Clarity about Fountas and Pinnell

Fountas and Pinnell have written a series of blog posts defending their popular curriculum, which is being criticized as based on discredited ideas about how children learn to read. (See Emily Hanford’s post here; EdReports evaluation here, many comments in the blogosphere.) The question is why school systems should continue to invest in the F&P curriculum and other products if they are inadequate. 

Their blog posts indicate that Fountas and Pinnell (hereafter F&P) have not benefited from ongoing discussions about approaches to reading instruction. They are staying the course. The posts are restatements of their views that add little new information.

Here are some further observations, from a reading researcher who has been looking closely at several curricula that dominate the enormous market for such materials. I’ve summarized basic flaws in their approach and responded to their defense of it. The quotes are from the F&P “Just to clarify” posts.

1. Fountas and Pinnell’s misconceptions about the knowledge and mental operations that support reading, and how they are acquired, make both learning to read and teaching children to read more difficult.

Being able to read and understand words quickly and accurately is the basic foundation for reading, which enables the development of more advanced forms of literacy. 

Because the F&P curriculum  doesn’t adequately address the development of these skills, it focuses on coping with the struggles that follow. Beginning readers are seen as plodders who, knowing little about the written code, need ways to figure words out. This can be done by using several “word solving” strategies.  There is greater emphasis on teaching children how to cope with their lack of basic skills than on teaching those skills in the first place.

Thus: Fountas and Pinnell’s approach to reading creates learning difficulties for which their curriculum then offers solutions. The rationale for the approach collapses if children are given sufficient opportunities to gain basic skills.

2. In defense of their approach, F&P (like Lucy Calkins) cite the example of a child who reads the word HORSE as PONY. This example clarifies what is at stake.

For F&P such errors are a natural occurrence in beginning reading. The error shows that the child understands the context (perhaps from pictures) and just needs the tools to correct the error, with the teacher’s support. Later they will be taught to “monitor” their own reading to identify when errors have been made and use the strategies to correct them.

I view the error quite differently: it indicates an astonishing instructional flaw, failing to teach the child basic facts about print. A child who is attending to the printed word and has learned that the spelling of a word represents its sound would know that the word cannot be PONY. This type of error is called a semantic paralexia when it occurs in adults whose reading is impaired because of stroke or other brain injury. It’s a rare error among beginning readers unless they haven’t been adequately taught about print.

3. The best “cue” to a word is the word itself. That is the great thing about alphabetic writing: the spelling of a word tells you what the word is.  B-o-o-k is the word BOOK, pronounced /bʊk/–rhymes with  /tʊk/ and  /lʊk/, similar in meaning to TEXT and MAGAZINE. The spelling is far more informative than strategies such as look at the picture, take a running start, skip the word and go back at the end, and other ways to “solve words.” Readers who have gained the ability to recognize words quickly and accurately from the written code do not need the F&P strategies. The proof is that they can do this for words in isolation–with no context and no strategic options. This ability carries over to reading words in sentences, where skilled readers recognize words with little dependence on context. 

Context is important, of course, just not in the way F&P recommend. A reader or listener uses the context in which the word occurs to determine which of its senses is relevant: whether TEXT is used as a noun or verb, for example, or whether the magazine is a periodical or weaponry. Language being inherently ambiguous we do this all the time, rapidly, automatically, and without conscious awareness. Recognizing a word and integrating it with the prior context is much more efficient than predicting or deducing the word using context and strategies. (For details, see chapter 11 in my book.)

4. Skilled word recognition is like a reflex: looking at a word elicits recognition within a fraction of a second, providing access to information that is associated with it. This process is so automatic it is hard to prevent from happening. The goal of instruction is to help the child develop this “reflex” as efficiently as possible, allowing them to move on to the many other aspects of literacy. Whereas my model for reading words is the reflex–an involuntary response to a stimulus–F&P’s model is figuring it out. Like this:

          [Child has misread the word HORSE. Teacher responds.]

          Try that again.

          You said PONY; the letter P is not in this word. Try again!

          Get a running start this time.

          Look at the picture. What is that?

         The children are at a farm. What kinds of animals live on a farm?           

And so on.

Word solving is the opposite of word recognition as I’ve described it. It is slow and effortful. It requires conscious awareness. Whereas the spelling decisively identifies the word, the strategies are fallible and vary in how efficiently they guide the child to the word. Readers are meant to use “all types of information simultaneously,” but the process of remembering and combining relevant information is effortful and inefficient.

F&P nonetheless remain concerned that teaching children to recognize words from print–sometimes called “decoding”–is ill-advised because it may draw their attention away from understanding the text:  

“They may give so much attention to decoding that they have little attention to give to thinking about the meaning, the language, and the messages of the text.”

This is only true if, as in the F&P program, children haven’t been adequately taught to decode. Acquiring this skill requires instruction, feedback, and practice. There’s a learning curve. It too can initially be slow and effortful. But the payoffs are huge. The reader gains sufficient knowledge to continue learning with less and less direct supervision. Facility with words frees attention to be focused on comprehending the text, the principal goal. That is why doing a good job with basic skills instruction is so important.

Ironically, F&P’s focus on word solving itself draws children’s attention away from comprehending the text. The child is focused on figuring out the word rather than following the text. Whereas learning about the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of words carries over into and promotes the development of skilled reading, the strategies do not. “Get a running start” is not an element of skilled reading.

5. There is a major problem with the top-down, word-solving approach that seems to have been wholly overlooked. As in the horse-pony example, children often need several tries to “solve” the word (the same is true in the Calkins approach). Readers will often make multiple errors along the way: incorrect guesses, multiple mispronunciations, re-reads that produce new errors, and so on. Advocates of this approach ignore the fact that children learn from the errors they produce, not just when they arrive at the correct answer.  Say a child has misread a word. The teacher suggests a strategy and the child produces another error. Such errors are not consistently corrected or explained; the teacher may instead turn to a different strategy. And then another. The child is continuously learning from these exchanges, including their incorrect responses.

This is a deep flaw in the strategies-guessing-solving approach. It creates a massively inefficient form of learning, which we know from studies of learning in humans and in AI systems (“machine learning”).  The scenarios that F&P offer as illustrations of the merits of their approach have characteristics that produce slower, less efficient learning in computational learning systems.

I have only a few additional brief comments.

6. It’s widely agreed that teachers need better preparation for teaching reading than colleges currently provide. Teachers are left to learn on the job, and on the job they learn about reading from curriculum gurus such as Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins. The teacher’s manuals, supporting documents and materials, workshops, posters, websites and, yes, blog posts shape teachers’ beliefs and practices.  

Why are we ceding teacher education to the individuals and corporations that market these materials?

7. The leveled texts. The other big part of the F&P program is their unique system of assigning texts to levels. It’s a complex, proprietary system with a scientific veneer. The leveling system and leveled texts raise concerns that I just cannot get into here. The basic concern (as expressed by teachers and other observers) is that the texts are not challenging enough. Children succeed at reading them but learn very little from the effort. I have not studied the links between the curriculum and the texts. But, if children are having difficulties gaining basic reading skills because they aren’t adequately taught, and word solving strategies are fallible and inefficient, then the texts might well have to be simplified for children to get through them.

Finally, F&P note that teachers matter more than programs. I completely agree. But in the context of their blog posts, F&P seem to be saying: look, our materials may be flawed but not to worry, teachers matter more than programs. So, stay with us. I think that teachers need to have the best preparation for the job and the best instructional materials to use. They are not getting either from F&P. I’d like to see a moratorium on purchasing these systems until better ones come to market, which will happen. Invest the savings in teachers: in-service support, professional development, reading coaches and classroom aides. 

Thanks to Emily Hanford, Maryellen MacDonald, and Steve Dykstra.


21 thoughts on “Clarity about Fountas and Pinnell

  1. Thanks, Mark, for your lucid comments re: Fountas and Pinnell’s non-clarifying clarification of their positions on early reading instruction. Happily I have seen similar attempts to refocus educators to the substantial science that ought to guide modern practice. Unhappily, these attempts don’t seem to get schools to turn the corner — at least not in the fifty years I have been an educator. So, let me suggest that, aside from teachers, school administrators, and Boards of Education, there’s other target audiences that also don’t seem very responsive to carefully composed and authoritative explanations such as yours, and we ought to think about why. I’m talking about teacher training programs contained in university and college education departments and schools. These programs produce and present new teachers for state licensing, sometimes out of convictions that are parallel to those of Fountas, Pinnell, Calkins, and many others — a strange willfulness in institutions dedicated to knowledge. Also, these institutions perpetuate unsupportable ideas about instruction sometimes out of blind obedience to state credentialing authorities, legislatures, and perceived market pressures. If correction of our practices was only a matter of communicating evidence-based principles ever more clearly to practicing teachers, administrators, and Boards of Education, I think we would have seen some desirable results sometime during the last fifty years.

  2. I recommend listening to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast: Work 2.0 – The Obstacles You Don’t See. Until we figure out the “friction,” progress will be difficult.

  3. Regardless of what approach, program or curriculum is chosen, this comment from the post rings true and most important: “Invest the savings in teachers: in-service support, professional development, reading coaches …” Teachers who are consistently allowed and expected to study, learn, and hone practices of responsive teaching while experiencing effective coaching in the moment CAN successfully and expertly use F&P materials as well as other materials to make informed instructional decisions based upon individual student responses. For example, when emergent reader substitutes pony (horse), the teacher would be coached to direct student’s attention to word solving and NOT another check of the picture — teaching how to monitor and connect BOTH the phonological information and the context of the story. Teachers must learn how to smoothly navigate any program, being selective, and making decisions adjusting to the needs of children.

    1. The point–the truly tragic point–is that the struggling first graders who come to me for intervention are frantically searching the pictures on the page because they have had a steady diet of predictable text instead of word recognition instruction. I have to address all the bad habits and make up for time wasted by teachers earnestly attempting to teach students “how to monitor and connect BOTH the phonological information and the context of the story”, teachers who are doing their best to implement what they have been trained to do. We cannot overstate the damage that has been done by this curriculum and the methods it promotes.

  4. Thank you for this detailed explanation of the perils of F&P.

    I also appreciate how you note that they have not learned from what the science has been saying for years. As some districts leave F&P behind, they are asking, why does the research keep changing? Yet, the research has been there this whole time. F&P have done such a disservice by claiming that their products are supported by research; they’ve now confused so many educators about how research works.

    I’ll also add that their approach has permeated schools of ed and districts so much that it has influenced so many other curricula and materials as well. Worse, people have come to think that this–guessing words in leveled books–is how kids learn to read. Even many curricula and materials that are not F&P branded take this approach. Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest are full of this stuff, not to mention district-created curricula. It’s everywhere.

  5. After decades of ignoring how humans learn to read, write and spell; I can only conclude that the vast majority of publics school administrators and teacher college professors prefer an uneducated workforce. At this point, I cannot fathom any other explanation; and god knows I have tried. Dr. Seidenberg, I appreciate the insight and clarity you bring to this issue.

    1. I sometimes wonder, have the corporate leaders looked at the situation with AI etc and decided, we really don’t need a highly educated workforce. Literacy, higher education will be for a elite leadership class. The rest of us will entertain ourselves to death with video games, social media, etc. but what do I know?

    2. I believe public school administrators and educators cling to these harmful programs as a form of self preservation. Most administrators and teachers are unqualified for their jobs, if they embrace the science of reading. It’s in their own self interest to fleece tax-paying parents and harm children. Pre-service educators need to learn SOR AND basic ethics.

      1. What a relief that your “beliefs” are just that- your opinion! Accusing educators of using practices in order to keep their jobs is outrageous. Your statement that “Most administrators and teachers are unqualified for their jobs, if they embrace the science of reading. It’s in their own self interest to fleece tax-paying parents and harm children. Pre-service educators need to learn SOR AND basic ethics” is based on what evidence? I very much hope you are not an educator because your negative views of one is distressing to say the least.

  6. Thank you for explaining so clearly the tremendous harm programs like F&P and other balanced literacy programs continue to cause for young readers and teachers alike. I totally agree with you that teachers are key to ensuring students become successful readers, and that the only teachers who could possibly be effective given a program like F&P are those who know enough to ignore it and follow the science of how children learn to read.

  7. The concerns are even deeper when F & P Benchmark Assessment Systems form the framework of reading instruction and intervention. If we look closely at the content within the level A,B, and C texts that are used to “assess” and level readers you can see that the only way students who are typically 5 or 6 years old can successfully “read” these repetitive, patterned texts is to utilize pictures and contexts…consider the title “Best Friends” . So think about the ramifications of this. Students who are learning with code-based instruction would typically only be receiving instruction at this early point in their development on basic CVC words. Now, when the teacher pulls them out and uses this BAS, there are very few CVC words to “read” so instead they are assessed on what are considered “sight words” or HFW and patterned, repetitive and “predictable” language based on the pictures. So if a student had been taught to focus on the letters in words they will not be successful on these early BAS. Since these assessments set the stage for instruction, now these readers will only be given instruction using more and more of these types of books and worse they will be labeled a struggling reader. This deficit narrative then can become self-fulfilling and the research regarding the “Matthew Effect” is compelling. How can teachers working within systems that mandate the administration of these BAS assessments usually at a minimum
    Rate of 3x per instructional year reconcile this? On the front lines the struggle is real.Also when we consider the connections to written language there appear to be strong connections to how students write. They begin to write like the patterned predictable books they are inundated with. I see a ——— , I see a ———- etc.
    We can use additional research that looks closely at the BAS to help with our advocacy. “Levels” are the basis of every conversation around students to and their reading development, without dismantling this, how can we move towards more evidence-based practices?

    1. This is exactly the reason I rewrote the text, converting the predictable books for levels C and D into decodable books and then inserting the new text into my copies. Having teachers tell me that their students were reading at these levels was completely meaningless, and I needed valid data to know whether my intervention students were progressing.

      Changing Predictable Text to Decodable Text

      Socks (F & P Level C predictable text, 79 words, with non-kindergarten words highlighted)

      Socks was sleeping on the bed.
      “Wake up, Socks!” I said.
      Socks was sleeping on my chair.
      I said, “Wake up, Socks!”
      She was sleeping on the couch.
      “Wake up, Socks!” I said.
      She was sleeping on the rug.
      I said, “Wake up, Socks!”
      She was sleeping by the window.
      I said, “Socks, wake up!”
      Socks was sleeping by the door.
      “Wake up, Socks!” I said.
      Socks was sleeping under the table.
      “I can wake Socks up,” I said.
      Purr.

      Tab (changing predictable text to decodable text, 79 words, with kindergarten words highlighted)

      My cat naps on the bed.
      “Get up, Tab,” I said
      My cat naps on my spot.
      I said, “Get up, Tab.”
      My cat naps on the sofa.
      “Get up, Tab,” I said.
      She can nap on the rug.
      I said, “Get up, Tab.”
      She can nap on the bench.
      I said, “Tab, get up.”
      My cat naps on the mat.
      “Get up,” I said.
      My cat has a can of fish.
      “I can get it,” I said.
      Yum.

    2. Great point about “I see a —.” Same thing happens with English learners, who might not know the vocabulary in the picture.
      What’s worse is kids who use the pictures are thought to be able to decode and NOT labeled struggling readers, when they’ve memorized 2 sight words and see a picture. That’s what I see in upper elementary. They get stuck around level I when they actually have to decode multi-syllable words.

  8. This article brings to the forefront that administrators and educators need more training in understanding how instruction will support the reading brain. Districts need to begin investing in that effort so that educators have the tools/knowledge to provide the kind of instruction that ALL students need. Given that many educators didn’t receive the kind of teacher prep that prepared us to understand the reading brain, it’s the responsibility of districts to now ensure that training so that students can be better supported through reading instruction Thank you for this article.

  9. Well said Dr. Seidneberg. Districts need to start looking at why F & P and Lucy Calkins are not aligned and never were. Districts need to take a hard look and ask themselves, Why would we use a curriculum that has failed close scrutiny and call it good enough. Wake up school districts, your kids are counting on you.

  10. You say: Invest the savings in teachers: in-service support, professional development, reading coaches and classroom aides.

    Despite repeated recommendations from those of us who understand reading science and how it informs classroom practices, my district has disregarded our pleas and has just purchased more F & P. Believe me–we’ve tried hard to educate our leaders over several years. But they won’t listen to us practitioners or to you researchers–and certainly not to journalists. They have bought into–and continue to buy–F & P. Very discouraging state of affairs. As a reading specialist, I work every day with the instructional casualties they create.

    Thanks for all your incredible contributions! I learned so much from your phoneme series.

    1. I don’t believe in the Reading Wars. Let the pendulum stay in the middle. F&P does have its place in classroom instruction with highly trained teachers who know how to teach reading just as systematic phonics can be taught with application to authentic reading and writing. It’s the application piece and how children use what we teach them that matters most. The goal is to produce joyful readers & writers.

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