Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read

It was pretty cool to see my last post catch 🔥 and link me in to a vibrant and smart community of educators committed to the science of reading.

To review, in that post I laid out what I’d begun learning after realizing I knew absolutely nothing about learning to read:

Summary of critical points on word-level reading

The Simple View of Reading provides us with a clear and research-based model of reading comprehension

  • This doesn’t mean it’s completely definitive–no model is. But it does give us a useful map for aligning and targeting our assessments and instruction

Anyone who hears and speaks can be taught to decode words in print

  • IQ is not the basis for the ability to decode
  • Nor is it ever too late to address decoding issues

Units of sound (phonemes -> phonology) are the basis of written language (graphemes -> orthography)

  • Most word-level reading challenges are related to issues with hearing and speaking the sounds of the letters in words

We acquire new words as we read via a process called orthographic mapping

  • It is the phonological part of our brain that anchors the written word in our memory, not our visual memory
  • We learn the vast majority of words (after we have decoded them) by rapidly and unconsciously recognizing the sequence of the sounds of the letters in a word — even when they are irregular

The root cause of most struggles in word-level reading is a lack of proficiency with advanced phonemic skills

  • Students require fluency with deleting, substituting, and reversing phonemes to acquire a large stock of sight vocabulary

Since Then

Since writing that post, it’s felt like a whirlwind of learning. In the NYCDOE, I learned that there are K-2 supports in many elementary schools called Universal Literacy coaches, and they are trained in the science of reading. I spoke with a few and saw how they are attempting to bridge the various programs and curricula schools use to the science. I read Robert Pondiscio’s superb book on Success Academy, How the Other Half Learns, and struggled to square how SA consistently achieves the highest reading proficiency rates in NY state, while applying some reading approaches not fully aligned to the science. (More on that in another post; there’s a lot to dig into from that book, and I’d like to do it justice.)

I then went to a training on Equipped for Reading Success with David Kilpatrick, and got to ask him directly about the distinction between statistical learning and orthographic mapping. He views them as different processes — orthographic mapping refers specifically to the mapping of individual phonemes, and it’s far more quickly acquired (1-4 exposures), as compared to statistical learning, which is a more global pattern recognition process that requires far more exposures. He had a nifty little chart he pulled up to explain the distinctions. Either way, however, I found Marnie Ginsberg’s explanation in a comment on my last post to be a pretty good way to think of it, though with the key addition being that while proficient readers can rapidly do all of this on their own, we need to explicitly train and teach the skills required for orthographic mapping (a chart that outlines those skills below).

A graphic from Equipped for Reading Success that should be widely known in every school.

It can be hard to gain clarity on anything in the world of education, but most especially when it comes to reading. So even as I take one step forward, I often take two steps back further steeped in doubt. Yet I’ve decided to commit to Kilpatrick’s manual as my North Star for the next quarter.

The Knowledge

I’m still moving through the Equipped manual a little each day on my commute, marking it up and imbibing what I’ve taken to calling “the Knowledge” in my annotations, an allusion to the famed test for London cab drivers. The Knowledge, in this case, being terms like digraphs, blends, diphthongs, onset, and rime.

Terms like these, much like grammatical terminology, can seem unnecessarily technical and unessential to good teaching. Yet imagine a world in which it was required for teachers to learn and be assessed on the knowledge behind the terms of word-level reading! I never understood– nor was exposed to–what “onset-rime” means until I read Kilpatrick’s manual. Yet once I grasped it, it served as a threshold concept for understanding phonological awareness.

Here’s the passage from Equipped for Reading Success that expanded my mind and made me aware of a key distinction between the syllable level and onset-rime level of phonological awareness:

“The onset-rime level of phonological awareness goes beyond the syllable level because the child has to break apart the syllable. . . . Onsets and rimes can only be understood within the syllable. Not every syllable has an onset, but every syllable has a rime. This is because every syllable has a vowel.”

–David Kilpatrick, “Equipped for Reading Success” pgs. 20-21

Remember how in my last post I had the big realization that phonemes are an abstraction from our everyday experience of spoken language as a stream of sound? The onset-rime level of sound awareness is one further abstraction from hearing syllable level sounds. There are gradations of abstraction on the road to distinguishing those individual phonemes, and that progression moves from syllable level (“baseball” = 2 claps), to onset-rime level (“baseball” = 4 claps (“b” is onset, “ase” is rime, “b” is next onset, “all” is final rime), to phoneme level (“baseball” is 6 claps (/b/, /A/, /s/, /b/, /a/, /l/).

I’ve begun playing some of the “word games” in Kilpatrick’s manual with my two and a half year old son to cultivate phonemic awareness, and I’ve noticed he can’t yet isolate the second part of a two syllable word. He can identify the first part, however. Which is of absolutely no concern to me, given his age, but I found it revealing of an even more fundamental progression in terms of working memory and the awareness that we can break up multisyllabic words into smaller parts.

When it comes to foundational reading skill knowledge like this, it’s always been something I’ve wished I’d known, but didn’t consider it essential, because the expectation was that I focus on grade-level texts and content. And yet I had students reading far below grade-level. One would think that this would have compelled me to learn it at that point–and I did try, I went through some of the files from my first years of teaching, and I found a whole set of phonics related stuff I’d amassed–but the reality is that it was something else on top of many other things I needed to know and do, and I put my primary focus on grade-level texts and skills. Not a bad focus, of course, but I look back on my many students who were struggling with decoding words, and I feel like I have failed them. I have failed them.

Teaching is a hard job. But so is nursing, and I’m watching my wife as she goes through a nursing program and struggles to acquire a vast body of knowledge that must be applied on a daily basis in a clinical setting. Nurses have to acquire this knowledge and be able to apply it, their jobs demand it. People’s lives are literally on the line. And yet, when it comes to teachers, our society seems to be perfectly fine to let them off the hook.

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio has an especially wry zinger (in a book full of them) in Chapter 1 when he states, “Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. . . But it’s the hardest job to do well.”

We are graduating too many students who are functionally illiterate. We all need to step up our game.

My Theory of Action

My working hypothesis, based on Kilpatrick: many of the struggling readers in the schools I support are struggling with a core phonological deficit. Therefore, if I administer the PAST and identify where a student’s phonemic awareness level is (and train teachers to do so), and support targeted daily instruction in phonemic awareness until proficiency is attained, then those students’ reading levels will improve.

I’ve brought the PAST, a short phonemic awareness assessment from Equipped for Reading Success, to a few of the middle schools I work with, and have begun pilots with self-contained classrooms and students. I just administered the PAST to my 1st student last Wednesday. We selected him because we knew he was struggling with reading. But it still shocked me with just how basic his phonemic awareness level was. He was at nearly the lowest level, the syllable level, a pre – mid kindergarten level.

Let me frame the wider context of what we’re up against: in that school, roughly 40-50% of students across the 6-8th grades are identified as struggling with decoding, according to an iReady diagnostic. Of that ~50%, how many are struggling with a phonological deficit? I’d like to find out. And help to do something about it.

Finding a way to tackle something that massive, while continuing to ensure that core instruction demands grade-level expectations, is a tough challenge. Because let it be known that I am in no way suggesting that kids struggling with word-level reading should no longer be exposed to grade-level texts and content. What I am suggesting is that it is incumbent on teachers at any level (and schools) to be knowledgeable enough of foundational skills and grade-level content and skills to scale their instruction accordingly. And yes, this is a heavy lift indeed. There’s never enough time in the day.

Yet I’ve found Kilpatrick’s materials promising in this regard, because some of the phonemic awareness activities are “1 minute” practice sessions. Every single minute we have with a student is precious time, all too easily squandered.

I recognize there’s many other aspects to this, such as administering a phonics screen or oral fluency task and pairing students with different programs depending on the need. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m going to start small to see if my hypothesis is verified and if I can help to enact instruction that will target those needs. This is where the rubber hits the road.

I may fail. This whole thing is, ironically enough, a pet project of mine. It is no official aspect of my duties and role in the schools I support. And I take on too many side projects as it is. I’ve got a book I’m supposed to be writing, by the way, but can no longer find the time for, let alone post on this blog. But I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than getting this right. So I’m saying this publicly so the network I’ve begun connecting to can help support me, so I can better help support the students and teachers I touch each day.

If you are on a similar journey, please connect with me here or on Twitter @mandercorn and let’s work through this together. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, we just have to each individually connect the dots.

Thank you in advance, and thank you for reading. In solidarity.


Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics



A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.


  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment



Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.


  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

NY State passes legislation allowing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia to be targeted

Pile of Invoices, Man Using Laptop on the Background

“Gov. Cuomo just signed into law a measure codifying federal protections permitting the words dyslexia, dysgraphia (which affects writing ability) and dyscalculia (affecting mathematical processing) to be used in determining eligibility for special education services and developing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs.”

This legislation matters. Before, educators were discouraged from using specific terms such as these when writing IEPs, even when the evidence was clear that a child struggled in one of these areas. I think this is a step forward in better targeting children’s needs.

That said, however, I also have some hesitation about the use of these terms.

1) Many IEPs are written with few (relatively) objective data points as a reference. Most schools don’t have sophisticated enough assessments to be able to make a diagnosis that is so specific. As I have always cautioned parents at an IEP meeting, we are making an educational diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis. But when people start throwing around terms like “dysgraphia,” it sounds officially sanctioned, like it’s the pronouncement of a doctor, when it’s really just a supposition made with little background nor training on assessing and supporting these specific disabilities. And it may also end up promoting some learned helplessness on the part of both teachers and students when they start labeling general academic difficulties with these terms.

2) Another problem with such terms is their lack of specificity. There’s debate about whether dyslexia even exists. Having worked with students with all three of these conditions, I can assure you it definitely does. But you shouldn’t have to take my word for it. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to uncover more knowledge about such conditions. For example, it appears that dyslexia is related to trouble with phonological processing which stems from a reduced plasticity of the brain.

The difficulty, however, is that even when we apply more specific terms like “dysgraphia,” it’s still not very clear about what exactly needs to be done to address the issue. We know that early intervention is essential, but what does one do with a dysgraphic student in 8th grade? Teachers (and parents) would love to know what that medicine should be.

3) What if a student demonstrates all three of these things (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)? We often end up just labeling them LD (a “learning disability”) and leaving it at that. But this begs the question of whether it is then even a disability at all. It may be a compounding of socio-economic factors, environmental factors, and a lack of access to early interventions and support.

But at the end of the day, whatever the cause, and whatever the label, is all less relevant than what is being done once the label has been applied.

What will we do to support children identified as struggling mightily with reading, writing, and math? And is what we’re doing actually helping? That’s the most important thing.

Finally getting serious about educating kids with dyslexia, NY Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon in the NY Daily News

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74