Running starts in reading

My post about the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) curriculum takes issue with their emphasis on “word solving,” the use of a variety of strategies to figure words out. I mentioned “get a running start,” taking it as representative of strategies that are inefficient and unreliable. Re-reading the post I wondered whether “get a running start” was from F&P or the Lucy Calkins-TCRWP curriculum, which I’ve also been examining. Both emphasize the use of multiple strategies for reading words. They seem very similar to me in this respect, although they differ in other ways. Nonetheless, I wanted to check the provenance of the phrase for accuracy.

That exact wording is apparently from Calkins, not F&P.  It’s found here, for example:

I also retrieved my Fountas and Pinnell books from a borrower and looked at the discussions of strategies and word solving. Many strategies are discussed (e.g. more than 50 word solving actions in the Fountas & Pinnell, 2017a, guide), but I did not find the phrase “get a running start.” It is hard to tally all of the strategies described in Fountas & Pinnell (2017b): there are multiple ones for every grade and for every level in their A-Z continuum. But, I didn’t find “running start there, either.  Guided Reading (1996) discusses re-reading the sentence containing a problem word but it isn’t called getting a running start.  I haven’t read all of the materials that F&P have produced, but it appears that the phrase should be credited to Calkins and TCRWP. Regardless of what it is called, the point is the same: using the recommended procedures for figuring words out is inefficient and unreliable compared to using the spelling of a word and its associated pronunciation. The point holds for both curricula.

Re-reading F&P, I was reminded just how complex their system is. That may be why it gets reduced to classroom posters like this one:

How children would be expected to remember and use the dozens of word solving activities described in these books is a mystery to me. I also wonder how easy these materials are for teachers to use, and whether there is sufficient time in a school year to even cover all of these possibilities. I hope that people who have far greater familiarity with these curricula than me can comment and correct any other errors.


Fountas & Pinnell (2017a), Comprehensive phonics, spelling and word study guide. Heinemann.

Fountas & Pinnell (2017b), The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum, expanded edition. Heinemann.

Fountas & Pinnell (1996), Guided Reading. Heinemann.

6 thoughts on “Running starts in reading

  1. I am Reading Recovery trained. The school district I worked for invested in the proper set-up and training for intervention teachers at all of its Title 1 schools. Please note that Reading Recovery is not a curriculum–it is a 1:1 intervention for the lowest reading 1st graders AFTER those children have received one year of the regular reading instruction in their classrooms. 1:1 is necessary to determine what the child’s barrier to reading is–based on trained observation and assessments. Based on those observations and assessments, the reading process is designed for the child–unlike a curriculum where the child must fit into the scope and sequence. During my Reading Recovery training, I was told that Marie Clay used the word “Recovery” because it was the teacher’s task to take whatever the child took in from that first year of instruction (recovery) and design instruction to move the child along to the class average in 6 weeks. Later–when “Response to Intervention” was instituted, Reading Recovery was placed in the Tier III intervention. We did not use charts.

  2. Excellent points, Dr. Seidenberg. This reminds me of the fable about the Cat and the Fox. The Fox brags of many tricks while the cat only has one. When the wolves come, the Fox can’t decide which trick to use. The cat swiftly runs to safety in the tree. When students are trying to decide which of these to use, any possibility of comprehension goes out the window. Thank you for bringing awareness to these curricula and their inefficiencies!

  3. Take a running start would be like re-reading the sentence. Hopefully, the child will gather enough meaning to predict what the word will be. Reading Recovery also used many prompts to direct readers to try different strategies. I recognize some of these from my Reading Recovery training. We had to use those prompts (over 50) because the levelled readers we used had words/graphemes in them that the students had not yet learned. Nor was there a scope and sequence we could use to help prepare them for which words they would encounter except by doing a book walk to teach the tricky words before they tried to read the story. Looking back it seems ludicrous that we didn’t just teach them the alphabetic principal and practice with decodable books.

    1. Thanks. This general approach to reading words, which dates from Marie Clay, is incorporated in many curricula and in programs such as Reading Recovery, as you note. The exact formulation varies. The posters and other teaching aids found on the internet often combine elements from different sources, or offer the creator’s own version.

    2. Catherine has described the state of affairs beautifully. My district uses F & P’s LLI (Leveled Literacy Intervention) for its struggling readers, which is based on Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery. It doesn’t take long to see how completely inefficient and counterproductive the program is, so I have built my intervention sessions around discarded decodables. We are now on our third language arts program, so I have lots of books from two previous adoptions to draw upon. Recently, I watched a webinar that referenced a TCRWP visual that covered up the ‘b’ and ‘i’ in bird to teach the ‘rd’ blend. If true, that is truly bizarre and an example of the kind of strategy that is completely unwieldy and unnecessary. I believe it was Pinnell who said that “Clay carefully observed children as they became literate and used her unique insights to form a powerful theory.” I always come back to what Steven Pinker says at the end of his foreword to Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading (McGuinness, 1997) where he emphasizes the “guidelines” that it takes to be an applied scientist: “know what you’re talking about, think clearly and logically, and try to let the world tell you whether what you are saying is true.”

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