• Stephen Parker

Jennifer Serravallo, Version 2.0

Updated: Jun 17

My negative review of Serravallo’s original Chapter 3 in her best-selling The Reading Strategies Book can be found here. Written in the Fall of 2019, it quickly garnered some 25,000 views among reading teachers worldwide. It was clearly a catalyst in convincing Serravallo to take the rather unusual step of writing and releasing a new version, not of her entire book, but only of Chapter 3, in June of 2021.

This review will focus on the new Chapter 3.

The Problem

Jen, as her numerous fans call her, wrote The Reading Strategies Book in 2014. Heinemann irresponsibly published it in 2015. Even though she took upon herself the role of “teacher of teachers,” she did no homework in writing the phonics section of that book (Chapter 3). By “homework” I mean taking the time to do a thorough study of the science of reading, such as it was in 2014. And in 2014, the science of reading was already far advanced.

Here’s just a partial list of who and what was available to Serravallo in 2014:

  • Stanislas Dehaene: 2009

  • David Share: 1995

  • Linnea Ehri: 1998

  • Jeanne Chall: 1983

  • US National Reading Panel: 2000

  • Australia’s National Report, Teaching Reading: 2005

  • The Clackmannanshire Study on Synthetic Phonics: 2005

  • England’s Rose Report: 2006

Instead of doing the preparation necessary to write the original Chapter 3, she simply filled the chapter with various word-guessing strategies she had managed to pick up along the way from populists like Ken Goodman, Frank Smith, Marie Clay, and Lucy Calkins – none of whom were (or are) serious researchers.

“Look at the Picture,” “Point as You Read,” “Juggle 3 Balls (Three-Cueing),” “Does That Sound Like a Book?” “Get Your Mouth Ready,” “Slow Down the Zooming,” “Think While You Read,” “Guess Using Context,” “Get a Running Start,” and “Skip and Return” were just some of the “strategies” Serravallo popularized in classrooms all over the US, and beyond, from 2015 until 2021.

The chapter misled many poorly-trained reading teachers, handicapped their children, and presented a serious roadblock to the reform of early reading instruction.

The Good

Regardless of why she did so, Serravallo started investigating the abundant research on early reading instruction this past year. To her credit, she seems to have made a radical and complete turnaround. Gone from the new version of Chapter 3 are any references whatsoever to word-guessing. There are no exceptions:

“Note that none of the strategies in this chapter encourage prediction or guessing based on context or attending to only a part of a word. As Kilpatrick (2015) warns, ‘Any kind of guessing strategies (using pictures, context, first sound only, look of the word, length of the word) absolves one from interacting with the orthographic sequence.’.” (page 3) [emphasis mine]

So no guessing of any kind, including:

  • guessing from pictures

  • guessing from context

  • guessing from a word’s first letter

  • guessing from a word’s first and last letter

  • guessing from what might make sense

  • guessing using parts of speech

  • guessing via (MSV) three-cueing

Pretty radical stuff. These various types of word-guessing are taught by Balanced Literacy teachers the world over. To have a Balanced Literacy guru like Serravallo say “no” to all of it, is likely to cause some serious vertigo and whiplash among many of Jen’s ardent supporters.

So if all types of guessing are out, what “strategies” remain for determining the identity of an unknown word? Well, here’s Jen’s first strategy in the revised Chapter 3:

Strategy 3.1 Read It, Don’t Guess It!

“When you come to a word that you don’t recognize automatically, take your time. Look at the letters left to right, say the sounds the letters represent, and then blend the sounds together (or use another strategy you know that will work). Check what you’ve read to make sure it makes sense.”

This is a reasonable description of decoding. In the old Chapter 3, Serravallo had no clear idea of what decoding actually meant. She termed all her guessing strategies, “decoding.” She’s no longer confused in this revision of Chapter 3. Here’s another quote from her Introduction to Chapter 3, indicating Jen’s accurate understanding, not only of decoding, but also of orthographic mapping:

“That last one—knowing the word on sight and reading it automatically—is what we want to happen over time for every reader for most words. Accurate, automatic reading is the end result when readers actively apply useful strategies as they read. How so? When a reader encounters a word and reads it by attending to the letters of the word and decoding it correctly, connecting graphemes and phonemes, and they are able to link the meaning of the word they read to their knowledge, the word becomes a sight word through a process known as orthographic mapping. What’s happening in the reader’s mind is not whole-word visual memorization, but rather gluing a spelling to its pronunciation and meaning. Once it’s mapped, when the reader encounters the word in the future, they can read it automatically and effortlessly on sight. Many agree it takes about one to four encounters with a word, decoding it, for it to become a sight word, though for those for whom reading is challenging, it can take more than ten. Over time, we want almost all words to become sight words, not just high-frequency words, eliminating the need to decode except in really rare instances, so that decoding ceases to be the focus.” (page 1) [emphasis mine]

Check this out too:

“I now more deeply understand… how crucial it is that we support orthographic mapping (when readers make letter-sound—grapheme-phoneme—connections to bond the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of words in memory) so that decoded words become sight words allowing for automatic and fluent reading.” (from the “Dear Colleague” Preamble to the new Chapter 3.)

What researchers mean by decoding is this: left to right blending of all the individual sounds (phonemes) suggested by a word’s spelling (graphemes), into a complete pronunciation. Serravallo is now fully on board with this. She uses the words “decode” or “decoding” accurately in 11 of her new strategies.

You may have noticed the parenthetical hedging, above, in Serravallo’s first strategy: “or use another strategy you know.” This is a vestige of the old Serravallo, one who encouraged lots of various guessing “strategies.” What she seems to not yet fully recognize, is that once you throw out all the guessing strategies, only one strategy for the beginner remains: decoding. More on this later.

There are additional positive things to say about the new Serravallo.

Her entire Reading Strategies Book was originally organized around Fountas & Pinnell’s Leveled Reading schema, whereby all children’s books are rated A through Z, depending on the level of reading difficulty. All 300 “strategies” in Jen’s 13-chapter book were correlated with these levels. It’s considered “state of the art” in Balanced Literacy circles to find “just right” books for each child, and then to steer children into small “Guided Reading” groups for “individualized” attention. This despite the fact there are no research studies indicating that such leveling and grouping confers any benefit whatsoever to beginners.

Meanwhile, the downsides are obvious:

  • When the teacher is conferring with Group A, what are Groups B, C, D, and E doing?

  • How does a child stuck in a lower-level reading group feel when all her friends are in higher-level groups?

Why bring this up? Because Serravallo breaks this link. The organizing principle of the 30 strategies in the revised Chapter 3 are no longer the Fountas and Pinnell reading levels, but, rather shockingly, Linnea Ehri’s 4 stages of sight-word development. [Am I okay with Serravallo dumping Fountas & Pinnell for Ehri, the researcher who first gave the name orthographic mapping to the process describing how sight words are automatically created? I’m ecstatic.]

It gets even better.

You know those Level A-C “patterned” books, the ones nearly all Balanced Literacy teachers rely upon to drill sight words and to habituate the beginner into “looking at pictures” to identify words? Is it possible that Serravallo would throw those awful books under the school bus for decodables?

Read for yourself:

“Sometimes, a text adjustment can go a long way. For example, lower-level patterned books often include words that can only be figured out based on context or pictures, so shifting to decodable texts, at least until the student becomes more proficient with consistently decoding and attending to all letters and sounds in words, can help. Just be sure the decodable texts you use match the student’s phonics knowledge.” (page 10) [emphasis mine]

Jen’s thinking is somewhat muddled here. “Patterned” textbooks always “include words that can only be figured out based on context or pictures.” That’s their main purpose. Also, once a beginner “becomes more proficient with consistently decoding and attending to all letters and sounds in words,” patterned books are wholly unnecessary.

Nonetheless, this shift away from patterned books to decodables will cause additional vertigo among Serravallo’s followers. [And it may cause Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell to “unfollow” her on Twitter.]

Jen’s followers may be wondering if she leaves any room at all for context and meaning in identifying unknown words.

“Context and meaning are crucial as children read: to both form expectations about the identities of upcoming words and to confirm that what they’ve read is accurate, fitting with the meaning of the text (Ehri 2020). Context also comes into play with homonyms such as ‘bat’ where one spelling represents more than one meaning and the reader must discern which applies in this case, or with heteronyms (e.g., desert) where context helps with both meaning and pronunciation.” (page 3) [emphasis mine]

This is precisely correct. Context and meaning should never be used for the initial identification of an unknown word. But to form expectations, or to confirm a decoding? Absolutely.

Summing up: The new Serravallo:

  • tosses out all forms of word-guessing

  • breaks with Fountas & Pinnell leveling as an organizing principle for phonics

  • recommends decodables over “patterned” books for beginners

  • situates context and meaning where they have always belonged

The loud gulping sounds you hear are emanating from all those Balanced Literacy schools in your neighborhood. I hope Jen’s followers take notice of all these changes. If they do, Serravallo will have gone some distance in repairing the damage she wrought through her original Chapter 3.

Serravallo’s turn-around is off to a wonderful beginning. If, going forward, she continues preaching the above gospel in workshops she leads, and in books she writes, it will become clear her conversion is genuine.

The Dubious

The reader will notice that, so far, I’ve only discussed one (of 30) new “strategies.” I’ve no intention of discussing the other 29 in detail. Rather, I will state what they are, and leave it to readers to judge for themselves their utility. Having read them in detail, what I can say is this: I believe the new Chapter 3 strategies are, largely, superfluous.

What does it mean to say “reading strategies” (plural), when all guessing strategies are off the table, and the only reading strategy remaining for the beginner is decoding? What is the purpose of these 30 strategies? Here’s what Jen says:

“These new strategies are not intended to be a phonics curriculum, and they could never be a replacement for one. Instead, they are meant to help children apply and transfer what they learn from your systematic, explicit phonics and phonological awareness instruction to connected text reading.” (page v)

So the new Chapter 3 assumes the teacher already has, and is effectively using, a “systematic, explicit phonics and phonological awareness” program. Such a program would not, of course, teach any of the guessing strategies Serravallo now condemns. It would teach decoding as the only strategy for word identification. But for how many Balanced Literacy teachers is this assumption true? Because if it’s not true, Serravallo’s Chapter 3 won’t be helpful. (“These new strategies are not intended to be a phonics curriculum, and they could never be a replacement for one.”)

If the assumption is true for a particular teacher, how likely is it that teacher would need reminders from Serravallo to say any of the following to her children? [I use some paraphrasing in what follows, but only to make clearer what Jen is saying in each strategy.]

Keep Your Eyes on the Word and Try. (Strategy 3.2)

Don’t Attach “uh” to Consonant Sounds. (Strategy 3.3)

Blend Letter Sounds, not Letter Names. (Strategy 3.10)

Blend Using All the Letters. (Strategy 3.7)

“Use a Finger to Point at the Word.” (Strategies 3.4, 3.5, 3.6, 3.9, 3.14 are all variations of this.)

Apply Phonics to Your Reading. (3.11)

Try a Soft C or G instead of a Hard C or G. (3.12)

If You’re Decoding is Slow, Re-Read the Sentence. (3.8)

Strategy 3.15 incorrectly advises teachers to have students find consonant blends (like ST, BR) on a chart, and then use an anchor word from the chart to figure out the sound of the blend. See Jen's example to the left.

Watch Out for Vowel Influencers, Like Silent E at Word’s End. (3.17)

Think About What You Know When You Spot Two Vowels Together. (3.19)

IGH, OUGH, AUGH, and EIGH Make One Sound. (3.20)

Write It First, Then Try to Read It. (3.21)

Use a Different Strategy. (3.22) [This seems to be a leftover from when Serravallo encouraged guessing strategies. Everything she mentions here is simply blending.]

If Necessary, Ask for a Decoded Word’s Meaning. (3.23)

Strategy 3.16 is faulty too: “When you come to a word you don’t recognize, one strategy is to try, try, and try the word again, using different sounds for the vowels in the word.” No competent teacher of phonics should suggest a beginner cycle through all the possible sounds of O. In Jen's example to the right, much is missing: OO like in GOOD, OI like in JOIN, OW like in COW, OY like in BOY, OR like in FOR.

Remember That Each Syllable Must Have a Vowel. (3.24)

Look for Prefixes and Suffixes. (3.25)

Place the Stress on One Syllable, Then Try Stressing the Other. (3.26)

Two Ways to Blend. (3.28). In Jen's example to the left, neither is correct. A child in Ehri's full alphabetic stage would blend letter-by-letter. A child in Ehri's consolidated phase would blend by chunks this way: PER-PLEX-ING. "PL" is not a thing. What would it's sound be? PLEH? PLAH? PLUH?

Consonant Digraphs (SH, CH, TH) Make One Sound. (3.13)

Come Up With an Attack Plan. (3.27) [Note: children will naturally stop decoding letter-by-letter as they transition to Ehri’s Consolidated Phase.]

Blend Across a Hyphen. (3.29)

Try a Schwa. (3.18)

Watch Out for Three Vowels Together. (3.30) [Serravallo’s examples? TABLEAU, HILARIOUS, SILHOUETTE.]

For a teacher not already using a solid, systematic phonics program to teach decoding, without any word-guessing, these strategies are certainly inadequate – by Jen’s own admission. The teacher who is using such a program is likely to judge each of these suggested strategies as either “common sense,” “silly,” or “wrong.”

Serravallo would do well to simply delete Chapter 3 from the new print version of her book – whenever that comes out. Her conversion to the “Science of Reading,” a science which has always deplored word-guessing, makes Chapter 3 unnecessary. When decoding is the only strategy for the beginner, even the title of her best-seller, The Reading Strategies Book, is problematic.

Someone other than myself will have to review Chapters 4-13. The topics covered there (comprehension, genre, fluency) are not my main area of interest: beginning reading instruction. Still, that leaves Chapters 1 and 2. These chapters could easily be deleted as well.

The main topic in Chapter 2 is “stamina.” If a child can’t yet read, or if he can only look at “patterned” books and guess from pictures, it’s hard to imagine how he could possibly build stamina from strategies like “Prime Yourself With Prior Knowledge,” “Pick a Perfect Reading Spot,” or “Fix the Fuzziness.” Teach that child, correctly, how to read, and lack of stamina won’t be a problem.

Chapter 1 is replete with unnecessary “strategies” that serve only to waste a significant part of first year instruction, and to keep “emergent readers” at the emergent level. Grade K teachers should get on with it, cut to the chase, and teach actual decoding skills from Day 1 of instruction, that is to say, letter-sound correspondences and the skill of blending. Reading is too important a skill to waste time on strategies like “Keep in Mind What Repeats,” “Talk Like An Expert,” “If You Don’t Know, Guess,” and “Linger Finger.”

The new book, containing only Chapters 4-13, would have to drop the sub title as well. Whatever else this book is, it's certainly not the “Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers.”

For the new primary title, I suggest Strategies for Reading Fiction and Nonfiction.

Now retired, Stephen Parker is a lifelong teacher of reading and mathematics. His FREE books for reading teachers and parents can be found here. These are stand-alone books that are intended to be a phonics curriculum. They can be used by anyone to teach a child, or an illiterate adult, how to read.

Stephen Parker

June, 2021

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