Reading Researchers Question Result of National Reading Panel: Is Phonics the Best Choice?

By: Gregory Camilli, Sadako Vargas, and Michele Yureck

Teaching children to read: The fragile link between science and federal education policy


The study reviewed findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000). Results of the NRP have strongly influence current education policy on reading and the role of reading instruction for all children who are struggling readers. The conclusion of the panel was that phonics instruction is the core to the NRP findings. The current study attempted to replicate, or find the same results, with a similar analysis. Their goal was to verify whether independent researchers, who had not been commissioned by federal policy makers, would arrive at the same conclusion as the NRP report.


A meta-analysis of preexisting research was conducted. A meta-analysis is a quantitative analysis of data found through literature reviews of experimental research studies. Researchers doing meta-analysis ask "If a large group of studies on a specific topic are taken together what do they say about the field?"

The NPR model was followed to a large extent. Date from 40 previous studies on reading were included in the current data analysis. With the exception of one study that was dropped, and three that were added, studies included in this meta analysis were those used by the NRP.

The full write-up of this study has an excellent explanation of meta-analysis. It also clearly outline the findings of the NPR and how different use of the date resulted in different findings. The authors write a paper that nicely walks the reader through the data analysis. Variables are clearly explained and the reader is able to understand how and why the study was done.


A systematic phonics instruction significant effect was found but the size of the effect was much smaller that of the NRP. That means that phonics instruction was found to be important. The effect for phonics instruction, however, was also much smaller than the effect for individual tutoring and smaller than the effect for systematic language activities. "Overall, we concluded that there is reason to believe that these effects are additive. Systematic phonics instruction when combined with language activities and individual tutoring may triple the effect of phonics alone".

Bottom line

The study does support part of what the NPR study suggested. That is phonics is important. The study is important, though, for what it adds. Many are concerned that federal reading policy has become unidemensional with a focus only on phonics and phonics instruction as the key to measuring and achieving reading success for children. The current study suggests that successful reading programs require more. The current study also calls into question what is meant by rigorous researched-based models of instruction. The authors emphasize that it is important to look carefully at how data was gathered as well as what the results say.

To read more:

Educational Policy Analysis Archives, Volume 11, Number 15, May 8, 2003. National Institute for Early Education Research and Rutgers Unversity.