What is the Best Way to Teach Reading? A Literacy Professor Weighs In (2023)

The best way to teach reading is a topic that has been hotly debated for many decades. If the past is any indicator, we’re going to be fighting about it for decades to come. It’s worth arguing about because literacy is important. Roughly 21% of American adults are illiterate. Illiteracy has harmful impacts on health, finances, and overall well-being. Thus, literacy is powerful and is a fundamental human right.

In case you haven’t read anything by me or been to my Book Riot page, let me introduce myself. I am a former elementary school teacher. After I left the classroom, I pursued my PhD in curriculum & instruction (with an emphasis on literacy) while working as a literacy consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. Since then, I’ve been a professor who teaches people to teach kids to read. Thus, I have a LOT of opinions on this topic. Buckle up, friends!

To understand where we are in this conversation, we have to understand where we’ve been. Let’s dive in, shall we?

A Brief History of the “Reading Wars”

The debate about the best way to teach reading is not new, nor is the science complete. In fact, the “Reading Wars” have been going on for decades. Here’s a little bit about what we actually know.

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Whole Language vs. Phonics

Even now, despite the changes in what we call things, the ongoing war is between those who believe a whole language approach is the best way to teach reading and those who advocate for a focus on phonics. The basic premise is that some educators believe in exposure to books and using meaning to help decode texts, and a competing faction that believes in phonics instruction as providing the necessary tools to decode text. Over the years, the field has swung between the two sides. For a couple of decades, whole language has been on top. Now, we’re shifting back to the phonics end of the spectrum.

Those against whole language are adamant that kids are being taught to guess at words they don’t know and that approach is failing them. Others who are against an overemphasis on phonics lament the drill-and-kill, decontextualized approach to reading. The truth is, both sides are right, and they’re also both wrong.

The “Science of Reading”

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to listen to science. Unfortunately, that means there are some people in the world that can use so-called science to manipulate others. The “science of reading” is a hot term that has caught on lately, but it means nothing. The term was created by media outlets as a way to present an emphasis on phonics instruction.

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In this recent surge of interest in reading, one state has been placed on a pedestal. A specific program produced growth in Mississippi, citing the highest growth of all states on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) in 2019. But the truth behind that program is much more complex. Nonetheless, state legislatures are scrambling to find the same success for their own populations.

Literacy researchers like me, as well as many teachers, are so tired of this game. It seems like every year there’s a new miracle program, a new way to do things. Unlike many professions, everyone has an opinion about teaching. The mentality of “those who can’t do, teach” has permeated our culture. People believe that teaching is an easy job. Consequently, our expertise is devalued and we’re not treated like other professionals — just take a look at the pay if you need more evidence.

Some of the Politics Behind the “Science of Reading”

Politics and education go hand-in-hand, so it’s important to look at who is pushing certain decisions. One interested stakeholder in all of this is the International Dyslexia Association (ILD). If you click that link, it’ll take you to a test that suggests most of us have dyslexia. In actuality, only 5–15% of the population has dyslexia. The organization has branches in 37 states and DC. Big Dyslexia (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself) treats all learning difficulties as dyslexia. They have a lot of support from worried parents and lawmakers, resulting in policy and curricular changes that aren’t necessarily sound.

Despite the fact that there is no best way to teach reading to all kids with reading disabilities, the ILD standards suggest otherwise. In my state, the ILD standards are being touted alongside standards from the International Literacy Association, which is a 60-year-old professional organization that is widely respected among teachers and researchers. ILA has responded to ILD, saying (among many other things), that ILD standards and claims are based on misinterpreted research and represent an inaccurate stance on teaching reading. According to ILA (p. 8):

“ILA’s position is that teachers do not need to spend substantial amounts of time learning about dyslexia, which, as has been argued, is a construct of questionable utility. Nor should teachers be obligated to learn a specific and poorly researched approach to preventing and remediating reading difficulties.”

The ILA represents the views of thousands of educators and educational researchers worldwide. The organization has contributed a great deal to what we know about the best way to teach reading. Yet many states are legislating that professional development and other resources be allotted to mitigating dyslexia. Again, educators are being undermined by outside stakeholders.

A Balanced Approach

I’m not supposed to say this anymore, but the best way to teach reading is through a balanced approach. Unfortunately, “balanced literacy” has become synonymous with whole language, so opponents of balanced literacy believe we already tried it and failed. What we’ve actually done is a little of this and a little of that, but none of it with enough time or fidelity.

(Video) Praxis®️ Teaching Reading (5205) Study Guide + Practice Questions

Children need to be taught the code. They need to learn letter-sound relationships. However, since English often deviates from its own rules, phonics instruction isn’t enough. There are words that kids need to learn by sight. Additionally, there are patterns and word parts that kids can learn and apply to hosts of words.

While they’re learning all of this, kids need to encounter words in contexts. They need to apply their skills to a variety of text types. They need to fall in love with lots of great books so that they’re motivated to read. The best way to teach reading is to teach kids how language works and to give them lots of practice enjoying books.

Systematic Phonics Instruction

Phonics (and its precursor phonological awareness) are crucial to reading instruction. We have to teach children how to crack the code, which means we have to teach how letters work. Furthermore, we have to teach this in a systematic way. Teaching the letter of the week or any other arbitrary approach is not effective.

We need to take a developmental approach to literacy instruction. That means that we meet kids where they are and prepare them to move forward. Children move through developmental stages in reading, just like they do in other areas. We know from research that emergent readers typically start to develop letter-sound correspondence starting with beginning sounds in consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words (p. 11). They then start to notice and represent ending sounds, followed by medial vowels. Once they’ve mastered that, they move into the beginner stage and on through transitional, intermediate, and skillful. (Sometimes these stages go by other names or are broken down further.)

I don’t expect you to know what all that means, but teachers should. Knowing the stages of development means we can assess where a child is and use that information to plan appropriate instruction that will move the child forward in the developmental sequence. That’s how we determine which letters and other features to teach at a particular time. (And that’s why grade levels are nonsense that I promise to rant about at a later date.)

The best phonics instruction includes hands-on practice building words, practicing skills with developmentally appropriate texts, and getting targeted guidance. There’s no need to drill kids to death and make them hate reading. Phonics can be phun!

Exposure to Rich Texts

Surprise! Books help kids learn to read. Reading aloud to children of all ages offers a host of benefits from improving comprehension skills to expanding vocabulary. Further, these experiences foster a love of reading and increase motivation.

(Video) Phonics, Balanced Literacy and Reading Wars

Children need to apply their decoding skills to actual books. They need exposure and access to lots of different kinds of books so they are prepared to read widely throughout their lives. Moreover, studies have found a correlation between access to books and literacy development.

As I mentioned earlier, the English language often deviates from its own rules. For example, all of these words include the long i sound: hi, flight, bye, cry, bite, pie. Thus, when we teach a child that the letter i makes a particular sound, we haven’t taught them all the ways to spell that sound.

This is another place books help. Children who read widely will encounter more words and more patterns. They’ll build a larger sight word vocabulary through exposure and practice. While we can’t teach every pattern and every exception to the rules, we can offer children opportunities to apply what they know to lots of situations by sharing great books.

A Focus on Comprehension

If you read a page of text, but you can’t explain what information it contained, did you really read? Decoding without comprehension is just word calling. To read, you have to make sense of the words you read. Children can only practice comprehension by reading words in context. That means they have to read books (and articles, passages, posts, etc.). Even the current literacy champ, Mississippi, acknowledges “language comprehension is equally important and works best when exposing students to high-quality, engaging instructional materials.”

The Bottom Line

It’s not surprising that people are grasping at miracle cures, considering that two-thirds of United States 4th graders are reading “below grade level.” (I will save my views on levels for another day.) We want what’s best for kids and for the world. That means we’ve got to teach people to read well.

Sadly, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one program or strategy that will work in all classrooms. We are not going to read aloud or phonics our way into better literacy in this country. Reading is a complex process requiring a nuanced approach.

Reading is about comprehension. It’s about making sense of text so that you can gather information. That requires more than flash cards and letter-sound matching, but also more than being read to and having access to lots of books. Both sides need to come together and give a truly balanced approach a fair try.

(Video) 24. Weighing the Hog Doesn't Make it Fatter | 2022 Literacy Symposium


What is the Best Way to Teach Reading? A Literacy Professor Weighs In? ›

The best way to teach reading is to teach kids how language works and to give them lots of practice enjoying books.

What is the best method for teaching reading? ›

Reading aloud is considered the best way for caregivers to prepare a child to learn to read. The panel's analysis showed that the best approaches to reading instruction have the following elements: Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Systematic phonics instruction.

What are the five methods of teaching literacy? ›

Effective instructional programs and materials emphasize the five essential components of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

What does good reading instruction look like? ›

Effective reading instruction includes explicit and direct instruction in the five essential components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

What are the four literacy strategies? ›

Teachers model, then help students learn to guide group discussions using four strategies: summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Once students have learned the strategies, they take turns assuming the role of teacher in leading a dialogue about what has been read.

What are the 3 effective reading strategies? ›

The three different types of reading strategies are skimming, scanning, and in-depth reading.

What is a literacy teaching strategy? ›

What are literacy strategies? Literacy strategies are techniques that teachers use to help students improve their reading skills. They target different skill sets and areas of knowledge that involve reading, such as vocabulary, spelling ability, comprehension, critical analysis and language articulation.

What is effective literacy instruction? ›

Effective literacy instruction means we set aside what feels good, looks good, and our personal beliefs to ensure student achievement results are guiding us. All students can learn to read at proficient and advanced levels when provided with that just-right instruction to meet their academic needs.

What are the traditional methods in literacy teaching? ›

The traditional method emphasizes that the teacher must teach sounds and letters in isolation, then from words and sentences, and finally read a book. Learners recognize the word and then pronounce it when accompanied or not accompanied by pictures.

What makes a good literacy teacher? ›

Effective teachers of literacy have a deep understanding of the complexities and cumulative processes of reading and writing. The also understand the developmental nature of literacy learning. Effective teachers understand that: The pathway to literacy is developmental.

What makes a strong literacy program? ›

The foundation of a comprehensive literacy program is universal instruction, sometimes referred to as first-best instruction. This foundational tier of instruction requires a well-prepared teacher, an adequate block of instructional time, and the effective use of evidence-based resources and instructional strategies.

What are the five pillars of reading? ›

The National Reading Panel identified five key concepts at the core of every effective reading instruction program: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.

What are the 7 C's of literacy? ›

The seven skills are: • Collaboration • Communication • Creativity • Critical Thinking • Character • Citizenship • Computational Thinking If we believe our work as teachers is mainly to prepare students for successful futures, then we should give opportunities for students to strengthen these skills.

What are the three 3 basic literacy skills? ›

Literacy is defined as one's knowledge of competence in a certain area. There are 3 Literacy Skills within the 21st-century skills framework, these are Information Literacy, Media Literacy and Technology Literacy.

What are the big six in reading? ›

Research has shown that there are six key components that contribute to successful beginning reading. Because of the importance of these components, they have become known as the 'Big Six': oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

What are the 7 reading techniques? ›

To improve students' reading comprehension, teachers should introduce the seven cognitive strategies of effective readers: activating, inferring, monitoring-clarifying, questioning, searching-selecting, summarizing, and visualizing-organizing.

What are the six basic strategies for developing literacy? ›

The six basic strategies for developing literacy include making connections, visualizing, questioning, inferring, determining importance, and synthesizing.

What is the first step in teaching reading? ›

Phonemic awareness is the first step in learning how to read. It is the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds, called phonemes. Phonemic awareness enables readers to hear the individual units of sound in words, identify them, and use them both in speech, and later, writing.

What is the order of teaching reading? ›

The 7 Main Steps To Teach Reading, From Beginning To Reading Comprehension
  • Step 1: Teach the sounds of individual letters: ...
  • Step 2: Teach sound blends: ...
  • Step 3: Teach whole words: ...
  • Step 4: Present meanings: ...
  • Step 5: Teach word parts: ...
  • Step 6: Put words in contexts: ...
  • Step 7: Teach reading comprehension:
Dec 8, 2018

What is the 3 2 1 literacy strategy? ›

A 3-2-1 prompt helps students structure their responses to a text, film, or lesson by asking them to describe three takeaways, two questions, and one thing they enjoyed. It provides an easy way for teachers to check for understanding and to gauge students' interest in a topic.

What does strong literacy instruction look like? ›

It should provide an objective or a target area of learning for that part of the lesson, and the quicker the teacher explanation is, the more time there is for students to respond to instruction. So, quick and concise is key with a teacher explanation. The next component of explicit instruction is a teacher model.

What are the two main approaches to teaching reading? ›

The Phonics Approach

Decoding – translate letter symbols into speech sounds. Increased skill in decoding printed words. Synthetic – begins with individual speech sounds and builds into words. Stories are based on the sounds of the words being learned.

How to teach reading without phonics? ›

One of the most common alternative approaches to phonics is the whole language program. Rather than sounds of letters and blends, whole language teaches children to consider words based upon all facets of language.

What are 5 examples of traditional literacy? ›

Conventional literacy skills refers to such skills as decoding, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, and spelling.

What skills should a literacy coach have? ›

1 - Every reading coach should be an excellent teacher themselves, since their primary role is to provide support to classroom teachers for reading instruction. 2- Reading coaches should have in-depth knowledge of reading processes, acquisition, assessment, and instruction.

What makes a successful literacy coach? ›

Definition: Effective literacy coaches apply their specialized knowledge about adult learning principles when working with educators. incorporate the research-informed strategies about which they learn. evaluate the results of the research-informed strategies they implement.

What are the 3 most important factors of literacy centers? ›

Here are some guidelines for creating effective literacy centers in your classroom:
  • Monitor student participation in the center (develop a system [e.g., a checklist] for tracking it).
  • Create routines for students to use while at the center.
  • Develop reading and writing activities for small group or independent work.

How do I start a reading program? ›

How To Establish An Effective Reading Program
  1. Use Various Resources. One of the easiest and most effective ways teachers can capture students' attention is by using various reading resources. ...
  2. Use Repetition. When it comes to learning how to read, repetition is critical. ...
  3. Track The Progress Of Students. ...
  4. Concluding Thoughts.
May 20, 2021

What are the building blocks of reading success? ›

The building blocks of reading, as defined by the National Reading Panel, include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

What are the principles of reading? ›

Five essential components of reading instruction should be taught in the early grades: phonological awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency with connected text, vocabulary development, and comprehension.

What is decoding in reading? ›

Decoding is the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships, including knowledge of letter patterns, to correctly pronounce written words. Understanding these relationships gives children the ability to recognize familiar words quickly and to figure out words they haven't seen before.

What are the five major domains of literacy? ›

The five language domains of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and comprehension should be incorporated into daily class activities.

What are the 5 features of effective language and literacy instruction? ›

Instruction is across the five components (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension).

What are the 6 traits for teaching literacy? ›

The Traits: ideas, organisation, voice, word choice, fluency, conventions. The Traits and the writing process. Lesson ideas for teaching the Traits. Recognising the Traits in students' writing and planning from data.

What are the 7 stages of the reading process? ›

To improve students' reading comprehension, teachers should introduce the seven cognitive strategies of effective readers: activating, inferring, monitoring-clarifying, questioning, searching-selecting, summarizing, and visualizing-organizing.

How do we teach early literacy instruction? ›

Teachers can share cardboard books, nursery rhymes, books with photographs, or drawings of animals, people, and brightly colored objects. Through these activities, children learn to focus their attention on words and pictures (Neuman & Bredekamp, 2000). In preschool, children need daily exposure to high quality books.

What are the 7 pillars of literacy? ›

The strategies for developing early literacy are known as the 7 pillars of early literacy instruction and include:
  • Alphabetic principle.
  • Phonological awareness.
  • Phonemic awareness.
  • Phonics.
  • Word recognition.
  • Vocabulary.
  • Structural analysis.
Mar 6, 2018

What are the four instructional priorities for early literacy? ›

Specifically, the standards include oral language development, phonological awareness, print knowledge and use, and writing. Many of them also specify criteria for teaching and program structure.

What are the 5 C's of language instruction? ›

The five “C” goal areas (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) stress the application of learning a language beyond the instructional setting.

What is the best strategy in teaching literature and why? ›

One of the more popular methods of teaching literature is connecting it to other media. The use of film to supplement written texts has the potential to enhance student interactions with texts, increase real-time emotional engagement with literature, and promote content retention and knowledge transference.


1. NEWS LITERACY 101: How professors teach the importance of accuracy
2. Critical Thinking Skills for Reading, Spelling, and Literacy - Teacher In-Service Training #reading
(Logic of English)
3. Teaching Reading in the Foundation Phase: Reading Strategies
(Pearson South Africa)
4. Helping Teens Improve Reading Skills : Teaching Reading & Writing
5. Maximizing the Benefits of Small-Group Instruction with Jamey Peavler
(The Reading League Indiana)
6. Literacy and Math Support: Literacy/the Science of Reading | Selenid Gonzalez-Frey
(School of Education Buffalo State College)


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