what would make sense” based on a picture cue, and then to “look for little words in the big word”—a classic three-cueing/Balanced Literacy technique. At no point did her colleague acknowledge that the student was unable to perceive the difference between the sounds the letters made and what he was saying nor, when asked, could she recognize why drawing his attention to the sequence of sounds or helping him to articulate them might be important. Eventually, she told him the word and moved on, apparently without noticing that he had learned nothing.

It’s clear that the experience haunted Stone, and I found the piece haunting as well: I’ve likewise found myself in situations where I witnessed students be subject to poor instruction but was not in a position to comment, and I had to muster all my self-restraint not to intervene.

Whenever I try to convey the ongoing experience of discovering the myriad levels of euphemism and absurdity in which American reading instruction is couched, I find myself repeatedly resorting to the metaphor of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole and into a world where everything is topsy-turvy and everyone a bit mad.

When a system is so deeply mired in dysfunction, pathological behaviors can become normalized to the point where they are no longer recognizable as such. Indeed, they may even be celebrated. I mean this very literally, by the way. A  2014 edition of the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Program Guide (which presumably has been updated in light of Lucy Calkins’s “discovery” of phonics) states that “we should celebrate” when a child substitutes “words that make sense and sound like they would in a book.”

Furthermore, the insistence on having children “cross-check” unknown words according to first letters, pictures, and other contextual information struck me as particularly evocative. In fact, that is the precise description—prescription, in fact—for what students are doing when their eyes zig-zag wildly across the page.

So there, on pages 16-19, eleven years after the fact, I finally arrived at the very root of the strangest reading I had ever encountered.

Given the devotion to Calkins’s work in many NYC-area schools, I would bet a considerable amount that every one of my students who read this way had gone through some version of Reader’s Workshop. It is difficult not to conclude that in some classrooms, children’s eyes bouncing wildly across the page is not only viewed as unproblematic but is actively encouraged.

Not coincidentally, the Guide cites Marie Clay, the developer of Reading Recovery; it also references Ken Goodman, originator of the debunked “reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game” theory (1967). Coming across these names in a contemporary document issued by an Ivy League university is… so bizarre it’s almost funny. Goodman’s hypothesis was debunked by Keith Stanovich in the 1970s (a finding that was confirmed many times after that; see linked Stanovich article for further references). Yet here is Lucy Calkins and her band of merry three-cuers, smugly and willfully oblivious to that fact. Reading their work is kind of like peering into a parallel reality: one that operates according to its own reasonably coherent logic but that also happens to be divorced from how reading actually works.

Based on the tens of thousands of people who have joined social-media groups devoted to research-backed instruction, many teachers clearly sense that something is deeply amiss with the way they were(n’t) taught to teach reading; however, surrounded by people who believe otherwise, they have until very recently managed to convince themselves that the problem was on their end. If you fall into this category, I say: it’s not you, and it never was. If you think that students are being taught in a way that encourages them to develop reading problems, then that’s probably exactly what you’re seeing.

The three-cueing system grows up

The three-cueing system grows up

In a post written back in March, Valerie Mitchell posed the question of why teachers of native English speakers are increasingly adopting classroom activities designed for ESL students. As she pointed out, the fixation on scaffolds in the form of “visuals, vocabulary aids, graphic organizers, etc.” does not make much sense. For native speakers, the point of English class is (presumably) to help them express increasingly complex ideas in more sophisticated ways, not to teach them basic vocabulary in a language they have been surrounded by since birth.

I had no idea that this was such a widespread phenomenon until I read her piece, but once it was called to my attention, I realized that the increasing focus on images could only be the result of the three/multi-cueing approach to reading so often emphasized in the early grades. When children are taught to “read” by looking at pictures cues and guessing what the words say, they grow up into teenagers who “read” by looking at pictures and not paying very much attention to text. Then, because middle- and high-school teachers have little idea of why their students struggle so much with text, and even less of an idea how to remediate the problem, they gladly latch onto any solution that gets students engaged. I suspect that this why graphic novels are becoming such a staple in English classes.

To be fair, this is entirely understandable. After all, teachers are obligated to work with the students they have in front of them, at the level they’re at. And most secondary-level teachers probably cannot even begin to imagine the way many of their students learned (or rather didn’t learn) to read. If the choice is between having students learn something vs. nothing, then the decision to focus on material that’s manageable for students is obvious. The problem goes far, far beyond what any one individual teacher could possibly remedy.

It took an incident a few weeks ago to make me fully aware of the extent to which this is now accepted as a normal state of affairs, though. I was trawling the internet when I came across a Masters thesis on the benefits of using “sophisticated picturebooks” in secondary-school English classes. (Incidentally, this was a Canadian thesis—let me point out that the use of cueing methods is a problem not restricted to the U.S.) Remarkably, the writer devoted almost no space to discussing how actual teenagers perceive or experience the use of such books in class, nor did she investigate any outcomes of their use as a pedagogical tool—the entire focus of the paper was on her personal belief in their importance, and how they might be used.

As the writer put it: “[I]f given a structured strategy with which to analyze images (such as picturebooks), [secondary-school] students will be capable of understanding how pictures provide information in stories.”

Aside from the fact that it is difficult to imagine a normally functioning teenager who has difficulty grasping how images are used to support text, what struck me most was the matter-of-fact way in which the writer accepted picture-based books as an appropriate compensation tool for poor reading skills—there was no evident recognition of, or discomfort about, the fact that a teenager who is so heavily reliant on pictures to “read” is functionally illiterate. The notion that such a student might require intensive remediation as opposed to a band-aid designed to minimize the severity of the problem was absent.

For the record, this is not a question of whether the works discussed in the thesis have aesthetic/entertainment value in and of themselves—this is about adolescents whose reading skills are so stunted that they are forced to rely on images for meaning. An eager pre-service teacher can (almost) be forgiven, however. The real fault lies with the advisors who willingly supervise this type of work; to the universities who permit diplomas to be handed out with their imprimaturs; and to the districts that would hire a person with such distorted pedagogical beliefs and place them in a classroom with struggling students whose real needs they are not even remotely qualified to address.

That’s part one.

The second part involves The New York Times Learning Network.

As someone who’s been involved in the world of education for well over a decade, I’ve been in the habit of checking the Learning Section periodically for a good while now, and I find it impossible not to notice how its focus is increasingly drifting away from exercises involving text and onto ones involving graphics. (As if to prove my point, a recent headline was entitled “144 Picture Prompts to Inspire Student Writing.”)

The Times does also still include article-based activities, but given that this is a major newspaper of record, I think it’s instructive to examine the move towards images because it serves as something of a reflection of/bellwether for general trends in education.

Now obviously, adolescents do live in a socia-media saturated environment, and they are inundated with videos, photos, graphics, advertisements, etc. virtually non-stop. So yes, it is reasonable to try to engage them with images (although whether the NYT can seriously compete with, say, TikTok is another issue). And given the primacy of images in teenagers’ lives, it is important that middle- and high-school students be given the tools to analyze them critically. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1986, school should be a place where students learn to step back and study the “frame” through which information is presented to them.

But that is not what’s going on here.

Given the state of American reading instruction, I think that it is important to ask whether the shift away from text is driven in part by the fact that students struggle to work with words—because of poor decoding skills, lack of background knowledge, inability to pay attention, or (most likely) a combination of the three. And nowhere are the consequences of this change exemplified more clearly than in the series called “What’s Going on in This Picture?” moderated by a group called Visual Thinking Strategies. 

(A “What’s Going on in this Graph?” feature was recently added as well, but I’m not going to get into that here.)

Aimed at middle- and high-school students, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: students look at a picture of an activity or event—sometimes fairly mundane, sometimes outlandish—and use “evidence” (that is, details from the image) to guess what might be going on.

The point of the exercise is not to help teens understand/analyze how images are constructed or how they convey an idea/promote a message; nor is it even to introduce them to a topic for further investigation. No, the sole aim is for them to figure out what’s happening.

The student responses left in the comments section are usually something along the lines of, “I observe that there a bunch of people looking at something interesting in the sky. I hypothesize that they are doing some kind of project for school. Based on the writing on the sign, I believe that this is happening in a foreign country.” Occasionally, a moderator might intercede and “interpret” a response so as to pretend that something insightful was said.

This is essentially the three-cueing system pushed to its most extreme point: the graphophonemic (letter-based) aspect has been subordinated virtually to the point of elimination. The caption from the article that the image originally accompanied is provided the following day so that students can check their guesses—but really, how many of them are going to bother to follow up?

In short, it is the emptiest exercise imaginable, made even more absurd by the pretense that it is a critical-thinking exercise in “using evidence.” (Call it Common Core meets the three-cueing system.) But this type of thinking distorts what evidence is, and how it works in the real world—in theory, at least.

As I think the term is generally understood, “evidence” is information that is used to support an argument. And technically, yes, students are being asked to make an argument here, namely that the photograph depicts a particular occurrence.

The problem, however, is that at the most literal level, the scene captured in the image is not open to argument—it does depict a particular group of individuals participating in a given situation at a particular time and in a particular place. The purpose of a caption—text—is to convey that information.

In the real world, highly specific journalism-based photographs like these are always accompanied by words—without that context, there would be no way to fully make sense out of the images. There are no generic strategies (e.g., noticing details) that can compensate for the missing knowledge that the text provides.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you need fifty or so just to get what’s going on.

I mean, can you imagine the Times running a page of photographs, unaccompanied by text, for its adult readers and encouraging them to “use evidence” to guess at what they were seeing?

Probably not, because that wouldn’t happen.

Inadvertently or not, what an exercise like this does is give the impression that basic reality is something open to interpretation. It teaches students to focus on their own, often weakly supported or outright incoherent, hypotheses at the expense of reliable sources of information. Moreover, if the exercise is done in a classroom, students will more likely remember their peers’ faulty guesses than the reality. As a rule, whatever gets presented first tends to stick—a phenomenon known as “anchoring bias”—and overriding students’ misconceptions is harder than teaching them things accurately from scratch.

Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, words serve to convey complex and abstract ideas in a way that images simply cannot. Pictures cannot be used to analyze flaws in an argument or make concessions, or discuss nuances in ideas, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

This is essentially the teenage equivalent of “making meaning.” Just as Ken Goodman’s “Reading Is a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” theory gave rise to a concept of reading in which children’s personal conceptions of what might be going on in a story were valued above the actual words on the page, so this type of activity gives teenagers the message that their personal interpretation of an image takes precedence over what it actually depicts.

And in these times, that is a very dangerous thing.

What do teachers really need to know about the science of reading?

What do teachers really need to know about the science of reading?

The more time I spend trying to wrap my head around the world of early-reading instruction, the more I find myself becoming wary of the notion that teachers should devote a lot of their time to learning about the science of reading. I realize that might seem like a bizarre and contradictory statement given that so many of the problems in reading instruction stem from ed schools’ failure to provide research-backed training to pre-service teachers, so let me explain.

I had already started writing this piece when I discovered that Mark Seidenberg (author of Language at the Speed of Sight), along with several colleagues, recently co-wrote a paper about this exact topic. Unsurprisingly, they do an excellent job of identifying and clarifying some of the major issues at play. As the authors point out, science can act as a general guide to effective practices in reading instruction, but it cannot actually dictate curricular specifics. Or, as they put it, “reading science is an active, ongoing endeavor, not a canon of findings. Overreliance on simplified accounts of science risks reifying it into precepts that do not incorporate much of what the science has to offer.”

I’m going to back away from that idea for a moment, though, and begin with the idea that much of American education is based on top-down notions of conceptual understanding and application—that is, the idea that once students have grasped a general concept, they will then be able to then be able to apply it in a wide variety of situations more or less automatically. I think that this type of assumption now underpins a lot of discussions about teacher-training and the science of reading.

Unfortunately, this is often not how things work: A student may demonstrate excellent theoretical understanding of a concept but then be unable to apply it in an unfamiliar situation, or even recognize when it is relevant. Presenting teachers with a mass of scientific findings about how reading works, and then expecting them to easily translate those findings into concrete methods for getting a group of squirming five- and six-year-olds to make sense out of lines on a page, without a coherent curriculum (and often in situations where they are required to use a very incoherent curriculum), is both profoundly unfair and wildly unrealistic.

Learning to read isn’t natural, and learning to teach reading isn’t particularly natural either. There are many things that skilled adult readers take for granted that beginning readers do not, and learning how to explain and sequence concepts in a way that doesn’t inadvertently cause confusion is an ongoing process.

This is not to suggest that teachers shouldn’t learn about the science of reading. In fact, I would argue that it’s tantamount to educational malpractice that ed schools don’t require a class in it. (In a rational system, teachers would not be responsible for educating themselves, and the fact that they have little choice but to do so speaks to a deep level of systemic dysfunction.) Reading science is also a fascinating subject, and a skilled teacher who really takes the time to understand certain research may in fact be able to devise more effective methods based on it.

But what teachers really need to learn is how to most effectively teach the greatest number of children to read, as quickly and painlessly as possible. And that is not the same as knowing the science.  

As Seidenberg et al. explain, the world of reading instruction is facing what is essentially a translation problem:

Reading science does not come with educational prescriptions attached. Science is one kind of thing (empirical findings, explanatory theories). Educational practice is another (activities that promote learning in realworld settings). Connecting the two is the function of translational research…Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how and for whom at a level that is useful for a teacher.

I’ve now spent a fair amount of time observing how the science of reading gets discussed on social media, and one of the most recurring questions is, “Is method x aligned with the science of reading,” or, “Does SoR approve of this teaching technique?” These types of questions, while obviously asked with the best of intentions, nevertheless reveal some fundamental misunderstandings about how academic science works, and about how it differs from the kinds of models that dominate in the K-12 education world.

The fact that so many teachers do not become aware of these differences during their training highlights the divide (chasm, really) between schools of education and the mainstream academic world; however, I suspect that some of the blame for this also rests with Common Core.

Since the Standards were implemented in 2010, they have profoundly reshaped the ways in which curriculums are conceived of and described, and what purposes they serve. Teachers are expected to constantly demonstrate how classroom activities are “aligned with” particular standards, and because that approach is so entrenched, it now appears to be the lens through which the science of reading is understood.

The problem is that unlike Common Core—a limited set of vague prescriptions written quickly by a small number of individuals with limited knowledge of K-12 schooling and legally prohibited from being altered—the science of reading is a massive, dense, and unwieldy body of research, much of it still inconclusive, carried out by hundreds of scholars at dozens of institutions over many decades, and primarily published as articles in scientific journals, for the consumption of other academics.

Occasionally there might be a book that breaks out into more mainstream popularity, such as Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight or Maryanne Wolfe’s Proust and the Squid, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

So to be clear: there is no governing body or committee tasked with putting an official “Science of Reading” stamp on phonics/literacy programs to indicate that they are “in alignment” with the research.

Using a program that’s been slapped with a stamp saying “Science of Reading approved” is not even what this is fundamentally about; it’s a different model, a different mindset entirely.

In an earlier blog post dealing with Lucy Calkins’s sudden (and highly suspicious) foray into teaching phonics, Mark Seidenberg voiced his concern that the “science of reading” label would not only get watered down to the point of meaninglessness, but actually be used to support the kinds of damaging practices that currently prevail in so many classrooms:

[Lucy] Calkins derides the 3-cueing approach but the concept is deeply embedded in her erroneous view of how reading works and children learn, as her document confirms.

It’s obvious that other curriculum publishers and authors will follow Dr. Calkins’ lead in claiming that their products are compatible with the science of reading. For a while now there has been pressure to show that the materials are “evidence-based,” but the term has little meaning because educators have their own concept of what counts as evidence. Soon they will all claim to be consistent with the “science of reading” and it will be equally meaningless unless people look beyond the label at the assumptions about reading and learning the materials incorporate and the methods they employ.

And in the more recent post:

In the absence of sufficient translational research, almost every reading curriculum can claim an equally loose connection to the “science of reading.” The risk of course is that such programs will prove ineffective, not because the basic science was wrong but because the translation was poor.

Given how the educational publishing industry works, this is a very valid concern. Most teachers do not have the time or the inclination to wade through a thicket of scientific terminology in search of a paragraph or even just a few sentences that just might have some application to their work in the classroom. And districts and administrators will inevitably come to rely on publishers’ labels as a convenient shorthand, regardless of their accuracy.

The problem is that to be truly effective, a phonics program must be part of a true structured literacy program and not be combined with practices that undermine it, for the sake of familiarity or convenience or adminstrative preference. A curriculum cannot on one hand contain some explicit, systematic phonics instruction but then also include sight-word lists with words that can be easily sounded out, and/or leveled readers with spelling patterns students have not yet learned (thus encouraging guessing). All the pieces must be based on the same conception of what reading consists of and how it develops, and be used to complement one another.

So how can such an immense body of research be translated into tools for practical classroom use, in a way that isn’t completely overwhelming? The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham offers a potential way out of this dilemma:

Theory is unavoidable, but…theories make untested (and likely, inaccurate) predictions, which invite ineffective classroom applications. The problem might be solved by teaching empirical generalizations in the context of a model that affords few novel predictions. In other words, it should be the sort of model [that] would be of little interest to scientists. It should account for empirical generalizations that scientists consider central to the field, the findings that would prompt a researcher to say, “well yes, of course.” And the model should predict nothing else.

To some extent, this is already the case; Seidenberg points out that what teachers generally refer to as “the science of reading” in fact only involves a small number of the most established, uncontroversial models. His concern is that because of the nature of the education system and edu-publishing industry, even that kind of narrow focus will be insufficient to prevent misinterpretation of key findings.

That brings me to back to the idea that the label and the knowledge of scientific terminology are not really the point. Provided that an instructor understands—not just gives lip service to, but really fully embraces—a handful of fundamental principles that are consistent with key research findings, it is entirely possible to teach reading effectively without ever learning formal terms like phonological awareness or orthographic mapping.

While arming oneself with the science is obviously necessary when trying persuade skeptical administrators to adopt a structured literacy program, allow me to point out that somehow, children learned to read phonetically for several centuries before the nineteenth-century education reformer Horace Mann deemed letters “bloodless, ghastly apparitions” and ushered in the era of whole-word reading, and before researchers performed the first brain-imaging studies. And over the last few decades, countless parents without the slightest background in cognitive neuroscience have managed to teach their children to read using books like Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons (4.5 Amazon stars with 3841 reviews). Then there’s the Fluency Factory, where tutors with little scientific background regularly do remarkable things with beginning and struggling readers just by using an expertly designed, carefully sequenced program with great fidelity.

For the record, yes, there will always be children who experience truly severe difficulties in learning to read, and for them a higher level of expertise is required. But only a small percentage of children actually fall into that category. This is about the 80% or so of children who need some amount of explicit, systematic instruction, not the outliers.

So all that said, what are the most important concepts that reading instructors need to know? I would propose the following:

1) Letters and letter-combinations stand for sounds and are blended together to form words—essentially, words say what they say because they consist of specific letters written in specific patterns, in specific orders. Sound-letter correspondences must be explicitly taught, beginning with the simplest patterns and systematically moving to progressively more complex ones.

2) Children must be able to hear sounds correctly, and to distinguish between similar sounds (e.g., short “i” and short “e”), in order to consistently match them to letters.

3) Skilled reading derives from the ability to process words—and only words—on a page, in left-to right sequence. Memorizing, using picture cues, and making guesses based on “what would make sense” are not reading.

4) To be able to read with conversational intonation, students should be able to read at around 200 words per minute by late middle school or early high school. By third grade, they should be reading around 150 wpm. If children read too slowly, they will not be able to retain meaning or connect text to spoken language.

5) Learning to decoding phonetically is an immensely demanding cognitive task for many children, so asking a beginning reader to focus excessively on meaning will result in mental overload. As decoding ability increases, more attention can be paid to it.

All of these principles are based on reading science, but they are also practical concepts that form a bridge between the science and classroom methods.

In the hands of a skilled teacher, a program based on these principles is virtually guaranteed to be more effective for a greater number of children than the combination of incidental phonics instruction and leveled readers found in the average balanced literacy classroom. But to reiterate, the science—at least as it currently stands—cannot dictate the specifics of the implementation.

Now, in addition to the above points, there are certain pieces of knowledge and pedagogical skills that teachers must also possess. Some are related to the science, others less so, but they are all of immense practical importance.

On the knowledge side:

Individual sounds

Reading instructors must be able to correctly pronounce all 44 main English sounds, and to say consonant sounds without an unnecessary schwa (c-a-t rather than cuh-a-tuh). They must also be able to demonstrate subtle differences between similar sounds; recognize when students are having difficulty discriminating between them; and know how to explain/demonstrate the distinctions.

Pronunciation Patterns

English is filled with letters that make different sounds depending on the context in which they are used. For example, it is insufficient to teach only that “c” makes a /k/ sound; rather, children must learn that “c” also makes an /s/ sound when it is followed by “e,” “i,” or “y.”

Standard and non-standard spelling patterns

Many sounds, particularly long vowels, can be spelled many different ways, and teachers must ensure that all of the spellings are introduced. They should also be able to point out which patterns are common and which ones are less so.

Ability to analyze spelling to detect difficulties relating spellings and sounds, and to distinguish between sound-based misspelling and phonetic misspellings. 

A child who spells cousin as casin may have trouble distinguishing between short “a” and short “u.” On the other hand, a child who writes akshun instead of action perceives the sounds correctly and is merely attempting to trancribe the word literally.

On the pedagogical side, teachers must be able to:

Distinguish between actual reading and reading-like behaviors 

A child who can recite a text may be able to decode it or may have simply memorized it. Some children can get very far on memorization, and teachers need to be both willing and able to probe past the surface.

Avoid over-explaining concepts, or discussing concepts that have not been explicitly taught.

Explanations for beginning readers should be kept as short and simple as possible, and no information that has not been directly taught should be assumed to be known. Otherwise, children will become confused.

Pace lessons at an appropriate speed.

If a lesson is too slow, students will get bored and stop paying attention; too fast and they will become frustrated and be unable to absorb the material.

Limit the number of new concepts introduced at a given time, and provide sufficient review. 

Children’s working memories can absorb only a very limited amount of new information at a given time. Instruction that focuses on one or two concepts is therefore more effective than instruction that address many concepts at the same time. In addition, material must typically be reviewed multiple times and applied regularly in order to stick.

Observe students closely and objectively, and resist putting words in their mouths. 

Teachers sometimes gloss over student errors with “helpful” statements like, “You really meant to say pound instead of pond, right?” While well-intentioned, these exchanges cause gaps in understanding to be missed, with the result that gaps in children’s knowledge are not addressed.

Stop at every mistake a child makes in one-on-one reading, and teach them to correct it. 

If a text is at the appropriate level, there shouldn’t be more than 3-4 errors in a given sampling. Ignoring errors gives children the message that reading accurately isn’t that important, a belief that can create serious comprehension problems down the line. Difficulties with sound-letter correspondences must be addressed as soon as possible if children are to achieve fluency.

These kinds of classroom behaviors are not really within the province of science, but they are key elements of the translation Seidenberg refers to. Even the most impressively structured literacy program will have its effectiveness reduced if a teacher cannot do them consistently.

The upshot is that reading must be taught in a way that is based on, or motivated by, scientific finding, but it in the classroom, the actual science can only go so far. That’s why I get concerned when the knee-jerk response to any question/comment/suggestion about classroom practices is, “What does SoR say?” or “Well, SoR doesn’t say anything about that.” The fact that the efficacy of a particular classroom practice isn’t explicitly spelled out in the research doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good idea (or a bad one).

Beyond a certain baseline level of consistency with the science, the question should really be, “Does this activity/method help children become better readers?” Ultimately, that’s what matters—not how many books one has read, or how much jargon one can spout, or how many webinars one has sat through. Reading instruction has been gotten wrong for so long, and in so many ways; the stakes are too high for that to keep on happening.

2019 NAEP Reading Scores vs. The Ladder of Reading: a striking correlation

2019 NAEP Reading Scores vs. The Ladder of Reading: a striking correlation

When the most recent set of scores from the NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) were released in 2019, the results for Reading were dismal: only 35% of fourth graders were rated Proficient or Advanced, whereas a whopping 65% were rated either Basic or Below Basic (up from 63% in 2017). For eighth graders, the results were slightly worse: 34% percent Proficient/Advanced vs. 66% Basic or Below Basic (up from 64% in 2017).

Obviously, these scores do not paint a particularly  encouraging picture of American elementary and middle-school students’ reading skills.

One of the major criticisms the NAEP is that the score ratings do not align—and are not intended to align—with grade levels. For example, a student reading at the Proficient level is actually reading above grade level (has “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter”), whereas one rated Basic is reading somewhat below (“partial mastery of fundamental skills”). And to be fair, the test itself is fairly challenging.

But crude and controversial a snapshot as the NAEP may be, the scores align remarkably well with another set of statistics, namely those released by the International Dyslexia Association in regards to the percentage of children who require particular amounts of explicit, systematic instruction to learn to read. Depicted by the Canadian reading specialist Nancy Young ( in a popular infographic known as “The Ladder of Reading,” the statistics indicate that approximately:

  • 5% of children learn to read without instruction
  • 35% need only broad instruction
  • 40-50% need a moderate amount of explicit, systematic instruction
  • 10-15% need prolonged instruction, with extensive repetition (dyslexia)

Broadly speaking, these four groups can be subdivided into two larger ones: those who need little to no instruction (40%) and those who need more of it (60%)—and that, in turn, runs almost exactly parallel to the NAEP Proficient/Non-Proficient breakdown.

In fact, the NAEP figures over time reflect exactly what one would expect from a (non-)system based largely on the falsehood that reading is a natural process, and that children will “just pick it up on their own” if given enough time: the natural readers learn to read well, and the non-natural readers don’t.

To be clear, this correspondence does not prove cause-and-effect. It is a general correlation, if quite a striking one, and a very large-scale study would be required to establish such a relationship. But given the generally haphazard, unsystematic, and poorly sequenced manner in which American children are taught to read, it does nevertheless suggest that the children who are learning to read well are primarily those who would learn to read more or less regardless of what program they were given.

Worringly, the discrepancy between the two sets of figures runs in the direction of non-proficiency. Assuming the breakdown represented by Young is accurate, around 5% of children who require only broad instruction to become competent decoders still do not comprehend at a particularly high level. Unfortunately, that is hardly surprising either: once children have learned to decode competently, around third or fourth grade, reading proficiency largely becomes a reflection of vocabulary and background knowledge. If schools are de-emphazing subject knowledge in favor of reading-based instruction/test prep centered around the kinds of empty formal skills on which Common Core is based (identifying main ideas; comparing and contrasting; inferencing), then students are being deprived of the knowledge necessary to become strong readers. And the more years students spend in this type of vapid, random non-curricululm, the more pronounced the knowledge gaps become.

As Chalkbeat reported:

A new study, released in April [2019] through a federally funded research center, shows that states that changed their standards most dramatically by adopting the Common Core didn’t outpace other states on federal NAEP exams. By 2017 — seven years after most states had adopted them — the standards appear to have led to modest declines in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores.

“It’s rather unexpected,” said researcher Mengli Song of the American Institutes for Research. “The magnitude of the negative effects tend to increase over time. That’s a little troubling.”But the results are not getting better over time, according to Song’s research, so it’s hard to pin the findings on bad implementation.

That leaves Song puzzled. “I don’t have a good hypothesis for why the effects actually grow over time,” she said. “That’s something I didn’t expect.”

Song may be unable to offer a hypothesis, but here’s mine: in a 1986 paper, the researcher Keith Stanovich described the “Matthew effect” in reading, a phenomenon named after the Bible verse stating that the rich become richer while the poor lose what little they have.

Essentially, knowledge is “sticky”: the more you know, the easier it is to assimilate new information (because it can be connected to what is already known), creating a positive feedback loop. On the other hand, the less you know, the harder it is to absorb new information because there is nothing to connect the knowledge to. Thus, gaps that may initially be minor or moderate become larger over time. And that is precisely what is happening now.

Indeed, the Reading-score decline between 2017 (37% Proficient or Advanced in fourth grade; 36% Proficient in eighth) and 2019 (35%/34%) suggests that something on the vocabulary/knowledge side is also going in the wrong direction. Only those in the Advanced category made gains.

As E.D. Hirsch explains in The Knowledge Deficit:

Early oral language enhancement plus the systematic teaching of enabling knowledge are the keys to later gains in all academic areas, and also to narrowing the achievement gap beween demographic groups. It is in early language learning that the Matthew effect begins to take hold. Those who know many words and who possess the knowledge to comprehend what they mean will learn more words and world knowledge later on, while those who know few words in early grades fall further and further behind in later grades. 

The key phrase here is “systematic teaching of enabling knowledge.” Simply giving children random passages of so-called “informational text” (penguins one day, George Washington the next, perhaps solar panels the day after that) does nothing to help them develop a solid base for navigating the written world.

If knowledge is to be retained, it must be retrieved, applied, and explicitly connected to other knowledge in a structured way, over an extended period. But what is happening knowledge-wise in the older grades is the equivalent of what all too often happens in the teaching of phonics: “g” may be taught as a hard sound (game) but not a soft one (edge); “ee” and “ea” may be taught incidentally as the long “e” sound in a particular lesson, with no mention of the fact that there are six other ways the sound can be spelled, and without follow-up practice in additional lessons or guided application in writing.

Although the Standards as such have faded from public view, it is important to understand that they are still exerting an enormous influence over American public education. Even states that have nominally moved away from them have in fact just relabeled them in order to avoid controversy while leaving them intact more or less verbatim.” So both today’s fourth and eighth graders have spent their entire school careers in a system dominated by Common Core, with knowledge gaps that start out small getting continually overlooked and gradually spiraling into something that leaves students at a serious disadvantage for years and perhaps even decades to come.

When should beginning readers use context clues?

When should beginning readers use context clues?

One of the most serious, and most persistent, misconceptions in the world of reading early reading instruction involves the use of context clues. Regardless of whether they are explicitly taught an incorrect interpretation of three/multi-cueing system or simply absorb its tenets in graduate school or via professional development, many teachers of beginning readers erroneously learn that children should focus primarily on beginning/ending letters and then use a variety of guess-and-check methods (e.g., picture clues, other information in the text) to make educated guesses about unfamiliar words.

If you’re not familiar with the research, a reliance on context clues has been identified as a compensatory strategy for weak decoding skills (Nicholson, 1992; Stanovich, 1986); as children become more proficient decoders, they spend less time looking at contextual information.

Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University, sums the findings up as follows:

Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification. Furthermore, many struggling readers are disposed to guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by frequent encouragement to use context. 

In her 1998 article on the misinterpretation of the three-cueing system, Marilyn Jäger Adams furthermore makes the point that while skilled readers do in fact make use a combination of orthographic, syntactic, and semantic clues, they do so in order to construct meaning rather than to literally decode words. The misinterpretation of the graphic that has filtered down into many elementary-school classrooms is based on a confusion between “reading as extracting meaning from text” (which presumes solid decoding) and “reading as turning squiggles on a page into words.”

To be clear, using a combination of first letters and pictures, or other parts of a text, and making educated guesses based on “what would make sense” may indeed result in beginning readers coming up with correct words, or a generally accurate understanding of a particular scenario. But that’s beside the point. 

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Thinking

To have a serious discussion about what types of strategies should be taught, and when, and why, it is necessary to distinguish between short-term and long-term thinking.

In short-term thinking, the focus is on getting the child to understand the particular text in front of them, at that particular moment. Exactly how that happens is not overly important.

And after all, the purpose of reading is to understand the text (or, to put it in edu-parlance to “construct meaning”). Obviously.

Understandably, this is a very appealing viewpoint, and one that seems to make intuitive sense: learning to read can be very challenging for certain children, and if especially one is working with a slow, struggling reader, the impulse to have them glean whatever they can, however they can, is entirely understandable. Any tools they can use to figure out what’s going on are helpful, right?

In the long term… No, actually.

The problem is that the (cueing) strategies that allow a beginning reader to get the gist of simple pictures books fall very, very far short when applied to the far more challenging texts students will be expected to read only a few years later. A kindergartner or first-grader who appears to be basically on track may in fact be missing very fundamental key skills.

Moreover, the habit of guessing at unfamiliar words is not one that children naturally outgrow—once established, it is often extraordinarily difficult to break.

Combine that with persistent decoding issues, and you end up with a burgeoning middle-schooler who’s just old enough to really push back when someone tries to intervene but not quite mature enough to appreciate why it’s so important for her to learn to sound out multisyllabic words phonetically (as Richard McManus will currently attest).

All that said, the use of context clues does in fact have a place in early reading instruction. But the key piece is that context must be used to support phonetic decoding (and thus orthographic mapping), not replace it.

Practically speaking, this involves the decoding of words that are only partly phonetic, or whose exact pronunciation cannot be determined from the way they are written. 

As Tunmer (1990; see pp. 112-113) has explained, phonetic knowledge and the ability to use context combine to create a positive feedback loop in which context is used to actually strengthen phonetic understanding and facilitate orthographic mapping—the process by which words get stored in the brain as sound-syllable correspondences and made available for automatic retrieval.

Essentially, when children with a solid phonetic understanding of the English code encounter irregularly spelled/pronounced words, they may use context clues to bootstrap themselves into an understanding of how those words are pronounced. That reinforces an understanding of more complex phonetic patterns and allows challenging language to be read more easily in the future.

Some children may figure this out their own, but there is no reason that others cannot be taught this strategy explicitly.

This phenomenon also supports the finding that children with good decoding skills can often infer the pronunciations of moderately irregularly word (Groff, 1987), something that directly contradicts the notion that English is too irregular for phonetic knowledge to be effective.

What the Heck is a MOSS-kwih-toe?

I’m going to illustrate this with a personal anecdote involving one of my earliest reading-related memories.

It happened when I was in first grade, and it involved the word mosquito.

Although this word is spelled in a way that is not entirely unrelated to its pronunciation, there are a couple of notable irregularities.

  • First, the “qu” makes a “k” sound, as opposed to its usual “kw” sound.
  • Second, there’s no obvious information about which syllable should be stressed.

So when I encountered this word in print at the age of six, I initially read it as MOSS-kwih-toe.

“Huh?” I remember thinking. “What the heck is a MOSSkwitoe?”

I knew that didn’t make sense, and I knew I wasn’t reading the word correctly, but I couldn’t fathom what it might actually be.

So I kept on plugging along, and a couple of minutes later, I suddenly had a lightbulb moment.

“Oh!” I thought. “Of course. The word is pronounced muskeetoe!”

I was really quite astonished to have figured it out. I had a huge vocabulary but was by no means an exceptional decoder. You know those kids who teach themselves to read at three? Well, I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t even in the top reading group! But the incident made such an extraordinary impression on me that I still remember my thought process with almost total clarity more than 30 years later.

So let’s review what I did:

1) I used the specific sequence of letters and my knowledge of the sounds they made to take me as far as I could possibly go toward identifying the word.

2) Once I realized the story involved some sort of insect that flew and buzzed around during the summer, I drew the logical conclusion about the word’s pronunciation.

3) I got a lesson in the fact the “qu” can make a “k” sound in certain circumstances—an alternate phonetic pattern that helped me identify other challenging words quickly in the future (and eventually facilitated my ability to grasp French pronunciation).

4) The sound-spelling correspondence of the whole word was from then on etched into my mind in metaphorical granite (i.e., orthographically mapped).

5) I learned that even if words weren’t straightforwardly phonetic, I could combine my sound-spelling knowledge with my other skills and figure things out. That was an immensely powerful realization.

The interesting part is that technically speaking, my process was a stellar example of the three-cueing model. It involved the construction of (literal) meaning using the interplay among clues based on orthography (sequence of letters), syntax (the word had to be a noun based on its position in the sentence), and semantics (the story must have involved a tiny, buzzing insect).

The key piece, however, is that my close attention to sound-spelling correspondences underlay my ability to engage the other systems effectively. I did not look at the first letter(s) and make a semi-random guess based on context (the way I later saw many of my own, much older students do). If I had, in the absence of any solid contextual information at that point, I might have come up with something like mouse.

Rather, I paid close attention to all the letters in the word—beginning, middle, and end—in an attempt to sound it out, and only when that wasn’t enough did I move to thinking about the larger context of the story to in order to make the leap from that baffling collection of letters to certainty about a real word.

That leads me to my next point, namely that the episode was also consistent with the finding that children who learn to read phonetically are able to produce nonsense words/pronunciations—something that children who are taught via whole language do not do (Barr, 1974-5; click here for a discussion of the findings). Had I jumped to plug in a word I already knew how to read, I would have missed out on a significant learning opportunity. And even if I had managed to correctly guess mosquito, I would have missed out on an important phonetic lesson and would not have been able to carry that new knowledge forward into other words.

As Ehri points out, children who exhibit this type of phonetic non-word decoding in first grade move more quickly into the full alphabetic phase, in which “beginners become able to form connections between all of the graphemes in spellings and the phonemes in pronunciations to remember how to read words.” Indeed, by second grade, I was basically a totally fluent reader. Once things clicked, I never looked back.

About the Three-Cueing System…

Let me conclude by saying that writing (and re-writing) this piece has actually been a rather enlightening process for me, not least because it allowed me to revisit a memorable childhood experience from an adult perspective and—entirely to my surprise—be able to analyze it in light of theories with which I’ve become acquainted only relatively recently. When I first began to write about the episode, I was unaware of just how clearly it embodied key findings about how children learn to read; it was only as I began to really probe it that I realized how illustrative it actually was.

It also made me develop a more nuanced understanding of the three-cueing system, as well as a better understanding of how things went so badly awry. What I’ve described here certainly isn’t the “look at the first letter and the picture and think about what would make sense” approach, but it also isn’t quite the mature use of textual cues employed by skilled readers to, say, determine correct definitions of multi-meaning words. Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle.

It’s precisely that in-between place that makes things so tricky, and I think it points to the overwhelming importance of precise language when discussing techniques for reading instruction. Indeed, so many conversations about this topic devolve into free-for-alls simply because various parties cannot agree on what central terms mean. (E.g., for researchers, the term “sight word” refers to a word that has been orthographically mapped and can be read instantaneously, whereas for teachers it generally refers to the high-frequency words on the Dolch/Fry lists that beginning readers are expected to memorize more or less by rote.)

It’s very easy to imagine how a cautious assertion like, “In some instances, children can use context clues to help them identify unknown words” could get transformed into, “Let’s look at the first letter and the picture and ask ourselves what the word might be.” Those two statements might not seem terribly different on the surface, but in fact they’re worlds apart.

The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has warned that inconclusive (or, I would add, poorly understood) theoretical models can easily get translated into ineffective classrooms practices, and I think the three-cueing system is the poster child for that. It’s not enough to say, for example, that skilled reading involves a complex interplay of systems; inevitably, given the history of reading instruction in the United States, that will be used to promote harmful ideas about the unimportance of phonetic decoding. When the devil is in the details, every word counts.