Reading & Literacy Opinion

A Focus on Phonics or Comprehension? What Reading Research Should Look Like in Practice

To develop good readers, teach students to coordinate multiple skills to make meaning
By Elena Forzani & Andrea Bien — August 10, 2023 5 min read
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As schools around the nation scramble to respond to the alarm bells set off by falling scores on “the nation’s report card,” we—two university professors who teach reading courses and who are former elementary teachers—are watching. We get it. We, too, want to see better results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We, too, worry about schools not effectively teaching what many believe is the building block of reading instruction, phonics. That needs to be corrected. But phonics, which has made its way to the center of the “science of reading” movement, is neither the whole problem nor the whole solution. That’s because phonics only focuses on sounding out words. It does not support readers to understand or analyze those words.

In that race to replace existing instruction with phonics-centered approaches, we are concerned about what lies on the other side of what could be a well-intentioned but misguided overcorrection, like the kind the United Kingdom is seeing now. There, beginning in 2012, phonics instruction was isolated and not well integrated into meaning-based instruction. As a result, the U.K. started seeing lower test scores.

If we focus on phonics instruction that is removed from actual reading, students will continue to fail assessments like NAEP. More importantly, they are unlikely to become successful, self-motivated readers. Focusing on phonics as a solution for better reading-comprehension scores is a flawed strategy, as insufficient phonics knowledge is unlikely to be the only reason children struggle to comprehend. How do we know that?

First, phonics knowledge does not always translate into skillfully comprehending text. Some students can decode words quickly and smoothly but still not deeply understand what they are reading.

Second, reading is complex, and research suggests that there likely are many, sometimes interrelated, reasons why kids struggle to comprehend. For example, one study found that, of a set of 3rd graders who failed a state reading-comprehension test, only 8.1 percent struggled to decode accurately. Another 28.5 percent could decode accurately but read slowly. And the majority of students, 63.3 percent, could decode and read effortlessly but didn’t comprehend well. Other studies have drawn similar conclusions.

Third, when teaching focuses solely on phonics, children often don’t have sustained opportunities to engage in high-level reasoning with advanced texts. But, this is exactly what reading-comprehension questions, like those found on NAEP, demand.

Kids need phonics and comprehension instruction. The Simple View of Reading, an older and incomplete framework of reading that many schools have taken up recently, suggests that basic comprehension occurs automatically if students develop decoding skills and listening comprehension (the latter using what they already know to understand a text). However, this theory excludes deep comprehension, such as analysis, synthesis, and critique.

Children do need phonics instruction. But, it should happen in the context of real reading.

This is a troubling exclusion, as children are not likely to develop these deeper comprehension skills without explicit instruction combined with practice using self-regulated word-solving, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies during reading. Deep comprehension requires engaging students in discussion and reasoning with text, which supports them to ask questions, to draw on prior knowledge and develop new knowledge, to make predictions and inferences, to synthesize, and to critique. Such reading skills are essential for participating in our 21st-century information society, where people need to be able to synthesize information across multiple, complex, and often digital and multimodal texts while also evaluating credibility.

Children do need phonics instruction. But, it should happen in the context of real reading. When learning to ride a bike, we don’t learn to pedal just to pedal. We learn to pedal to move a bike forward, for fun, or to get somewhere. Similarly, students need to learn skills for authentic, motivating purposes, including learning about themselves and others, acquiring new knowledge, analyzing the world, and cultivating joy. One way to accomplish this is by integrating reading with science and social studies instruction to support students’ development of vocabulary, linguistics, and other forms of knowledge that contribute, in important ways, to reading comprehension.

So, instead of investing solely in methods that just aren’t working, let’s use this opportunity to support authentic, skilled reading that focuses on making meaning with text in ways that are relevant to students. Instead of relying on The Simple View of reading, which promotes basic comprehension, let’s instead draw on a more comprehensive view, such as the Active View of Reading, which supports deep comprehension. The Active View extends The Simple View by drawing on more recent research to account for the multiple factors, in addition to decoding and language comprehension, that current research shows are important for effective reading, including fluency, motivation, executive-function skills, and strategy use. Importantly, instruction needs to support all these factors in coordination.

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What does this look like in practice?

Schools should ensure that reading instruction reflects what we know from research by including at least five key components in a context that is engaging and motivating to the students in front of us. First, teachers need to provide explicit and systematic modeling and practice of phonics-related skills, including blending sounds together to sound out words. Second, students need practice applying those skills, with and without teacher support, by reading decodables (books with phonics patterns students already have learned) to support phonics-in-context and fluency. Third, students need to develop multiple forms of knowledge to unlock meaning that is often assumed and not always explicitly stated in texts. Fourth, students need explicit instruction in comprehension skills and strategies. Finally, students need time to employ self-regulation to coordinate these skills as they read, write, discuss, and reason with various texts.

Rather than stoking the fires of yet another round of “reading wars” and swinging the pendulum too far in either direction, let’s work together to support our children to become good readers by engaging them in instruction that focuses on phonics in context with the goal of deep comprehension. If we can come together to do this, we can produce a nation of skilled readers. And, yes, probably better NAEP reading scores, too.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Reading Research Should Look Like in Practice


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