4 Myths About Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction in the Early Grades

A look at a few common misconceptions, plus tips on effective practices for teaching young students to read.

November 20, 2023
FatCamera / iStock

As a literacy coach, I see it all the time. Good teachers who are doing their best to implement effective reading instruction feel confused, overwhelmed, and disheartened when trying to align their teaching practices with evidence-based instruction.

The science of reading, backed up by research, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and mountains of evidence, calls for teaching methods that are different from how we were trained to teach children how to read. While it’s tempting to treat the science-of-reading movement as just another educational fad that will be gone in a few years, for our students’ sake, we simply can’t ignore the evidence. 

Below are some of the most common lingering misconceptions and myths I hear as a literacy coach when teachers attempt to align their instructional practices with the science of reading.

Myth 1

The science of reading says students need to read decodables, not leveled readers, so we shouldn’t be using anything they can’t decode during our literacy block.

The truth here is complicated, and whether the texts you’re using are appropriate depends on the task for which you are using them. Decodables are for students to practice the phonics skills they are learning and have learned during the foundational part of the literacy block. They’re also great to use for students to read independently when the teacher is meeting with small groups, because teachers can be reasonably sure their students can actually read them without resorting to guessing and looking at the pictures.

Decodables, however, should not and cannot be the only type of text used during an effective literacy block. Other than a good method to practice decoding words, most decodables don’t contain anything meaningful in the way of content or ideas. A largely misunderstood premise of the science of reading is the importance of knowledge building and vocabulary acquisition.

Our youngest students, even before they can decode any texts, need to begin building knowledge about the world and be exposed to domain-specific and academic vocabulary through read-alouds and whole group literacy instruction. 

A statement from Knowledge Matters Campaign’s Scientific Advisory Committee highlights the critical importance of knowledge building in addition to a focus on foundational skills: “Knowledge is necessary to comprehend what we read. Foundational skills are literally meaningless unless readers can make sense of words and texts. This sense-making requires knowledge that must be systematically built (not just activated!) through instructional experiences and curricula that evoke curiosity and the desire to learn more. In short, knowledge matters. 

How to shift our thinking: Our job as primary educators is not only to teach students how to decode the written word. We must also teach them about the world through rich texts and meaningful, idea-centered instructional units so that they’re prepared to eventually read and comprehend texts about those topics independently.

Myth 2

If my students aren’t showing mastery on weekly progress-monitoring assessments, the curriculum must be too advanced or not age-appropriate.

Even an effective foundational program takes time to show results, and most aren’t looking for mastery on weekly assessments or progress monitoring. What you should be looking for is progress. Study after study has shown that many students need multiple exposures over time to new concepts and skills before showing mastery.

Ensure that your foundational program has that cyclical review and practice built in, or carve out opportunities for your students to continually review the phonics concepts you’ve taught as you move on to new ones. Then, look to see how many of your students have mastered the concepts after having reviewed and practiced them for several weeks. Use that data to create small group instruction for the students who haven’t mastered the concepts.

How to shift our thinking: Mastery doesn’t come after one or two lessons for foundational skills, and the timeline for mastery varies greatly from student to student. Look for growth over time rather than mastery after each lesson.

Myth 3

The science of reading research says children need explicit and systematic phonics instruction to read, so I don’t need to use our whole group reading program anymore.

The truth here goes back to myth 1. If we aren’t teaching our primary students more than decoding, we begin to see students struggle and reading scores stagnate at around third grade. The primary years are foundational not just for learning to read, but also for learning about the world.

Students need to begin building their understanding of science, social studies, and literature from a young age so that they can comprehend what they begin to read independently as they reach upper elementary school. Knowledge Matters Campaign advises that an effective whole group literacy program should be “coherently building knowledge of words and the world.” 

How to shift our thinking: Whether studying animals, space, or ancient Egypt, young children love to explore and learn about new ideas. Before beginning a new literacy unit, think about what knowledge and understandings your students will build from it aside from your reading and writing standards and benchmarks. Make that knowledge focus just as important as your reading and writing standards. 

Myth 4

My students need to learn how to decode and comprehend texts before we worry about writing instruction.

Many teachers are told that they must teach to mastery in all things. While this sage advice works well in some grades and subjects, it hinders progress in many K–2 literacy classrooms. Students need to feel free to experiment and try things out and, yes, make mistakes, before teachers even think about assessing mastery.

When always looking for mastery, teachers feel discouraged if they don’t see their students mastering skills and concepts right away. They assume that either they’re teaching it wrong or the curriculum they’re using is too difficult. According to The Dyslexia Classroom, the truth is that students take anywhere from one to 20 or even more than 100 exposures/practices to master concepts—especially to reach the automatic stage. Our students are mapping new sounds, letters, and words in their brains to build that automaticity, and that takes both time and repetition. 

When it comes to writing instruction, give your students and yourself a break. Let them spend plenty of time at the experimentation and practice stages, and work at the sentence level before building up to multisentence and paragraph-level instruction.

How to shift our thinking: When our students write, even at the sentence level, about what they’re reading, they internalize and comprehend texts at a deeper level. Don’t avoid that benefit just because they haven’t mastered writing yet.

Change can be excruciatingly difficult for everyone, so we need to recognize when we are clinging to old ways of doing things due to our own discomfort or misunderstandings rather than what’s in the best interest of our students.

If you’re struggling to shift your thinking or just need more information about instruction aligned to evidence-based practices, there are many resources available to help. Try starting with the Reading League’s new Compass tool to direct you to resources helpful in your journey.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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