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Radical Eyes for Equity: Big Lies of Education: National Reading Panel (NRP)

Similar to A Nation at Risk and a core part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a bi-partisan committee formed under Bill Clinton and then elevated under George W. Bush.

Joanne Yatvin, a panel member who issued a Minority Reportwrote in Education Week in 2003, warning that the NRP’s conclusions would be misrepresented and misused.

Yatvin was right.

And 15 years later, Emily Hanford—among dozens of journalists—continued to prove Yatvin correct:

The battle between whole language and phonics got so heated that the U.S. Congress eventually got involved, convening a National Reading Panel to review all the research on reading. In 2000, the panel released a report. The sum of the research showed that explicitly teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters improved reading achievement. The panel concluded that phonics lessons help kids become better readers. There is no evidence to say the same about whole language.

Hard Words

In 2024, as the “science of reading” (SOR) movement continues to steamroll state reading legislation, journalists persist in misrepresenting the panel’s findings as well as ignoring that the NRP is over two decades old, which means reading science has moved well beyond what the panel claimed to find.

Further, as panel members admitted, the NRP was underfunded and understaffed, resulting in the panel’s overview of reading research was greatly limited to only a narrow type of published research.

Further, despite the Urban Legends of the findings repeated by Hanford and other journalists, the NRP’s conclusions are not what has been claimed.

First, Tim Shanahan, a panel member, admitted that the report did little to support classroom practice.

But more importantly, the actual findings of the panel in no way support the media claims about what research says about teaching reading, the role of phonics instruction, or the evidence on whole language.

Diane Stephens, University of South Carolina emeritus professor, provides an excellent summary of the findings:

  • Phonemic Awareness: PA is a “means rather than an end”; doesn’t increase comprehension; only one of many elements needed to read independently.
  • Phonics: Minimal value in kindergarten; no conclusion about phonics beyond grade 1 for “normally developing readers”; systematic phonics instruction in grades 2-6 with struggling readers has a weak impact on reading text and spelling; systematic phonics instruction has a positive effect in grade 1 on reading (pronouncing) real and nonsense words but not comprehension; at-risk students benefit from whole language instruction, Reading Recovery, and direct instruction.
  • Fluency: The ability of students to make sense of text grammatically and with understanding of punctuation.
  • Vocabulary: Vocabulary is acquired many ways by readers; number of words acquired cannot be accomplished through direct instruction. About 1/3 of vocabulary learning in grades 3 – 8 linked to reading.
  • Comprehension: Weak evidence in report on comprehension. Emphasizes need for SBRR (scientifically based reading research) and “putting teachers in positions where their minds are the most valued educational resource.”

As many scholars have noted (see below), the NRP found that systematic phonics and whole language were about equally effective, but the key here is that phonics instruction was found to be effective for pronunciation, not comprehension, and only in grade 1.

In short, the NRP was never a definitive overview of reading science (or a confirmation about teaching systematic phonics to all students), and now that we are 20-plus years past the report, citing the NRP should be limited to historical references, not evidence of the current state of reading science.

I recommend the following to understand fully the NRP:

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...