Fact-checking Phonics, NRP, and NCTQ

The “science of reading” movement often claims that a systematic intensive phonics-first approach to teaching reading is endorsed by science that is settled, that the National Reading Panel (NRP) is a key element of that settled science, and that teacher education is mostly absent of that “science of reading” (a message that has been central to NCTQ for many years).

These claims, however, misrepresent what evidence actually shows. Here, then, are some evidence-based fact-checks of phonics, NRP, and NCTQ.


Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)


There is a widespread consensus in the research community that reading instruction in English should first focus on teaching letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences rather than adopt meaning-based reading approaches such as whole language instruction. That is, initial reading instruction should emphasize systematic phonics. In this systematic review, I show that this conclusion is not justified based on (a) an exhaustive review of 12 meta-analyses that have assessed the efficacy of systematic phonics and (b) summarizing the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007. The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction.

[For context, note some of the problems remaining in how whole language is addressed in this post.]

National Reading Panel

The Federal Government Wants Me to Teach What?: A Teacher’s Guide to the National Reading Panel Report, Diane Stephens (NCTE, 2008)

An Ever-So-Brief Summary with Book Recommendations

1. Phonemic Awareness. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, this is best taught to very young children (K–1) using letters, and when letters are used, PA instruction is considered to be phonics. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a separate instructional time for PA. Rather, children should have opportunities to learn about how language is made up of parts (e.g., onsets and rimes, or word families) as part of phonics instruction. An effective way to do this in the classroom? Provide time for students to write using invented spelling (pp. 2-1 through 2-86). (See Strickland, 1998, for further information about invented spelling.)

2. Phonics. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, there is no evidence that phonics instruction helps in kindergarten or in grades 2 to 9. It does help first graders learn the alphabetic principle—that there is a relationship between letters and sounds. No one method is better than any other. For example, for at-risk first graders, a modified whole language approach and one-on-one Reading Recovery–like instruction both helped children with comprehension (pp. 2-89 through 2-176). This phonics instruction should be conducted in the context of whole, meaningful text. (See Moustafa, 1997, for information on embedded, whole-part-whole instruction.)

3. Fluency. According to the authors of the Fluency report, the practice of round robin (at any age) does not help children and can indeed hurt them. However, according to the studies cited in the Fluency report, repeated oral reading (K–12) helps with comprehension because reading to readers fluidly instead of word-by-word reading helps them better understand the text. Ways to help with this? Try such things as readers theater (pp. 3-1 through 3-43). (See Opitz and Rasinski’s Good-bye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies [1998] for additional instructional suggestions.)

4. Vocabulary (grades 3 to 8). One method is not better than another. Children learn most of their vocabulary incidentally (pp. 4-15 through 4-35). (For further information about vocabulary learning, see Nagy, 1988.)

5. Comprehension (grades 3 to 6). Children need to learn that print makes sense and to develop a variety of strategies for making sense of print (pp. 4-39 through 4-168). (For further information on teaching for comprehension, see the references listed in Chapter 8: Beers, 2002; Sibberson & Szymusiak, 2003; Taberski, 2000; Tovani, 2000; see also Harvey & Goudvis, 2000.)

Across all of these recommendations? According to the studies cited in the NRP report, if we want children to learn something, we need to teach them that something. Want great readers? Then teach children what great readers do.

NCTQ (Teacher Education)

NOTE: This is more complicated, but first I am posting an older (2006) and new (2020) report from NCTQ both making essentially the same claims that teacher education fails to teach the “science of reading.” Then, I include a link to several reviews that show that NCTQ’s “reports” are methodologically flawed and essentially propaganda, not “science.”

What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching (2006)

2020 Teacher Prep Review: Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction

NEPC reviews of NCTQ reports

NCTQ on States’ Teacher Evaluation Systems’ Failures, Again


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