The Emperor’s New Clothes: There’s No Magic Answer in Reading

Lets face it in education many of us are waiting for some fairy reading tales to come true. For instance, we may be hoping to meet Prince Charming and live in his magnificent castle. However, nobody wants to walk down the street without clothes, even in our nightmares. I contend that most commercial reading programs are much like the emperor’s clothes. School officials and politicians believe that the editors of mandated core reading programs are able to sew magical clothing, reading curricula guaranteed to fix reading education. Much like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, I am writing this article to let you know that these reading materials have no clothes, leaving teachers and students naked.

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Early Literacy

Unfortunately, some fast-talking tailors have now invaded preschool and convinced many educators that their preschool reading curriculum is spun with magical thread. One such program is Starfall Pre-K, published by Starfall Education. When I first came across the Starfall castle, I believed it was something out of a fairy tale. At last, I found publishers who seem to understand how to promote early literacy and recognize that phonemic awareness develops along a continuum. When I opened the castle door, I immediately found the Starfall Pre- K standards and benchmarks, which are set out appropriately as follows: distinguishes individual words within spoken phrases or sentences, identifies spoken words as same or different, combines words to make a compound word, deletes a word from a compound word, counts syllables, deletes a syllable from a word, combines onset and rime to form a familiar one-syllable word with and without pictorial support, identifies rhyming words, discriminates rhyming words, listens for beginning sound, isolates ending sound and  blends three phonemes. With such an impressive entrance, one might think that these publishers haven’t used magic thread at all, but fabric from which real clothing is sewn. In this case, my first impression was far from accurate.

The sequence of instruction is quite different from the benchmarks initially described. Students are first asked to segment words into syllables and are provided with two whole days of instruction. I use the term instruction very liberally. The presentation of the next three lessons reveals a naked emperor. Students are first asked to identify the phoneme /b/ in the initial position of words, then segment compound words into separate words, finally blend onsets and rimes. With all this instruction surely students are ready for the next lesson, identifying /b/ in the final position of words.

This presentation of phonological awareness lessons is problematic on two levels. First, the expectation that all students are phonemically aware of initial sounds when instruction begins is unrealistic. Second, for students who are already phonemically aware, the lessons on syllable and word awareness are redundant. Why would preschoolers need to practice identifying syllables in words or words in sentences if they are already aware of initial phonemes? All students are hindered by one of the two dilemmas.

This fact, however, remains unnoticed by administrators and others entrenched in our educational bureaucracy. They continue to believe that commercial reading curricula are clothed in royal garb and carry magical wands capable of promoting literacy skills to whole classrooms of children in the exact same time period, following the same instructional scope and sequence. Who of us is not motivated by the perseverance of the tortoise who slowly, but surely, finishes the race before the hare? Unfortunately, teachers shackled by a lockstep reading program are not able to set the pace for students struggling to complete the race.

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My principal is among the many educators blinded by the emperor’s clothes. He must think of me as the evil stepmother who tries to stop Cinderella from wearing the glass slipper since I discourage teachers from blindly following any commercial reading program. I spoil the fairy tale happy ending by convincing teachers that they are not princesses capable of banishing reading difficulties from their kingdoms. One last fairy tale comes to my mind. I compare my principal to the frog in the fairy tale The Princess and the Frog. I have tried to turn him into a prince with no luck. He remains a frog holding on to the illusion that our mandated reading materials are woven with golden thread and are able to prevent preschoolers from developing future reading difficulties. He continues to try to force me to use such an ineffective reading program. I use the word try deliberately. I refuse to teach without clothes and allow my students to leave preschool naked.

I have an addendum to this article, the purpose of which is to provide you with clothing to store in your early literacy closet and wear when needed. It is not another phonological awareness curriculum. Commercial reading programs are replete with lessons, of questionable effectiveness. Hopefully, this information will help give you the courage to tell others that the emperor has no clothes. I’ve created the lessons and materials described in this addendum, and will gladly share them. Just e-mail me at


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  1. @mergeeducation January 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    Lisa, thank you for your excellent eyesight! I'd guess this is nothing new for you, this position you're in as the kid who calls out the emperor's nakedness – it sure has given you grit. I recognize it because I'm also one (it sometimes makes living in this culture difficult, doesn't it?). My husband and I developed an evaluation software for afterschool programs coming from that position because the available evaluation and assessment tools are simply not intelligent.

    In fact, the standards set by people who have never spent any time in the field (whatever field that is, school day, afterschool, etc.) are by and large as flimsy as the materials they create to satisfy them. I applaud you for standing strong like that and even offering your materials free of charge … and hope the day will come when you'll be able to make a good living from them because that's the kind of fresh air this country needs.

    • Dr. Lisa Guidry February 19, 2013 at 9:35 am - Reply

      I've been thinking about your comments. I'm interested in developing a software program to promote phonemic awareness. I submitted a grant proposal while I was an assistant professor at University of Louisiana, but wasn't approved for funding. Perhaps we could work together. Please contact me if you are interested –

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