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A Spoonful of Phonics Will Not Solve the Reading Crisis

The phrase “Science of Reading” has been everywhere over the last few years as it has gained much traction thanks to some tenacious influencers (Kareem Weever, Mitchell Brookins, Emily Hanford, to name a few). But with its growing notoriety, the interpretations have also expanded. One such interpretation is that the science of reading is a “phonics-based program that teaches kids how to read using decoding.” This is paraphrased but sums up what many believe the Science of Reading to be.

While phonics plays a crucial role, the science of reading encompasses a broader scope of skills and processes that contribute to proficient reading. This blog is a birds-eye-view of the components of an effective reading curriculum to begin your analysis of your current practices.

Let’s start with Hoover and Gough’s “Simple View of Reading”.

Word recognition x language comprehension = reading proficiency

This equation highlights the value of BOTH word recognition and language comprehension. They both need to exist for reading proficiency. If you have one and not the other (1 x 0 = 0), you do not have a proficient reader.

How did phonics steal the show?

Many schools have used a whole language approach masquerading as “balanced literacy” over the past 20 years. These approaches give the appearance of attending to language comprehension with reading strategy work, some teachable moments with vocabulary, and dabbling in background knowledge. But what is not present is phonics. And that is intentional as the philosophy relies on the idea that students will “figure it out” if they read enough. Perhaps that’s a bit oversimplified, but it’s the gist.

Since phonics was missing in balanced literacy (in fact, it is opposed by many in the BL camp), it appeared that it was the missing piece in the puzzle of why our students weren’t reading. Add phonics in, and the puzzle will be solved.

However, it is only one of the missing pieces. The Science of Reading is the extensive and evolving body of research on how readers learn and how we need to teach them. AND the research also says that we need to do more than "just have kids practice reading" to build language comprehension. SoR research supports direct and explicit instruction in vocabulary and language structure. SoR research supports the value of background knowledge and how it positively affects reading comprehension. SoR research supports the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. SoR research is clear that we need to do much more than teach students how to sound out words if we plan to improve literacy rates in this country. (we must also improve our systems, but I’ll save that for another blog).

So, what should a comprehensive literacy curriculum look like in the primary grades?

The Qualities:


All students in a school or district are given access to a rigorous curriculum that includes agreed-upon content, materials, and instructional approaches grounded in research (of course!)


There is adequate time for teachers to teach the guaranteed curriculum.


There is an intentionally planned sequence of skills and content, lesson by lesson, day by day, unit by unit, grade level by grade level. Current learning depends on prior learning that is included in the curriculum. Current learning is also the building block to future learning that is included in the curriculum.


Teaching in a direct and structured way that is crystal clear to the students. Anita Archer, a guru of explicit instruction, would say, “teach the stuff, and cut the fluff.”

Multiple opportunities for students to read and write

Each and every opportunity should be intentional and controlled to be sure the students are practicing recently and previously learned skills AND engaged with topics that they know a lot about…because they have been learning about these topics IN SCHOOL.


  • Phonemic awareness

    • Primarily K-1 with some review in 2

  • Basic and advanced phonics

  • Sight word practice

  • Listening comprehension

  • Vocabulary work

  • Reading comprehension

    • From a controlled read, likely a decodable

  • Building background knowledge

  • Writing

*If you want to learn more about each of these components, click the mini-courses button below ⬇️

This list is not exhaustive, but it is supported by research as components in an effective literacy curriculum and MUST be included. If your head is spinning😵‍💫 thinking of your master schedule, note that much of this is integrated. Each component is not a stand-alone chunk of time; instead, they should all work together harmoniously within literacy time during the day.

Our kids need much more than phonics to be effective and successful readers. The notion that a phonics program is the magic bullet is misguided and will not result in the gains that students deserve.

If you believe your literacy curriculum lacks some key components, consider doing a deep dive to pinpoint your needs. The Reading League has an excellent curriculum evaluation resource for a robust curriculum audit (click below⬇️). This is time-consuming, exhausting, and (potentially) overwhelming work. But I can promise you that it is worth every minute once you have a solid curriculum. A quality curriculum is a necessary foundation for literacy improvement. It will pay dividends for students and teachers. And isn’t that what we’re all here for anyway?

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