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The Three-Question Literacy Health Check

Dear Superintendents, School Board Members, District Leaders, and Anyone Else Invested in Literacy Outcomes,

You’ve probably noticed a growing buzz about reading instruction.

Literacy is definitely having a moment right now; it started building last winter, and every single trend has continued to accelerate. Big time. Just this week, we had significant press, parent activism, and state announcements around literacy. Update: just hours after I published this blog, one topic hit the front page of the New York Times.

Many are trying to lean into this conversation, but don’t know where to start. I’m happy to help!

Here are handy resources for knowing if your ELA approach aligns to key reading research.

Three Questions to Ask About Your Reading Program

Does your ELA program align to the key evidence?

Here are 3 screening questions to ask with your team:

1. Are we getting ALL kids working with texts at their grade level?

Leveled reading groups, in which students work with texts at their reading level, are pervasive in Tier 1 instruction. Unfortunately, there’s actually no evidence that they work. (Really.)

The crux of the issue: steady work with low-level texts becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, meaning that kids that start below-benchmark seldom catch up to grade level.

Here you’ll find additional reading on this issue, as well as a list of curricula that incorporate grade level work for all students.

2. Is our curriculum designed to build background knowledge from the earliest grades, in order to support reading comprehension?

Long-established research shows that kids’ background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. The trouble is, this research isn’t widely-known, so most curricula don’t align to it.

Here’s a primer on the research. The curricula that earn strong reviews for knowledge-building are listed in this piece.

3. Do we have a daily, systematic phonics program in early grades – and does the rest of the ELA program reinforce it?

The first half of the question is straightforward: you want daily, systematic phonics for all students. It’s simply the most proven way to ensure that all kids succeed with foundational skills (as explained here).

Here’s some devil in the detail:

  • Other parts of your curriculum can send inconsistent messages by encouraging students to guess words based on pictures or context, rather than sounding words out, which interferes with phonics learning (explained here). Experts recommend using programs free of “cueing,” to ensure foundational skills success.
  • Great ELA curricula are coherent, so the text and writing work reinforce the phonics work and vice versa. Those nuances are described in more detail in this blog, along with comprehensive curricula.
  • Teachers report weak phonics training in teacher prep, so many feel unprepared to deliver foundational skills lessons with ease. PD is key.

There’s more to ELA – much more. But you can start with these 3 questions, which cover the things most commonly tripping up districts today.

Red Flags

Don’t know the answers to the questions above? Here are some look fors:

Balanced Literacy: this is one of those education terms with varied definitions and really varied implementations, so it’s tough to say anything categorical about it. However, issues with the criteria above are frequently spotted in balanced literacy classrooms, so if you are a “balanced literacy district,” you’ll want to read the research and dig deeper.

Guided Reading: another term with varied meaning, yet most of the time, guided reading includes small group work which is done with leveled readers (i.e. texts at a student’s reading level / instructional level, as opposed to the grade level). So, if you are a “guided reading” district, read this for additional considerations.

Reading Workshop / Fountas & Pinnell: These are characteristic balanced literacy programs, and reviews of their materials have helped to illustrate the flaws of balanced literacy. For example, reviews of Teachers College Reading Workshop Units of Study found substantive issues which are also apparent in comparable programs.

I hope that schools using these programs get to know the content knowledge research, then look at the relatively new “knowledge-building” curricula. They share many of the same virtues as Reading Workshop / F&P (authentic texts at the heart of instruction, daily writing, loads of discourse, read alouds in early grades)… with a stronger research backbone.

Basal Readers: Most basal series scored poorly when reviewed. For example, in EdReports reviews:

  • Wonders scored poorly on content knowledge
  • Journeys scored poorly on text and task quality, and very poorly on content knowledge
  • Reading Street scored so poorly on text selection and foundational skills that they stopped reviewing

Updated versions of some of these programs, published in 2019-20, have attempted to address issues. Check your version, and ensure that your teachers get good PD if you choose to upgrade to the new version.

“We let teachers create curriculum” – Where to start? The shortcomings of the DIY approach deserve their own blog.

Suffice it to say: if many popular curriculum authors can’t get this research right, what makes you think your teachers have been given the time, the professional learning, the frameworks to do better? CAO Nakia Hardy has written about this misconception.

Some day I’ll find or pen a piece that does this topic justice. In the meantime, please know: walkthroughs of schools with DIY curricula tend to show huge instructional inconsistencies. I’d be very worried about that.

More Ways to Check On Curriculum Alignment

You’re probably starting to sense that many curricula in K–12 schools today don’t align to research. Regrettably, that’s the case. It’s one reason that Chief Academic Officers have said that We Have a National Reading Crisis in EdWeek.

You needn’t take my word for it! Two respected curriculum reviewers, EdReports and Louisiana Believes, make it easy to find the quality materials, and to pinpoint issues.

Additional Background

Looking for an accessible intro to the key reading research? Check this out.

Trying to understand this ‘literacy tsunami,’ from the media attention to the parent activism to the educator perspectives? I got you, friend.

Three Reasons To Lean In

Some wonder if this is a pendulum swing, or “reading wars” that will subside at some point.

Also, folks are in their feelings about literacy. We’re witnessing educator guilt and shock at learning new research that contradicts practices. People sometimes take critiques of practices personally. Fear of change will always be present. Some may be reluctant to lean into hard(ish) conversations.

Here are three reasons this literacy conversation has staying power – and it’s worth leaning in:


Much of the research noted above is 20+ years old (think settled by the National Reading Panel)… we just haven’t been able to get it into classrooms. Well-validated research, not fads, drive this conversation.

A Perfect Storm of Momentum

Many forces fuel the interest in literacy:

  • National concern about declining literacy outcomes
  • Significant media coverage
  • Important new books like The Knowledge Gap and Know Better. Do Better
  • Passionate ‘early adopters’ in pioneering schools that have aligned to this research
  • New curricula and training providers make it easier to align – thus adding to the pool of successful ‘early adopters’
  • Growing parent activism, especially from the dyslexia community
  • Increased state activism
  • Social media is accelerating all of the above and connecting people across communities

None of these trends seems likely to wane. Rather, they all seem poised to accelerate.

Leaders to Learn From

Those pioneering educators who’ve brought this research into practice? They are inspiring others with their outcomes, and they’ll inspire you, too!

The easiest way to connect with the teachers, coaches, and administrators implementing these practices is via the #ELAchat, #CurriculumMatters, and #KnowledgeMatters communities in Twitter. Follow these folks!

A network of district leaders using top-rated curriculum can be found via A School Tour is visiting districts using knowledge-rich curricula; you can follow it here.

There is incredible promise in this national reading conversation. If you’re new to it – welcome, and thank you for leaning in. Kids win if we can get these things right.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracyScience of Reading


  1. Robin Ivester Robin Ivester

    How can I share this with my district and preserve the links?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      You simply send the blog over; the links are embedded within!

  2. Andrea Morton Andrea Morton

    Thank you for posting this so concisely! I made the move from language arts middle school teacher to resource specialist. for students with learning disabilities, is there research on whether or not leveled texts are appropriate for them as intervention, as they continue working with grade level texts in class?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      I haven’t seen research specific to this question, there seem to be differences of opinion here! You might try writing to Tim Shanahan, who always seems to be up on the latest.

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