Unclear clarification: FPL blog entries obfuscate early reading instruction

Why would Fountas and Pinnell not report evidence of effectiveness?

If you have an educational innovation, and it works, why wouldn’t you crow about the research showing that it works? Why not show how you know that “it works?”

In response to criticism of their very popular materials and approach to literacy education, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell published a series of 10 messages beginning 1 November 2021 in the blog on the Web site of their publisher, Heinemann. They also released a series of videos on YouTube covering essentially the same content.

Fountas and Pinnell say that they sought to clarify what they identified as “misconceptions around our design for literacy instruction to set the record straight and offer a space for the education community to hear directly from us” (from the introduction that heads each entry in the series).

Their effort to straighten the record centers—and this is my interpretation, so it can be debated—around a perspective that students should learn to be reflective consumers of the environment around them. They should monitor their reading behavior, analyzing their reading activity and gradually shaping it to be accurate. They should be problem solvers. More on this later....

Concerns

In their blog entries I find the arguments that Fountas and Pinnell advance to be restatements of unfounded assertions about reading, not presentations of research evidence.

The 10 posts, formatted in a question-and-answer style, discuss factors peripheral to research about early reading instruction and mention virtually no evidence. Although there are phrases that sound faint echoes of concepts that some readers may have encountered in research literature, they are clearly not references to empirical research.

Soon after I learned about the series of blog posts by Fountas and Pinnell, I began to analyze them for the evidentiary base on which they were balanced and the reasoning undergirding them. I was, as usual, the plodding, slow academic. It was tough slogging. As I wrote on 21 October 2021, I’d rather not engage in villifying other people (including educators) as a part of some “war” between perspectives on early reading. So, anyway, reading Fountas’s and Pinnell’s first blog post, I was encouraged to see that they made a similar point:

Gay and I have lived through polarization before, and we simply don’t see it as being productive. We choose to engage in conversation, and conversation is different from debate. Conversation enables us to learn more from each other and clarify our thinking with each other.

We’ve never spent time criticizing others, and we respect multiple perspectives, and certainly feel that we can learn from multiple perspectives. Our focus has always been on advancing children’s literacy learning and elevating the expertise of teachers

As I read more, however, I had increasing concerns about whether they were actually promoting a beneficial conversation about literacy instruction or an additional justification for using their commercial materials. I wondered if they would provide evidence that what they advocated was substantiated. (More about that in a subsequent section.)

Fortunately, on 19 November 2021, American Public Media’s Emily Hanford and Christopher Peak published an analysis of the blog posts by Fountas and Pinnell. Their work saved me a lot of time and effort. Their reporting was excellent. The critique of the blog posts by Hanford and Peak is excellent. I highly recommend reading it.

Then, as I was writing this, Mark Seidenbeurg dropped an excellent post over on Reading Matters. Seidenberg knows what he’s talking about when he talks about reading. I recommend reviewing his post Clarity about Fountas and Pinnell carefully.

Although the article by Hanford and Peak specifically responded to the the blog posts, in passing it noted that the curriculum championed by Fountas and Pinnell had been dinged by an independent assessment of reading curricula (e.g., EdReport, nd). Seidenberg mentions this report, too. Here is an excerpt from that analysis:

The program cites some general research; however, the program does not present a research-based or evidence-based explanation for the teaching of phonological skills or for the hierarchy in which the skills are presented. Additionally, while in Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study Lessons, the program cites studies supporting explicit teaching of phonics skills, the program does not present a research-based or evidence-based explanation for the sequence of phonics.

That makes sense, given Hanford’s and Peak’s analysis which features a popular phrase: “The education professors double down on a flawed approach that encourages pictures and context to read words. Heinemann — their publisher — faces harsh criticism.”

A catalog

As I read the posts by Fountas and Pinnell, I was hoping they’d provide some empirical support for their views. They did not.

Because they did not, I started to note places where they wrote something that sorta-kinda referenced research in a light way...hinted at familiar ideas from research. Here I present an incomplete catalog of them.

Given that I have no magical spelunking equipment to see into their thinking, I may not have understood their straightening of the record in these cases. Maybe they didn’t mean to refer to the content to which I connected the phrases?

In the following catalog, you’ll find direct quotes from the blog posts by Fountas and Pinnell, with a “pound” and numeral following each (e.g., #3) indicating in which of their blog posts you can find the original quote.

Is this Research?

Here is that preliminary catalog of quotes from the blogs….

  1. “We have a complex view of learning, and literacy learning” (#1). Do any readers think “complex view” might be a quiet reference to “A Simple View?” The simple view of reading was proposed by Gough and Tunmer (1986) and is incredibly widely cited (Google says 5000 citations!). It’s a very compelling idea that essentially argues that reading (like, really reading and understanding) is a product of competent decoding and language comprehension. If you can turn the squiggles into words and, therefore, sentences...your language comprehension skills can take over and you can understand (comprehend!) what you’re reading.

  2. “Marie Clay has said, ‘If a child has not learned, then we have not yet discovered the way to teach him’” (#1) Hmmm. First, I can’t qualify this as a reference to research; it’s simply a reference to an assertion. I’ve read a lot of Clay’s work, but I don’t recall her ever having demonstrated this principle. What is more, it sounds a heckuva lot like Zig Engelmann, who probably would be anathema to many followers of Fountas and Pinnell. Engelmann, the progenitor of Direct Instruction, said something like this: “If the student has not learned, the program has not taught” (see Barbash, 2011).

  3. “Keep doing what works for your children, the children you teach, and rely on observable reading and writing behaviors to guide your moment-to-moment teaching” (#1). I see a very valuable hint here. Outcomes are critical and should be a good guide for teachers! Now, let’s ask a kinda-researchy question: How do you measure students’ outcomes? Suppose that you’re a K-1 teacher who has a class of 24 and starts in late August using a systematic, explicit program of instruction that is adapted to the learning performance of individual students. You provide something like 60- to 90-min literacy lessons every day. By the winter holiday, after about 70 lessons, you have 16-18 of those students reading sentences with not just nearly perfect accuracy, but also glee. By February, most of your students are reading > 60 words per minutes and you have only one student who is still reading connected text at fewer than 30 words per minute—but he’s making hardly any mistakes, and he’s eagerly asking you to give him books about the stories he’s been reading. I recommend that teachers who do what works for children, relying on their reading and writing behavior, should seek such outcomes.

  4. “MSV stands for meaning, language structure or syntax and visual information, which includes graphics, the letters and phonological information, the sounds” (#2) Please read that quote again. And again. Fountas and Pinnell tie MSV to diagnostic information about learners’ performance. They are talking about readers’ reading of words here...does a mistake of a particular sort mean that the reader is cuing off the picture? Does a different mistake mean that the reader did not cue off the letters sufficiently well?

  5. “If a reader says ‘pony’ for ‘horse’ because of information from the pictures, that tells the teacher that the reader is using meaning information from the pictures...” (#2). As many readers will recognize, the pony-horse example is one used by Goodman (1969, 1973), who was a leading advocate for whole language. Goodman’s idea was that children who made such “miscues” were actually reading pretty well, and made a cognitively understandable substitution (“ponies” and “horses” are both equines, so, they’re kind of conceptually equivalent, even if spelled differently). Scholars have frequently decried the influence of miscue analysis (e.g., Hempenstall, 2003; McKenna & Picard, 2006).

  6. “The development of the child’s ability to use all sources of information will take time and skillful teaching. It is impossible to boil down this process to something as simplistic as ‘don’t think, just sound it out’” (#2). I wonder where they got this idea. I don’t know of any research that promotes the idea of not thinking when sounding out. To be sure (and this will come up later), we want kids to become so automatic with decoding that they have to spend little time thinking about it (“oh, let’s see, that t and h probably go together...I should say /th/...oh, man, but is it voiced or unvoiced?”). If one’s thinking about decoding in that way, it’ll be hard to read words. Now, as in Fountas’s and Pinell’s MSV idea, if students are to self-monitor and self-correct reading mistakes, it makes some sense. But that’s a post-hoc thinking exercise; the reader has already pronounced the word and is now checking it. Sounding out is a process leading to the pronunciation of the word.

  7. Oh, my. This catalog could continue to expand for a long time. Let me stop here...mayhaps I’ll add more observations later.

Conclusions

So, we have authors of probably the most widely bought reading curriculum defending their approach to reading in the face of mounting criticism of their product. The authors of the curriculum are “doubling down” on their approach. But they offer no evidence that their approach has beneficial effects on readers other than their anecdotes.

In summary, the Fountas and Pinnell approach appears to be grounded in romantic notions about education: Just give learners lots of opportunities and gently suggest they think about what they are doing (in this case determining the pronunciation for squiggles on pages). Imagine how that would work for, say, crossing a street, finding a handgun in a drawer, etc. To be sure, such life-threatening situations are different from learning to read...or are they?

I recommend that, as part of setting the record strainght, we advocates agree not to provide opportunities to “double down.” Instead, let’s as Fountas and Pinnell suggest, have a conversation. I also recommend that we set some ground rules for the conversation.

  1. First, let’s admit that people with different perspectives on early reading honestly hope to help kids learn to read well and happily.

  2. Second, let us agree that we want learners to get to easy, fluent reading rapidly without stress.

  3. Third, let’s stipulate that we want instruction in early literacy to be fun for the learners, that they have great senses of accomplishments.

  4. Fourth, let us agree that instruction predicated on evidence is to be preferred over instructional practices based on opinion.

Share

Sources

Barbash, S. (2011). Clear teaching: With Direct Instruction, Siegfried Engelmann discovered a better way of teaching. Education Consumers. https://education-consumers.org/clear-teaching-direct-instruction-siegfried-engelmann-discovered-better-way-teaching/ also available at https://www.nifdi.org/docman/suggested-reading/clear-teaching-by-shepard-barbash/909-clear-teaching-by-shepard-barbash/file.html

EdReports. (nd). Fountas & Pinnell Classroom (2020). https://www.edreports.org/reports/overview/fountas-pinnell-classroom-2020.

Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. S. (2021, 1-12 November). Just to clarify. Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Blog. https://fpblog.fountasandpinnell.com/just-to-clarify-faq-blog-series-q1 (NOTE: the entries are sequential; this link points to the first of them, but readers can see any of the 10 by simply changing the numeral following the “q” at the end of the URL or by going to the first one and, after reading, scrolling through to the catalog of entries at the end of each post.)

Goodman, K. S. (1969). Analysis of oral reading miscues: Applied psycholinguistics. Reading Research Quarterly, 5(1), 9-30.

Goodman, K. S. (1973). Miscue analysis: Applications to reading instruction. Urbana, ILL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1),6-10. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F074193258600700104

Hanford, E., & Peak, C. (2021, 19 November). Influential authors Fountas and Pinnell stand behind disproven reading theory. APM Reports. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2021/11/19/fountas-pinnell-disproven-childrens-reading-theory

Hempenstall, K. (2003). The three‐cueing system: Trojan horse?. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 8(2), 15-23.

McKenna, M. C., & Picard, M. C. (2006). Revisiting the role of miscue analysis in effective teaching. The Reading Teacher, 60(4), 378-380.

Schwartz, S. (2021 9 November). New curriculum review gives failing marks to two popular reading programs: Fountas and Pinnell, Calkins’ Units of Study get low marks on EdReports. Ed Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/new-curriculum-review-gives-failing-marks-to-popular-early-reading-programs/2021/11