How is it possible that the “reading wars” are back on? The reading wars primarily revolve around what are often called the five pillars of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Actually, there is little debate about the importance of comprehension, vocabulary, or fluency, so the reading wars are mainly about phonemic awareness and phonics. Diehard anti-phonics advocates exist, but in all of educational research, there are few issues that have been more convincingly settled by high-quality evidence. The National Reading Panel (2000), the source of the five pillars, has been widely cited as conclusive evidence that success in the early stages of reading depends on ensuring that students are all successful in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the other pillars. I was invited to serve on that panel, but declined, because I thought it was redundant. Just a short time earlier, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) had covered essentially the same ground and came to essentially the same conclusion, as had Marilyn Adams’ (1990) Beginning to Read, and many individual studies. To my knowledge, there is little credible evidence to the contrary. Certainly, then and now there have been many students who learn to read successfully with or without a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, I do not think there are many students who could succeed with non-phonetic approaches but cannot learn to read with phonics-emphasis methods. In other words, there is little if any evidence that phonemic awareness or phonics cause harm, but a great deal of evidence that for perhaps more than half of students, effective instruction emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics are essential. Since it is impossible to know in advance which students will need phonics and which will not, it just makes sense to teach using methods likely to maximize the chances that all children (those who need phonics and those who would succeed with or without them) will succeed in reading.
The importance of the five pillars of the National Reading Panel (NRP) catechism are not in doubt among people who believe in rigorous evidence, as far as I know. The reading wars ended in the 2000s and the five pillars won. However, this does not mean that knowing all about these pillars and the evidence behind them is sufficient to solve America’s reading problems. The NRP pillars describe essential elements of curriculum, but not of instruction.
Improving reading outcomes for all children requires the five pillars, but they are not enough. The five pillars could be extensively and accurately taught in every school of education, and this would surely help, but it would not solve the problem. State and district standards could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but would not solve the problem. Reading textbooks, software, and professional development could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but it would not solve the problem.
The reason that such necessary policies would still not be sufficient is that teaching effectiveness does not just depend on getting curriculum right. It also depends on the nature of instruction, classroom management, grouping, and other factors. Teaching reading without teaching phonics is surely harmful to large numbers of students, but teaching phonics does not guarantee success.
As one example, consider grouping. For a very long time, most reading teachers have used homogeneous reading groups. For example, the “Stars” might contain the highest-performing readers, the “Rockets” the middle readers, and the “Planets” the lowest readers. The teacher calls up groups one at a time. No problem there, but what are the students doing back at their desks? Mostly worksheets, on paper or computers. The problem is that if there are three groups, each student spends two thirds of reading class time doing, well, not much of value. Worse, the students are sitting for long periods of time, with not much to do, and the teacher is fully occupied elsewhere. Does anyone see the potential for idle hands to become the devil’s playground? The kids do.
There are alternatives to reading groups, such as the Joplin Plan (cross-grade grouping by reading level), forms of whole-class instruction, or forms of cooperative learning. These provide active teaching to all students all period. There is good evidence for these alternatives (Slavin, 1994, 2017). My main point is that a reading strategy that follows NRP guidelines 100% may still succeed or fail based on its grouping strategy. The same could be true of the use of proven classroom management strategies or motivational strategies during reading periods.
To make the point most strongly, imagine that a district’s teachers have all thoroughly mastered all five pillars of science of reading, which (we’ll assume) are strongly supported by their district and state. In an experiment, 40 teachers of grades 1 to 3 are selected, and 20 of these are chosen at random to receive sufficient tutors to work with their lowest-achieving 33% of students in groups of four, using a proven model based on science of reading principles. The other 20 schools just use their usual materials and methods, also emphasizing science of reading curricula and methods.
The evidence from many studies of tutoring (Inns et al., 2020), as well as common sense, tell us what would happen. The teachers supported by tutors would produce far greater achievement among their lowest readers than would the other equally science-of-reading-oriented teachers in the control group.
None of these examples diminish the importance of science of reading. But they illustrate that knowing science of reading is not enough.
At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can find 65 elementary reading programs of all kinds that meet high standards of effectiveness. Almost all of these use approaches that emphasize the five pillars. Yet Evidence for ESSA also lists many programs that equally emphasize the five pillars and yet have not found positive impacts. Rather than re-starting our thirty-year-old pillar fight, don’t you think we might move on to advocating programs that not only use the right curricula, but are also proven to get excellent results for kids?
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Slavin, R. E. (1994). School and classroom organization in beginning reading: Class size, aides, and instructional grouping. In R. E. Slavin, N. L. Karweit, and B. A. Wasik (Eds.), Preventing early school failure. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Slavin, R. E. (2017). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction. New York: Routledge.
Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.
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