Last month I got to attend the recent The Reading League 3rd annual conference in Syracuse, NY, along with over 800 invigorated teachers, researchers, parents, and literacy leaders. The crowd seemed to revel in the palpable change in the air of reading education that this conference represented.

We heard excitement from those all over the U.S., and even from some in the U.K. and Australia, who feel they’ve found their tribe and a voice--after years of isolation as practitioners or researchers of evidence-based reading instruction.

With its explosive growth from just a few board members sharing a dream in a living room in 2017 to this sold-out 2019 conference The Reading League has arrived as an important force for change in reading instruction.

If you’re feeling dejected that you couldn’t attend like this Twitter thread, have no fear. I'll weave in and out of a variety of presenters' messages to share my top 3 insights from my experience at The Reading League Conference 2019....

  1. Houston, we still have a problem.
  2. Attract more flies with honey.
  3. The missing ingredient in most phonics programs.
Twitter regret not attending conference

About The Reading League Conference 2019

Each day kicked off with a keynote speech, followed by 3 presentation time-slots to choose from the rest of the day. Even though The Reading League conference was just 2 days, participants had to choose from among 70 presenters (including yours truly), so that was my only painful problem. How to choose?

Fortunately, most presenters provided their slides and handouts on the handy conference app, so I still benefited from those sessions I couldn't attend in person.

The good thing about these hard choices is that I didn't get that fuzzy-tired-thinking headache I usually get after a conference with 5-7 sessions squished into a 7-hour day! Ha!

And, oh, did I mention the conference included breakfast and lunch? After years of waiting in line during short breaks for lukewarm fast-food fries, questionable burgers, and soda cans at other reading conferences, this was a civilized turn of events!

Thank you sponsors.
Thank you.

Indeed, the entire conference showed that The Reading League treasured its guests. Greeters guided us when confused. The CEO's family even served in the baggage check room the last day.

A labor of love.

And now onto my 3 big take-aways from The Reading League Conference 2019....

The Reading League Conference 2019 Pinterest

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3 Insights from The Reading League Conference 2019

Yes, I said we happy participants reveled in the significance of the sold-out, 800 participants' conference. Many of us have been amazed at recent events such as:

  • APM producer and journalist's Emily Hanford's ground-shifting documentaries, Hard Words in 2018, and At a Loss for Words this past August. [Please listen--don't just read.]

  • The International Literacy Association's recent brief--"Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Instruction." A noticeable shift towards accuracy about the science of early reading.

  • The well-deserved attention Natalie Wexler's new book, The Knowledge Gap, is receiving for pointing out the limited power of comprehension strategy instruction at the expense of systematic knowledge-building for the purposes of reading comprehension achievement.

  • The launch of EdWeek's deep-dive into "Getting Reading Right"--an interactive series that has already clarified more than I learned in my first master's "reading" class.

Could it be that our collective hand-wringing about the neglect of what research indicates about how to teach reading is finally yielding fruit? Could it be that change will come?

So, yes, we are excited about the mission of The Reading League and its conference!

Unfortunately, highlighting the problem hasn't made it go away yet...

1) Houston, We Still Have a Problem--A Major Reading League Conference Theme

Despite the excitement of the event, several talks reminded me of the vast gulf between the literacy have's and have not's in our U.S. classrooms, especially Emily Hanford's much-anticipated keynote, "The Elephants in the Room: What I’ve Learned from Three Years Reporting on Reading."

Hanford's didn't begin her career specializing in reading instruction in the U.S. as she has for the last three years with these 3 brilliant audio documentaries from APM:

For several years, Hanford reported on upper level schooling, with a focus on equity. When she studied the challenge of students in remedial classes at the college level, she heard the refrain, "I have dyslexia," as well as that they hadn't gotten any help in school!

That piqued her interest.

The Equity Gap Begins with Reading

"[M]ost of the stuff I've done has been focused on secondary and post-secondary education until a few years ago when I realized that early reading instruction is truly where it is at if you're interested in educational equity and opportunity and how people learn" (EdView 360 podcast). 

Emily Hanford headshot

Emily Hanford

APM Producer & Journalist

[E]arly reading instruction is truly where it is at if you're interested in educational equity and opportunity... 

This trail led Hanford to pursue more information about learning disabilities and dyslexia in particular. Passionate mothers of children who have struggled with dyslexia schooled her in the disconnect between the science of how to teach reading and the experiences of most students with dyslexia in the classroom.

As Hanford kept digging, she realized,

"Whoa, there's a big story here.
Because there's this vast amount of research about reading and it's not well known among educators and in schools. And I think the bottom line reason that kids with dyslexia have a hard time getting the help they need in public school is because a lot of schools don't really know what they need to know about reading and how it works...

And that's sort of what led me on this larger journey that's obsessed me for the better part of three years to understand what the reading research says. And to also understand just how all kids are being taught to read, not just kids with dyslexia, but how all kids are being taught to read"
(EdView 360 podcast). 

Indeed, 65% of U.S. 4th graders are NOT proficient in reading (NAEP, 2019), so the problem extends well beyond just those with dyslexia. African American, Latino, and Native American students tend to fare even more poorly with non-proficient rates above 80%. We have a problem.

Hanford hit home the severity of the problem by revealing that she heard moms of struggling readers more than once say that their children--as young as 8--had expressed that they wanted to kill themselves. The strain of reading failure is all-pervasive.

Educators Often Don't Know the Reading Science

Despite the science of early reading acquisition being well advanced, Hanford has found that most teachers don't actually know about this science. Indeed, often what we are taught in our preparation programs is at odds with the science suggests. (This was true for me at 2 different universities and I often hear this story from others, too.)

Couple that difficulty with the millions of dollars of published materials that reinforce approaches that ignore the findings of cognitive science, misinformation is just the water many teachers and schools swim in.  

"At the end of the day, most schools don't know what much about how reading actually works, which means they don't really know what's going on when a kid is struggling to read, and they don't really know what to do about it."

Relatedly, Dr. Richard Sparks, Professor Emeritus of Mount St. Joseph University, also pointed out the lack of preparation for in-service teachers in reading instruction in his presentation. Given this lack, Sparks shared "What Is Scientifically-Based Reading Research? Becoming a Wise Consumer." An excellent message that I regret I missed. However, you  may benefit from reading Paula and Keith Stanovich's classic, "Using Research and Reasoning in Education: How Teachers Can Scientifically based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions,"  as a partial substitute for hearing Sparks' talk.

Hanford even offered a brief explanation of what the science says about how reading is acquired. Students need explicit instruction to perceive the individual sounds in words and learn how specific phonics spellings map onto these sounds. This process of learning to decode supports the building of rapid word recognition--via orthographic mapping.

Of course, this whole process of learning to read words is only one aspect of reading development. Making meaning is the heart of reading comprehension--no phonics researcher argues against that point.

The "Phonics Patch" Still Leaves (W)Holes

Hanford elucidated more extensively the findings of her most recent documentary, "At a Loss for Words." The good news is that phonics is now clearly on the map for just about every reading publisher and school district. 

The debate about phonics vs. no phonics is over! Phonics won, right?

Well, not so fast, argued Hanford. 

Even though phonics may take up 20-30 minutes of the K-2 school day, the strategies and books that teachers direct students to are undermining their ability to develop foundational reading skills. Rather than directing students' attention to print and left-to-right "sounding it out," most schools that Hanford has visited coach students, instead, to 

  • guess at unknown words
  • look at the picture, or
  • skip the word (just like Skippy the Frog, below)
3-cueing reading strategies classroom poster

[Image: Commonly used reading strategies debunked by the science of reading]

The romance of the seeming sophistication of using context instead of isolating individual letter-sounds has persisted ever since Ken Goodman's all-too-popular "Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game" article from 1967. This theory of how readers read words by heavy use of context is termed the 3-cueing approach.

Hanford sees this combo approach as the "phonics patch"--approaches with deep roots in the whole language philosophy are updating their technique by patching on phonics. However, when students leave their phonics lesson, they are encouraged to use mostly non-print related cues, such as the sentence context or the picture. 

So what's the big deal?

Now, from countless studies (e.g., review 1, review 2, review 3, review 4, review 5, and my own summary), we know that poor readers are the ones that rely heavily on context. Good readers, in contrast, process words, left-to-right, rapidly and mostly rely on context only when there is confusion of meaning, as with homophones like "wind"--"He will wind the clock."

With rapid reading of words comes the benefit of extra mental "space" for reasoning about the meaning. Thus, when a child develops a large bank of words that she recognizes automatically, her brain is freed up to think about meaning. 

The irony of the 3-cueing approach is that in trying to begin reading instruction with meaning, it actually pulls the rug out from underneath most kids, rendering them unable or, at best, slow to read words and weak at reading comprehension.

The Achievement Gap Is Unconscionable

These concerns about the achievement gap and the research-to-science teacher gap were also reiterated by presenters such as Steve Dykstra, David Kilpatrick, and Julie Washington. Notably, Dr. Julie Washington (Chair, Department of Communication Sciences Disorders, Georgia State University), reported that over 80% of African American 4th graders read at a basic level or below. Indeed, the failure rates of our African American children is a "public health concern" of the federal government. 

Washington also revealed that African Americans are now underrepresented in special education given the exclusion criteria of "poverty" in IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In other words, unintentionally, the U.S. federal law implies that a child can't be in poverty and have special needs.

"That is ridiculous," Washington declared and the audience roundly agreed. Thus, she called for a reauthorization of IDEA so children who need additional support can receive the services they should.

Washington also shared some fascinating research on linguistic differences. Children whose speech has the highest density of non-mainstream dialect features have the highest rates of reading failure.

BUT! "If we were doing a better job at teaching them how to read, they would learn how to code switch," Washington said. That is, learning the written word gives easier access to mainstream dialect. 

And the disconcerting news played on...

Our Reading Brains Are in Decline

Despite her joyful, effervescent demeanor, Dr. Maryanne Wolf (Director, Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, UCLA) shared other concerning news in her keynote on day 2--"The Reading Brain in a Digital World."

After reviewing the solid science of how our reading brains develop, Wolf presented data and perspective that the digital age is threatening our depth of thinking and empathy via fewer and fewer moments of deep reading. Deep reading is the pinnacle of the Print Age. Built on the foundation of automatic word recognition skills and lots of time spent reading connected text, the person reading deeply engages in knowledge-building, analysis of ideas, and even empathetic thought. 

Deep reading is contemplative. In contrast, the reader of the Digital Age skims, skips, and surfs.

Why does this matter to Wolf?

"What we read, how we read and why we read change how we think," 

Wolf writes in her latest book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (p. 2).

The implication being that our multi-tasking, surfing minds may be less and less able to engage in--or even handle--the sustained depth of thought required from reading extended texts such as...gasp!...long books.

Wolf's frightening message isn't just the older generation bemoaning "how life used to be." She presented evidence of measurable, dramatic changes that have taken place in the last 10-15 years in children and adult's brains: 

Reader Come Home book_Maryanne Wolf
Maryanne Wolf-headshot

Dr. Maryanne Wolf

For instance, 

  1. We now read with more skimming, browsing, keyword spotting, and a F or Z pattern of scanning over the page (see Liu, 2005).
  2. We afford less time on concentrated reading and we cope with 24/7 distractions from our beeping, pinging devices.
  3. Even our capacity to attend and remember has been significantly reduced (Barron, 2015). 

Less sustained time reading texts may create a causal chain of unintended consequences as depicted in this digram, "Digital Chain Hypothesis."  

Digital Chain Hypothesis-Maryanne Wolf

Wolf explained,

"If reading largely changes to adapt to digital characteristics: we will reduce deep reading with less time to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings, to perceive beauty, and to appreciate our cultural heritage." 

Developments such as these that may threaten a democratic society.

Wolf shared other disheartening data of changes in our young people's capacity and habits, so those who want to know more can read (deeply ?) Reader, Come Home. 

Thankfully, Wolf casts a vision for a Biliterate Brain that simultaneously develops the deep reading of the print medium with the visual-spatial, purpose-driven digital medium. This may be our best way forward, given the overwhelming influence of digital devices on all levels of society.

Educators and parents would be wise to develop deep reading of the print medium in the early years, so children are cognitively and motivationally equipped to do the harder task of deep reading. Later on, teachers can equip such deep reading brains to critically consume and produce content in the digital medium. 

I left Wolf's keynote pondering--given that we've had such challenges just transferring access to deep reading for most children,

"Can we produce citizens capable of deep reading across mediums?"

Wolf might respond with her idealistic plea....

"Ensuring the formation of deep reading across any medium is our best LEGACY AND INOCULATION against false information, demagoguery, and indifference to 'other' (Wolf & Barzillai, 2009).

2) Attract More Flies with Honey--The Reading League Conference Implicit Theme

Beyond these dire warnings, we also heard several another important theme, aptly initiated also by Hanford in her day 1 keynote. She ended with a potent caution: As confidence in the science of reading builds, we need to be sensitive to "watch out for the Science of Reading Scold."


If the water that teachers are swimming in is balanced literacy and the 3-cueing system, confusion and fear are obvious reactions to being scolded for not using research-based strategies. 

As reading teachers, leaders, researchers, and advocates, we need to tread cautiously and sensitively into conversations with those awash in the balanced literacy worldview. Hanford poignantly drew our attention to the ideas of Margaret Goldberg from the Right to Read Project who noted differences in the ways in which voices for balanced literacy vs. the science of reading made classroom teachers feel.

Goldberg reflects on her own transition towards a reading science mentality by writing, 

"I understand why advocates, researchers, and policymakers who feel the urgency of our literacy crisis are frustrated when teachers don’t embrace reading science. But my entry into the world of reading research was difficult, and while I take pride in my determination to learn, I understand why other teachers might be deterred. If we want teachers to apply research, it may be helpful to think about why they aren’t. I’ll open my own experience up as an example."

On the one hand, the balanced literacy community communicated in ways that were clear and valued teachers' ideas and insights. On the other hand, the science of reading community made Goldberg feel inadequate.

This was a wise warning that Hanford ended with. Lorraine Hammond and Steve Dykstra also followed up with similar sentiments in their respective sessions. Hammond (Associate Professor at the School of Education at Edit Cowan University, Australia) suggested stories of teachers and children as more attractive vehicles for teacher change. For instance, she showed a video of a teacher explaining her transition to new approaches to the teaching of reading and how they impacted her students for the better.

More persuasive than the "Science of Reading Scold!"

Psychologist from the Milwaukee Mental Health System, Steve Dykstra, provocatively shared warnings about the difficulties of attaining change in his session, "Beyond the Science: How We Could Win Every Battle, But Still Lose the War For So Long."

Reading Science Without Effective Marketing Hasn't Worked

The science has really been against whole language notions of early word reading and instructional strategies like 3-cueing for decades. But the science has not made much of a dent, yet. Why?

Like Hanford and Goldberg, Dykstra warned us to not be combative. He recalled being told by one teacher,

"I know you're right but it seems like you're calling me stupid,
and I don't like it."

So, yes, graciousness and telling stories of change and growth are essential.

What else is the science of reading cause supposed to do?

Dykstra appeals to better marketing. He said we lost the first war as far back as 1967 when 3 highly-cited documents were published:

Learning to Read book_Jeanne Chall reduced

Both Chall and Bond and Dykstra's research was in-depth and extensive. Both discovered that code-based approaches to early reading achieved more success.

Both documents were also so long that perhaps few leaders even read them?

And yet, Goodman's theory without research about the guessing that good readers do, charmed the 60's minds. It is the philosophy that has held its vice-grip on most reading education thinking ever since.

Even as early as the 70's Goodman's theory was getting disproven and was roundly dismissed by 1986 in Keith Stanovich's highly cited paper: Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Abundant de-bunking of the veracity of the psycholinguistic guessing has continued up to this day, but for much of our history--it hasn't reached the general education classroom. 🙁

(Go deeper into Dr. Steven Dykstra's talk at Lyn Stone's blog, Lifelong Literacy.)

So, let's embrace our teacher colleagues and market better, shall we?

The Reading League itself is accomplishing this--leading with the mantra, "When we know better, we do better," rather than "How could you not know this!!!" 😉

And their marketing may one-up tomes like the 1967 Bond and Dykstra document, which perhaps few read. In contrast, over 7,000 viewers have watched this portrayal of teachers and administrators discussing their transition to know and embrace the science of reading. ?

Other groups have found effective marketing techniques, such as

3) The Missing Ingredient in Phonics Programs

If you walk into most U.S. elementary classrooms, as Hanford reported, you'll likely find vestiges of the 3-cueing approach to word recognition, despite the studies--and even brain scans--that point toward a different strategy.

So, many of us teachers, researchers, and leaders may have felt beleaguered for a long time. I wonder if we've been holding up the banner of "systematic, explicit phonics" for so long that we've neglected innovation even in our practice?

The science of reading keeps offering revelatory findings, yet many decoding approaches look similar to those that are 3 to 5 decades old. I made this argument in my conference presentation, "Decoding Instruction to Reflect Modern Phonemic Awareness and Orthographic Mapping Research."

Kilpatrick's Phonemic Proficiency Hypothesis of Orthographic Learning

Yes, many curricula have wisely folded in phonological awareness training, but not many other major structural adjustments to mainstream phonics instruction are evident. My talk, and a couple of others at The Reading League Conference, were piggy-backing off of the highly influential work of Dr. David Kilpatrick, especially his book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. For instance, I wasn't able to attend his presentation, but Michael Hunter of Readsters shared how students stuck at sound-by-sound reading lack advanced phonemic awareness. 

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties-book cover-David Kilpatrick

And Dr. Pamela Kastner (from PaTTAN Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network) similarly presented on "Beyond Blending and Segmenting: Advanced Phonemic Awareness From Awareness to Proficiency." See this YouTube video for a similar presentation of Dr. Kastner.

Finally, Shira Naftel, Founder of It's a Teachable Moment, also stressed the importance of moving towards automaticity with phonemic awareness in her talk. (Here's a YouTube video hosted by The Reading League of Naftel teaching a related topic of letter-sound articulation.)  

Clearly, this topic of Phonemic Proficiency is a hot one!

In the Essentials book and in his Reading League conference talk, "Why Phonemic Proficiency Is Needed for All Readers," Kilpatrick makes 2 provocative, well-reasoned claims:

1. Impact outcomes vary widely for reading interventions that report "statistically significant" findings; Kilpatrick groups them into 3 levels of impact:

  • The Minimal group yields between 0 - 5.85 standard score point gains and includes explicit, systematic phonics and practice reading connected text but no phonological awareness training.
David Kilpatrick-headshot

Dr. David Kilpatrick

There have literally been thousands of research studies in the last four decades on all aspects of reading, but only small bits and pieces seem to make their way out of the scientific journals and into our K-12 classrooms.
--Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

  • The Moderate group yields between 6 - 9 standard score point gains and includes the phonics and text practice like above but also trains phonological segmenting and blending.

  • The Highly Successful group yields between 10 - 25  standard score point improvements and includes phonics and text reading practice, along with advanced phonemic awareness training.

Yet, we aren't, generally, selecting reading approaches that achieve the results like the Highly Successful Group. This leads to his second point in which Kilpatrick stresses that we're missing the opportunity to incorporate Phonemic Proficiency...

2. Phonemic Proficiency--aka advanced phonemic awareness--is necessary for moving many struggling readers beyond halting word attack. Kilpatrick argues it's what's essential for orthographic learning to take place. (I describe how orthographic learning fits into the process of children learning to read here.) 

Kilpatrick's presentation stayed at this high level--pointing us broadly towards adopting practices like those of Highly Successful interventions that included opportunities for developing phonemic proficiency for all learners.

3 Decoding Instruction Improvements for Rapid, Early Reading Acquisition

In my talk, I embraced Kilpatrick's points. I also elaborated on the research background that could lead us to making at least 3 adjustments to our typical decoding instruction to expedite early reading success for ALL learners:

  1. Design phonics scope and sequences (partly) on high frequency spellings.
  2. Integrate phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the context of words.
  3. Focus phonics instruction around sounds, especially vowel sounds.

I attempted to show how these principles emerge logically from a few fundamental research findings. Briefly, Stanovich's Matthew Effects taught us that those students who get off to an early good start by 1st grade with sound-based decoding (aka "phonological decoding") will be much more likely to be good readers for life. Importantly, this lucky minority will likely end up enjoying a host of other snow-balling benefits, such as better/higher overall academic achievement, social and behavioral outcomes, and adult income. 

Curiously, those students who get off to a good, early start happen to have one thing in common--good phonemic awareness. This should tweak your memory as being related to Kilpatrick's point about the importance of phonemic proficiency. 

What’s it like to read well near the end of 1st grade?

These good first grade readers might be able to read, without too much trouble, texts such as Little Bear, We Are in a Book (Elephant and Piggie), or Frog and Toad. Notice how many words in the Frog and Toad example are from the most frequent top 300 Fry words (see highlighted words in example below).

Frog and Toad-top 300 high frequency words highlighted

Indeed, in all of written English a simple list of 300 words makes up about 65% of what we’ll read. In other words, to more easily succeed early on as a reader, it sure would help to know these words, right?

Don’t fret...I’m not suggesting that we rely on flash cards to just teach these words. No, the science tells us that these words are learned more easily when students know the sound-symbol correspondences (not just the way the words look, for instance).

But do our typical phonics programs take rapid acquisition of these words into account when designing their scope and sequences? 

Not really.

For instance, almost all phonics programs cover all of the alphabet names and/or sounds before moving into more advanced phonics information. However, some sounds are much more frequent and immediately useful for decoding a large number of high frequency words.

Others, not so much.

Pit the letter “z” up against the sound /ee/ to see an extreme example.

There are NO words in the top 300 most frequent words that contain a “z,” but 47 of these 300 words DO have a word with an /ee/ spelling in them.

common sounds and spellings in top 300 most frequent words

Example Frequency Counts for Certain Letters & Sounds

1) Design phonics scope and sequences (partly) on high frequency spellings.

Thus, as I mention in principle #1 above, it behooves us to redesign our phonics scope and sequences based, in part, on letter or letter-sound frequency. This strategic approach will give more of our students easier access into the word learning needed for rapid acquisition of word identification, as the Matthew effects paper reveals is a pivotal ingredient in success.

2) Integrate phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the context of words.

Similarly, Share's self-teaching theory of word learning, Stanovich's Matthew effects concept, and Kilpatrick's observation about the stronger effects of advanced phonemic training (above), lead to my suggested 2nd innovation: target phonemic awareness and phonics, from the beginning in the context of words.


Research points to stronger outcomes when phonemic awareness and phonics information are taught together, yet most early reading programs and interventions separate the two for many instructional weeks or months. Additionally, more recent research reveals that global phonological awareness training does NOT need to precede the more fine-tuned phonemic awareness level, despite this being the most common practice. 

Similarly, some of the programs that fall under Kilpatrick’s Highly Successful interventions, such as LIPS and Phono-Graphix, do not bother with global phonological awareness training at all. 

They begin with the phoneme.

In my experience as a tutor and working with teachers in both an I.E.S.-funded multi-year research program (Targeted Reading Intervention) and with Reading Simplified, I routinely witness rapid acquisition of all necessary, foundational skills for strong sound-based decoding when teachers jump straight into teaching phonics, phonemic awareness, and decoding altogether in the context of words.

Watch an example of this concept in action with this demonstration lesson. I gave a 4-year-old, who recognized no letter-sounds in isolation initially, five days in a row of just 1 lesson for about 8 minutes each day. He began with the easier Build It activity and then transitioned to the harder Switch It activity on day 4.

In less than 1 hour’s instructional time, this preschooler (above video) moved from recognizing 0 letter-sounds to working with 13. He also moved from not being able to segment 3-sound CVC words to being able to do the cognitively harder task of manipulating CVC words. 

If one example of this integrated, straight-to-the-phonemic-level approach isn't sufficient for you, then here's a similar example of a student one year older. It's a kindergarten student in November who has been identified by his teacher as being behind in reading.

Before our special case study experiment of just trying 1 activity (Switch It) for 5 days in a row, he knew only 7 letter-sounds and could not segment or manipulate 3-sound CVC words....

In the span of just 5 days, this formally "struggling" kindergartner learned how to work with 20 letter-sounds, including all short vowels, and he could manipulate 5-sound words. With just 1 activity for about 8 minutes a day.

This 5-day experiment is unusual, but results like these are actually typical. In the context of meaningful words, students "get" how the code works when we sync challenging phonemic awareness tasks with letter-sound knowledge-building.

3) Focus phonics instruction around sounds, especially vowel sounds.

Finally, if the route to learning our alphabetic code is phonological, then why do so many decoding programs not begin with sounds? 

Most phonics programs focus on letters and then connect the visual symbols to sounds. This approach ignores the asset the child already has--knowledge of the sounds in words. A reading approach that moves from sound to print, instead, may better suit the beginning reader. 

Influential reading researcher (and former keynote speaker at The Reading League Conference 2018) Louisa Moats argues that we should

“Teach speech to print. Not print to speech.”

Moats goes on to say, 

"One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards. That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter" (Teaching Decoding, 1998).

Thus, a more efficient route to early word learning may begin with decoding instruction that revolves around sounds. For instance, to teach the long "o" sound, I suggest introducing multiple spellings of this target sound all at once. 

A simple activity to accomplish this sound-focused lesson is Sort It. A teacher can introduce the new long “o,” or /oa/ sound, all at once by asking students to read several /oa/ sound words with a variety of spellings, such as “go,” “home,” or “show.” 

Sort It /oa/ sound activity page

After each new /oa/ sound word is read, the students should sort the word into the relevant column by /oa/ sound spelling. Then, to connect sound and symbol, they could Write and Say each sound as in the example of 1st graders below:

Based on the research and efficiency I proposed a few other tweaks in my Reading League Conference presentation that will likely expedite early acquisition of word reading. What scope and sequences could look like with these changes will vary. But I demonstrated how these principles can be enacted with a 1-page scope and sequence that we use here at Reading Simplified called the Streamlined Pathway.

Here's an example of this type of scope and sequence for Kindergarten for all things needed for learning decoding and word identification:

streamlined pathway

Notice how Advanced Code sounds are grouped by sound in steps 5 thru 12, in keeping with principle #3 (Focus phonics instruction around sounds, especially vowel sounds). 

Also, the goals listed on the left side of the stair-step image are the primary drivers of instruction. Rather than stopping children from moving on to Advanced Phonics knowledge (which makes up most of the info needed for the most frequent 300 words) before they've "mastered" every letter in the alphabet, we advance them when they are mostly successful blending and manipulating 3-sound words with all short vowel sounds.

It would take more time to explain the nuances of this Streamlined Pathway, but my intent at The Reading League conference was to show an example of what's possible.

We can think outside of the traditional phonics scope and sequence box if we're going to fold in the exciting findings of modern reading research and thought like Kilpatrick's ideas about Highly Successful interventions and the Phonemic Proficiency Hypothesis.

What Do You Think?

Has this review given you a glimpse at some of the major speakers at The Reading League Conference 2019?

Or, if you were there, what could you add or elaborate on to help our readers? I'd love to know what you think in the comments below! ??

Alas, we are still leaving out many other important talks. May this just pique your interest for joining the fun next year. I plan on being there. 

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