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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are Nancy's answers to some frequently asked questions about reading/spelling/writing research and instruction:

The word “literacy” is used in many contexts these days. How do you define this word?

Nancy supports the definition of literacy used by “Literate Nation,” an organization endorsed by leading researchers in the field of science-based reading instruction and challenges:


"Literacy represents the lifelong intellectual process of gaining meaning from print. The key to all literacy is reading development, which involves a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including the awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meanings (semantics), grammar (syntax), and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired, the reader can attain full English reading literacy, which includes: the ability to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference, and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information, background knowledge, and insights from texts as the basis of informed decisions and creative thought." (Source: Literate Nation,

You advocate that the majority of learners need to be taught to read using a “science-based” reading program. What does that mean?

Children are not born knowing how to read – they must be taught. In a science-based program, instruction is based on quantitative research (including brain imaging) that demonstrates the majority of children are advantaged if they receive systematic, explicit, language-based instruction. (See my Ladder of Reading) Such instruction should be based on a structured literacy approach which teaches the essential components: Phonology, Orthography, Semantics, Syntax and Morphology. (See Structured Literacy Primer)


Unfortunately, the research continues to show that many children are not receiving the instruction they need. Learners are being taught ineffective reading strategies, and are being encouraged to guess at words instead of decoding. Science-based research has demonstrated that skilled readers decode; no science-based research supports the teaching of guessing. Struggling readers are frequently set up for further defeat when schools intervene using remediation programs/approaches that are not based upon the reading science. The following article addresses this topic:

What is phonological awareness, and why is it important?

Phonological awareness is sensitivity to language sound patterns at the word, syllable and phoneme level (a phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound in a word). Phonological awareness is a strong predictor of reading ability, and a weakness in phonological awareness will affect both reading and spelling. The following article describes phonological awareness:

Is spelling important?

Many aspects of reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) have been found to be reciprocal. Spelling is the orthographic (written) representation of the spoken word. The linguistic knowledge required to spell, however, is even greater than for reading. Spelling also places a higher cognitive load on working memory, long-term memory, attention control, and motor skills. Poor spelling often indicates poor reading skills, and weak spelling skills can affect reading comprehension and writing. Career success and self-esteem throughout adulthood can be impacted by weak spelling skills.


Foundational skills for spelling should be taught in kindergarten, including phonemic awareness, common phoneme to grapheme correspondences and accurate letter formation. Spelling instruction should continue to be integrated with reading instruction for all students from Grade one onwards. Morphological awareness can be woven into instruction as early as kindergarten, with an increasing emphasis in grades one and up. The following article provide valuable information about science-based spelling instruction:


Do children need to know how to print?

Although digital technologies are playing increasingly greater roles in our lives, research strongly suggests that learning to form letters and words by hand is a vital part of learning to read, spell and write. The following link will give teachers and parents an overview of some of the important reasons to teach children handwriting:


I am a certified teacher, but I was not taught much about how science-based reading and spelling instruction. What should I know?

Current research clearly indicates that very few universities are giving teachers the training needed to teach reading, spelling and writing in ways supported by the science. The link below will take you to the “Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.” Prepared by leading researchers of reading and spelling instruction and teacher education, this document describes the essential skills that should be a part of teacher training.



Is grade one too early to start worrying about reading and spelling delays?

“Red flags” that may indicate a delay in reading and spelling readiness can show up as early as kindergarten. Some may even be visible before kindergarten. In addressing reading and spelling challenges, research has clearly shown us that the earlier we intervene, the greater the chance the child will overcome difficulties. Students with reading weaknesses in the early grades are at high risk for general academic failure unless effective intervention takes place.


The longer the period of time before a reading weakness is addressed, the more difficult it is to remediate. The younger brain is more plastic, thus more easily builds the brain connections needed to read and spell. The longer the delay, the less word exposure the child will experience as well.


The following article explains the importance of early intervention. Note that this article was written in 1998. Sadly, many schools are still not using research-based screeners in kindergarten (a number of excellent screeners are available), and many schools are not providing the research-based instruction that the majority of learners need.



My child seems very smart, and is advanced for her age in so many other areas other than reading. She can read aloud her favourite books, but struggles to read new books with only one or two sentences per page. It all seems so inconsistent. Her teachers tell me she needs to focus more on reading and writing tasks at school, and that she is exhibiting poor behaviour when it is time for these activities.

It is important to distinguish reading and spelling ability from overall intelligence; the brighter the child, the more difficult it may be for teachers and parents to recognize a reading weakness in the early grades. The average person can memorize 2,000 to 3,000 words. Children with above-average intelligence may memorize even more. This sometimes results in teachers and parents thinking the child can read, but the child is not actually decoding (skilled readers decode).


Weak reading skills can lead to distraction in class. Adults may interpret this distraction as an attention regulation issue, but the child may actually be having trouble remaining focused because the foundational skills needed to do the task have not been mastered. The problem is compounded when the distracted child misses out on learning new skills.


Reading difficulties can result in emotional and/or behavior problems both in and outside of school; research has revealed this can begin as early as 2-3 months into kindergarten if science-based reading instruction is not used in the classroom.


Diligence in monitoring reading/spelling/writing skill development is very important, no matter how smart the child appears to be. The research suggests that the reading skills of all students should be screened 3 times per year from kindergarten up to grade 3, and that some of these students may require further assessment based upon the screening results.


Schools should be basing their reading instruction on the data produced from screenings and any additional tests given. Schools should be closely monitoring the progress of those at risk, or who have evidenced weak skills.


It is important that parents be informed of the results of reading and spelling screening/assessments, as there are specific things parents can do at home to support skill development if a weakness is evident. A team approach is beneficial whenever possible.


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