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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Reading Research Is Getting Lost in Translation. What You Need to Know

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 01, 2023 8 min read
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Today’s post is the final one in a three-part series on how teachers can respond to the reading wars.

‘Not New’

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High:

The reading wars are not new. Our profession has debated the best ways to teach children to read for many decades. In part, this is because it’s hard work. In fact, Moats (2020) says “Teaching reading is rocket science.” In part, the reading wars are a recognition that there is a gap between the state of knowledge and current practice. In every professional field, there is the need for translational research, or as it is known in medicine, from bench to bedside.

Of course, knowledge about effective reading instruction has existed for decades, but the implementation of that body of evidence has been uneven. The current reading wars focus on phonics instruction, as have previous reading wars. In too many classrooms, there is a salt-and-pepper approach to phonics: a little here and a little there. The evidence clearly indicates that most children need a systematic and explicit approach to learn grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

But the current reading wars extend beyond phonics. There is wider recognition that word recognition and language comprehension each need attention. In terms of word recognition, when it comes to alphabetics, the outdated approach of “letter of the week” needs to be replaced (Ruetzel, 1992). There is even evidence about the order in which letters should be taught (e.g., Jones et al., 2013), yet some instructional materials are outdated.

And we know much more about learning words by sight, including the process of orthographic mapping. As Kilpatrick explained, “Orthographic mapping proposes that we use the pronunciations of words that are already stored in long-term memory as the anchoring points for the orthographic sequences (letters) used to represent those pronunciations.” This has implications for the classroom in terms of ensuring students understand how to pronounce words and have multiple opportunities to practice reading those words. Rather than conflating sight words with high-frequency words, we now know that when they grow up, all words want to be sight words.

We also know a lot about reading fluency. Research in this area has outpaced implementation. When oral-reading fluency assessments were introduced, students were timed while reading and told to read faster so that they could obtain 90 percent on fluency norms. That’s not best practice according to Jan Hasbrouck, co-author of the fluency norms, who notes that there are many influences in reading fluently, each of which needs to be taught.

It’s not likely that the reading wars will end any time soon. It’s important to recognize that teaching reading is complex and cannot be left to chance. Students need instruction all aspects of word recognition and language comprehension in a systematic and intentional way. And they deserve to have teachers to continually update their knowledge base about effective instruction and actually work to implement that knowledge.

Jones, C. D., Clark, S. K., & Reutzel, D. R. (2013). Enhancing alphabet knowledge instruction: Research implications and practical strategies for early childhood educators. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(2), 81–89.

Reutzel, D. R. (1992). Breaking the letter-a-week tradition. Childhood Education, 69(1), 20.


‘What Are YOUR Students’ Needs?’

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a secondary-level literacy specialist and English teacher in Minnesota:

The term “reading wars” raises blood pressure and anxiety levels. It turns the media, education professionals, and stakeholders into frantic soldiers ... shooting anecdotes and POVs across enemy lines ... firing “research and interpretations of research” missiles out into the Twittersphere with the hope of maiming and destroying those who do not agree.

Battlefield aside, when considering these discussions and possible district and state ideas on what is best for our students, here are two areas for teachers to consider:

One size does not fit all.

What is your experience regarding your location, student demographic, and the chemistry of your classes? What are YOUR students’ needs?

As a secondary-level literacy specialist and ELA teacher, I normally do not teach beginning readers. Students come to me from elementary school with different reading experiences. Some readers are just rusty and need physical space and encouragement to read. Other students may need some decoding work. Some may need to brush up on their skills and be challenged at the same time. We need the freedom to treat our students as individuals with unique needs. A reading professional will make sure all students’ needs are met in their ability to decode, comprehend, think about, and apply reading in whatever way this needs to happen.

The importance of “reading identity.”

Scoggin and Schneewind define reading identity as being “comprised of five aspects: attitude, self-efficacy, habits, reading choice and process.” (See their work here.) How are you able to foster students’ agency in their literacy? How do you assess their needs? How do you work with those needs? What does the research say is best practice for your situation?

For example, professionals will often initially mistake a lack of reading experience in older students with a need for intensive phonics work. But is phonics the problem? Oftentimes, the teen has the decoding knowledge but hasn’t practiced reading in a long time. Why hasn’t the student been reading? Why doesn’t the student like reading? What aspect(s) of reading identity is the student missing? Needlessly drilling phonics in this case will ultimately kill a teacher’s last chance to create an invested reader.

Assess where a student is in their reading identity. A good way to do this assessment is by conferring regularly with students within the context of their independent reading. This practice will guide the process to a reader’s true needs. Conferring in this environment may involve working with decoding skills, keeping records, or just cheering students on in their journey. Teachers can also use this opportunity to share themselves as readers with the student. Developing and growing the reader’s identity creates a reason to read and a firm foundation for future growth.

Teachers need to retain the freedom to decide best practice based on the individual needs of their readers. They may need to communicate those needs to administrators and back up their observations with action-research data. Preserving a teacher’s prerogative to differentiate instruction and nurture growth will develop the strongest, most curious readers—a first step in creating literate students.


Thanks to Douglas, Nancy, and Mary Beth for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

How can teachers best make sense of the so-called “Reading Wars,” and what practical implications does it have for their work in the classroom?

In Part One, Michele Caracappa and Jana Echevarria shared their reflections.

In Part Two, Jennifer Borgioli Binis, Valentina Gonzalez , and Ann Stiltner contributed their reflections.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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