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What Can We Find About Phonics From the NRP Meta-Analysis

While the National Reading  meta-analysis, is at this point, quite dated, it still remains to my knowledge the largest meta-analysis ever done on the topic and for that reason, I believe it is still relevant. Despite the meta-analysis being done decades ago now, I believe many people in the Science of Reading community are still not aware of the results. This might be perhaps because the actual paper is over 400 pages long, which can be quite burdensome for the average teacher to go through. For this reason, I have decided to write an article series summarizing the findings, starting with phonics. 


Phonics Interventions NRP Results:

What Can We Learn From This:

Overall, we see three really clear patterns. Firstly, phonics is most useful for younger students and becomes less useful over time. Indeed, we see a statistically insignificant effect for teaching phonics to students in grade 2 in up, overall, within this meta-analysis. I actually had the opportunity to discuss these specific results with Timmothy Shanahan, who was one of the project leads. To paraphrase, he told me that we saw an inverse relationship, with older students getting lower results from phonics and younger students getting higher results. Now that being said, the grade 2 and grade 6 results are all lumped together, but from my discussions with Dr. Shanahan, I think we can assume that the grade 2 results are much higher than the grade 6 results. 


Interestingly, we see here that the evidence that phonics helps at-risk readers above grade 2 or dyslexic students, is quite weak, something Dr. Shanahan also conceded when he discussed the topic with me. Indeed opponents of phonics have used this information to try and discredit the use of phonics for remedial students. However, I would caution against this interpretation. As most intervention studies, for most interventions, for Dyslexic students show weak results. What it likely actually shows is that Dyslexic students learn to read more slowly and therefore require more instructional time spent on foundational knowledge. 


Lastly, we see that phonics helps decoding skills the most and comprehension skills the least. This makes sense, when examining the impact of phonics on different ages of instruction. Most grade 6 students do not need foundational knowledge, they need fluency, writing, and comprehension instruction. This is why I have often proposed the Continuum of Reading Instruction as a model. 


I was discussing these results recently with people in the SOR community and I found that there was some confusion in regards to the issue. The question was continually asked in different forms, what do we do if students are in grade 6 and are reading at a lower level or do not know their phonemes? Personally, my recommendation is pretty simple. Individualization is key. If your students do not know their phonemes, they must be taught them. If the majority of your students know their phonemes, but a few do not, use small group instruction to help the students who need the extra instruction. However, large scale phonics instruction should not be considered standard practice, after grade 2. 


Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Lasted Edited 2022-02-12



-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <>.

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