The Biggest Reading Myth – The Five Pillars of Reading Instruction

Did you hear? The Nation’s Report Card has just been released, and, once more, reading comprehension scores of 4th and 8th students still remain basically flat since 1992 based on nationally representative samples of more than 190,000 fourth-graders and 172,000 eighth-graders and 46,000 twelfth-graders that participated in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading.

This is terrible news considering the vast amount of money, time and energy over the past decade in the use of “scientifically validated research based” programs. Billions of dollars have been invested, teachers trained, schools closed and yet there’s been no significant growth in reading comprehension over the past 30 plus years?

How could the “experts” have been so wrong?

The simple answer is, no one — or single — reading approach works for all students. This is especially true for non-readers – a population that has been virtually untouched for the past 30 plus years. Whether you call them treatment resistors or chronic non-responders, these non-readers are the key to reducing the achievement gap, drop out rate and inappropriate special education placement.

For example, contrary to what you have heard, there really are not five pillars to beginning reading instruction according to many reading researchers such as those involved in the National Reading Panel and others. For example, one of the pillars – the initial teaching of phonics (a way of teaching reading that stresses the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences and their use in reading and spelling) – does not apply to older students especially in the area of reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel found that the comprehension of text was not significantly improved when they received phonics instruction.

This notion of one size failing to fit all was further reinforced by Otaiba and Fuchs (2002) review of the characteristics of children who were unresponsive to early phonics based literacy instruction, in which they state “few researchers have suggested that either phonological awareness training or beginning decoding instruction is a silver-bullet solution that prevents reading disabilities in all children. Indeed, investigators have reported that as many as 30% of children who are at risk for reading difficulties (Blanch, 1994, 1997; Brown & Felton, 1990; Juel, 1994; Mathes, Howard, Allen, & Fuchs, 1998; Shannahan & Barr, 1995; Torgesen, Morgan, & Davis, 1992) and as many as 50% of children who have special needs (Fuchs et al., 2002; O’Connor, 2000; O’Connor, Jenkins, Leicester,& Slocum, 1993; O’Connor, Jenkins, & Slocum, 1995) may not benefit from generally effective phonological and decoding instruction.

I believe that the history of the rise and fall of reading programs continues to clearly document this reasonably consistent 30% failure rate. In fact, it appears to be a universal. In short, history has shown that once selected as the dominant reading approach – whether phonics, whole language, look-say or blended learning – up to 30% of the student body are now doomed to failure, simply because of an innate mismatch between the inappropriateness of the approach selected and the students’ deficiencies in the innate skills necessary for success. And while the makeup of the student body will change over the years due to changes in the innate skills needed for success, the 30% failure rate remains consistent.

Confused? Let me be more specific. In the late 40s and 50s the dominant reading approach used in the United States was a sight based, look-say visual reading approach called Dick and Jane. Students were introduced to Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. The words introduced were highly controlled. The stories were extremely repetitious and students learned to instantly recognize the words: “Dick”, “Jane”, “Spot” and others. The program was wildly successful. It was based on the latest scientific research and for those born with strong visual memory skills, life couldn’t be better.

But not for those with limited visual memory skills. For them, life couldn’t get any worse.

Students with a poor visual memory, hated school – especially reading. They were failing miserably and while very bright verbally, they simply couldn’t recognize “Dick”, “Jane” or “Spot. How many failed? You guessed it, about 30%. And they continued to fail, until an author by the name of Rudolph Flesch took up their cause and published, in the late fifties, a wildly popular book entitled: “Why Johnny Can’t Read”.

The premise of Rudolph’s book was quite simple. “Dick” and “Jane” and the entire sight-based approach flew in the face of scientific research. Even worse, it ignored the entire alphabetic principle and the concept of phonics. Change the approach to phonics and you will eliminate reading failure and the 30% failure rate being created by this unscientific approach. These students could then tap into their auditory strengths and no longer have to rely on a sight-based approach. Phonics was the only way to fly.

Fast-forward sixty years. The primary reading approach is now phonics – one of the five pillars of instruction. All students are taught phonics first. And when they have reading difficulty, they are given even more phonics. And it gets worse, guess what the current researchers are now finding? You guessed it again.

“Research suggest that most reading difficulties are associated with core deficits in phonological processing (e.g., Adams, 1990; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998;Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994).

And this 30% figure never changes. According to Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates (Olson, 2006), the national graduation rate is 69.6 percent. This report estimates that in 2006 more than 1.2 million students—most of them members of minority groups—will not graduate from high school in four years with a regular diploma. Nationally, while close to 30 percent of students do not graduate, only “51.6 percent of Black students, 47.4 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native students, and 55.6 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school on time with a standard diploma,” compared with more than three-quarters of non-Hispanic whites and Asians (Olson, 2006, p. 6).

Fortunately, there is help! And the first step centers on your being willing to try something new. Forget the hype about which program is best. All programs work but not for all students. You know your students. Kids who are stuck at skills need a different non-phonic first approach. There really is an alternative to teaching the alphabetic principle. They can and will learn to read for meaning with expressive fluency without phonics. Dick and Jane taught us that sixty years ago. You can see what’s working and importantly, you can see when a particular approach fails to work. And when it fails, you have to try a different approach.

This is when you have to be willing to step out on the instructional ledge and try something new. Remember in 99% of the cases the problem does not lie with you – the teacher or your students or their parents.

The problem is caused by the inappropriateness of the instructional approach as it pertains to the unique instructional needs of that student. In short, change the approach and you will change the student performance! This is why Failure Free Reading's non-phonic first approach is so effective for our nation’s current non-readers or chronic non-responders.

There is help.


Jeff Clayton - - Software Architect/IT Director