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Getting on the Same Page About Reading by Third Grade in Michigan

By Nell K. Duke
 | Apr 28, 2016

200411960-001_x300There is considerable interest across the United States in increasing the number of children who are reading at grade level by the end of third grade (e.g., Rose, 2012). Some responses to this interest, such as mandatory retention policies, are not supported by the weight of research evidence (e.g., Reschly & Christenson, 2013). In contrast, research offers substantial support for the impact of professional development, coaching, and specific instructional practices on literacy growth (e.g., Carlisle & Berebitsky, 2011; Purcell-Gates, Duke, & Stouffer, in press; Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007).

In Michigan, an Early Literacy Task Force has been formed to support professional development, coaching, and the use of research-supported instructional practices statewide. This is no small task. Michigan has 540 Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and 56 Intermediate School Districts charged with providing various kinds of support to those LEAs, as well as a variety of nonprofit and other organizations that interact with literacy education.

To provide leadership in this context, Michigan’s Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA), through its General Educational Leadership Network (GELN), formed the Early Literacy Task Force. The Task Force comprises representatives from a number of relevant organizations in Michigan, including not only Intermediate School Districts, but also the Michigan Reading Association, the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning, the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and many others.

In our first meeting, we agreed there is an enormous need in Michigan to get on the same page about effective early literacy instruction—on the same page about the content of early literacy professional development for Michigan teachers, the focus of literacy coaching, and the literacy instructional practices we want children to experience. Toward that end, we developed two documents, which you can access at the following links:

Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy: Prekindergarten

Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy: Grades K to 3

In developing the documents, we relied heavily on research and focused on high-utility instructional practices (for further information about the purposes and use of the documents, please see their introductory sections). Given the effectiveness and range of these practices, we believe that focusing professional development and coaching on them could make a measurable difference in reading-by-third-grade outcomes. We are pleased that the documents have already received considerable attention—not only in Michigan but elsewhere in the United States and beyond. Plans are underway to create professional development offerings and materials, including an extensive library of video clips, to support learning about the practices.

Additional documents, such as Essential Practices in Literacy Coaching and Literacy Essentials School-Level Companion Document are also in the works. Task Force leaders Joanne Hopper (MAISA GELN Director), Naomi Norman (Interim Assistant Superintendent, Achievement & Student Services at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and the Livingston Education Agency), and Susan Townsend (Director of Instruction & Learning Services at the Jackson Intermediate School District), report a degree of collaboration and unity among education stakeholders that is unprecedented in Michigan. We are now in the same book and, with continued effort, we will be on the same page as well.

Nell K. Duke is a professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan, a member of the ILA Literacy Research Panel, and author of Inside Information: Developing Powerful Readers and Writers of Informational Text Through Project-Based Instruction.

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect ILA members around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.



Carlisle, J.F., & Berebitsky, D. (2011). Literacy coaching as a component of professional development. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 24(7), 773–800.

Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education   Leadership Network Early Literacy Task Force (2016). Essen­tial instructional    practices in early literacy: Prekindergar­ten. Lansing, MI: Authors.

Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Early Literacy Task Force (2016). Essential instructional practices in early literacy: K to 3. Lansing, MI: Authors.

Purcell-Gates, V., Duke, N.K., & Stouffer, J. (in press). Teaching literacy: Reading. In D.H. Gitomer & C.A. Bell (Eds.), The AERA handbook of research on teaching (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Reschly, A.L., & Christenson, S.L. (2013). Grade retention: Historical perspectives and new research. Journal of School Psychology, 51(3), 319–322. Retrieved from

Rose, S. (2012). Third grade reading policies. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from

Yoon, K.S., Duncan, T., Lee, S.W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K.L. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from



Leave a comment
  1. Zez Ale | Jun 19, 2016
  2. J. Richard Gentry | May 22, 2016
    Dear Nell, Your response perfectly underscores my point. The General Education Leadership Network (GELN) document entitled “Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy” for K through 3 gives explicit spelling instruction short shrift.  As you have plainly pointed out, the GELN document has relegated explicit spelling instruction to page 2 and footnote #20. A school principal or administrator who is using this document to guide them in recommending daily essential instructional classroom practices will not think that explicit spelling instruction is important.   My humble message is that based on the last decade of 21st century research from education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, EXPLICIT SPELLING INSTRUCTION, leading to ENCODING KNOWLEDGE for children in grades one through three, SHOULD BE INCLUDED AS ONE TO THE TOP TEN PRACTICES that can have a positive impact on literacy development.  It’s not enough to have it mentioned on page 2 and in footnote #20. Children who cannot retrieve English spelling from the word form area of their brains will not read with proficiency (Willingham, 2015).   Educators in Michigan, and all across America, need to understand that 21st century research is sending us a new important message. We are short changing explicit spelling instruction. Explicit spelling instruction in every classroom every day will likely make a measurable positive difference in any state’s literacy achievement. This is especially true for children at risk for dyslexia, struggling readers, English language learners and the bottom 30%'ers. The brain circuitry we are hoping to activate in beginning and elementary school readers is activated by spelling knowledge. Of course they have to have vocabulary and background knowledge for comprehension and motivation is desirable. But spelling retrieval in the brain is ESSENTIAL for reading. It’s not a footnote. We have to teach it.   Nell, you are correct. I misspoke when I wrote, “Your recommendation to bury spelling in writing workshop is not research based.” That comment certainly shouldn’t have been directed to “you.” I do apologize. What I should have said is that in my opinion, GELN document item number 6 which includes the extra bullet that mentions “spelling strategies” might likely be interpreted by many readers to suggest that spelling can casually be taught as mini-lessons in the context of writing (or in writing workshop). That might be true for exemplary teachers in kindergarten, but there needs to be a safety net of explicit spelling instruction and progress monitoring in Grades 1-3 and beyond. To that point, it seems that explicit spelling/encoding is being given short shrift in the document.   I do understand the importance of interactive writing and spelling for kindergarten and first grade. In fact, I’m co-authoring a soon to be released book with Dr. Eileen Feldgus and master teacher Isabell Cardonick entitled Kid Writing in the 21st Century that not only highlights interactive writing but aligns with all of the items listed in the GNLN document. I think you and your colleagues will love it.   And you need not refer me to Dr. Steve Graham’s wonderful work. Steve and I co-authored a SPELLING SERIES. We have co-authored research synthesis papers on spelling and handwriting. Steve certainly agrees with me that explicit spelling instruction is an essential practice in elementary classrooms. He understands the spelling-reading connection.   All this being said, I can say no one deserves more respect and admiration than Dr. Nell Duke in Michigan for your outstanding work in literacy and for this current effort to lead the state down the best path for essential literacy instruction. I have always admired your work. I thank you for giving folks like me a forum for sharing and for inviting comments. I’m only hoping that as you Michiganders move forward with this fine work, your group will understand that explicit spelling instruction is essential. It’s not just a footnote.                        
  3. Nell K. Duke | May 21, 2016

    Dear Dr. Gentry,  

    I encourage you to take another look at the document. Spelling is listed as a productive target of instruction on page 2. Spelling to develop phonological awareness is recommended in Practice #3. Practice #5 was written to address instruction for spelling as well as decoding. You can see that in the fact that, for example, footnote #20 refers readers not only to Foundational Skills Standard #3 but also to Language Standard #2 which, as you know, is a spelling, not a decoding, standard. If Practice #5 were intended to only address decoding, there would have been no reason to refer readers to Language Standard #2. You can also see it in the recommendation that instruction be “informed by careful observation of children’s . . . writing.”  

    You write, “Your recommendation to bury spelling in writing workshop is not research based.” The term “writing workshop” does not even appear in our document. Practice #6, which focuses on writing, comes almost directly from the four recommendations of the Federal Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide for Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers (we have five bullets, rather than four, because we added the recommendation to employ interactive writing in grades K and 1; that has been shown to improve spelling: e.g., Craig, 2003). Should you want to contact that panel, it was chaired by Professor Steve Graham of Arizona State University.  


    Craig, S. A. (2003). The effects of an adapted interactive writing inter­vention on kindergarten children’s phonological awareness, spelling, and early reading development. Reading Research Quarterly, 38, 438-440.

    Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012- 4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

  4. Richard Gentry | May 20, 2016
    Twenty-first-century research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as well as technology such as brain imaging, provide the best evidence ever that spelling knowledge is at the core of the reading brain (Willingham, 2015). If students don’t have deep knowledge of spelling (encoding) in their brain, they can’t read proficiently. It’s really that simple. Yet explicit spelling instruction in first grade through grade 3 classrooms is glaringly missing from GELN’s list of ten essential practices. You need to put explicit spelling instruction way up on the list! Regardless of which reading or writing curriculum is being used, brain science shows that spelling is essential for reading proficiency (Willingham, 2015).   Moats recommends about 15 minutes of explicit and systematic grade-level spelling instruction each day, each year in elementary school (Moats, 2005/2006). Your recommendation to bury spelling in writing workshop is not research based. The GELN document makes a common mistake. It treats decoding and encoding as if they are the same thing. Or more specifically, it addresses decoding but skips over spelling.   Spelling, or encoding, requires deeper learning than simply using phonics for decoding. All of us read or decode many more words than we can spell correctly and this is certainly true in early literacy. Your GELN essential practice number 5, “Explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships” addresses decoding but it totally leaves out classroom instruction for encoding (spelling). This flies in the face of growing evidence that spelling, or encoding, requires a deeper level of phonics knowledge and more precision than using phonics for reading (Carreker, 2011; Forman & Francis, 1994, Willingham, 2015). Every first grade through grade 3 classroom should be assessing and teaching spelling explicitly to get spellings in the word form area of the brain so that children can retrieve a growing corpus of words automatically for both reading and writing. Teaching spelling explicitly is one of the Top 5 Essential Practices needed.   I agree with Grace above, a spelling curriculum and explicit spelling instruction makes early detection and intervention of dyslexia more likely. It is a safety net for children at risk for dyslexia, struggling readers, English language learners and the bottom 30%'ers. These are the kids who most need explicit spelling instruction.   In fact, a well-trained eye can “see” the characteristics of dyslexia in children’s spelling (Texas Education Agency, 2014). Noticing an abnormality in a child’s spelling development is one of the best indicators for early intervention, which is a key for overcoming dyslexia (Gentry, 2006; Texas Education Agency, 2014). If spelling is not deemed important, and it’s certainly not deemed important in the GELN document, teachers will not notice these abnormalities and principals will say “Oh don’t worry about spelling it’s not on the state test.”   Spelling, a foundational brain-based reading skill, is too important to be relegated as a bullet under the essential literacy item number 6, “Research- and standards-aligned writing instruction.” This bullet lists explicit instruction in letter formation, “spelling strategies,” capitalization, punctuation, sentence construction, and keyboarding as if spelling can be picked up in writing workshop along with using capital letters and commas. “Just do a couple of ‘spelling strategy’ mini-lessons, right?” Wrong! A decade of “focus on writing and teach spelling in use” failed. Short changing spelling is a major reason third grade reading test scores in America are stagnant or declining and dyslexia is on the rise despite demands for rigor.   Spelling should get equal billing to phonemic awareness, phonics (decoding), reading, writing, vocabulary, and background knowledge—all are essential brain-based knowledge and skills for literacy. So please put explicit spelling instruction in the list because spelling knowledge literally activates the reading brain.   To learn more about why spelling is important for reading check out Mark Weakland’s short article entitled “Spelling Is at the Heart of the Reading Process.”   References Carreker, S. (2011). Teaching spelling, In J.R. Birsh (Ed.) Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, (pp. 251-291). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Co. Foorman, B. & Francis, D. J. (1994). Exploring connections among reading, spelling, and phonemic segmentation during first grade. Reading and Writing, 6, 65-91. Gentry, J.R. (2006). Breaking the code: The new science of beginning reading and writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Moats, L.D. (2005/2006). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, 29(4), 12,14-22, 42-43. Texas Education Agency (2014). Dyslexia Handbook. Austin, Texas: Willingham, D.T. (2015). Raising kids who read. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. J. Richard Gentry, PhD Researcher, Author, Educational Consultant  
  5. Kathleen Callahan | May 04, 2016

    These articles were very informative,I am

    working on my doctorate and found these very informative!

  6. Nell Duke | May 03, 2016

    These are not standards documents. They are documents about specific research-supported instructional practices that we believe should be seen in every preK and K to 3 classroom in Michigan. 

    As indicated in the introduction to each document, "The focus of the document is on classroom practices, rather than on school- or systems-level practices (which will be addressed in a future document)." The allocation of additional tiers of support is addressed in a separate document that has not yet been finalized. 

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  9. Grace | Apr 28, 2016

    While I am in support of a Literacy Task Force, I am greatly dismayed at the lack of leadership presence on this task force in the area of dyslexia. Dyslexia's prevelance in our struggling readers, writers and poor spellers warrants the inclusion of organizations such as Michigan International Dyslexia Organization (MIDA).

    I've looked over both papers included in this article and do not see best-practice standards included such as IDA's Knowledge and Practice Standards. All the best teaching and training advised in your papers will fall-short for our struggling readers without specific, structured literacy instruction for our bottom 30%'ers. 

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