Steve's Story and How Did Our Students Learn to Read?

The time was September 1971, and the place was Mrs. Brockhaus’s first grade classroom at Wing Lake Elementary School in Bloomfield Township, Michigan.  As soon as I entered my first real classroom, I met Mrs. Brockhaus, our teacher.  Looking straight ahead, I could just see her knee caps.  I looked up, up, and up some more.  To my six-year-old eyes, Mrs. Brockhaus seemed about eight feet tall!  

Mrs. Brockhaus announced that we would learn to read this year, and we would soon meet some exciting characters who would help us along our journey to literacy.  I was so excited!  She passed out a light blue, soft-covered reading book.  I could not wait to dive in!

I was expecting to meet characters like those in the cartoons I watched after school each day.  In the afternoons, I would race home, beg Mom for a King Don (now known as Ding Dongs) and milk, and thrill to the adventures of Iron Man, Spider Man, the Incredible Hulk and Speed Racer.  Each day, they overcame huge odds to defeat evil villains or win a hotly contested race.  

Instead, I met Dick, Jane, Sally, and their friendly dog Spot.  Early pages of the book’s dialogue went something like this: “Run, Spot.  Run, run, run.  Oh, oh, oh. Funny, funny Spot.”  My high expectations of an exciting reading adventure filled with amazing characters were quickly disappointed. The cartoons I watched each day had much more action than this. Spider-Man, Ironman, and the Incredible Hulk faced challenges far more important than watching a running Spot.

I did not know it at the time, but the Dick and Jane readers were based on the look/say approach to reading popularized in the 1930s. The theory behind these books was that students would learn to read by being exposed to new words a few at a time. Thus, these books moved at a glacial pace, much slower than Spot ran.  With enough repetition and a good memory, emerging readers would sight learn words and pick up phonics basics subconsciously.  

I guess my subconscious was occupied with Speed Racer and Iron Man, because I never grasped many of the phonics rules until much later in life.  It was not until I became a STAR (evidence-based reading) trainer that I grasped some phonics rules for the first time.  

While I learned to read well, many of my peers did not.  The look/say approach to reading gradually gave way to phonics-based instruction starting in the 1950s.  However, since schooling is localized, many school districts used a look/say or whole language approach until fairly recently.  Many students in our classrooms suffered from poor instruction in whatever the hot educational trend was at the time.  

My history of learning to read has me wondering, how does our students’ history of learning to read affect their ability to read as adults in our classrooms?  What do you do in your classrooms to diagnose your students’ reading ability?  

I look forward to your comments! 


Good Morning Steve!

We had very similar experiences with our first exposure of leaning to read.  Mine took place more than ten years earlier in Delaware with Mrs. Ludlow.  Also like you, I learned about phonics later in life when I became a reading specialist and a STAR trainer.

Delaware is a STAR state, so to diagnose students’ reading abilities we use the component (alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) assessments: the Bader Reading and Language Inventory, Silvia Greene’s Informal Word Analysis, and the Word Meaning Text.

When I talk to students about assessment and results, I explain the reasons for the assessments and the individual plan to work with the students’ strengths to help them improve their weaker areas.  I have found that many adult students have learned various ways to “compensate” for their reading difficulties, so we sometimes need to talk about changing old habits.  So, I ask them to be willing to change and to “stick with me” so we can work together to improve their reading!

Looking forward to hearing others’ stories!


Thanks so much for your outstanding comment Jeri!

I am glad to here that I'm not the only one who learned phonics later in life!  

Using the diagnostic assessments you mention can make a huge difference in helping our students with their reading challenges.  We have seen this over and over across the country through the STAR initiative.  Most programs use either CASAS or TABE to assess their students' reading.  These assessments only measure silent reading and do not provide a complete picture of where students' reading weaknesses lie.  

It does take time to give the assessments you mention, about an hour per student for an experience assessor.  The results are well worth it! 

Steve - it is true that the component assessments take valuable time (for both students and instructors).  However, I tell my STAR participants that the "up front" time used for assessing is easily made up because we are then providing reading instruction that is needed.  Otherwise, we are wasting time (again for students and instructors) providing instruction that does not address students' needs.



The commissioner for IES at the department of ED gave an address at a conference that touched on reading. 

While it is at a very hig level, I thought people could share some thoughts on what he said.

The relevant part: "

  • We are often asked "What keeps you up at night?" Here's my answer: the abysmal record we as a nation have regarding reading. This was evident in the recent NAEP and PISA results. But it's not just the poor scores that depress me—it's that we haven't made enough progress using known science, including rigorous brain science, in teaching and improving reading.

    • Consider Emily Hanford's work that shows teachers aren't using evidence and decades after the reading wars started and after decades of strong research—maybe the strongest research we have—over one third of American students are below basic in reading.
    • This to me is among the greatest challenge we face – if after so much time and so much money and so many RCTs and so much rigorous research, why is it that Johnny still can't read?
    • This keeps me up at night—and it should keep you up too, since it brings into question the effectiveness of our whole research enterprise."

The full remarks are here:





This information should be keeping us all up at night.  This post is especially timely, I think, given the reading discussion prompted by Steve Schmidt.  As adult educators, we must provide EBRI (Evidence-based Reading Instruction) as stated in the WIOA regulations.  So, while we continue to encounter students with low reading ability, we are making progress by using research- and evidence-based practices.


Hi, Steve, and Jeri,

I also learned to read using the Dick and Jane series, although my reactions were quite different than Steve's. I was so excited to learn to read and felt very grown up like my four older brothers and two older sisters. I must have learned some phonics during the process because when I went through STAR training, the rules for syllable types were vaguely familiar. I used evidence-based reading in my intermediate level ABE classes and saw students engaged in their work and improving their reading levels. Yes, the diagnostic assessments take time, but it is well worth the investment for both the instructors and the students. Filling in gaps in their abilities and helping them obtain their goals is why I was in the classroom and why I still try to pass that on to other instructors as a STAR trainer in Illinois. 

Hi Laura, and thanks so much for posting!   Yeah for first time posters! 

I am so glad the subconscious phonics learning worked for you with the Dick and Jane series.  "See Spot use alphabetics.  Decode Spot, decode!"  

I am also thrilled to see your successful first hand experience with using diagnostic assessments in alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  I agree that using these assessments is well worth the time.  You have me thinking.  I spent years teaching reading badly before I knew about evidence based reading.  (More on this in a future post.)  I'm thinking that teaching using non-evidence based approaches takes time too.  Since research shows our students attend our programs less than 100 hours per year, doesn't it make sense to use the most effective approaches during the time they are in class?   

It's great to see this discussion thread.  I'm currently leading two ESL/ESOL communities of practice (COPs), a lower one (literacy - level 3) and a higher one (4-6) and sharing evidence-based strategies grounded in ESL learning/teaching principles.  

My comment is that time is a factor in sharing both the components of reading (and corresponding strategies) and the diagnostics for targeted instruction. I admit I have not done the important work of sharing and modeling the diagnostic strategies.  I am finding that we are getting into this through the back door.  As teachers, for example, look at how to focus on phonics for lower level students, they ask, "Where do I focus?"  At this point, they are primed for the diagnostic assessments. 

My intention is to "go there" with diagnostic (and formative) assessments training, but I struggle with creating time (and doing it amidst so many other important initiatives going on right now) and wonder how other PD facilitators are scheduling there PD in order to have enough time for all parts of EBRI?  (I have been a trainer for the state of CA for ABE students and we did a 6-month CoP, and even that was not enough for deep learning and application!)


Thanks so much for your thought provoking comments here Dave! 

My experience in evidence based reading comes from the STAR initiative.  As you say, the professional development (PD) necessary to teach evidence based reading is time intensive.  When we offered STAR face to face, participants signed up for 36 hours of instruction (6 days of 6 hour PD sessions).  Day 1 involved introducing the four components of reading and how to give diagnostic assessments in each one.  Day 2 involved a deeper dive into fluency centering on strategies to teach fluency.  Days 3, 4, and 5 centered on similar deep dives into alphabetics, vocabulary, and comprehension with strategies to teach each component.  Day 6 put it all together by showing how to teach classes with varying needs the four components.  STAR is now offered online, and the time commitment is similar.  

Learning evidence based reading is time intensive, yes!  However, instructors came out of this PD with powerful tools for teaching their intermediate level students the reading skills necessary for success!  

Learning how to teach reading has been a struggle, but I know I am not alone especially after reading Hard Words: by Emily Hanford. And I am a career adult educator.

The most helpful from Hanford's resource is the history behind the "Reading Wars", reading some (!) of the research around the issue, and the Report of the National Reading Panel from 2000, an evidence-based assessment of the reading research... 

I have discovered that, starting with the works of John Strucker in 1997 and early John Kruidenier (both here in LINCS repository), most research was extrapolated, where appropriate, from K12 reading research with the caveat that there was little to be found on adult populations, but the evidence-based research is now plentiful and stable enough about what reading instruction should look like for adults that application is no secret, only far-flung and time-consuming to find/read. Tricky part is being consistently "systematic" about the component - based instruction and assessment in the environments we work in (mixed levels, little time, student mobility and attrition, etc) But that's not to say we can't implement  changes to our practice to move toward best practices at every turn.  

I hope this doesn't seem off-topic for the thread.  I had no trouble learning to read when young, nor have my own children, a situation which could, I'll concede, cause someone to believe that if you just surround an emergent reader with good literature the rest will simply happen. (All gratitude to Beverly Clearly and her (somewhat) timeless literature!) Because this faulty causation can be made by educators even, I recommend an early (in an education career) and persistent expectation that the research be read first-hand. I haven't felt that applying the principles has been the most difficult part, only that I come upon the body of research later than I would have wished for my own professional development.



You raise so many great issues here Ann!  Thanks for your thoughtful post which is entirely on topic. 

I too only discovered evidence based reading practices later in my career.  For me it was only after I was out of the classroom and working in administration.  I do sometimes think about the students who I could have helped that slipped through the cracks.  Then I remember Maya Angelou's quote: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”  I am devoting my career as an adult education professional developer to helping instructors know better so they can do better.  

The bigger and more important issue is: How can we help every adult educator know evidence based reading instructional practices from their first day in the classroom?  I would love to hear some thoughts on this!

Well, Steve, funny you should ask...

In response to a generous local grant I received in June, I put together this resource. It is not a spectacular example of high level instructional design, but with the time I had, I wanted to help other reading instructors, administrators, (HSE and CTE), K12 parents and teachers, etc, find the foundational research much faster and within an instructional context that is familiar.

Here it is - I am happy for feedback.  I plan to maintain it and continue to spread the word that the research is easy to read and begin to implement, and that we should all be empowered, as well as supported by our institutions and directors, to read it and discuss how it could best be applied in our teaching environments.  I have spent the past year implementing the noted tools for assessment, keeping student records, and trying to make it make a difference.

Here it is -

Let me know...

What a wonderful resource Ann!  This is a one-stop shop for everything evidence-based reading research.  You did a beautiful job creating the Wix website as well.  It is obvious you put a tremendous amount of time in creating this.  I look forward to discussing this further with you!  Thanks so much for sharing!