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Does the Science of Reading Include Middle School?


What does research have to say about teaching older students phonics? Dr. Shanahan shares his insight as he reviews what “the science” is telling us. Reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy 

Teacher Question

We have been working on strengthening and refining our early literacy instruction to be in line with the science. This has me wondering about the middle level. What does the science prioritize for middle level ELA instruction? Is there a point when teaching into a phonics gap for students does not have a payoff? With limited time in a middle school classroom, I am thinking about what needs to be prioritized. Some parents are wondering if phonics instruction should continue into middle school. This may need to happen for some students, but I imagine that Tier 1 instruction would focus on higher levels of structured literacy like morphology. I would be interested what the research says about teaching phonics in middle school.

Shanahan’s Response

Not surprisingly, most phonics instruction studies have been focused on preschool, kindergarten, and grade 1. The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) and the National Reading Panel (NRP) reported clear benefits to such instruction: improvements in the ability to read words and nonsense words, spelling, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Making explicit, systematic phonics part of a comprehensive reading and writing program for beginning readers is a no brainer.

There have been some studies focused on the teaching of phonics in grades 2 and up, but not many, and most of those studies were aimed at struggling readers or dyslexic students. That poses multiple problems – there are reasons to believe that those populations may be particularly difficult to teach effectively and the generalizability of those results to regular classrooms are dubious.

In any event, the NRP found few benefits to phonics instruction, beyond grades K-1. Here are some relevant quotes from that report:

“However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades (i.e., children with reading difficulties and possibly other cognitive difficulties explaining their low achievement). The effect size was d= 0.15, which was not statistically greater than chance. Possible reasons might be that the phonics instruction provided to low-achieving readers was not sufficiently intense, or that their reading difficulties arose from sources not treated by phonics instruction such as poor comprehension, or there were too few cases (i.e., only eight treatment-control comparisons pulled from three studies) to yield reliable findings.” p. 2-94

“The effects of systematic phonics instruction on text comprehension in readers above 1st grade were mixed. Although gains were significant for the subgroup of disabled readers (d= 0.32), they were not significant for the older group in general (d= 0.12).” p. 2-94

“Because most of the comparisons above 1st grade involved poor readers (78%), the conclusions drawn about the effects of phonics instruction on specific reading outcomes pertain mainly to them. Findings indicate that phonics instruction helps poor readers in 2nd through 6th grades improve their word reading skills. However, phonics instruction appears to contribute only weakly, if at all, in helping poor readers apply these skills to read text and to spell words. There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above 1st grade.” p. 2-116

Of course, the NRP report is 23 years old… there must be lots of new research on this topic that would provide us with a more definitive answer to your question. Accordingly, I conducted a search of studies that focused on phonics in middle school and high school. I found only 4 studies worth mentioning and none of these were particularly encouraging. 

  1. One study had high school students tutoring struggling sixth graders in phonics, sight word phrases, and text reading fluency (Lingo, 2014). It reported fluency improvement, but it would be impossible to attribute this to the phonics portion of the intervention.
  2. Another study focused on a district school improvement effort that provided district wide phonics teaching (Hutcheson, Selig, & Young, 1990). They reported gains in word identification in the elementary and high school grades, but not middle school; and gains in spelling and reading comprehension at all levels. This study had no control group, so it is not certain to what to attribute these fall-to-spring learning gains (e.g., phonics instruction, maturation, other instruction).
  3. Denton and her colleagues (Denton, Wexler, Vaughn, & Bryan, 2008) implemented a multicomponent reading intervention in middle school, with English Learners who had learning disabilities. The intervention included phonics. The students did not do any better in word recognition, comprehension, or fluency than students in the regular program.
  4. Finally, an intensive phonics program was delivered for 12 weeks to 8 middle school students with learning disabilities. They improved in word recognition and spelling.

In other words, no convincing evidence

So, I dipped into the What Works Clearinghouse analysis of reading interventions. Few of the studies with older students focused on phonics. Nevertheless, I went looking for upper grades (Grades 2-12) evidence on programs that explicitly included phonics/decoding instruction as part of their routine. The Clearinghouse had such information on 8 programs: Achieve3000, Corrective Reading, Fast ForWord, Failure Free Reading, Open Court, Reading Mastery, SpellRead, and Wilson Reading System.

An improvement in decoding ability?

What I wanted to see was, first, whether these programs improved older students’ decoding ability. The reason this is important is because for the most part, these programs included multiple components. If a program taught phonics and fluency, but only obtained improvements in fluency, it is unreasonable to attribute that gain to phonics. If the students had improved in both decoding and fluency, then maybe part of the fluency gain was due to phonics. This is an especially important consideration if the study evaluated decoding and reported no improvement. It is damning if a program taught phonics without any gains in decoding.

What I found was that several programs fostered improvements in some reading skills. For the most part, however, they either didn’t bother to look for increases in decoding, or they looked and found none in grades 2-12 (Achieve3000, FastForWord, Failure Free Reading, Open Court, Reading Mastery). The Wilson Reading System had improved students’ decoding skills in Grade 3, but without any accompanying gains in fluency or comprehension, while SpellRead improved decoding, comprehension, and reading fluency with students in grades 5-6.

To me, those reports are consistent with what NRP reported so long ago: not enough studies, most of the studies focused on Tier 2 teaching, evidence that it is possible to improve decoding skills in the upper grades with explicit instruction, but with little evidence that such improvement transfers or generalizes to overall literacy gains at least in regular classrooms.

I think it is fair to say that we don’t know much about how best to teach decoding in grades 2-12.

That doesn’t mean that students in grades 2 and up shouldn’t be receiving some morphology and spelling instruction, with a small amount of decoding work on things like multisyllable words or conditional spelling patterns. However, given current knowledge, phonics beyond grade 1 (and with the kind of limited scope just mentioned), it should mainly (though not entirely) be a Tier 2 issue. For most kids a regular daily regimen of vocabulary/morphology/spelling with those occasional decoding lessons should be sufficient.

If you had written to me in 1999, I would have given a somewhat different answer.

At the time, the studies that I knew had shown no positive outcomes for phonics with older students. Consequently, I’d have discouraged any additional phonics beyond grades 1 or 2.

The NRP work (I served on the Alphabetics committee) convinced me that we could successfully teach phonics to older struggling students in Tier 2 settings. But given the lack of transfer of those skills when taught to older kids, it was evident to me that phonics alone would not be enough. Now, I find myself shifting again.

Some, not all, may need targeted phonic instruction

Recent research has reported that a significant number of older students (here I mean middle school and high school) still lag in decoding ability to an extent not widely acknowledged in the field (Wang, Sabatini, O’Reilly, & Weeks, 2019, Magliano, Talwar, Feller, Wang, O’Reilly, & Sabatini, 2023). Those adolescents who can read at a third or fourth grade level – and higher – may need targeted phonics instruction despite those reading levels. Not long ago, I’d have discouraged this. I would have taken those students’ reading levels as evidence that they had sufficient decoding ability.

What research now reveals is that below a particular level of decoding proficiency, older students do not seem able to improve in reading – no matter what interventions and instructional approaches we adopt. Students above that decoding threshold, do manage to improve in reading from a wide range of instruction.

My advice?

  1. Make certain that in your middle school classrooms that students spend considerable time on words – vocabulary, morphology, spelling, and occasionally phonics. I’ve long argued for 25% of the language arts time to be devoted to developing knowledge of words and how they work. I would suggest that such teaching be systematic and explicit.
  2. Be on the lookout for kids who are not able to decode proficiently. Vigilance is needed to keep kids from slipping through the decoding cracks. It doesn’t matter the source of those problems – inadequate primary grade instruction, learning disabilities, transfers from other schools – they need to be identified.
  3. Provide high quality Tier 2 phonics instruction for kids who need it. This kind of teaching is often available to elementary students, but it tends not to be in middle school and high school. At those levels, students may be assigned to an all-purpose intervention which can be enough for some kids. But those kids below the decoding threshold? They need a dedicated, explicit phonics intervention in addition to anything else you can provide to support their literacy learning. (Phonics is unlikely to be enough for those kids, but without it, they won’t advance).


Denton, C. A., Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., & Bryan, D. (2008). Intervention provided to linguistically diverse middle school students with severe reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(2), 79-89.

Hooks, L., & Peach, W. (1993). Effectiveness of phonics for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 20(3), 243-245.

Hutcheson, L., Selig, H., & Young, N. (1990). A success story: A large urban district offers a working model for implementing multisensory teaching into the resource and regular classroom. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 40, 79-96.

Lingo, A. S. (2014). Tutoring middle school students with disabilities by high school students: Effects on oral reading fluency. Education & Treatment of Children, 37(1), 53-75.

Magliano, J. P., Talward, A., Feller, D. P., Wang, Z., O’Reilly, T., & Sabatini, J. (2023). Exploring thresholds in the foundational skills for reading and comprehension outcomes in the context of postsecondary readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 56(1), 43-57.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O’Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387–401.