My Side of the Story- a guest blog post by Dr. Jan Richardson

This week I’m posting a Guest Blog from Dr. Jan Richardson.  She gives a well-researched response to criticisms made about a webinar that she and Michele Dufresne did last December.  I’ve said many times that we must use ALL the research and listen to the WHOLE STORY when making decisions around literacy issues. I want to thank Jan for allowing me to post this very informative article. Please listen to what she has to say. Dr. Sam

My Side of the Story, by Dr. Jan Richardson

On December 8, 2022, I did a webinar with Michele Dufresne on Getting the Facts Straight on Guided Reading. In response to the webinar, there have been numerous attacks from social media, seeking to convince guided reading teachers that their method of teaching reading is not aligned with reading science. Much of the criticism is based on inaccuracies (e.g., confusing Pre-A readers who don’t know letters and sounds with Emergent Readers who know their letters and sounds).

I‘ve prepared a white paper explaining in detail how my “Next Steps” approach to small group instruction aligns with reading science. In a nutshell, these are areas where we agree:

  • The Science of Reading (SOR) is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Children will need different kinds of instruction to meet the common goal of becoming proficient, engaged readers.
  • The SOR is an evolving body of research, not a reading program that can be purchased. Although many districts are searching for a “Science of Reading Program,” there is no such thing.
  • There is a difference between obtaining information from the media and choosing to read the research. Unfortunately, too many well-meaning reading enthusiasts simply repeat what they have heard on social media and don’t consult the research.
  • The term “guided reading” is used in a variety of contexts. It does not have an agreed-upon definition (Shanahan). This is my definition: During guided reading, a teacher meets with a small group of students and differentiates instruction by targeting specific learning needs, providing appropriate scaffolding, and gradually reducing support to promote independence. My lesson framework aligns with the basic tenants of effective reading instruction as described by Structured Literacy. It also explicitly teaches the key elements of reading defined by the National Reading Panel Report.
  • Children need to use letters and sounds to decode words.
  • The phonics activities included in The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading (2016) and the Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics (2019) are research-based.
  • Reading Instruction should meet a student’s needs and be based on formal and informal observations and assessments.
  • Guessing words is not an acceptable reading strategy. Teachers should never encourage a student to guess at a word. Children should integrate multiple sources of information to get the precise message of the author.
  • Phonics is essential, but not sufficient. There are several key elements that children need to learn to become proficient readers. In addition to phonics, children need instruction in decoding (the application of phonics), phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.

Phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically. All the books I have written include a phonics scope and sequence aligned with the developmental stages supported by decades of research (Bear et al., 2019; Ehri, 2022; Ganske, 2013) and a variety of effective, engaging, and research-based procedures that explicitly teach letters, sounds, sight words, spelling patterns, inflectional endings, and morphemic units.

  • Decodable texts can be useful for helping students practice a phonics skill.
  • Orthographic mapping (forming letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of words) (Ehri, 2014) helps child expand their sight word vocabulary.

The following paragraphs present my position on the use of decodable texts and the three-cueing model, two major areas where SOR extremists have attacked guided reading. My position is strongly supported by reading science research.

Decodable books

I have personally taught thousands of small group reading lessons and used a variety of instructional texts, including decodable texts, leveled books, basal stories, newspaper articles, chapters from novels, and sections from textbooks. I’ve even taught guided reading to advanced middle school readers using a chapter from a physics textbook! One of my favorite genres for guided reading is poetry. My point is you can use my small group lesson framework with any text. My framework is simply a way to integrate reading, writing, and phonics to bring about greater acceleration. It does not mandate or exclude any type of text.

The current debate about whether to use decodable texts or leveled books centers on emergent readers (reading levels A-C). Books published for emergent readers differ according to the publishing company. Some beginning books are highly patterned and repetitive; some are highly decodable. Still others use multi-criteria, which includes high-frequency words, decodable words, and meaning.

Despite the enthusiasm for using highly decodable texts, the research on using them is inconclusive (Mesmer, 2000; Lindsey, 2022; Shanahan). Some studies favor decodable texts (Cheatham and Allor, 2012; Compton, 2005; Mesmer, 2005), while others favor multi-criteria texts (Juel and Roper/Schneider, 1985; Jenkins, Peyton, Sanders, and Vadasy, 2004; Menon & Hiebert, 2005; Mesmer, 2010; Price-Mohr and Price, 2019).

My position is similar to Shanahan’s. He writes, “I think it’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction, but such practice should be severely limited, and even beginning readers should be reading more than decodable texts.”  In another of Shanahan’s blogs on decodable texts, he says it is reasonable to use decodable texts to practice a phonics skill, but “kids are likely to be best off in classrooms that provide them with a mix of these text types rather than a steady diet of any one of them.” He goes on to say, “Personally – based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text.”

Shanahan is critical of using predictable texts, and so am I. Predictable, patterned books offer emergent readers an opportunity to learn print concepts and simple English language structures, which supports the development of phonological and decoding skills(Scanlon & Anderson, 2020; Mesmer & Williams, 2015.  However, once children control early print concepts and know the letter sounds, teachers should avoid patterned text and use decodable texts along with multi-criteria texts so the students can develop a “mental set for diversity” (Shanahan).

Although we might disagree on some aspects of decodable texts, I hope we can agree on these points presented by (Mesmer):

  • Use them (decodable texts) at the right developmental window, which Mesmer defines as when children are solid with the concept of a word, know all letter sounds, and are ready to decode words. She states, “I suggest that children be able to decode a simple c-v-c word prior to using decodables.”
  • Use after a phonics lesson to practice a target word family or sound. In my recent reading intervention program called RISE, I wrote decodable texts for each lesson so children could practice the sight words and phonics skills that were taught in the lesson.
  • Do not use decodable texts exclusively. Children benefit from also using multi-criteria texts that target high-frequency words, decodability, and meaningfulness.
  • Pay attention to the level of decodability. There are times when highly decodable texts may be appropriate, but if the reader is having to sound out every third word, the book probably contains too many decodable words.
  • Know when to stop using decodable texts. Mesmer recommends ending the use of decodable texts after children can easily blend c-v-c and c-c-v-c words. Most children master this skill in the spring of kindergarten or fall/winter of first grade.

Three-cueing system (MSV)

I think we can agree that readers use multiple sources of information to make sense of print – semantics (Meaning), syntax (Structure), and graphophonics/letter-sound relationships (Visual).  

Many teachers, myself included, use MSV as a tool for analyzing student errors and self-corrections. The coding helps teachers decide which sources of information students are using (and ignoring) so the teachers know how to prompt the student during reading. When a reader makes an error that ignores phonics, teachers should prompt the student to look more closely at the word, sound it out, or break it into parts. If the reader tries to sound out the word but ignores meaning, then teachers should prompt them to crosscheck the visual (phonics) with meaning. You used all the sounds, but what word would make sense? (Clay, 2016; Bates, McBride, & Richardson, 2020, Shanahan. Research has shown that teachers who prompt students to attend to the cues the students are ignoring tend to be more effective (Scanlon & Anderson, 2020). The goal is for the reader to integrate multiple sources of information to read the exact words in the text.

The current controversy surrounding the three-cues is fueled by an assumption that if children are prompted to use meaning-based strategies, they will learn to guess at unfamiliar words (Hanford, 2019, 2022). Ehri (2014) has shown that children with partial alphabetic word knowledge often use initial letters plus pictures to anticipate what a word might be. I don’t consider this guessing. It is part of the developmental process of word solving and learning. The goal, of course, is for these children to acquire more letter sound knowledge so the teacher can direct the student’s attention to using all the letters in the word for accurate word identification.

I agree with Scanlon and Anderson (2020) that children can use both meaning and visual information right from the start: “We do not view the use of context and decoding within an either/or framework, but rather encourage the interactive and confirmatory use of both code-and meaning-based strategies during word solving, within an instructional approach that is also responsive to the needs of students as they develop skill with the alphabetic code” (p. S20).

By the way, there is widespread misunderstanding among SOR proponents that the V in MSV means pictures. They suggest it is a way of encouraging children to guess at words. See Hunts Institute Virginia Education Summit, 2:50:16ff.  That is totally false — yet I have heard presented numerous times.

Page 31 of the Science of Reading Defining Guide says that in order to be good citizens of a science and practice community, educators should fairly evaluate all evidence “regardless of whether the conclusions are inconsistent with your beliefs.” It also says we should “acknowledge differences and discuss them with respect and decency.” Unfortunately, I seldom see this kind of respectful debate on social media posts. I sincerely hope we can find common ground on the essentials of effective reading instruction, and when we disagree, we can do so with respect and professionalism.   


Want to hear more about Jan’s ideas? Here is a link to an interview I did with her last year. LINK

Several important interviews and blog posts are lined up in the next few weeks. We will start next week with an interview with Gravity Goldberg. In addition, P.D. Pearson has agreed to be interviewed. I am working on setting up that interview late in the summer or early this fall. Until then:

Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2023 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely this author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

5 thoughts on “My Side of the Story- a guest blog post by Dr. Jan Richardson

  1. Celeste Alba

    Amen Dr. Richardson well said! I use your book, NSFWSP, in my undergraduate Elementary Reading and Phonics course at the University of Houston. The exemplar videos are so helpful. Thank you for being the voice of reason and balance. And thank you Dr. Sam! I recommend your blog to my students as recommended literacy influencers to follow.

    1. Heather Micheli

      Celeste Alba – your comment gives me so much hope for future educators. Jan has been a mentor to me for many years and I love that you are sharing her work with undergraduate students. For as long as I have known Dr. Richardson, she has always had children and teachers at the forefront of her efforts. And yes, Thank you Dr. Sam for your open and honest dialogue. Thank you for advocating for students and supporting teachers that want/need agency to create focused and tailored lessons based on students’ strengths and areas of need. You both are very much appreciated!

      1. doctorsam7 Post author

        Happy to do it. The post seems to have struck a chord- almost 5,000 hits, it should be over 5000 by tomorrow. Trying to make sure all sides are heard. Honored that Jan wanted to post of the blog!

  2. Ellen A Thompson

    Thank you Dr. Sam and Jan! I appreciate your thinking through all of this with us. These are challenging times. I like to think that we have always been smart about teaching reading, and each new piece of research makes us just that much smarter. But it is up to us to realize that one does not replace the other. The “soup” just gets richer!


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