29 November 2022
Why I Signed -- An Open Letter to Parents and Others Concerned about Children who Struggle in Learning to Read

This is a letter/paper I never intended to write. However, after signing the “Opinion: A call for rejecting the newest reading wars” (hechingerreport.org/opinion-a-call-for-rejecting-t...) piece I have been called a host of names on twitter and other social media including “stupid, ignorant of the research, uncaring” and have been characterized among other things as a “child-abuser” and responsible for “sending kids to jail.” Quite the opposite, I consider myself a very caring person and a champion for children who struggle to read, their teachers, and their families. I feel it necessary to share my own thoughts and perspectives on why I signed and present my side of “the story” regarding the “Sold a Story” podcast series and blogs on why students aren’t being taught to read. The story that Emily Hanford tells is an incomplete story, and it is likely to result in readers of and listeners to her work from the general public getting a limited view of teaching reading that may cause students to continue to struggle in becoming proficient and lifelong readers.

First off, let me say that I am not an advocate of “cueing” and “guessing” approaches to phonics. Indeed, I was a co-author of the 2020 Comparing Reading Research to Program Design: An Examination of Teachers College Units of Study which was critical of such approaches. From a Science of Reading standpoint, the issue of cueing as the primary approach for phonics instruction has already been adjudicated and found to lacking – “the basic instructional model in the program is flawed, as it fails to highlight the critical importance of learning the grapheme-phoneme mapping system for learning to read English” (p.44).

However, I prefer to take a longer view of “Sold a Story” and all of Emily Hanford’s reading-related journalism that can be summarized in the title of her initial blog – “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” The ultimate issue all of us should be focused on is how to improve reading outcomes for all children, especially those who struggle in learning to become proficient readers.

As many of you may know, reading fluency is considered by the Science of Reading as an essential component of reading and the reading curriculum. I have devoted over 40 years studying reading fluency, especially as it impacts students who struggle in reading, and how it can be taught to students effectively. Here are some things we know about reading fluency:

=Fluency is recognized as an essential component in the Science of Reading.

=Fluency has been described as a “bridge” between phonics and comprehension and many children experience difficulty in crossing that bridge.

=As a bridge from phonics to comprehension, instruction in fluency has been demonstrated through multiple studies, in peer reviewed journals, to not only improve fluency, but also to improve students’ word recognition/decoding and comprehension. Thus, fluency instruction can be viewed as an effective adjunct to instruction in phonics.

=It has been recommended that fluency instruction should receive instructional time equal to instructional time allotted for phonics and word knowledge (30-45 minutes for fluency; 30-45 minutes for word study).

=Fluency instruction can begin as early as first grade, even as students are learning to master the code.

=Fluency can be effectively fostered at home as well as in school.

=A study of 4th grade struggling readers found that over 66% of students who struggle in reading exhibited difficulties in reading fluency (41% exhibited difficulties in word identification).

=The National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that 4th grade students identified as “Low- Below Basic” exhibit difficulties in word recognition. However, the same students also manifest significant difficulties in fluency - -namely word recognition automaticity (words correct per minute in oral reading) and prosody or expression in oral reading.

=A review of the research has found that instruction in fluency can be particularly effective for elementary students identified as “learning disabled.”

Thus, if you are interested in children who struggle in reading, reading fluency must be part of the conversation beginning with early reading instruction.

Here's some other information about reading fluency. An article nearly 40 years ago identified fluency as a “neglected goal” of reading curricula, the author noting that difficulties in oral reading fluency can easily be detected by simply listening to students read. However, those fluency difficulties are seldom treated. Fortunately, in 2000 the National Reading Panel identified reading fluency as a major science-based reading competency, using my own research, as well as research of other scholars, to support that conclusion. However, identifying fluency as essential for reading proficiency did not mean it would find its way into programs and reading instruction in any significant ways.

An evaluation study of Reading First, a part of No Child Left Behind, found that less than 5 minutes per day was devoted to fluency instruction in both Reading First schools where it was mandated and in non-Reading First schools (recall earlier that scholarly opinion suggests that 30-45 minutes per day be devoted to fluency instruction from grade 1 on). In the early to mid-2010s reading fluency was consistently described as a “Not Hot” topic in surveys of reading scholars. And a more recent study of time allotted for instruction in the essential reading competences found that first grade teachers allotted, an average, slightly over 25 minutes per day to word study and 13 minutes per day to fluency; for second grade teachers it was 22 minutes per day to word study and slightly over 11 minutes per day to fluency.

Thus, if we’re worried about why students struggle in reading, perhaps one of the first places we should look at is time devoted to word study and reading fluency, and of the two fluency is given substantially less instructional time and attention. Fluency was identified as largely neglected in 1983; it still is.

My interest in Emily Hanford’s journalism began with the publication of her blog Hard Words: Why aren't kids being taught to read? (September, 2018). In it (as well as subsequent blogs and podcasts) she made the case that direct and systematic phonics instruction is a critical and necessary element of any reading curricula that claims to be effective. I agreed with Emily and what she had to say. In fact, I wrote to her in February, 2019 to express my agreement with her argument that phonics needs to be taught to children in a direct, systematic, and intensive way.

However, I also added in my note to her that as important as phonics is, it is only part of the story – reading fluency also is critical and that is why I noted to her that “the work of folks such as you could be so valuable in helping the literacy education community know the importance of reading fluency, in addition to phonics.” In my email to Emily, I attached 7 research and conceptual articles on reading fluency, all peer reviewed and from highly respected journals. I also indicated to her that I would love to be able to chat with her in person. Emily responded with her thanks and indicated a keen interest in what I had presented, but she also indicated that she was currently “swamped” with other issues. I responded that I understood but added that I hoped we could stay in touch. That was the last I heard from Emily, aside from us following one another on Twitter (I have been posting free weekly word study and fluency resources on Twitter for the past two and a half years for teachers and parents). Why did she not follow up on what I had originally sent her? I do not know.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to and read Emily’s “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read went so Wrong” podcast series. Many of my critics have claimed that “the podcast wasn’t about all causes of reading difficulties.” I have a taken a longer perspective on Emily’s body of work on reading, beginning with her initial blog “Why aren’t kids being taught to read” -- as she recently posted “But phonics is not enough.” Based on the Science of Reading, the answer to why aren’t kids being taught to read needs to include more than phonics – then how about acknowledging that fluency, a competency that is important but too often ignored relative to phonics, is important and needs to be addressed instructionally along with phonics? Yet, in the 60,000+ words total that Emily has devoted to her blogs and podcasts, a length that is longer than some books, the words “fluency” or “fluent” do not appear a single time! What’s the message, then, that parents of struggling readers, policy makers, and the general public take away from reading and listening to her work? If fluency is not important enough to even mentioned once, just how important can it be?

I am certain that some readers of this paper will find fault with me – perhaps they may see this paper as grinding my own ax, deflecting, or even promoting my own agenda. I cannot determine how others reading this will interpret it. However, I will say this with a high degree of confidence and based on 40+ years of studying and working with struggling readers and their families and teachers -- students who achieve proficiency in word decoding without having achieved proficiency in reading fluency will likely continue suffer in their reading. As the noted fluency and dyslexia scholar Jan Hasbrouck has reported:

"If readers do not develop adequate levels of fluency, they can become stuck in the middle of the bridge, able to decode words but with insufficient automaticity to adequately facilitate comprehension or enjoy the process of reading. These students typically become our reluctant readers, often with dire consequences for themselves, their future families, and society as a whole."

Perhaps, then, another reason we should be concerned why “Teaching kids to read went so wrong” is that reading fluency has been and continues to be largely neglected in instruction in relation to phonics.

Interestingly, since publication of the “Opinion: A call for rejecting the newest reading wars” and since I have engaged in several discussions of the importance of fluency in social media in response to my signing the opinion piece, I have received several notes from concerned parents of children experiencing severe difficulty in learning to read asking me about this thing called reading fluency, just what is it, and why they have not learned about it previously. Perhaps these are parents and families who need and deserve to learn the whole story.


Timothy Rasinski

48 verified
  1. Chase Young
  2. Joseph Ramirez, Teacher, Alexandria
  3. Whitney Ruf, English Teacher, Ensworth School, Nashville, TN
  4. Syd Korsunsky, Teacher-Mentor-Coach, Seven Oaks School Division, Winnipeg
  5. Lynn Sullivan, Teacher, Tampa
  6. Kathleen McCarthy, Literacy, Lexington public schools, Boston
  7. Kimberly O'Mara, Third grade teacher, Rochester
  8. Wendy Donkle, Reading Interventionist, Madison
  9. Gina Toussaint, M.Ed., NBCT, Teacher, LAUSD, Los Angeles
  10. Nancy Barber, Reading Resource Teacher, Hillsborough County Schools, Tampa
  11. Joy La Vay Taylor, Student Teacher Supervisor, James Madison University, Harrisonburg
  12. Joanna Ratliff, Coordinator of Early Literacy, Keller ISD, Fort Worth
  13. Deana Bowling, Fourth grade teacher—retired, Lakota Local Schools, West Chester
  14. Shelby Ellison, Literacy Coach, Clover School District, Lake Wylie
  15. Mary Klepper, Reading Specialist, Illinois
  16. John Paul Young, Third Grade Teacher, Bellflower USD, Bellflower
  17. Kim Schwartz, Interventionist, Russellville School District, Russellville
  18. Larry Fogarty, Teacher/Literacy Coach, New York City Department of Education, New York City
  19. Victoria Wells, Deputy Headteacher, SH Primary School, London
  20. Laura Robb, Literacy Coach, Consultant, RCT, INC., Winchester
  21. Linda lindsey, Teacher, Medway public schools, Medway
  22. David L. Harrison, Children's author/poet, Springfield, MO
  23. Karol Eisenbeis, Teacher, Hidahl Elementary School, Ceres
  24. Tamara Westmoreland, retired reading specialist, retired, Issaquah, WA
  25. Martha J Lash, Professor, Early Childhood Education, Kent State University, Kent
  26. Danielle G. Gruhler, Professor of Literacy Education in Early and Middle Childhood, Kent State University, Kent
  27. Bethany Scullin, Associate Professor of Literacy, University of West Georgia, CARROLLTON
  28. Shannon Betts, Reading specialist and podcast host, Reading Teachers Lounge, Atlanta, GA
  29. Marah Miner, Third grade teacher, Olentangy Local Schools, Lewis Center
  30. Merryl Casanova, 4th grade teacher/Literacy Coach, PS 206Q, Howard Beach
  31. Jaclyn Karabinas, educator, Newington
  32. Philip Lavery, Teacher, Mt St Michael's P.S. Randalstown Ireland, Craigavon
  33. Lisa Caldwell, LIteracy Coach, Madison CT Public Schools, Madison CT
  34. Robert A. Griffin, Assistant Professor of Literacy, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA
  35. Tom Grasso, Literacy Specialist, Lexington Public Schools, Somerville, MA
  36. Katherine Pyskaty, Literacy Specialist, Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, MA
  37. Christine Eddis, Literacy Specialist, Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, MA
  38. Julie DeMicco, Reading Clinician, City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago
  39. Mandi Cicalo, Reading Specialist, Emerson Elementary School Owosso Public Schools, Owosso
  40. Herneika Johnson, PreK-8 Principal, Toledo Public Schools, Toledo
  41. Gail Dahling-Hench, Assistant Superintendent, Madison Public Schools, Madison
  42. Michelle Horn, Literacy coach, Madison Public Schools, Madison
  43. Marci Stone, Kindergarten teacher, Cedar ridge elementary, Newark , ar
  44. Cheryl Potenza-Radis, Assistant professor, Early Childhood Education, Kent State University, Kent
  45. Deborah Katz EdD, Education Consultant, Private, St Paul MN
  46. Abbey Galeza, Kent State University
  47. Grace Vyduna-Haskins, Curriculum writer, The Spel-Lang Tree, Loveland CO
  48. Lee Ann Spillane, High School English teacher, Curriculum Specialist, author
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