Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people.
Dr. Timothy Shanahan is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He worked for several years as a professor of reading instruction and reading research and has also done influential research in the education field. He served as the director of the school’s Center for Literacy from 1991-2013 and also served as the chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from 2011-2013. Additionally, Shanahan is a past president of the International Literacy Association and also served as a member of the board of the National Institute for Literacy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also spent several years as the director of reading for the Chicago Public School District.
Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): How Did You Become So Involved in Early Literacy Education?
Timothy Shanahan: Initially, it was my goal to actually serve in government and be involved in politics, as I had been as a teen. When I saw an opportunity to do some work in the inner city when I was an undergraduate in political science [at Oakland University], I took it. I was scared to death and had no idea what I was doing. In fact, the night before I was going to first meet with this young boy I worked with, I went and took two books out of the library on literacy, and I couldn’t have gotten two more different books. I had one that was strongly whole language and one that was strongly decoding and phonics. I decided, just as an elective, to take a course in the teaching of reading, and the professor and I hit it off. He was an outstanding professor—and at the time perhaps the best reading consultant in the country—and even though I was only 18 or 19 years old, he actually started taking me with him out to schools, working with teachers and principals and so on. So I started working on reading before I moved into teaching.
Then I changed my major, got my degree, and went out and taught 3rd and 1st grade. I was offered an assistantship to get my master's degree, but I thought it more important that I get the teaching experience given the direction I was going. And so really from the beginning, my intention was to teach, but also to get my Ph.D. and probably to be something like a curriculum director. But while I was doing the Ph.D., I got kind of sucked into the research, and so I ended up going the university route.
IRRC: What Do You Hope to See From This Current Science of Reading Movement? What Mistakes Do You Hope We Can Rectify or Avoid as We Move Forward?
Timothy Shanahan: I definitely think people are paying some attention and it certainly isn't because people like me have managed to just be so articulate on these issues that the nation has decided to address our needs. Frankly, it's that the journalists have identified some gaps in how we're teaching. There's a lot of public pressure now and interest from state legislators and so on, and so I definitely think that we are going through changes now.
The journalist who has been so influential is Emily Hanford [senior producer and correspondent with APM Reports and host of Sold a Story]. I have been interviewed by her several times over the years and consider her to be a valued and articulate person who is helping education. Essentially, she's done what a journalist does. She's identified a very specific problem, a real problem, and has reported on it and hasn't necessarily stepped back and said, “Are there other things going on with reading?” or, you know, “What would be a full response that the educational community should make?” That's not what her job is. That's our job. That's what we have to do. Essentially, she identified this lack of teaching in phonics—this lack of preparation for many teachers so that they can teach phonics. And I think that's very important, but I also think that if all we do is address phonics better, I think we're going to see the same kinds of things, frankly, that we've seen in past waves of improving phonics instruction. We should see some gains in 4th-grade reading scores, which is good. We should see some closing of gaps between high-poverty and low-poverty kids and between Black and White kids and, you know, again, I'll applaud all of that. But the gains are likely to be somewhat limited, meaning that there will still be large numbers and percentages of children who are below the levels we really need them to be at. And I think despite those gains in young children, there's a very real chance that we won't see any subsequent gains for eighth graders or 12th graders.
You can't expect one small reform, no matter how much it's needed and how appropriate and helpful it'll be, to fix everything. And I'm afraid that the politicians are watching these radio documentaries and going, “Well, this would be easy to fix. We'll just put money into this, and it'll be fine.” But man, if that's all we do, what we're likely to see is just modest gains for some kids. That just isn't sufficient, and it isn't satisfactory to me, certainly.
IRRC: What Advice Would You Give to Educators Who Are Just Beginning to Learn About the Science of Reading?
Timothy Shanahan: You know, there are teachers who are looking and going, “I'm hearing what Emily Hanford is saying, and it makes sense to me, and I want to do it, but I don't have any training in that, and the school didn't buy a program, and so on.” But there are others who are going, “I'm hearing that this phonics thing is magic, and I've been teaching for 25 years, and I'm one of the better teachers in the school, and I've never taught phonics.” It goes both ways. So I think we need to keep [teachers] from being misinformed so that they actually can make better choices.
For example, to that teacher who wants to follow the science of reading, but her district is saying, “oh, no, no, no…,” I would certainly say do whatever you can to educate yourself. Find ways of expanding your teaching, speak privately with parents who might have some concerns or whose kids you think actually need some help. Find some books, read what you can. If there are workshops available, I'd certainly suggest that you do that and educate yourself as well as you can.
For those other teachers who are looking and saying, “this is baloney, phonics isn't going to help these kids,” I think we need to figure out what we're really talking about here. The fact is, phonics is not a magic anything. It is an approach to teaching. It is a piece of curriculum that, when taught, enables some kids to do better at learning to read. And if you're not providing that kind of instruction, your kids aren't doing probably as well as they can. They might seem like they're doing fine, but you're leaving achievement points on the table, and that's unfair to the kids. But it's not magic. And if it's left out, it isn't that nobody learns to read. Phonics is systematic, there's a system to it, which means that it's possible to figure it out without help. That can happen. But what the research says is that for most kids, getting some help with it makes a difference. And for some kids, it's absolutely essential. If they don't get it, they don't make it. And I can't tell you which kids are which, so give it to everybody to start out to make sure that as many of them become readers as possible. And then yes, indeed, there's a heck of a lot more that needs to be done than that. There's comprehension and there's fluency, and there's writing, and we can't neglect any of them.
IRRC: Is There Anything Else You Would Like to Add?
Timothy Shanahan: When I was director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools, I was hired specifically to raise reading achievement PK-12. I mandated that time needed to be divided between teaching kids about words—which included phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and morphology—and teaching kids about fluency, comprehension, and writing. Obviously, in the primary grades, you're getting more phonics and so on, and as you move up to the grades, you get more vocabulary and morphology, as you'd expect. But you had to teach kids how to think when they were reading, how to comprehend text, how to learn from text, and you had to teach kids writing. All four of those things. It wasn't, “Well, I really liked this one” or “my college prepared me for that one” or “I don't like this one, so I'll do the other three.”
Not surprisingly, we raised reading achievement significantly in a school district that was serving many high-poverty kids, was a majority-minority district with substantial percentages of African American and Latino kids. And we were doing that not with some magic, but by giving kids instruction in all of the key areas. And so Emily Hanford has done a great service by pointing out where we're missing something, but it's certainly possible in your district that you're doing a good job with phonics. But how are you doing on the writing piece? How are you doing with fluency? How are you doing with reading comprehension? Are you doing as much as you could? Are you doing the right stuff there? We should all be looking at this information.