Ten Myths of Reading Instruction

by Sebastian Wren
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 3, December 2002, Putting Reading First

Myths  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | Related Resources and Products

Myth 1: Learning to read is a natural process.

It has long been argued that learning to read, like learning to understand spoken language, is a natural phenomenon. It has often been suggested that children will learn to read if they are simply immersed in a literacy-rich environment and allowed to develop literacy skills in their own way. This pernicious belief that learning to read is a natural process resulting from rich text experiences is surprisingly prevalent in education—despite the fact that learning to read is not only unnatural, it is one of the most unnatural things humans do.

 There is a difference between learning to read text and learning to understand a spoken language. Learning to understand speech is indeed a natural process; starting before birth, children tune in to spoken language in their environment, and as soon as they are able, they begin to incorporate a language. If the linguistic environment is not sufficiently rich or if it is confusing, the innate drive to find a language is so strong that, if necessary, children will create a language of their own (examples of this include twin languages and pidgin languages). Given the opportunity, children will naturally develop all of the essential comprehension skills for the language to which they are exposed with little structured or formal guidance.

By contrast, reading acquisition is not natural. While the ability to understand speech evolved over many, many thousands of years, reading and writing are human inventions that have been around for merely a few thousand years. It has been only within the past few generations that some cultures have made any serious attempt to make literacy universal among their citizens.

If reading were natural, everybody would be doing it, and we would not have to worry about dealing with a 'literacy gap.' According to the National Institute for Literacy and the Center for Education Statistics, more than 40 million adults in this country alone are functionally illiterate, and despite our best educational efforts, approximately 40 percent of our fourth graders lack even the most basic reading skills. These staggering numbers provide evidence that reading is a skill that is quite unnatural and difficult to learn.

Myth 2: Children will eventually learn to read if given enough time.

This is arguably the second most pernicious myth, and it is closely related to the first. Many who claim that reading is natural also claim that children should be given time to develop reading skills at their own pace. This is a double-edged sword because, while it is true that children should be taught to read in developmentally appropriate ways, we should not simply wait for children to develop reading skills in their own time. When a child is not developing reading skills along with his or her peers, that situation should be of great concern.

Over time, the gap between children who have well-developed literacy skills and those who do not gets wider and wider. In the early grades, the literacy gap is relatively easy to cross, and with diagnostic, focused instruction, effective teachers can help children who have poor literacy skills become children with rich literacy skills. However, if literacy instruction needs are not met early, then the gap widens—the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer—until it gets so wide that bridging it requires extensive, intensive, expensive, and frustrating remedial instruction. The gap reaches this nearly insurmountable point very early. Research has shown that if a child is not reading grade-appropriate materials by the time he or she is in the fourth grade, the odds of that child ever developing good reading skills are slim. It is still possible, but it is much more difficult, and the child's own motivation becomes the biggest obstacle to success.

Myth 3: Reading programs are "successful."

It is common for schools to buy an off-the-shelf reading program to address their reading instruction needs and trust that the program will solve their school's literacy issues. Typically, these programs are designed to address a single part of the overall reading curriculum (for example, phonics programs or phoneme awareness programs or reading motivation programs), but often a school purchases a program with the hope that it will be a cure for the school's low reading achievement.

There are a few programs that, if properly implemented, could help a school move in the right direction, but nothing could ever take the place of a knowledgeable and talented teacher.

Although such reading programs can be a useful part of a larger reading curriculum, no reading program by itself has ever been shown to be truly "successful"—not with all children and all teachers. And no reading program by itself has been shown to accelerate all children to advanced levels of performance. Some of these programs, when properly implemented, have been shown to improve overall reading scores significantly (especially in low-performing schools), but that improvement is often a long way from what anyone should describe as "success." If 60 percent of the students in a school are performing unacceptably on the benchmark reading assessments, moving that number to 40 percent is an improvement, but it is still unsatisfactory. There are a few programs that, if properly implemented, could help a school move in the right direction, but nothing could ever take the place of a knowledgeable and talented teacher. Typically these programs do not provide substantial professional development for teachers beyond the basic training teachers need to implement the program in their classrooms.

Research has repeatedly indicated that the single most important variable in any reading program is the knowledge and skill of the teacher implementing the program, so why do we persist in trying to develop "teacher-proof" programs? Some would argue that it is our overdependence on such programs that prevents us from cultivating more knowledgeable and effective teachers. To achieve success for all children, teachers must become extremely sophisticated and diagnostic in their approach to reading instruction, and substantial resources must be devoted toward professional development for teachers. Every child is different: A program cannot be sensitive to the varied and rapidly evolving learning needs of individual children, but a knowledgeable teacher certainly can.

Myth 4: We used to do a better job of teaching children to read.

The good old days weren't always so good. We have, in fact, never done a better job of teaching children to read than we do today. The bad news is we've never really done a worse job either. We are basically just as successful today as we have always been—which is not very successful.

Nothing illustrates this better than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This assessment has been given to children aged 9, 13, and 17 across the country since 1970. Student performance at those three age levels has not changed substantially in over 30 years—consistently between 24 percent and 39 percent of students have scored in the "below basic" category (depending on the age tested), and between 3 percent and 7 percent have scored in the "advanced" category. Other investigations have found that literacy rates have not really changed in this country since World War II.

While the literacy rates have not changed substantially, the demand and need for literacy has increased markedly. Literacy now is a prerequisite for success. In the future, the ability to read will be an increasingly indispensable skill given the growing technology and information explosion. Clearly we do not need to get back to the old ways of teaching children to read—the old ways were really no better than (and some would argue, no different from) the current ways. Relatively recent research has given us great insights into why some children have difficulty learning to read, and the next frontier in reading education is to help teachers understand and apply that research information.

Myth 5: Skilled reading involves using syntactic and semantic cues to guess words, and good readers make many "mistakes" as they read authentic text.

Research indicates that both of these claims are quite wrong, but both are surprisingly pervasive in reading instruction. The idea that good readers use contextual cues to guess words in running text comes from a method of assessment developed by Ken Goodman that he called "miscue analysis." For his dissertation, Goodman examined the types of mistakes that young readers make and drew inferences about the strategies they employ as they read. He noticed that the children in his studies very often made errors as they read, but many of these errors did not change the meaning of the text (like misreading "rabbit" as "bunny"). He surmised the reason must be that good readers depend on context to predict upcoming words in passages of text. He further suggested that for good readers, these contextual cues are so important that the reader needs only occasionally to "sample" from the text—that is, look at a few of the words on the page—to confirm the predictions. Children who struggle to sound out words, Goodman says, are overdependant on letter and word cues and should learn to pay more attention to the semantic and syntactic cues.

Goodman's model, which eventually gave rise to the "Three Cueing Systems" model of word recognition, is extremely influential in reading instruction, but has never been supported by research evidence.

In fact, repeated studies have shown that only poor readers depend upon context to try to "guess" words in text—good readers depend heavily upon the visual information contained in the words themselves (that is, the letter and word cues) to quickly and automatically identify the word. Psychologist and researcher Keith Stanovich has been especially critical of the three-cueing-systems model because the predictions made by the model are exactly the opposite of what has been observed in research studies. Philip Gough, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and I addressed the second claim and showed that good readers almost never make any mistakes at all when they read, which means the notion of conducting a "miscue analysis" is somewhat suspect—how can you perform a miscue analysis when there are typically no miscues? We had over 400 college students read a passage of text from Ken Goodman's Phonics Phacts (Heinemann, 1993) and showed that the modal number of mistakes made by these students was zero. Almost all of the students read the passage flawlessly. To suggest that good readers correctly guess the words in the passage with 100 percent accuracy stretched the boundaries of credulity.

However, to be sure, we examined how accurate readers would be if they were forced to use semantics and context as their only cues. We concealed the passage of text and asked our college students to guess each of the words in the passage one at a time; after each guess, the correct word was revealed, and students were asked to guess the next word. This process was repeated for every word in the passage, so the students always knew the words leading up to the unknown word.

We found that, given unlimited time to ponder, students were able to correctly guess one out of ten content words in the passage. That's a 90 percent failure rate, as opposed to the zero percent failure rate seen in skilled readers who were not forced to make guesses based on context.

Research has shown that good readers depend very heavily upon the visual information contained in the word-for-word identification (what is commonly called the graphemic information or orthographic information). The semantic and syntactic information are critical for comprehension of passages of text, but they do not play an important role in decoding or identifying words. Good readers make virtually no mistakes as they read because they have developed extremely effective and efficient word identification skills that do not depend upon semantics, context, or syntax. For good readers, word identification is fast, fluent, and automatic—it must be so that their attention can be fully focused on using semantics and syntax to comprehend the text.

Myth 6: Research can be used to support your beliefs, whatever they are.

Unfortunately, it is true that many people selectively search and sample the research literature, citing only the research that seems to support their preconceived notions. Often research results are skewed or biased to appear to be consistent with hypotheses proposed.

 And unfortunately, there are many people who are unwilling to reject a hypothesis or a theory even when research evidence does not support that theory. Adding to the problem of poor research is the problem that the public is largely uninformed about the hallmarks of good research.

Many articles appear to be "research" articles, but are not. The article you are reading right now, for example, might be cited as "research" by some, but in fact this is not a research article. This is rather an article written by a researcher, and that is an important distinction. This article, and others that appear in journals like Phi Delta Kappan and The Reading Teacher, are written as informative articles. These articles are usually meant to be analogous to newspaper articles, but are often more like editorials or commentaries. They may stimulate thought and focus attention on interesting issues, but they are not in any way "research" articles.

Publishing a research article requires a great deal of rigor and objectivity, and all good research publications have a formal, relatively unbiased expert peer review process. Research studies are tested and scrutinized from many angles by multiple, unrelated researchers. There is documented objectivity associated with research, and where possible, there is replication of results. And even after all of that, a healthy skepticism is still adopted by the research community. Researchers know that one piece of research evidence is nothing to get excited about. Several bits of evidence might get some attention. But it is only when there is substantial convergent evidence from multiple sources supporting a theory that the research community is willing to embrace the theory.

It takes years to convince the research community that a theory has merit, but often it takes no time at all to convince the public. The media tend to pay attention to unexpected or unusual findings—take the recent contretemps about cold fusion, for example. There is a mountain of evidence showing that cold fusion is not possible given our current technology and understanding of physics. But when one research team circumvented the normal channels of peer review and claimed that they had found a solution for cold fusion, they were celebrated in the media, and the public paid a great deal of attention to their claims.

It is true that "research-based" fads and programs come and go, but that stems from misuse of the term research-based. All of us need to adopt a bit of healthy skepticism, and we should demand that a substantial research base be provided as evidence to support claims. We also must learn to pay more attention to the research evidence and less attention to the messenger—the credentials of a researcher are important, but even researchers can editorialize and put forth unfounded opinions. That a well-known researcher said it doesn't make it so.

Myth 7: Phoneme awareness is a consequence—not a cause—of reading acquisition.

The evidence showing the importance of phoneme awareness to literacy acquisition is overwhelming. Still, there are some who are not convinced. Some claim that teaching children to develop phoneme awareness is not necessary or even beneficial. They usually believe children develop phoneme awareness as they learn to read, but they claim phoneme awareness is nothing more than a byproduct of reading acquisition, arising as a result of learning to read—not the other way around. Further, it is often argued that phoneme awareness instruction is "inauthentic" and unnatural and therefore inappropriate. Research findings do not support this view.

First, it is clear that phoneme awareness is a necessary prerequisite for developing decoding skills in an alphabetic writing system such as English. Phoneme awareness in the early grades is one of the best predictors of future reading success. All successful readers possess phoneme awareness.

Those who do not have phoneme awareness are always poor readers, and poor readers almost never have phoneme awareness. The most compelling evidence for the importance of phoneme awareness stems from the research demonstrating that when children are taught to develop phoneme awareness they are more likely to develop good word decoding skills—and they develop those skills faster and earlier than children who are not taught to be aware of phonemes in spoken words.

Second, phoneme awareness instruction can be authentic and natural. Teachers can use music, tongue twisters, poetry, and games to help children develop phoneme awareness. Children enjoy playing these games; they love to experiment with language, and teachers should give them every opportunity to explore spoken language.

Given the importance of finding developmentally appropriate ways of helping children to develop foundational reading skills as early as possible (see Myth 2), assessment of phoneme awareness should begin early, and games and lessons that help children develop an awareness of phonemes in speech should be used to help those that need it.

Myth 8: Some people are just genetically "dyslexic."

The belief in an underlying genetic cause for dyslexia ignores the fact that reading and writing simply have not been around long enough to become a specific part of our genetic makeup (see Myth 1). It was long argued that when a disparity existed between a person's intelligence and their reading skill, the person should be described as a "dyslexic." The term dyslexic eventually became a catch-all term used to account for people who failed to learn to read despite apparent intellectual capacity and environmental support.

The term "dyslexia" has come to encompass so many reading difficulties that it is of little use. The term simply means "difficulty with words," and anybody who has not learned to read could be called "dyslexic." There is nothing about this definition that addresses the underlying reasons for the difficulty with words. We know that people fail to learn to read for a very wide variety of reasons, and categorizing all nonreaders under the "dyslexia" umbrella belies the complexity of reading disorders.

Clearly, some people have more difficulty learning to read than others. In broad strokes, the three reasons people have difficulty developing basic reading skills are that they have difficulty developing (1) decoding skills, (2) language comprehension skills, or (3) both decoding and language comprehension skills.

Difficulties developing decoding skills often arise from difficulties processing sounds in speech. Some people seem to have an easier time than others mentally breaking spoken words apart and discerning the subparts of spoken words—such as alliteration and rhyme. To learn to decode words in alphabetic systems like English, it is necessary to understand that the letters in text represent the phonemes in speech. It is unlikely that people who have difficulty hearing and manipulating the phonemes in speech will make the connection between letters and phonemes. It could be argued that there is a genetic foundation for variations in phonological processing skills—some people seem to naturally tune in to speech sounds, and others seem to have difficulty examining and manipulating the phonemes in speech. Furthermore, these abilities have a tendency to run in families. However, even if there are specific genetic foundations for phonological processing skills, we know that it is quite easy to teach children to be aware of the phonemes in speech whatever their genetic tendencies.

While some children have difficulty developing decoding skills because of poor phonological processing skills, other children simply do not get adequate instruction in other necessary knowledge domains important for developing good decoding skills (such as concepts about print, letter knowledge, and knowledge of the alphabetic principle). Or they fail to get sufficient opportunities to practice decoding real words and thus fail to develop fluent, automatic word recognition skills. There is no genetic factor for insufficient instruction—the deficit is not intrinsic to the child; it is intrinsic to the classroom and the system that failed to help the child to develop these critical knowledge domains.

Difficulty developing language comprehension skills often stems from either insufficient exposure to or practice with a particular language (children often have well-developed language comprehension skills in languages other than English). To understand a language well, children must develop a rich vocabulary and appreciation for semantics, and they must combine that with a wealth of background knowledge about the world. They also need to have an implicit understanding of the mechanics of the language (syntax), and their ear needs to be tuned to the phonology of the language so they can distinguish words that sound similar (like "hair" and "here").

There are very few genetic factors that lead to reading difficulty. Most factors that result in reading difficulty are environmental, but either way, research has shown that good instruction can overcome all of these factors. The unpleasant fact that we must come to terms with is that the reason so many children are "dyslexic" has little to do with the genetic makeup of the children; it has to do with the quality of their education. They were simply never taught to read.

Myth 9: Short-term tutoring for struggling readers can help them catch up with their peers, and the gains made will be sustained.

Many reading instruction interventions common in schools involve pulling a student out of the regular classroom for a period of time and sending that student to a reading specialist or a tutor for short, intensive, one-on-one instruction sessions. After a few weeks or months of intensive intervention, the students are exited from the intervention program, and they resume normal classroom activities. The prevalence of these fairly expensive programs reflects an underlying belief that this sort of intervention is effective and that the gains children experience in these programs are sustained when they return to the normal classroom.

But it is evident that such gains made by children in these programs are not sustained for very long once the children are exited from the program. Studies of pull-out tutoring programs have shown that children who are not thriving like their peers in the classroom continue to fail to thrive when they are placed back in that classroom full time. This suggests that there is something about the classroom environment that is not supporting and scaffolding these children as they learn to read.

Studies have shown that the best hope for these children is to place them full time with a "strong" reading teacher—a teacher who has a sophisticated understanding of the process of learning to read, a tendency to use assessment data to inform individualized instruction, and a talent for engaging students in focused and interesting instructional activities. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Catherine Snow has reported research findings that indicate young "at risk" students who are placed with "strong" teachers for two consecutive years are very likely to be successful readers. Similarly, she has shown that students who are not "at risk" are likely to have difficulties learning to read if they are placed with "weak" teachers for two consecutive years.

Once again, we see that the right answer is the hard answer (see Myth 3). The solution for helping struggling readers succeed is to cultivate a population of teachers who are very knowledgeable about how children learn to read and who are adept at applying their understanding of reading acquisition to the assessment and instruction of individual children. Perhaps instead of having our most highly trained and knowledgeable reading teachers pulling students out of class for individual tutoring, a better use of their time would be to make them responsible for providing ongoing, job-embedded professional development and coaching for the other teachers on staff so that all of the teachers can develop expertise in reading theory and reading instruction.

Myth 10: If it is in the curriculum, then the children will learn it, and a balanced reading curriculum is ideal.

This is only a half-myth. Obviously, if something is not a part of the curriculum, then children are unlikely to learn it. But just because a concept or skill is taught is no guarantee that every child will learn it. Standards are shifting from an emphasis on what is taught to an emphasis on what is learned, and curricula are making the same shift. However, it is still common to divide a curriculum into instructional minutes and to focus more closely on what is taught than on what is learned. A curriculum is too often confused with a recipe, but creating proficient readers is not as simple as mixing ingredients in correct proportions. Teaching a complicated skill (such as reading) to a diverse group of students requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity on the teacher's part.

As to whether a curriculum should reflect a balanced reading approach, the answer is, again, yes and no. Unfortunately, the term balanced reading is not very clearly defined. According to the NAEP, most teachers currently claim they employ a balanced approach to their reading instruction, but what a "balanced approach" means to one teacher may be very different from what a "balanced approach" means to another. The approach most commonly used is to provide instruction traditionally associated with both the phonics and the whole-language philosophies and to add such elements as phoneme awareness that were never traditionally associated with either philosophy. Sometimes a balanced reading approach involves first using phonics activities and then later adding whole-language activities. Sometimes a balanced reading approach involves supplementing authentic text with phonics worksheets or decodable text.

According to data collected for the NAEP, the prevalent instructional philosophy shifted in 1996 from "whole language" to "balanced literacy," but NAEP scores have been unaffected by this shift. This should be no surprise—when the prevalent philosophy shifted in the late '80s and early '90s from phonics to whole language (with a period of balanced literacy in between), NAEP scores did not change then either. Thus, it seems the philosophies that drive curricula simply do not in themselves have an impact on student performance.

What does have an impact on student performance has been a recurring theme throughout this essay—the quality, knowledge, and sophistication of the teacher is what really matters for helping children to become proficient readers. The quality of the teacher plays a very large part in determining the reading success of a student. A high-quality teacher can help every one of his or her students develop advanced reading skills. A low-quality teacher can have the opposite effect. The importance of providing good professional development to engender a population of highly qualified diagnostic reading teachers is paramount, and every child will benefit from such teachers. It is not easy, but anyone who tells you there is an easier solution to the mounting problem of illiteracy is trying to sell a myth.

Further Reading

To learn more about these and other related issues in reading instruction and reading research, curious readers are encouraged to examine these titles:

  • Adams, M. J. 1990. Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Adams, M. J. 1998. The three-cueing systems. In J. Osborn and F. Lehr (eds.), Literacy for all: Issues in teaching and learning, 73-99. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Gough, P. B., and S. A. Wren. 1999. Constructing meaning: The role of decoding. In Reading Development and the Teaching of Reading, eds. J. Oakhill and R. Beard, 59-78.
  • Malden, MA: Blackwell. Moats, L. C. 1999. Teaching reading is rocket science. Washington D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.
  • Snow, C. E., W. S. Barnes, J. Chandler, I. F., Goodman, and L. Hemphill. 1991. Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Snow, C., S. Burns, and P. Griffin, eds. 1998. Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
  • Stanovich, K. E. 1986. Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.
  • Stanovich, K. E. 1992. How to think straight about psychology. New York: Harper Collins.


Sebastian Wren was a SEDL program associate working with low-performing schools under SEDL's Regional Educational Laboratory contract. Dr. Wren is the author of The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework.

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