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Just Adding More Phonics Yields Only Short-Term Gains on Reading Tests
A recent study finds the benefits fade out after fifth grade.
State policies focused on improving phonics instruction can boost reading scores, but their effects fade by middle school, according to a recent study. To ensure students become truly literate, states also need to adopt policies aimed at building children’s knowledge beginning in the early grades.
The study, conducted by two researchers at Michigan State University, used data on 42 states that had adopted “early literacy policies” by 2021. Those policies are aimed primarily at improving students’ abilities to decipher, or “decode,” written words in kindergarten through grade three. They include 17 “fundamental principles,” including training teachers in the science of reading and retaining struggling readers at third grade, that those states have adopted to varying degrees.
Although the term “science of reading” should be defined to include all evidence that relates to reading, it’s mostly used to refer to the evidence supporting systematic instruction in phonics. Many teachers have been trained to encourage children to guess at words rather than requiring them to use phonics to sound words out, and media coverage has focused almost exclusively on efforts to change that aspect of reading instruction. A recent AP story says that “every state” has passed some form of legislation mentioning “dyslexia or the science of reading.”
In what appears to be the first evaluation of the effects of such state policies on a national scale, the Michigan researchers found they generally improve scores on state reading tests in grades three to five, especially in states with third-grade retention requirements. They also found some evidence that the policies slightly narrow test-score gaps between “historically underserved students” and others. The study was described in a paper presented at a meeting of the American Educational Research Association earlier this month. (The most recent year for which the researchers had data was 2019, so the study doesn’t reflect the effects of the pandemic.)
But the researchers also found “little evidence of significant changes in reading performance in grades six through eight, even after elementary students exposed to the policy age into these grades.” In other words, whatever reading gains students make in elementary school fade out by the time they reach middle school.
That finding is consistent with prior evidence at the state level, according to the Michigan researchers. Studies have found, for example, that Florida’s third-grade retention requirement had “short-term positive effects on reading achievement, but these effects dissipated as students progressed through school.”
No Boost to “Literacy Learning”
The researchers also suggest that these measures improve “reading achievement” but not “literacy learning,” except in states with the most comprehensive policies. They base that conclusion on the fact that states with early literacy policies generally didn’t see higher reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “NAEP.” Those tests are given every two years to a representative sample of U.S. students in grades four and eight.
But the NAEP—like the state-level assessments—purports to be a test of reading comprehension ability rather than “learning.” In response to my question about why they considered the NAEP a measure of learning, one of the researchers, John Westall, explained that in their view, the difference has to do with the stakes attached to the tests.
State tests are “high-stakes” because poor scores may result in significant consequences for schools and teachers—and, in states with third-grade retention policies, for some students as well. That encourages “teaching to the test,” and it might result in state authorities making the test easier. But low scores on the NAEP have few consequences, so the argument is that “it more accurately measures students’ actual skills in the subject area tested,” Westall told me.
That assumes that any test can accurately measure comprehension skills in the abstract, which—as I’ve argued elsewhere—is unlikely. The passages on reading tests are on random topics that have nothing to do with what students have learned in school.
They purport to test skills like “making inferences,” but if students don’t have the background knowledge to understand the passage at least at a superficial level, they never get a chance to demonstrate their “skills.” That’s why cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has called these tests “knowledge tests in disguise.” Because students from more highly educated families are better able to pick up academic knowledge outside school, they generally score higher on both state reading tests and the NAEP.
At the same time, the “skills” supposedly assessed by the state tests are more predictable, because they align with state standards. So a fourth-grade teacher might, for example, realize that her students will need to know what a “metaphor” is and make sure she spends time teaching that concept. That could lead to her students getting higher scores on the state test than on the NAEP.
So the NAEP is a better gauge of “learning” in the sense that the knowledge it’s testing is even more unpredictable than the knowledge assessed by the state test. But it’s still essentially testing knowledge rather than skills.
Even though none of these tests aim to assess kids’ decoding ability, a focus on decoding skills has been found to improve even NAEP scores at lower grade levels—but that effect also fades out at higher grades. Reading researcher Timothy Shanahan has observed that during a previous big push for “more phonics,” in the early 2000s, reading scores did improve on the fourth-grade NAEP, but that didn’t translate into higher NAEP scores when the same cohort of students reached eighth grade or high school.
Why the Boost from Phonics Fades Out
The bottom line is that policies focused on improving kids’ decoding skills seem to have only short-term effects. Why would that be?
Well, obviously, decoding words is only one component of reading. At earlier grade levels, decoding ability is the primary determinant of reading scores, but comprehension becomes more important as grade levels increase and the reading passages get more complex.
Educators and curriculum publishers have long approached reading comprehension as though it was just a matter of teaching largely illusory skills, like “finding the main idea,” to be practiced on random topics. The questions on reading tests seem to assess those skills as well. In an effort to boost scores, schools have intensified their focus on the skills, marginalizing subjects like social studies, science, and the arts throughout the elementary grades and sometimes through middle school.
The push for more phonics may be squeezing out even the paltry amount of time elementary schools have spent on those subjects. A recent AP story from Georgia noted that third-grade teachers at a school where many children read below grade level decided after Christmas break to “cut back on social studies and science to give students extra instruction and practice for the rest of the year” in decoding skills.
But these efforts to boost scores—and academic achievement—will backfire in the long term because reading comprehension depends more on knowledge than on supposedly abstract skills. And social studies and science are the subjects most likely to build the academic knowledge that equips students to read more complex text.
If children learn to decode well, they may appear to be on track for success at lower grade levels, where the tests—and whatever else they’re asked to read—don’t assume much sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary. But when they get to higher grades, the tests, and the texts they’re supposed to read for class, do assume that kind of knowledge. If they don’t have it, they hit a wall. That explains the fade-out phenomenon.
Building Knowledge Can Equip Kids to Understand Complex Text
If we want to equip students to understand the texts they’ll be expected to read in the future, we have to start planting the seeds of success early—not just giving them decoding skills but also reading aloud from texts they can’t yet read themselves and engaging them in discussions of the content. If that’s done in a coherent way, which involves spending at least a few weeks on a topic and sequencing the topics in a logical order, children will retain sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary that will serve them well in years to come.
Like phonics instruction, instruction in comprehension skills yields a short-term boost that fades out over time, according to a meta-analysis by Nathaniel Hansford. Theoretically, building knowledge should have the opposite effect: little short-term boost but a greater positive impact over time. That’s because it can take years for students to acquire the critical mass of academic vocabulary that enables them to understand texts on unfamiliar topics, like the passages on reading tests. We don’t have nearly as much evidence on knowledge-building as on comprehension skills instruction, but what we do have indicates the theory is correct.
That doesn’t mean we should abandon comprehension skills and strategies. It just means they need to be deployed in the service of building knowledge rather than taught as ends in themselves.
Instead of using a text to teach, say, the supposedly abstract skill of “comparing and contrasting,” teachers can read aloud a series of texts to kids about sharks, followed by a series of texts about whales. Then they can ask what the similarities are between the two (they both live in the ocean) and the differences (sharks are fish and whales are mammals)—or any other questions that could help students think deeply about the content. It turns out that kids not only learn more with that approach, they’re also generally a lot more engaged.
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Nor does this mean that the many states that now have “early literacy policies” should abandon them. They just need to expand their focus beyond foundational reading skills like phonics. They would do well to follow the lead of the few states, like Tennessee, that require or guide districts to adopt an elementary literacy curriculum that both covers foundational reading skills and builds academic knowledge. The Knowledge Matters Campaign has identified six such curricula.
Media coverage of reading also needs to widen its focus. As education journalist Holly Korbey recently observed in The Grade, “it’s crucial that journalists follow up on schools and districts implementing reforms and dig into whether they make a difference in student literacy.” That should include looking not just at elementary school but later grades as well.
If states focus only on phonics, they’ll eventually find that many middle and high school students can decode complex text but can’t understand it. In the worst-case scenario, that could lead educators to conclude, as some have before, that phonics “doesn’t work.” And the pendulum could swing away from phonics again.
It’s not too late to prevent it from happening, but—as the push for “more phonics” and no other changes to literacy instruction sweeps the country—I fear the window of opportunity is narrowing.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.