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  • Writer's pictureStephen Parker

A Review of "The Reading Strategies Book"

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

The Reading Strategies Book, by Jennifer Serravallo, is one of the most popular how-to-teach-reading books in use today. Published by Heinemann in 2015, this book has become a mainstay in Balanced Literacy classrooms in much of the English-speaking world. On Amazon, it has almost 2500 ratings, and nearly all of them are 5-star reviews.

Before getting to my less than 5-star review, it’s important to understand how Serravallo has structured her book. It has 13 chapters (or “goals”) arranged into a “hierarchy of sorts” and which apply to students in grades K-8. Each of the 13 goals has anywhere from 20-28 “strategies.” A teacher must first choose an appropriate goal, and then within that goal, appropriate strategies for achieving the goal. This must be done for each student. (p2)

All the strategies are correlated with the Fountas & Pinnell leveled reading system. This is a system whereby every book a child might read is rated A (the simplest picture book) through Z (a complex 300-page novel). Nearly all the strategies in Chapters 5 through 13 of Serravalllo’s book are for older children who are already reading, that is, for children at levels J and above). The topics in these later chapters include analysis of plot, setting, characters, and theme – all appropriate topics for older students.

Even in Chapter 4, where the goal is Teaching Fluency, most of the strategies are involved with “phrasing” and “intonation” and those strategies are geared to students at reading levels E and higher. What this means is that all the strategies for actually teaching a child to read, that is, for getting a child from “absolute beginner” to “reasonably independent reader,” are in the first 3 chapters of this book.

This review will focus on those first 3 chapters, especially Chapter 3. It’s not that I think fluency, or the analysis of plot, theme, and character are unimportant. It’s simply that my interest is in early reading instruction – in the actual process of teaching a child to read. If that’s not done well, the child will never become fluent, and any subsequent focus on plot, theme, and character will be futile.

Teaching a child to read is the task of teachers in the first 2-3 years of instruction (grades K, 1, and 2 in the US). In my review of Serravallo’s book, I seek to answer this question: How appropriate/useful is this book for K-2 reading teachers? These are the folks who have the most important responsibility of any teacher in the school system: the job of teaching children how to input language through the eyes rather than the ears.

The Review

The topic of Chapter 1 (Goal 1) in Serravallo’s book is Supporting Emergent Readers. An emergent reader (as opposed to a “conventional” reader) is a child who may “read” a book from memory – possible because that book has been read to her so often in the past. An emergent reader is also a child who imaginatively makes up a story to go along with the book’s pictures (“pretend” reading). Emergent readers may not even be aware that the print on the page (if any) carries the story.

Most of the 20 strategies in Chapter 1 are for such emergent readers. The strategies focus on such activities as carefully examining the book’s pictures, using the pictures to make up a story, using a voice “like a story teller,” using a finger to point (“Linger Finger”), using facial expressions to bring the story to life, using body language, using story language (“once upon a time”), speaking like the character, talking “like an expert,” and “using a teaching voice.”

There is one strategy, however, for children who are making the transition from “emergent” to “conventional” reader. That’s strategy 1.12: "Keep in Mind What Repeats." Here’s Serravallo:

“Sometimes books say the same thing over and over again! The repeated pattern can help you remember what’s the same on each page, and then you can look at the picture to see what’s different. Try to read both parts – the parts that are the same and the parts that are new.” (p35)

Thus, the “patterned” book becomes a Serravallo strategy. “Patterned” is the preferred euphemism in Balanced Literacy circles for “repeating.” Patterned books (also called "predictable" books) make up much of what is found in reading levels A through C. I could write a computer program that would generate these books by the thousands. Here’s an example of how all patterned books are structured:

Page 1: I SEE MY MOM SLEEPING. (accompanied by a picture of a woman in bed)

Page 2: I SEE MY MOM COOKING. (accompanied by a picture of a woman at a stove)

Page 3: I SEE MY MOM DRIVING. (appropriate picture or drawing)

Page 4: I SEE MY MOM RUNNING. (appropriate picture or drawing)

On it goes for 12-20 pages. Each page has the same 3 to 5 words repeated (so that the child might begin learning them, visually, as sight words) and one word that changes (which the child “reads” only by looking at the accompanying picture).

What if the child doesn’t know what’s going on in the picture? No problem! Here’s strategy 1.14:

"If you don’t know, guess. Just make a guess that makes sense with the title, the picture, and what’s happened so far.”

As you can see, there’s not a lot a help in Chapter 1 for someone faced with teaching genuine (“conventional”) reading to a class of 20 or more children.

Unfortunately, Chapter 2 is also rather unhelpful for the reading teacher. The topic is Teaching Reading Engagement and it seems oddly placed in the book. Serravallo writes:

“You could be the most eloquent teacher, the best strategy group facilitator, the most insightful conferrer. But if you send your kids back for independent reading and they don’t read, then they won’t make the progress you are hoping for… Engagement is everything.” (p44)

But surely staying engaged in reading depends on one’s ability to read – and to comprehend what one is reading. Yet at this point, the children can only make up stories, look at patterned texts to learn sight words, and look at pictures to guess unknown words.

It’s hard to see how the strategies suggested for readers at this level will be of much value: “choose a perfect reading spot,” “reread,” “keep your mind in the book,” “fix the fuzziness,” “use a timer,” “show what it looks like to be distracted,” and “prime yourself with prior knowledge.” That last one (prime yourself) probably needs some additional explanation. Here’s Serravallo:

“Sometimes setting ourselves up for success helps us to stay focused and engaged. Before beginning to read, think about how your book will go. You can think about its structure, what you know about the topic, what you know about other books by this author, or what you know about others in the series.”

Given the above, Chapter 3 bears a heavy burden in this book. As you just saw, Chapters 1 and 2 offer little in the way of useful strategies to teachers whose goal is to teach actual (not “emergent”) reading. And, as I mentioned earlier, Chapters 4 through 13 contain strategies for older children – children who are already reading and who are now facing more advanced topics like plot, setting, theme, and character.

In Chapter 3, Serravallo identifies the overarching goal this way: Supporting Print Work: Increasing Accuracy and Integrating Sources of Information. So now, apparently, it’s time to get down to the serious work of looking at the actual print on the page in order to understand what the author wishes to convey by his or her writing.

First, I will say what is NOT in this pivotal chapter. There’s no evidence that Serravallo is aware of advances in reading science that have occurred in the past 30 years. I’m speaking specifically of:

  • Philip Gough's" and William Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading

  • David Share’s Self-Teaching Hypothesis

  • Linnea Ehri’s Orthographic Mapping

  • Max Coltheart and Mark Seidenberg’s Dual-Route Theory

  • The fact that sight words can be formed in 2 radically different ways

  • The national reports of the US, Australia, and England on reading instruction

If Serravallo is aware of this reading science, she has chosen not to reveal it to the reading teachers who rely upon her. If you’re thinking that perhaps the strategies in Chapter 3 are based implicitly on this science, and that Serravallo is distilling that science into friendly strategies in order to make it more accessible for reading teachers, that, too, is not the case.

What follows are Serravallo’s Chapter 3 strategies with my commentary. Rather than cover the 23 strategies in order, I’ve grouped them into broad categories because there is so much repetition.

Strategies 1 and 2: These two strategies ("Check the Picture for Help," and "Point and Read One for One"), have nothing to do with the actual print on the page. They are simply more advice for using “patterned” texts, already discussed above. “Be sure you read the pictures” says Serravallo, and “What could this word be, based on what’s in the picture?” Regarding the value of “pointing” she says

Say one word for each word you point under. If you find yourself saying more words (or fewer words) than what is on the page, go back to the beginning of the page and start again.” (p81)

Note: Any top-down reading method (one that starts with whole words rather than individual letters and sounds) must make rote-memorization of sight words a priority. “Patterned” books are the preferred tool for accomplishing this task. See this blog for further discussion of top-down versus bottom-up methods of teaching reading.

Strategies 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, and 20. These nine strategies all involve guessing the identity of an unknown word – not a random guess, but rather a guess influenced by the context of the sentence and (perhaps) the word’s first (and last) letter. [Does Serravallo know that only unskilled readers guess? and that when guessing the meaning of content words – words that carry most of the meaning in a sentence – students guess correctly only 10% of the time? (See here, p154) Skilled readers don’t guess. They decode unknown words, that is, they use all the letters of the word in order to form a complete pronunciation.]

Strategy 4: "Does That Sound Like a Book?" After guessing the identity of a word, Serravallo wants the child to:

“check yourself and think ‘Is that how it would sound in a book?’ If you don’t think it sounds right, go back and try something else.” (p83)

I have trouble understanding what this means (or how it could possibly help a six-year-old) so I looked at Serravallo’s recommended teacher prompts further down on the page:

“The word you read looks like that word, but did it sound like how you’d hear it in a book?” “Check yourself, make sure it sounds like a book.”

I’m still stumped. How would this prompt help a struggling child? How does a beginner know if something “sounds like a book?” And what does this have to do with reading what's actually on the page?

Strategy 5: "Be a Coach to your Partner." Here, Serravallo has one six-year-old coaching another. These are the prompts she recommends to the child who hears her "partner" make a mistake:

  • Tell your partner: “Check the first letter!”

  • Tell your partner: “Think about what makes sense!”

  • Tell your partner: “Think about what sounds right!”

  • Tell your partner: “Something didn’t sound right, go back and try it again!”

Strategy 6: "Try, Try, Try Again." If one guessing strategy doesn’t work, a child should try another guessing strategy. The various strategies the child should use are the expected ones, given what Serravallo has discussed so far:

  • use the picture

  • does it make sense?

  • does it look right?

  • does it sound right?

  • look for word “parts”

These strategies are featured all over the internet - and they're in classrooms everywhere. [The picture to the right is not from this book, but it expresses many of its key strategies.] Regarding that last bullet point on word “parts,” Serravallo says this: “Look for parts of words you know inside of larger words.” An example of this, I suppose, would be spotting the words IN, CAR, and NATION in the word INCARNATION.

Strategy 7: "Slow Down the Zoom, Zoom, Zoom to Make Sense." Slow down one’s reading, pause, and then ask oneself:

“Is what I’m reading making sense? If you answer ‘No!’ go back and fix it up.” (p86)

The only thing that "fix it up" can mean in this context is that the child should make a different guess. But is this teaching a child to read?

Strategy 8: "Think While You Read the Words."

“Sometimes you might feel so focused on reading words that you start to think ‘Wait, I haven’t understood what I just read.’ When that happens, make sure you go back to reread.”

Note that strategies 5 through 8 are all variations on a theme: guess what the word is based on what makes sense. If necessary, reread, and guess again. Here’s another one…

Strategy 9: "Make Attempts That Make Sense." Here's the actual example which Serravallo uses in recommending this strategy:

“Let me show you how, when I come to a word I don’t know, I make some tries at the word, using what makes sense, then check the letters to see what word also looks right:
They have an animal on them from a I don’t think any kid ever watched.
I could read up to that word and figure out what kind of word it might be. Hmm, I think it’s going to be a word that is a thing… It has to be something that has to do with an animal and it says ‘watched.’ Hmm. So it could be a play or show or TV show – no that wouldn’t work, ‘TV show’ is two words. Hmm. Let me look at some letters.” (emphasis mine)

Note that the last thing Serravallo recommends in this example is to look at the actual letters of the unknown word. Can you guess the correct seven-letter word that would ‘make sense’ in this context? I couldn’t. So I had to continue to read through the example. Serravallo says the child should now look at the first 3 letters and then make a guess that “makes sense.”

“I could look at the start of the word: C-A-R. CAR. What word starts with CAR and could make sense there in the sentence? Something you watch. Like a show. Maybe the word could be CAR…CARTOON! That’s it!” (p88)

I include this full example because it so clearly exhibits how NOT to teach reading. This is game-playing, not reading instruction. “Look at the letters if all else fails” is the message Serravallo is unmistakably giving to teachers and children. This example makes no sense. What six-year-old could read the phonetically complex word WATCHED and yet puzzle over the phonetically simply word CARTOON? If you're a parent, do you want your child taught in this manner?

Strategy 13: "Check Beginning and End." Serravallo’s advice here is to look at the first and last letter of an unknown word when guessing. Her reason?

“When you get to a tricky word, it’s important that you aren’t only checking the start of the word. There are many, many words that start with the same letter.” (p92)

Does Serravallo know there are still “many, many words” that start and end with the same letter? Does she know that "many words" have a silent E at the end? Implicit in this strategy is that the child be taught consonant sounds, since consonants are often a word’s first and last letter. On how and when to do this, Serravallo is silent.

Strategy 14: "Run Into the First Part." Here’s Serravallo’s explanation:

“When you look at the first few letters together, you’re getting a ‘running start’ into the word. Then you can try to read the rest of the word by reading something that makes sense, sounds right, and matches the beginning of the word.”

[So, there’s nothing new here - just more guessing.]

Strategy 20: "Skip and Return."

“Skip the difficult word. Read to the end of the sentence or paragraph, thinking about what would make sense in that spot you skipped. Go back to that sentence and read it all again, trying to figure out what the word might be.” (p99)

[Even more guessing, but now with some additional information.]

Note: The reader may have recognized that the above already accounts for half the strategies in this pivotal third chapter. Yet, the only advice given to reading teachers (and their children) thus far can be reasonably summarized this way: Use every resource you can think of to guess the identity of that unknown word. Just be sure you don't actually read it by sounding it out. The trouble is, there’s not a single cognitive scientist or reading researcher in the past 30 years who would agree with this advice.


Strategies 10 and 22. With these 2 strategies we get to the heart of how Serravallo understands reading instruction. It’s an old story – one that goes back to the 80s, when Ken Goodman launched the Whole Language movement and Marie Clay developed her Reading Recovery program. It’s called three-cueing. (For a recent podcast by national reporter Emily Hanford on three-cueing, go here.)

Strategy 10: "Juggle All Three Balls." In this strategy, Serravallo sums up all the above guessing strategies and fully embraces three-cueing, even though it has no support whatever in cognitive science. Also known as MSV (Meaning, Syntax, Visual), three-cueing asks children to approach unknown words in a manner that makes it highly likely they will become poor readers.

Here’s Serravallo expressing the need for three-cueing:

“Readers don’t only do one thing when we get to a word. We need to do at least three: (1) think about what makes sense, (2) think about how a book sounds, and (3) think about what looks right.” (pp76,89)

Serravallo specifies 3 prompts teachers should use with kids who are guessing:

  • Does that make sense? (M – meaning)

  • Does that sound right? (S – syntax)

  • Does that look right? (V – visual)

In Strategy 22, "Unpacking What It Means to Sound Right," Serravallo clarifies the S (syntax) part of three-cueing.

“The place a word appears in the sentence can help you understand the kind of word it is that you’re trying to figure out. For example, if a word comes before a thing, it’s probably an adjective. If it tells what a character is doing, it’s an action word (verb).” (p101)

So even older children – those who already know the different parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, adverb) – are being advised to guess the identity of unknown words based on that type of information.

[The above three-circle Venn Diagram is ubiquitous on the internet. I've labeled my version of it based on what Serravallo says in this chapter.]

Three-cueing is a disaster for most children. When you teach kids to pay attention to the picture, the context of the word, the part of speech it might be, or the word’s first letter, you’re taking their attention away from the one thing that allows orthographic mapping to occur. (Orthographic mapping is a process which automatically creates sight words. See my blog here for more details.) Orthographic mapping depends on the child making explicit all the connections between a written word’s graphemes (letters) and a spoken word’s phonemes (sounds). To do this, the child must pay close attention to all the word’s letters and then decode it into a full pronunciation. Three-cueing discourages this from happening.

Three-cueing confuses 2 distinct activities in the world of reading instruction: “word identification” and “making meaning.” The hallmark of a skilled reader is the ability to read words in isolation. The word HOME, for instance, needs no context. If the child can identify it (sound it out) by decoding, then its meaning is obvious to the typical six-year-old. But if the word is WIND, even accurate decoding leads to a little ambiguity: is it the verb one does to a clock, or is it the noun which accompanies a storm? For a word like WIND, sentence context is needed for unambiguous pronunciation and meaning.

Note: For further discussion of the central role of full decoding in reading comprehension, see my blog on the Simple View of Reading. If you’re a reading teacher who does not understand the Simple View, the problem is easily fixed!

I place all the remaining strategies in Chapter 3 under the heading “desultory phonics” (or, if you prefer, "haphazard phonics," or "lip-service phonics," or "part-word phonics"). Allow me to explain...

Strategies 11, 16, 3, 12, 21, 17, 15, 18, 19, 23.

Strategy 11: "Apply Your Word Study (Phonics) to Book Reading." Listen to this:

“Connect what you learn during word study and phonics with the words you’re trying to read in your books.”

This is an astounding statement on the part of Serravallo. To fully understand the sleight of hand that’s happening here, look at what she says in the introduction to Chapter 3:

“The strategies in this chapter are best taught in combination with a systematic word study/phonics program such as Words Their Way.”

The subtitle of Serravallo’s book (see above) is “Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers.” (The boldface is actually on the cover.) Yet here, at the most critical juncture in the pivotal third chapter of her book, when the only strategies that have been discussed so far are various forms of guessing, Serravallo defers to an entirely extraneous program: Words Their Way. This call to an outside program is not a call for help on a minor point, it’s for help on phonics! Reading research is clear: systematic phonics is required to produce skilled readers. Yet it is precisely here that the "Everything Guide" to developing those skilled readers collapses entirely.

Worse, even though Serravallo knows her “300 strategies” (see her book cover) do not include systematic phonics, she doesn’t say that Words Their Way is a requirement to supplement her own book, she says only that it might be “best” to do so. Then she immediately reveals her actual belief about phonics:

“Isolated phonics skill work without the application in actual books is shown to be of limited effectiveness. There will also be instances where children learn a certain word feature or the sounds a letter combination makes without having ever been taught it during phonics – children will pick up all sorts of things about reading just because they are given lots of time to read and write.” (p77)

This inaccurate and begrudging attitude toward phonics is reflected in all the remaining Chapter 3 "strategies." Serravallo has some “phonics” strategies in her book because the US National Reading Panel made “systematic phonics” one of the Big 5 topics in reading instruction. (The other 4 are phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.) Significantly, phonemic awareness is nowhere discussed in Serravallo’s book.

Strategy 16: "Go Left to Right." The type of phonics Serravallo finds least bothersome to her beliefs about reading instruction, is Analogy Phonics. (Note: for a discussion of the significant differences between Analogy Phonics, Analytic Phonics, and Synthetic Phonics, see my blog here.) Analogy Phonics deals mostly with word “parts” (syllables, prefixes, suffixes, onset-rime) rather than with the graphemes and phonemes that constitute those “parts.”

The examples Serravallo uses to demonstrate this strategy are the two-syllable words WITHOUT and DETAILED. Faced with such words, the child should “get a running start” and “get his mouth ready” (p95) to say the first part, then the second, then the third, “left to right.”

So, WITHOUT should be read, “mouth ready,” as WITH + OUT; DETAILED as DE + TAIL + ED. No mention is made as to how the child already reads WITH, OUT, ED, and TAIL. We can only assume these four words are (somehow) sight words for the child. And, of course, reading ED in the normal way would be incorrect in the word DETAILED. Serravallo is aware of this. Here's what she says:

"I'd notice the -ED ending, which I know can sound like /d/, /ed/, or /t/. I could try all three and then I could tell that the word is DETAILED." (p95) (emphasis mine)

Strategy 3: "Use a Word You Know."

“Look for a part of the word that’s the same as a part in a word you know. Notice what’s different. Try to read the word.”

Here, again, is the example Serravallo actually uses to demonstrate this part-word assembly strategy. I paraphrase it only to make it more understandable than the original:

Suppose a child has GREEN and SLOW memorized as sight words. [How these became sight words, we’re not told. Perhaps through “patterned” texts or through the rote memorization of lists sent home as homework.] Suppose, too, that the child knows that the consonant N represents the sound /n/.

Now the child is faced with reading the unknown (for her) word GROWN. So, she "word-solves" using analogy phonics. She takes the GR sound from her sight word GREEN, the OW sound from her sight word SLOW, plus the sound of N, and blends these 3 “parts” together: /gr/+/ow/+/n/ = GROWN. Having thus, implausibly, pieced together a pronunciation, she checks if the word “makes sense” in the context of the sentence.

Surely, even a first year reading teacher, fresh out of Teachers College, could see how impractical this is for a young child. How many sight words would the child have to memorize to build other words in this manner? How reliable is such a method? How many children would be capable of this? Again: Is this how we want our children to read?

Strategy 12: "Group Letters That Make Sounds Together." Here Serravallo demonstrates she does not fully understand the alphabetic code.

“Lots of times, if you try to sound out a word by reading letter by letter, it won’t work. That’s because there are letters that go together to make one sound.” (emphasis mine)

She then directs the teacher to show the class a chart of blends and digraphs. The chart (p91) contains 5 digraphs (SH, TH, CH, PH, WH) and 25 blends (there are actually over 80 consonant blends in English).

Digraphs do indeed make one sound. Blends do not. Blends make one sound only in the sense that single-syllable words make a single pulse of sound. Why teach children something that’s incorrect? And why have them memorize the “sound” of 80 consonant blends when, alternatively, you could simply have them memorize the sounds of the 21 single consonants, and then show them how the skill of blending works? ST is simply a blend of the 2 individual phonemes /s/ and /t/. ST does not make one sound.

Strategy 21: "Look for Vowels That Go Together." Here's another example that demonstrates how Serravallo does not fully understand the alphabetic code.

“As you read through a word, part by part, you may see two vowels side by side. Those two vowels need to go together. Think about other [sight] words you know that have the same two vowels together to help you read the word.” (emphasis mine)

Note: I added the word “sight” to this quote. Clearly, that’s what is implied here. I simply wish to remind the reader (and Jennifer Serravallo) that analogy phonics depends on the child having a large cache of sight words before it can even get started. Analogy Phonics is always taking “parts” of known words to assemble new words. How did those “known” words become known? They must all be sight words. Do any of us think children, day after day, enjoy having to memorize large quantities of sight words? It’s disagreeable grunt work and it gives the child, in the first 2 critical years of reading instruction, the notion that reading is non-logical.

In the quote above, Serravallo says "two vowels need to go together.” That’s often false. What she really means is that side-by-side vowels sometimes act as a digraph, spelling a single sound (or phoneme). While that’s true of the vowels in the words BRAIN, LOIN, and DAIRY, it’s false in BRIAN, LION, and DIARY.

For her example, Serravallo uses the words HOUSE, LOUD, and ROUND – showing how the digraph OU spells the phoneme /ow/ (as in COW). Does Serravallo know that in the book Words Their Way, a book she recommends as a supplement to her own, the OU spelling of /ow/ is not covered until the fifth year of instruction (grade 4 in the US)?

Note: As an aside, Words Their Way is indeed a systematic phonics book. But, due to its insistence on a “discovery” mode of learning, on its acceptance of a philosophy of knowledge called "Constructivism," and on its use of analogy phonics and analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics, it takes Words Their Way 6 years to get through the entire alphabetic code. That is a totally unacceptable amount of time. For this reason alone, I could never recommend its use in teaching a child to read. (See the Australian National Review (pp28-37) for more about the "Constructivism" that forms the basis of much of today's reading instruction.

Strategy 17: "Flexible Sounds." See if you think this strategy is likely to produce a skilled reader:

“Be flexible about vowel sounds – try one, then another – until you read a word that sounds like a word you’ve heard before and that makes sense in the sentence. We know that the English language is a tricky one - there are so many sounds each letter can make. When we come to tricky words, one strategy is to try, try, and try the word again, using different sounds for the vowels in the word. Often, when you try different vowel sounds, you'll recognize the word you read as a word you know."

Given the chart that’s on the page (p96), it’s clear Serravallo means that, for single vowels, not vowel digraphs, the student should try both the short and long sound of that vowel. But this is an ill-advised strategy. First, would it not be better to teach a child why HAT uses a short A sound and HATE uses a long A sound? That way, he needn’t try both sounds for each of these words. Second, in many simple words like BALL, SALT, FATHER, MOTHER, DOG, ONCE, and PUT, the sound of the vowel is neither long nor short. Third, a haphazard practice like "trying one vowel sound after another" will not produce skilled readers of a language that has twenty vowel sounds (as does English). Fourth... oh, never mind.....

Strategy 15: "Take the ending off." Use your hand to cover common suffixes. For example, when faced with the word WALKING, cover the ING and read just WALK. Then add on the ING sound. [But how did the child learn to read WALK and ING in the first place?]

Strategy 18: "Cover and Slide." Hide all the parts of the word that are not yet being read and then slide your hand to the right, progressively showing more and more of the word. Serravallo's example is to read UNDERGROUND by first hiding all but two letters. Then progressively show yourself the word as follows:


"I'll slide my hand to reveal UN first. Then, DER. I could put those two parts together: UNDER. Then, I'm going to look at the next part. I see the blend GR, and now when I look at the rest of the word OUND - that looks like ROUND. So GR + OUND must be GROUND. Let me put it all together now: UNDERGROUND." (p97)

What remains unsaid in this quote is everything that makes this process highly unlikely to work for most children. First, the word ROUND must already be a sight word for the child. Further, the child must be able to recall the word ROUND, not based on its sound, but on its spelling, R-O-U-N-D. Then she must subtract the R sound from ROUND and, in its place, substitute a GR sound (GRUH?). This type of wishful thinking has a name in Balanced Literacy circles: Onset and Rime. OUND is the rime and it can take on various single-letter consonants (and consonant blends) as its onset. BOUND, HOUND, SOUND, WOUND, and POUND would also belong to this word-family. The problem with onset-rime word families is that there are over 400 of them, just for simple one-syllable words. The child must memorize a sight word for each family! (That sight word then acts as the key for recognizing and pronouncing all the other words in the family.)

Note again how analogy phonics focuses on word “parts” (often called "chunks") rather than on the graphemes (and the corresponding phonemes) that make up those “parts.” (There are nine phonemes and nine graphemes in the word UNDERGROUND.)

Strategy 19: "Take the Word Apart, Then Put It Back Together." Serravallo uses the word UNDERGROUND here too, but this time has the child split the word into “parts” in an even more bizarre manner. There is no discernible linguistic basis for splitting up a word in this fashion:


Once again, she does not have the child analyze this word on the grapheme/phoneme level.

Strategy 23: "Words Across a Line Break." If a word is already broken up into “parts,” as occurs when a word is hyphenated at the end of a printed line (example POWER-FUL), Serravallo says the child should put the word together “as a whole and see if you recognize it.”

Maybe I’m just getting tired, but this last strategy seems to contradict the 3 immediately above it.


I can’t possibly recommend J. Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book to early (K-2) reading teachers. In fact, I strongly discourage its use. Only Chapter 3 in this book is directly relevant for such teachers, and the strategies found there will not, in any way, help teachers develop their children into skilled readers. On the contrary, students taught with the "strategies" recommended by Serravallo are likely to become poor readers. On page 1 of her book, Serravallo claims "the strategies I've crafted in this book stand on the shoulders of decades of research.” If that is so, she badly misinterprets that research. Here are two examples:

1) She co-opts the term decoding in such an egregious manner that it makes the term utterly meaningless. On page 79 she claims every strategy in Chapter 3 (apart from the first 2 strategies dealing with “patterned” books) is an example of “decoding.” But neither guessing, nor playing with word “parts,” is decoding. A student is engaged in decoding if and when she has the requisite knowledge to do all of the following when faced with an unknown written word:

  • She examines the word and identifies all its individual graphemes (the letters that represent the 44 basic sounds, or phonemes, of our language). Note: graphemes usually consist of single letters, or letter pairs called digraphs. A few graphemes contain three letters (IGH as in FIGHT) or even four (AUGH as in TAUGHT).

  • She attaches the correct phoneme to each grapheme in the unknown word.

  • She blends those phonemes together, left to right, to form a complete pronunciation of the unknown word.

  • Having sounded out the word, she then either recognizes it (because it’s part of her spoken vocabulary) or she doesn’t (in which case she can look it up in a dictionary or ask what it means).

This is what researchers mean by decoding. In fact, researcher David Share calls such decoding the sine qua non of reading acquisition. It's the basis of his Self-Teaching Hypothesis (see here). There is nothing resembling such genuine decoding in Serravallo’s book. How is it possible that someone who “stands on the shoulders of decades of research” so badly misunderstands decoding?

2) Researcher Linnea Ehri coined the term orthographic mapping (OM) for the process by which readers automatically and unconsciously form sight words. It’s only through OM that a skilled reader could possibly attain the 60,000 sight words that he will have by the time he finishes college. What’s needed for OM to work? Precisely the type of genuine decoding I just described. Analyzing and sounding out a written word into a complete pronunciation, just 2-5 times, maps that word into permanent memory for most typically developing readers. But the analysis must be done at the grapheme-phoneme level, not at the level of word “parts” or onset-rime. [Note to my fellow reading teachers: careful word analysis on the grapheme-phoneme level can NOT be skipped! There are no short cuts here.]

Ehri is abundantly clear on this. Only after a child is capable of sounding out words on the grapheme-phoneme level (Ehri’s “full alphabetic phase”) can that child succeed in reading words by “parts” or by using onset-rime (Ehri’s final “consolidated alphabetic phase”). There is no indication in The Reading Strategies Book that Serravallo has ever heard of orthographic mapping. Serravallo nowhere in her book has children analyzing words on the grapheme-phoneme level.

These are fatal flaws – and, as I already mentioned, they are not remedied by using Words Their Way as a supplement. No reading program, even one whose phonics is “systematic,” has the luxury of taking 6 years to get through the alphabetic code. Such is the case with Words Their Way. In addition, Words Their Way, just like The Reading Strategies Book, never gets down to the level of blending individual phonemes to decode and identify unknown words. It, too, contents itself with word "parts," onset-rime, and with treating blends, like SP and BL, as having a single sound.

Serravallo’s book, standing alone, is perfect for a Whole Language program. Ken Goodman and Frank Smith, the co-founders of Whole Language, would be completely at home with this book. The trouble is, the US National Reading Panel, after a three-year intensive study, condemned Whole Language by name. This happened 20 years ago.

If a teacher couples The Reading Strategies Book with Words Their Way, she then has the ultimate Balanced Literacy program, that is, Whole Language supposedly “balanced” with some type of “systematic” phonics. We can thank the National Reading Panel (and every reading reformer since 2000) who pointlessly calls for “systematic” phonics - rather than "synthetic" phonics - for this current dismal state of affairs.

Of the three national reports on reading, only England’s Rose Report goes beyond the anodyne call for “systematic” phonics, by explicitly endorsing “synthetic” phonics. (See here for my full description of synthetic phonics.) Synthetic Phonics takes seriously Share’s Self-Teaching Hypothesis and Ehri’s Orthographic Mapping – and it does so from the very start of reading instruction. Using Synthetic Phonics will allow most children to achieve reading independence within 2 years. It’s the only antidote to Whole Language and its awful stepchild, Balanced Literacy.


Stephen Parker is a life-long teacher of mathematics, computer science, and reading. Now retired, he spends much of his time writing, baking sourdough bread, and studying the latest research on reading instruction. His blog is an effort to make that research easily available to fellow teachers (see here.) He has also written three 100% FREE books on Synthetic Phonics for both reading teachers and parents. (Those books can be downloaded here.)

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