Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Invest in libraries, not intensive phonics.

Sent to the Australian, July 3, 2014

Those supporting a "direct instruction" heavy phonics-based approach to teaching reading ("Pyne eyes national Direct Instruction rollout," July 2), might be interested in what the research says about this method: Direct instruction children do very well on tests of "decoding" (pronouncing words presented to them in a list) but do not do as well on tests in which they have to understand what they read.

Research also confirms that the only way to do well on tests of reading comprehension is to do a great deal of self-selected pleasure reading. Students who live in high poverty areas have little chance to do this, because of the lack of books in their homes, and often in their schools. These children don't need more intensive phonics: They need to have what middle-class children have: Access to books.  We can make sure all children have access to reading material by investing in libraries and librarians.

Stephen Krashen

Some sources:

Research on direct instruction
Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive decoding instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74.
Research on Pleasure reading:
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Heinemann Publishing Company and Libraries Unlimited.
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. 2013. Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London
Research on Libraries:
Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.

Original article:


  1. Automatic word recognition is necessary--but not sufficient--for skilled reading. For reading to be enjoyable, the low-level task of word recognition needs to be effortless. Assessments help us identify children who need intensive phonics instruction. Of course students need access to wonderful texts...that's not the point. But to simply immerse students in text and expect some of them to figure out how to read on their own is just as bad as throwing kids into the deep end and hoping they'll figure out how to swim. They may tread water, their heads barely above the surface, but they won't learn to love swimming. It's not a "this, but not that" question. Careful assessments and serious, targeted interventions will help every child learn to love reading.

  2. Steven,
    What do you know/think about Teacher's College (Lisa Cauklin?) training to teach reading and writing (lots of post-its)?

    1. I know you didn't ask me, but it's Lucy Calkins at the TC Institute for Reading and Writing. (My M.A. is from TC's reading specialist program.)

  3. @ Cathy I don't think Stephen was suggesting just throwing books at kids and hoping they would figure it out. Maybe he's thinking about that good old-fashioned technique of providing kids with things they actually enjoy and maybe helping them to understand the parts they're having trouble with. You learn from things you enjoy. I know I don't enjoy intensive phonics that much and I don't imagine a lot of kids do. Seems to me that these intensive phonics folks are so worried about everyone becoming perfect spellers. I'd rather we have imperfect spellers who are engaged and excited by learning. Remember Wittgenstein was a horrible speller. Or are you worried that we won't be able to compete with the Chinese because they might spell better than us. I sure ain't.

    1. I worry when I hear people imply that phonics isn't all that important. To be a successful reader, one needs automatic word recognition. You don't get that without phonics. Some children don't need so much phonics instruction, but many do, and they need it if they are to learn to love reading. I'm against sweeping statements and one-size-fits-all instruction. For me, if a child needs intensive phonics instruction (and many low-income students and English language learners do...we just need to assess them for it) and it's not provided as expertly as that child needs it to be, it's a social injustice. I think teachers are intimidated/bored by phonics instruction, but many children will never develop a love for reading without it.

  4. I don't see why it's either/or. Access to books should always be a focus. However providing those books does insure children will read them, especially in high poverty areas, where parents are not always available or able to read with their children as they are more apt to do in middle class settings.

    There should be an emphasis on both reading for pleasure and comprehension as well as phonics. If children are unfamiliar with vocabulary or unable to read and pronounce words, how can we expect them to want to continue?