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Phonics Is Critical—but True Literacy Requires More

To improve literacy rates in the U.S., reading expert Timothy Shanahan says we need to stop looking for silver bullets and instead invest in teaching a much broader range of skills.

January 25, 2023

Timothy Shanahan has spent the last 50 years making the case that we should be doing a better job teaching kids how to read and write. 

A distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Shanahan was previously the director of reading for Chicago Public Schools and helped develop Reading First and Common Core State Standards, federal policies that have formed the backbone of K–12 literacy for over a decade. His research on writing, disciplinary literacy, and English language learners has made foundational contributions to the science of reading and writing.

Despite his career-spanning efforts, though, Shanahan says that not enough has changed—we’re still not teaching enough kids to read and write effectively. Part of the problem is that schools have been slow to adapt to the changing needs of the information age. But more important, the U.S. school system has a tendency to get distracted by initiatives centered on individual literacy skills and specific groups of learners, Shanahan says—instead of doing the harder work of building reading programs focused on a broader range of skills across grade levels, such as teaching students how to make sense of difficult texts, how to read effectively in the various disciplines they study in middle and high school, and how to use generative writing to deepen the knowledge they encounter in texts.

We lose focus to the detriment of kids. A persistent, comprehensive approach is “the only way you’re ever going to change things for boys and girls,” Shanahan asserts. And it’s “the only way we’ll see increases in literacy across the board.” 

Recently, we sat down with Shanahan and spoke about how reading unlocks the doors to social and political power, why kids should learn how to read like chemists, and what needs to happen if we’re going to have a true, evidence-based approach to literacy across all grade levels.

Andrew Boryga: What fascinates you so much about literacy to make it your focus for 50 years? 

Timothy Shanahan: Initially it was personal. I grew up in Detroit, and we didn’t have a whole lot. There were times when my dad was out of work. Reading was an escape valve for me, a place I could go. Then as I got older, I noticed that some people in my community were out of work, while others succeeded. I realized reading is really about power—individual, personal power. 

Boryga: What do you mean by power? 

Shanahan: I used to teach a course about the connection between literacy and society. It focused on how poverty keeps kids from learning—which you hear over and over in many teacher prep courses. So much so that I think a lot of teachers get down because it all just feels so hopeless. 

But instead of focusing on the negative, I focused more on what literacy enables psychologically, linguistically, economically, and politically. Just look at how much of our social and economic mobility and political involvement comes through reading and writing. Literacy opens doors and connects people: When citizens aren’t literate, they pull back from society, they isolate. It’s like having a pandemic all the time, but in their lives. 

So, yes, literacy builds skills and gets kids good jobs. But to me, literacy is not just about money; it’s also about fighting for access to cultural and social opportunities.

Boryga: How do you define a “good reader”? What important literacy skills should students possess by the time they graduate from high school? 

Shanahan: By the time students finish high school, they should be able to read a text without assistance. I’m not saying they won’t occasionally look up a word, but essentially they should be able to read a challenging eighth- or ninth-grade text with reasonably high comprehension. That would establish a baseline.

Another skill I would want them to have—and that I fear too many don’t—is the persistence to take on text that is hard to grasp. If you’re willing to put your shoulder to the wheel, you can make sense of a difficult text even when you don’t have a lot of prior knowledge or don’t have all the vocabulary. You might have to slow down and take your time sentence by sentence, but you can figure out what these texts say and get the benefits of them. 

Intellectual persistence—an intensity of purpose—is really what I’m talking about. What underlies that is having techniques and skills: What do you do when you come to a sentence that you can’t make heads or tails of, or when you come upon a word that you don’t know? What do you do when you read three paragraphs in and you’re not sure where you are? 

Boryga: Literacy instruction has been “the province of only the elementary school, without commensurate attention in the middle and high schools,” you wrote in a 2009 paper. Why aren’t we teaching literacy in the later grades? 

Shanahan: Partly, it’s historical. Previously, society didn’t need everybody to be literate at high levels; economic participation didn’t depend on it. 

Today it’s different. We actually need large numbers of workers with reasonably high degrees of literacy, even if they don’t go to college. Refrigerator repair, air-conditioning repair—these are great, high-paying careers. If you look at the training those workers go through, they learn through reading and making sense of highly technical information that is often much harder than what kids are dealing with in high school. 

But another reason we don’t see more literacy in high school is because, frankly, I think folks don’t necessarily know what to do once kids get to high school. Do you have a reading class like you would with second graders? Are you supposed to be teaching phonics? What is necessary? 

Boryga: Good question. What is necessary? 

Shanahan: By middle school, kids need to learn the specialized reading routines of the various disciplines they’ll study in the coming grades. Historians read everything like they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They assume somebody is trying to shape things in a particular way, and they’re looking for bias. 

Scientists read very differently. A chemist, for example, might memorize variables that are constantly referenced by the text before she reads it through. That’s a very specific strategy nobody is showing students—and while it’s true that not all kids are going to be chemists, they will be prescribed medicine and be given literature on it. It’s the same language. By teaching kids how to read it, what we’re really doing is showing them how to gain access to all of these different sites of power in our society.

It is important to teach kids to approach history in that more negotiated sense—to understand that there are facts but they’re contested, and you have to read multiple texts to understand that. Or that scientists have a very different approach, but also a different purpose. They’re not trying to come up with plausible explanations for what’s happened in the past; they’re trying to come up with precise explanations of why and how nature works the way it does. 

Boryga: You’ve published influential research on ELL literacy instruction, including a 2009 study that found that the tenets of early literacy instruction—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension—all have benefits for language learners. But instructional adjustments are needed. What does good ELL instruction in literacy look like?

Shanahan: There are small shifts to traditional literacy instruction that make a big difference for ELL students. 

For example, when working on comprehension, instead of having kids read to themselves and then participate in a discussion about what they read, allow ELL students to discuss the questions first in their home language. 

Giving language learners a chance to think through and discuss a text in, say, Spanish before they take it on in English makes them less embarrassed to take part in the discussion. Cognitively, it also allows them to take on ideas in a fairly mature and sophisticated way using their best language and skills, and then say, “OK, now that I’ve thought that through, how do I put it into English rather than trying to do that all in one step?” 

The other thing that I think is important is to give English language learners more instruction—perhaps even an extra period of English instruction. You’ll often find that these students in the primary grades are reading less well than their English-speaking counterparts. They need that extra, explicit instruction to just build the language. 

Boryga: Recently, you criticized “thin” phonics instruction in primary schools that relies on worksheets instead of more explicitly teaching phonics. What does effective phonics instruction look like?  

Shanahan: Let’s look at one example. If kids get explicit phonics instruction from kindergarten through second grade, it’s going to start with a lot of emphasis on matching letters with sounds. P is “puh” and the letter associated with the sound you hear at the beginning of pop or pig. I think what kids should be given early on is very different from a worksheet where you put Bs on the pictures that begin with B, for example.

Teachers should be making sure students can distinguish the sound you hear at the beginning of big from words like pig. Can students consistently recognize that sound in language? Can they hear it? If they are exposed to a whole bunch of letters, can they go through and mark all the Bs? After they do that, can they connect those letters to words? If I say a word that begins with B, can they raise the B card to show they understand that? 

The point is, we’ve got to start building up to the point where kids are able to read simple text in which they’ll have to sound out and decode the letter B. That takes explicit teaching and learning each of those steps. It isn’t just, let’s spend five minutes on this and here’s a worksheet. 

Boryga: You’ve long been a proponent of infusing writing into reading curricula, including in studies you authored in the 1980s that are credited with clarifying the relationship between reading and writing. How can teachers use writing to improve literacy? 

Shanahan: I had a basic idea that writing could help students learn how to read. I went and studied all the stuff that had been written on that in the 20th century, and then I set up what was really the first modern study of this. My belief was right: I found substantial relations between reading and writing.

The research shows us that we can do this in two different ways. If we want to talk about decoding, writing words can help. For example, if I’m trying to write the word doll, I’m thinking to myself: What sounds am I hearing? What letters go with those sounds? That really helps with things like phonemic awareness and decoding—it gives kids huge opportunities to practice these skills and to reveal what they can and can’t do. 

With older students, new research shows that one of the biggest things you can do to build comprehension and to increase knowledge about what they read is to have them write about it. Have students write summaries, critiques and analysis, syntheses of multiple texts that they’re reading. All those activities actually improve comprehension, and building that into instruction is really important. 

Boryga: You were part of the influential 2000 National Reading Panel whose findings formed the basis of the Reading First federal literacy policy. What were the most important insights the panel found? 

Shanahan: We found that if you give kids instruction in a few key areas, you improve reading achievement quite consistently. Teaching kids phonemic awareness in kindergarten and first grade (there were 51 supporting studies) and teaching kids phonics, how to use the letters and sounds and spelling patterns to decode (there were 38 supporting studies), were both critical. We also found that teaching kids to read text fluently, teaching vocabulary and how to define words by looking at morphology [studying things like stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes], and finally, teaching kids reading comprehension strategies like asking themselves questions about what they’ve read to see if they have the answers, can help when they’re struggling with a text and give them the tools they need to course-correct in real time. 

We also identified things that aren’t useful, like just having kids read at school on their own. There is this idea that if you just practice reading, you’re going to get good at it. But when you compare that kind of practice to working with a teacher, the payoffs are very different.

If the choice is Johnny reads whatever book he wants on his own versus Johnny works with his teacher on a hard book, we found it is much more productive to have him work with the teacher on the hard book instead of entertaining himself.

Boryga: We’re coming to the end here, so a big question: What are your thoughts on the state of literacy education today? Has it improved since you began your career in the 1970s? 

Shanahan: If I look at the data, kids aren’t reading any better than they did then. So in a lot of ways, I feel like I have not been very successful. Education in general has not done what I think it could do.

Right now, there’s a huge push to improve phonics instruction, and I’m obviously a big supporter.

But I don’t believe that will fix everything. Sure, we will have fewer kids struggling with the most basic levels of literacy. But if you look at the data over the last 50 years, when we’ve really increased phonics instruction, fourth-grade reading achievement improved, but there was essentially no change for eighth-grade achievement.

When we implement these big primary-grade initiatives, we sometimes make things better for 8- and 9-year-olds. That’s good. But at the same time, we pull back resources and ignore needs elsewhere. Then, within a few years, whatever gains we’ve made dissipate.

Instead of big initiatives to fix phonics or to fix things just for teens, we need a comprehensive K–12 literacy curriculum that teaches all those things we’ve been talking about all the way through for everybody. That’s the only way you’re ever going to see increases in literacy across the board.

It takes a lot of effort, and you have to be persistent. I don’t think we are persistent enough. We love going on these campaigns. We love having a particular thing that everyone will embrace. You’ve got to embrace the whole thing—even the parts you don’t feel comfortable with.

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