Johns Hopkins Gazette | February 16, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 16, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 22
Phonics Alone Not Enough to Improve Young Readers' Skills

By Theresa Norton
School of Education

Reading programs focused on changing daily teaching practices do more to improve children's reading skills than programs focused on textbooks and technology, according to a comprehensive research review by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Center for Research and Reform in Education. Simply using books with a stronger emphasis on phonics was not enough to improve reading.

Lead researcher Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, and his colleagues looked at 62 previously released experimental studies evaluating the effectiveness of beginning-reading programs used in kindergarten and first grade. The researchers' review covered the effectiveness of textbooks, technology and professional development when used on their own as well as the effectiveness of combining textbooks with professional development. They found that the most successful programs focused on changing daily teaching practices, such as the use of cooperative learning methods in which children work together in groups. Programs that combined a focus on phonics and innovative teaching practices worked best.

"With national assessments showing reading proficiency in fourth grade under 18 percent for minority students, educators are struggling to boost beginning-reading skills or risk continuing a trend of low achievement in later years," Slavin said. "In the current political climate of accountability, school leaders need to ensure they are using programs that work. That's where reviews such as this come in."

Their most surprising finding relates to the debate as to whether adding phonics to traditional reading instruction is the way to cure reading problems, an approach strongly emphasized in the Bush administration's Reading First program. While Slavin and his colleagues noted the importance of phonics in beginning-reading instruction, they also concluded that simply adding phonics is not enough to bring about widespread improvement in children's reading.

"Phonics instruction is necessary but insufficient," Slavin said. "What matters is changing how teachers teach, how they group students, how they motivate children and how they assess children. Programs that consistently make a difference are ones that engage children in active lessons in which they interact with other children, constantly practice their new skills with the teacher and their classmates, and receive fast-paced, exciting lessons."

The full report is available on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia Web site at:

The Center for Research and Reform in Education is a nonprofit center that receives funding from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. It is part of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.


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