5 Silver Bullets for Boosting America’s Reading Scores

This pathway to reading gives all children a ticket to a better life.

Posted Oct 23, 2018

The notion that Grade 3 is a pivotal year for reading is a myth debunked by science. Cognitive scientists and well-informed reading teachers, along with reading researchers such as Richard Allington who truly understand beginning reading instruction, all agree with me that most children in America should learn to read by the end of first grade (Allington, 2013; Gentry & Ouellette, in press). Yet as Allington and others report, only 23 percent of first-grade grade teachers provide the type of high-quality reading lessons needed to enable all students to complete first grade as successful readers (Allington, 2013; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).

Today, the science of reading shows us how to do it. We don’t need an extra year of second grade for poor children as some have recently recommended (which would cost millions of dollars) or buying more so-called “evidence-based” products as other experts have championed. Here’s what works: five silver bullets effective for eliminating schools that fail to teach reading based on scientific solutions that actually are affordable, matched with common sense, and effective for blasting through some of the complexity of teaching reading.

Silver Bullet #1. First, we should ensure that all kindergarten and first-grade teachers have been well trained as spelling, writing, and reading teachers. Currently, that is not the case. I travel all over the United States and find kindergarten or first-year teachers who are passionate about teaching literacy but are unqualified through no fault of their own. Too often, the first-year teacher who has been hired to teach kindergarten or first grade has had no courses in teaching beginning literacy in their academic teacher training program, not one. Others have courses based on principles that don’t comport with today’s science of reading. I work with these K-1 teachers and their students and frankly, in too many cases, the district gives the teachers a reading program or some homespun curricular map and someone says, “Teach them to read!”

All K-1 teachers should have master’s degree training comparable to well-known Reading Recovery training (Allington, 2013) or proven skills for delivering readers by end of first grade. That alone would be a major step in solving our reading problem (and likely save millions of dollars and increase reading scores) but state legislators and local school boards must adopt this policy—hiring qualified K-1 teachers and paying them what they are worth for sending kids to second grade and beyond as readers. The academic education community and some administrators must beef up their teacher education or staff development programs, embrace the 2018-era science of reading, and give up long-held scientifically debunked practices.

For those of you who are thinking we already tried that in 2001 with Reading First mandated by No Child Left Behind, I would point out that plan was egregiously flawed and poorly managed. It mandated that all students be able to read by third grade, hedging the bet on expecting most kids to learn to read by the end of first grade. While it was supposed to reinforce and fund “scientific, research-based reading programs,” NCLB came out in an era dominated by whole language theory resulting in some problematic practices now debunked by science. For example, neither spelling nor writing was considered important pillars of said “scientific, research-based reading programs,” which now seems nonsensical. Even today, whole language recommendations from yesteryear ignoring today’s science, such as “There should be no special spelling curriculum or regular lesson sequences” (Goodman, Smith, Meredith, & Goodman, 1987), are still practiced in districts that continue to offer no spelling books, haphazard and inadequate spelling instruction, or in some cases no spelling instruction at all. Yet as early as 1990, cognitive and developmental scientist and researcher Marilyn Adams reported, “The best differentiator between good and poor readers is repeatedly found to be their knowledge of spelling patterns and their proficiency with spelling-sound translations.” (Adams, 1990, p. 290). Recent neuroscience has added to that understanding.

Silver Bullet #2. We now know that spelling knowledge and instruction are at the very core of activating the reading brain. Helping beginners write and move through early phases of invented spelling from no use of the alphabet to using the alphabet to chunk phonics patterns for automatic spelling (encoding) should happen in all kindergarten and first-grade classrooms and set all kids on an early pathway to literacy. By the end of first grade, brain words for spelling lead to automatic recognition of 300 to 400 words and patterns and free the reading brain for comprehension in reading and meaning-making in writing (Gentry & Ouellette, in press).

Silver Bullet #3. Science says that the best predictor of reading comprehension is in fact, word reading. Cognitive scientists have known this for decades (Adams, 1990; Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hogan, Catts, & Little, 2005). More recently neuroscience has clarified the discovery of a specific area in the reading brain called the Word Form Area (WFA). There, neural representations of spelling, called lexical representations, connect automatically to the reader’s already existing spoken language system where each word on the page is visually mapped to the WFA and automatically connected to the same word in the reader’s spoken language system thereby creating information and meaning. Your own neural spelling representations were activated in your WFA in your left-brain reading system for each word in the previous sentence as you read it. You are a master of word reading and connecting those spelling representations of words automatically to the already existing meaningful vocabulary in your spoken language system; in fact, you do it automatically without knowing that you are using the spelling. Of course reading is one of the most complex neural operations of the human brain, but the methods described here and below—good first teaching, teaching brain words for spelling, appropriate focus on word reading, expanding vocabulary and background information by in school and independent reading, and building connections to a meaningful spoken language vocabulary—are all essential for reading and comprehension.

Silver Bullet #4. We know that children from lower income families with less educated parents are often lacking in vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for reading comprehension. Exemplary kindergarten and first grade teachers fill this gap from the very beginning even while focusing on reading, writing, and spelling in all subject areas (Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017). For example, even in kindergarten, children who come to school underprepared for academic success can build vocabulary and concepts by practicing their writing skills embedded in the content of a rigorous and grade-appropriate curriculum of study in science, history, social studies, or any subject (Hochman & Wexler, 2017). They begin with readalouds; talking about the topic; hands-on engagement such as through trips to the zoo, watching eggs hatch, engaging in creative art and dramatic projects; exposure to various levels of books on the topic and opportunities to practice writing about what they are studying—all beginning in kindergarten. Both reading and writing to learn begin in kindergarten. For example, in the 8-page book Planets, kindergartners can learn to say the names of the planets and match them with incredible authentic space-age photographs as they learn to read “This planet is red,” Mars; and “This planet is home,” Earth and so forth. Or on pages 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of a 16-page book entitled The Life of a Fox, kindergartners and beginning first graders can read and learn quite a bit about mother foxes: “They go out of the den in the summer,” (page 4); “The mother fox stays with the babies,” (page 5); “She feeds them milk,” (page 6); “She keeps them warm,” (p.7); “She keeps them clean by licking them” (page 8). More advanced “reading to learn” happens in first grade as boys and girls read Big Wheels at Work and see a fantastic photo of a backhoe. “Here is a backhoe. Deep grooves in the tires help it grip the earth. It has a strong arm that can dig a hole or tear down a building.” While reading, students compare and contrast backhoes with a wheel loader, a dump truck, and a six-wheeled motor grader. At the same time they are learning to read they are receiving explicit instruction in spelling high-frequency syllable and phonics patterns such as -is in is, -ack- in backhoe, -eep in deep, -it in it, -in in in, -at in at and that, -an in can and than, -ip in grip, -ig in dig, -ix in six, along with mo- which is like go and –tor which is like or in motor.  Not all at once with this one little informational book, of course, but you get the idea. It’s not just vocabulary and background knowledge kindergartners and first graders (including the lower income kids) are learning from these books. They are learning to read and reading to learn simultaneously.  And be advised that these children are not “reading the pictures.” Twenty years ago some whole language advocates were telling kids to “read the pictures” and guess the meaning of the word. I still see signs in second-grade classrooms that say “read the pictures.” Science says you have to read the words!

By the end of first grade, all students should have made the transition into automatic word reading. They read both independently and in school to learn new vocabulary and background information. On pages 4 and 5 of a lovely first-grade book entitled Polar Bears, the first grader not only sees incredible close-up photos of these wonderful creatures but reads “Powerful legs and big paws make the polar bear an excellent swimmer. Its feet are webbed between the toes. When the polar bear walks on snow, the wide paws act like snowshoes.” (Books cited: Kaleidoscope and Real World Collections, Hameray Publishing Group.)

Who on earth came up with the idea that first through third grade was about “learning to read” and then miraculously around grade three kids “start reading to learn”? Who came up with the idea that we shouldn’t have a national assessment of reading progress at the end of first grade but rather wait until Grade 3? Who came up with the notion that it was smart to ditch the idea of having a national measure of spelling assessment altogether? During the 1970s and 1980s when the nation measured spelling scores nationally, reading scores in America were actually on the rise! Teachers teach what we test. Much has improved in our understanding of how to teach reading since then but what we do with spelling is not one of them.

Silver Bullet #5. A phenomenon called “self-teaching” kicks in by the end of first grade with children who are progressing on grade level (Share, 1995). In addition to learning from the subjects taught in school, students who are motivated to read and write build vocabulary and concepts and, consequently, they continue to learn more by reading, writing, and spelling. The more they read and write the better they get (except with spelling, which has to be taught). It’s called the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986). An impoverished young African-American girl born in Mississippi named Oprah Winfrey was reading before the end of first grade; the above by-the-end-of-first-grade reading ticket to a better life is essentially her story.

These five silver bullets will lead to higher reading scores throughout America and give more disadvantaged children a reading ticket to a better life. It’s not a magic or miraculous fix; it’s just the science-based right thing to do.


Adams, Marilyn, J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Allington, R.L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520-530.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I., & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J.R. & Ouellette, G.P. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Goodman, K., Smith, E.B., Meredith, R., & Goodman, Y. (1987) Language and thinking in school: A whole-language curriculum. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Gough, P.B., & Tunmer. W. (1986). “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 7, 6-10.

Hockman, J.C. & Wexler, N. (2017). The writing revolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hogan, T.P., Catts, H.W., & Little, T.D. (2005). The relationship between phonological awareness and reading: Implications for the assessment of phonological awareness. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch, 36(4), 285-293.

Share, David. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition.” Cognition, 55(2), 151-218.

Stanovich, Keith E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 360-407.

Stuhlman, M.W., & Pianta, R.C. (2009). Profiles of educational quality in first grade. The Elementary School Journal, 109, 323-342.

Children’s books cited by permission from Hameray Publishing Group—Los Angeles

Planets by Debbie Moeller—Kaleidoscope Collection

The Life of a Fox by Jeffery L. Williams—Real Word Collection

Big Wheels at Work by Debbie Moeller—Kaleidoscope Collection

Polar Bears by Rhonda McDonald—Kaleidoscope Collection