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A child reads a book at an elementary school in Mississippi. Kids who read more tend to score higher on reading assessments but research hasn’t been particularly supportive of using classroom time for unstructured, independent reading. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

The reading wars are back, reignited by radio journalist Emily Hanford of APM Reports, who in 2018 began arguing that too many schools are ignoring the science of reading and failing to teach phonics. My news organization, The Hechinger Report, recognized the importance of Hanford’s reporting and immediately republished a print version of the story.

The debate has elicited passions, vindication for proponents of phonics and distress for defenders of a so-called “balanced” approach to reading instruction. I’ve been obsessed with the renewed controversy over how to teach reading, consuming research and talking to scholars and educators. As a journalist who regularly covers education research, I wanted to boil down the key points of what we know from the research on reading and answer the big questions that people have been asking me.

 1. Is phonics really better?

Yes, but proponents of phonics sometimes overstate how much more effective it is to teach kids the sounds that letters make. “Phonics is marginally better,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago and an expert on the research in reading instruction. Dozens of studies show that students who receive explicit phonics instruction, on average, score higher on reading assessments than students who haven’t been taught through phonics. But it’s not a huge difference.

READ MORE: What do parents need to know about this research? How do kids actually learn how to read?

“The fact is that most kids can learn to read with little or no phonics,” Shanahan said. Indeed, many kids figure out how to read on their own before reading instruction even begins at school. However, a minority of students won’t learn to read without phonics and many students would read significantly worse without phonics.

The best argument for phonics is that no one is harmed by it and a large subset of students is helped by receiving explicit phonics instruction from kindergarten through second grade.

Related: Three lessons from data on children’s reading habits

Unfortunately, a bit of phonics on the fly isn’t terribly effective. The best results happen when teachers use a set phonics curriculum, typically 25 minutes a day, instead of making up their own phonics lessons as they deem necessary. In an Education Week survey of early reading instruction  published in January 2020, only 22 percent of kindergarten, first and second grade teachers said they believed phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically. But a whopping 68 percent said they subscribe to an approach to reading instruction called balanced literacy.

2. What’s wrong with balanced literacy?

The concept now called balanced literacy arose in the 1990s as a compromise between the two prevailing camps of reading instruction: phonics and what is known as whole language. Whole language instruction is based on the philosophy that kids will learn to read naturally if you expose them to a lot of books. Advocates believe it’s better to devote instructional time to the ideas and stories that are in the books rather than forcing kids to memorize the sounds that letters make. At the time, the idea of balanced literacy seemed likely to stop the debate by taking the best from each approach.  But in practice, balanced literacy curricula often don’t include a strong phonics program. Instead, I learned that these compromise curricula often retain three teaching strategies for which there isn’t good research evidence: cueing, independent reading time and leveled reading. Here’s a summary of the research on each of these.

Cueing. Hanford’s radio documentary “At a Loss for Words” focused on debunking a popular teaching approach called the “three cueing system” that guides children to guess and look for clues when they confront a new, unknown word. For example, a child might see a picture of an animal and guess that the word “horse” is “pony” in a sentence and then check to confirm that the wrong word, “pony,” makes sense in the context of the other words. No research supports this teaching technique. Shanahan said the theory came from analyzing students’ reading errors, not from studying what successful readers do, which is figuring out what the letters actually say.

Independent reading time. Kids who read more tend to score higher on reading assessments but research hasn’t been particularly supportive of using classroom time for unstructured, independent reading. During independent time, teachers typically allow students to select their own books so that the student is motivated to read something that he or she wants to read. But research shows larger learning gains — especially improved reading comprehension — when teachers are involved in book selection, hold students accountable for getting the reading done, guide a discussion about the narrative or end the book with a writing assignment. Weaker readers, especially students who are still struggling to “decode” and read words fluently, often get frustrated and aren’t able to accomplish much reading during independent reading time.

Leveled reading. A common feature in U.S. reading classes is to differentiate students by their reading level. Stronger readers get harder texts and weaker readers get easier texts. The theory is that students will get frustrated if they make too many errors in reading words or if the vocabulary is too difficult for them and they won’t understand the story. Eventually, as students’ reading improves, they can move up to harder texts. But reading research shows that students learn more when they’re challenged by difficult texts. Teacher time may be better spent helping students build their vocabularies and content knowledge so that students can tackle and understand texts that are appropriate for their grade level. Learning requires effort and you don’t learn much with an easy text.

3. What about memorizing sight words?

Kids “need other kinds of ways to break the code besides phonics because [English is] not a phonetically friendly language,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “They also need a whole lot of other things.”

Some students need help with eye-tracking across and down a page of text, for example.

A big question is the number of sight words. When phonics is tested head-to-head against word memorization, phonics wins. But word memorization programs that also teach phonics do well too.

Related: Mining online data on struggling readers who catch up

It’s certainly possible to learn to read through memorization. Every child in China learns Chinese characters this way because it’s not a phonetic language. But it’s harder. Many young children struggle to memorize. It takes a lot of repetition and the words are quickly forgotten.

Shanahan argues that once kids have a solid idea of decoding through phonics, they learn words very quickly.

“It’s as if phonics is a kind of glue that allows words to be learned quickly,” he said. “Trying to learn lots of words by memory alone is just inefficient and overwhelming to some kids.”

To be sure, there are a host of basic words that cannot be sounded out easily, such as “the,” “have” and “would.” Reading researchers say children should memorize these tricky ones as sight words — but not hundreds and hundreds of them, as some teachers ask. Teachers should try to minimize the number of sight words to be memorized. For example, there’s no point in having students memorize “green” as a sight word since it follows the phonics rules perfectly.

4. What about reading comprehension?

If you want kids to become great readers, the kind who score well on comprehension tests in fourth grade and beyond, the most important things to teach may not be taught in reading class at all.

“Over the long term, kids’ reading achievement is driven substantially by whether they’re getting access to the content, the science and social studies and things about the world,” said Darling-Hammond, “because what you understand from what you read depends on whether you can hook it to concepts and topics that you have some knowledge about.”

For years, educators have felt pressure to cut time for science, social studies and the arts in order to carve more time for the basics: reading, writing and math. That was misguided. Many children need explicit reading instruction to decode the letter symbols and read fluently but reading comprehension can be developed throughout the school day. If one good thing can come from the latest round of the reading wars, I hope it will be a “balanced” schedule.

Related: Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens

It’s tricky for parents to know if a classroom is using evidence-based approaches for teaching reading. Explicit teaching of oral reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing isn’t always visible. Classrooms don’t need phonics charts and short lists of sight words festooned to the walls. But you can ask if the teacher is using a set phonics curriculum in kindergarten through second grade. If you see bins of books sorted into different reading levels,  that’s a sign that the school may not be teaching reading in a way that researchers say is grounded in scientific evidence. It’s better for all students to be working with high-quality texts that are appropriate for a student’s grade. Shanahan also advises looking for a school that protects time for students to learn about science, social studies and the arts. For more details, read my colleague Jackie Mader’s story on what research-based reading instruction looks like in the classroom.

This story about the reading wars was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

Letters to the Editor

8 Letters

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  1. I serve as an ESL teacher to the kindergarten students in a poor area in NJ. This year, the general teacher asked me to help her to conduct the running records for her class. The results were very interesting showing that the ELL’s had higher levels than the the regular students. I believe this difference can be explained by the explicit teaching of phonics. I use the Phonics First program.

  2. Thank you so much for continuing to write about the Reading wars and making sure to include the research. It is unbelievable that something so important is ignored by so many. The saddest part is our children are used as guinea pigs and when some of them can’t read, we put the blame on them.

    Our district is currently evaluating our reading curriculum ( a balanced literacy approach program – yes we swallowed the “believable pill” a few years back when we adopted it) and we have been reading and discussing the research to figure out our next steps. Thank you again for keeping this very important topic front and center!

  3. I applause this article– Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (Barshay, 3/30/20)–because it summarizes the issues so succinctly with a great deal of common sense. Not only logical, the points are, indeed, scientifically based. There are years and years of debate, research, publications, and outcomes from which to draw, which, for the purpose of this article need not be repeated. Having Shanahan as a clear voice in the article was an excellent, most respected professional.
    I especially appreciated the historical and current view brought together in clear style. It’s well worth archiving. As a 50 year (now retired teacher, professor, coach, and tutor/mentor), it was like the article was clearing the fog filled with rhetoric and emotion and presented a valuable set of guidelines. Thank you.

  4. Hi, I think your column “Four things you need to know about the new reading wars” is a great summary of current thinking on reading that is backed by science and research. However, your first point about the limited benefit of phonics is somewhat misleading. You do note that a large subset of students is helped by explicit phonics instruction; however, the bigger point is that many of these students may never learn to read effectively without it. In particular, poor students and English language learners are less likely to be exposed to the vocabulary, dialogue and questioning, and content knowledge that helps many other students learn to read even in the absence of systematic explicit phonics instruction. My second grade son attends a “high performing” district public school in NYC that has adopted the Teachers College approach, but added Wilson Fundations a few years ago to address the lack of phonics. However, I discovered that this program is designed to be implemented 30 minutes daily, but teachers pick and choose what to use only about three days per week. When I asked the principal about it, she said “Well, the teachers find it kind of dry.” The school has a large performance gap in reading between high and low income families and English language learners, which I suspect has a lot to do with the failure to effectively teach phonics.

  5. Thank you. This was an excellent, accurate, informative, well-researched, well-written, well-balanced article.
    However, for some children who have difficulty with phonemic awareness (identifying and manipulating individual sounds within words), a sight word approach may be more effective than a phonics approach for them.
    Thank you.

  6. Dear Hechinger Report
    I enjoyed Jill Barshay’s March 2020 report on the reading wars, as I enjoyed your previous investigatory pieces on reading. I wish to add to the discussion by extending the description of ‘independent reading’ as an unstructured activity where students can do as they wish, and for which there is a lack of support in research.
    Good independent reading is structured, it is designed by good teachers and librarians – it involves reading communities made up of students, teachers, and parents in dialogue about their reading and reading choices. However, its structure is both ambitious and ambiguous and thus more difficult to measure. How to measure the value of a child’s personal reading experience or their understanding of reading as an important cultural practice?
    More importantly, independent reading’s primary goal is motivation and passion for reading – phonics and comprehension are important but independent reading recognizes motivation as the starting blocks in a long-distance running race. This approach is commonly called ‘Reading for Pleasure’ and there is ample research for its benefits, here’s one:
    Reading often gets pulled into the so-called reading wars, which is actually more about classroom practice and might better be renamed as the ‘literacy wars.’ The literacy wars are mostly about reading as a cognitive practice, broken down into a set of techniques such as phonics, sight words, & comprehension. In the literacy wars the child’s feelings about reading are often forgotten, we can see this in the March 2020 article, which hardly mentions motivation, affect, or enjoyment.
    I believe that the literacy wars are important, I agree that we need well trained teachers who follow the latest research, but please don’t stomp over the reading lives of our children while you march to battle.

  7. The research that my colleague, Anne McGill-Franzen, and I have completed has demonstrated convincingly that increasing the volume of reading that poor children do during the summer months serves as one evidence-based option for reducing, if not eliminating, the rich/poor reading achievement gap. In both of our studies we simply ran book fairs in schools serving children from low-income families. At the book fairs each child was asked to self-select 12 children’s books and these books were delivered to the children on the final day of the school year. We did not require that the children write book reports or take quizzes on the books they chose. Instead, we simply hoped that these poor children would be attracted to reading the books they had selected. In both experimental studies the children who were randomly selected to receive summer books outperformed their classmates who had not been selected to receive summer books. After three summers of books/no books we examined to records of these children’s performance on the state test of reading achievement. Basically, easy access to summer books eliminated the rich/poor reading gap! Eliminated nearly a full year reading achievement gap over three summers. The average reading growth of the books children equaled or exceeded the growth made by children attending summer school (and for a lot less money per child).

    Our studies are currently the only multiple-year studies of summer academic gains/losses. However, two quite different pools of children participated — Black urban and rural white children participated in the two studies but even with residences in different states and with different racial/ethnic backgrounds providing the opportunity to read over the summer produced striking academic outcomes.

    We can teach all children to read and to read well. But the latest evidence that our children (from ages 9 to 24) read less today than adults in every older age group. The fact that entering college freshman today voluntarily read less than other adults is shocking but that they read less than any other group of young people have read for the past 50 years! The past two decades of American education have not been good for children and because of that, children’s reading proficiencies have largely stagnated (Today,17-year-olds read about as well as 17-year-olds read back when I completed high school.. That is, no improvement in reading achievement over the past 40 years!

    I will close by noting that for at least 50 years more phonics has been on the federal agenda. For 50 years that agenda has failed to improve reading achievement of children. My suggestion is that it seems time to give up on the phonics advancements and to, instead, create schools where all children not only learn to read but actually do read during the school day (currently elementary students spend about 15 minutes of the 300+ minute school day actually engaged in reading activity). What would happen if all children engaged in one-hour of self-selected reading every school day? I’ll bet that is we could restore the balance such that workbooks and skills tests were eliminated and free reading became a one-hour daily block in every elementary classroom we would have kids who not only read better but they also have larger vocabularies, better writing skills, and greater knowledge of the world than kids do today.

  8. The way you are explaining the three cuing systems is inaccurate. It is not guessing. The cueing systems tell how a reader is thinking about text while reading and can show a skilled teacher how to coach the thinking for self monitoring.

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