Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention

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A few people have asked me what I think of Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention, as this program seems to now be widely used in my local schools.

I haven’t used it myself, but had a brief browse through some of its readers for absolute beginners the other day, and here’s what I found:

Reading by memorising and picture-guessing

Book 1 from Level A of Leveled Literacy Intervention is called “Waking up”.

This blog post originally included photos of some of the pages in this book, but the publisher wrote to me on 2 April 2015 asking me to take both text and pictures down for copyright reasons. Without them, it will be a little harder to make sense of this blog post, but I will paraphrase the text and you can imagine the pictures:

The (male hen) wakes up. (Rooster noise)

The phoneme-grapheme correspondences (PGCs) on this page are as follows:

  • One-letter-equals-one-sound: e, r, s, t, w, k, u, p, c, o, a, d.
  • Two letters equal one sound: th, oo, er, a…e, ck, le.

So just on page 1 of book 1, level A, there are 18 phoneme-grapheme correspondences! Far, far too many for beginners and strugglers.

Not only are there too many PGCs, but there is some serious spelling complexity in this book:

  • the letter “t” is a stand-alone spelling in “rooster” and part of the digraph “th” in “the”,
  • the letter “a” as part of the “long” vowel spelling “a…e” in “wakes”, but represents a different sound in “a-doodle”,
  • The letter “e” is typically (unfortunately for children) pronounced “uh” in the word “the”, and it’s also part of the “er” spelling in “rooster”, the “a…e” spelling in “wakes” and the “le” spelling in “doodle”,
  • the letter “o” is used as a one-letter spelling in “cock” but also part of a digraph in “rooster” and “doodle-doo”.

The next page goes like this:

The (female cattle) wakes up. (Cow noise).

The third page goes:

The (swine) wakes up. (pig noise).

By now we are up to 24 PGCs:

  • One-letter-equals-one-sound: e, r, s, t, w, k, u, p, c, o, a, d, m, i, g, n.
  • Two letters equal one sound: th, oo, er, a…e, ck, le, ow, oi.

Beginners can only realistically “read” this book by memorising the format, and substituting words to match the pictures. There is far too much spelling complexity for them to be expected to sound words out.

The next pages contain pictures of a horse, a turkey, a sheep, a duck and a chick. No prizes for guessing the text, you can probably “read” the rest of this book even if you’ve never seen it.

There are a total of 42 phoneme-grapheme correspondences in this book. Why that doesn’t make teachers deem it quite unsuitable for beginners is beyond me.

Many of these PGCs are extremely complex/difficult, such as the four-letter spelling “eigh” in “neigh”, different pronunciations of “a” in “waking” and “quack”, and unusual spellings like the “aa” in “baa”. There are also consonant blends and two-syllable words.

OK, maybe the first book is a bad example. Let’s have a look at the next few books.

Title: Frog food. Repetitive text: I like bugs on pancakes. I like bugs on popcorn… soup…bread…pizza…salad…cake…I like bugs.

This book adds 11 PGCs not seen in the previous book, bringing us up to 53 PGCs just in the first two books in the series.

Title: The new puppy. Repetitive text: I got a little dish…blanket…collar….bed…toy…brush…bone…puppy.

Another 8 PGCs, so we’re now up to 61.

Title: Friends. Repetitive text: Orson is a big dog. Taco is a little dog. Orson has a big collar. Taco has a little collar….bone…ball…bark…bowl…bed…friend.

An additional 5 PGCs, so the absolute beginner has now been exposed to 66 in total. If they haven’t learnt a single one of them properly, nobody should be surprised.

Title: Sam and Papa. Repetitive text: I like to read books with my Papa…eat lunch…play ball…draw pictures…go shopping…watch TV…make cookies…I love my Papa! And my Papa loves me!

This book adds a further 13 PGCs, giving a tally of 79 PGCs just in the first five books in the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention box.

Sigh. At that point I gave up, and figured I had better things to do with my time than look at books that I would never in a million years use or recommend. They don’t even attempt an interesting narrative, the pictures are nice but the repetitive text seems dull to me.

Giving these books to beginners and strugglers might be a way of teaching reading-like behaviour, but is not teaching actual reading.

Discussion among professionals

I’m a member of the US-based listserve Spell-Talk, where I learn a lot of interesting things about spelling and literacy generally, from all kinds of experts including people with relevant PhDs, professorships and decades of experience.

A few months ago there was some discussion on this listserve of Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention, and here’s my summary of what was said, which probably doesn’t qualify as much more than professional gossip, but is still interesting, and permitted in the blogosphere:

Leveled Literacy Intervention is based on the same 1970s theory of reading as Reading Recovery. There are now many more effective programs that are consistent with current models of reading. The logic/science behind LLI’s reading levels is not obvious.

Claims that Leveled Literacy Intervention is effective are based on research done by its publisher, but the data are not particularly impressive or robust. Everything teachers do has an effect. What’s interesting from a research point of view is how large the effect of an intervention is. Improvements attributed to Leveled Literacy Intervention identified in Running Records (subjective and open to bias) were not identified by more objective assessment.

Leveled Literacy Intervention sessions include some work on decoding and encoding words, perhaps 5-10 minutes per half-hour session, which makes teachers who are unused to phonics think it includes a lot of phonics. This may be because they’ve never seen or used a really excellent synthetic phonics program.

Phonics skills learnt in word study activities in Leveled Literacy Intervention are not then practiced/reinforced in reading activities. Instead, when reading, children are given books containing few/none of the patterns that have just been learnt, and encouraged to use multiple cues and guessing, as per traditional Whole Language practice.

US Psychologist Dr Steve Dykstra summarised this approach thus: “It’s like teaching children a little bit about a healthy diet, then serving twinkies and french fries for lunch.  It is true you taught them something about a healthy diet. It is true.”

After teachers use Leveled Literacy Intervention for a while, they reportedly start to independently query why the skills taught in the phonics part of the program seem to exist in isolation from the rest of the program, and aren’t reinforced in the reading part of the program.

Better books for beginners

The first book of the Little Learners Love Literacy series (also available as apps) contains only six PGCs: s, a, m, p, i, t, with no digraphs, no spelling overlaps and no words longer than three sounds. This is quite hard enough for absolute beginners.

If you don’t believe me, learn this code:

sam pip tim codeNow scroll the above decoder off the screen and read the text from the first Little Learners book written in this code:

sam pip tim textEasy, huh? Want to add another dozen PGCs, including two, three or four-letter spellings and spellings that are used for more than one sound, into the mix? I thought not.

The first Sounds~Write books contain five PGCs: a, i, m, s, t. The first Flyleaf book  contains six PGCs: I, a, m, s, y, e. The first Beginning Reading Instruction reader (on the iPad called “Reading for all learners“) has five: I, s, ee, a, m. The first Dandelion Launchers book (also available as iBooks) has five: s, a, t, i, m.

These are my idea of suitable books for four and five-year-olds having their first go at reading a book for themselves. Their schemes gradually and systematically introduce more PGCs until children have enough word attack to start to be able to successfully decode other books and printed information, and build solid mental images of printed words.

As well as reading such little books, very young children should work at tracing and copying letters and words, filling gaps in words, and reading, building and writing little, two and three-sound words in a variety of activities, then gradually making the words longer and the spellings more complex. Reading and spelling should be taught as the reverse of each other.

While children are learning to encode and decode in this way, and until they can read quality children’s literature themselves, adults should read it to them.

There’s no need to give beginners books that are far too hard for them, and which encourage them to think that reading is accomplished by memorising and guessing.

2018 update:  Approaches to reading instruction supported by Learning Difficulties Australia can be found here.

2019 update: Please watch this video from minute 52.33 for an analysis of the “gold standard” research on Leveled Literacy Intervention:


39 responses to “Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention”

  1. Thanks to Susan Godsland for flagging up your excellent review, Alison.

    I’ve now alerted others to it via Twitter – with the explanation that this is why we promote cumulative, decodable books for beginners to read independently – and not these kinds of books which are far more challenging than their authors and publishers may realise.


    • alison says:

      Thanks Debbie, and thanks Susan! I’m not going to win any popularity contests in schools with that blog post, but watching children being set up to fail breaks my heart, as I’m sure it breaks yours. All the best, Alison

  2. John Walker says:

    Hi Alison and thanks for such a clear and incisive look into the world of ‘levelled readers’.
    I have to declare an interest in this subject because as the publisher of Sounds-Write books I would obviously have to agree with the rationale behind how our books are structured. Having said that, what you have written makes such obvious sense and speaks for itself. I did like Steve Dykstra’s analogy, by the way.
    We are often contacted here in UK and asked about ‘levelled readers’. Superficially, they look great: colourful and exciting illustrations, interesting characters, and an extended vocabulary. The problem is that, in the words of one of the teachers attending a Sounds-Write course a few years ago, they’re just too difficult to for children to read. They also promote all the wrong strategies: guessing from the illustrations, trying to use grammatical clues, repetition of key words in the text, guessing, and so on. In addition, the only way in which one could justify calling these types of reading schemes ‘levelled’ is that the first ‘level’ will usually contain one sentence per page, followed in the next level by books containing two sentences, and so on. So, progressively more text but with no concessions to the complexity of the code!
    What also got me excited about your post was how you substituted alternative symbols for the conventional orthographic ones we have become accustomed to use. I’ve been using made-up symbols to demonstrate on courses just how much cognitive work young children have to do when they are first introduced to the English alphabet code. It really shocks teachers, who have so much prior learning behind them, into realising just exactly how much teaching and learning has to go into this learning to read and spell business. I’ll write a blog posting on this subject later today. So, thanks for the prompt and for your unfailingly interesting and insightful blog!

  3. Jennie says:

    LLI’s Teacher’s Guide is exactly the same mixed-methods approach as F&P’s standard Guided Reading. I jotted down a few notes when I looked through it last year:
    1. The “phonics” that F&P refer to is word-family/onset-rhyme phonics. There is nothing even approaching a synthetic phonics approach. But even the onset-rhyme plays but a tiny role.
    2. Five minutes (yes, 5) of phonics is recommended for strugglers.
    3. There is no mention or indication of the alphabetic code.
    4. “You want readers to have and use many ways to solve or analyze words.”
    5. “Sometimes another word will help the children remember a new word”; the example given is: “the” and “then”, but no mention is made that the similarity is /th/ and its spelling.
    6. The “Consonant Cluster” chart is incorrect. It includes digraphs in this chart.
    7. There is no clear instruction on teaching spelling.
    8. No effective method of teaching high-frequency words.
    9. The word work is visual only, or by letter-names.
    10. The magnet letters are not phoneme-based (no digraphs, e.g.).
    11. As the Spelfabet blog so clearly demonstrated, the texts for beginning readers are of the predictive/repetitive-text variety.
    12. It is closely related to Reading Recovery. (Fountas and Pinnell cited Marie Clay for well over 50% of the text in one of their previous books, Guided Reading.)
    While I am at it, here are some of my “favorite” quotations for F&P’s Guided Reading:
    “Controlling the words helped him begin to monitor his own reading.”
    “If children do not know letters, there is no need to delay their reading of text.”
    “Meaning cues come from children’s life experiences. Meaning is represented in their memories and in the language they use to talk about that meaning. This means that reading has to ‘make sense’.”
    “The instruction may involve brief detours to focus children’s attention on detail, but the construction of meaning overrides.”

    It saddens me to see that F&P’s work has spread from the U.S. to Australia.

  4. Teachers’ and parents’ mindset and understanding about such books as these are fundamentally important.

    Systematic Synthetic Phonics promoters are very happy for children to be taught phonics ‘within a literacy-rich and literature-rich environment’ – but the key point is that we do not ask children, or expect children, to read books with alphabetic code beyond their knowledge to read these types of books INDEPENDENTLY.

    This ‘difference’ in ‘understanding’ is vital.

    Even in England where SSP teaching principles have been promoted for several years, teachers do not share this understanding, or agree with this understanding.

  5. L Belinda Hill says:

    Thank you for a fabulous article, and thank you to DD-AR for posting it on Facebook. I am a Certified Barton Tutor and I am seeing tremendous results with the kids I work with. The schools in my area are insisting on using Read Well. Do you have any thoughts/information on ReadWell?

    • alison says:

      Hi Belinda, I’m not familiar with Readwell and I can’t find any links to research on its effectiveness, or information on its theoretical basis, on the website. If you could tell me where to find this, that would be much appreciated. Alison

  6. […] posts about CCSS, found ways to use SRSD in Math, also discovered additional evidence for why LLI is a terrible intervention to use with struggling readers, and much […]

  7. Erin says:

    Thank you! My daughter is dyslexic and I cannot tell you how frustrated she is trying to find books to read at our public library. It is for this very reason. Even Level 1 readers contain phonemes she hasn’t learned and seem to follow no pattern whatsoever. I finally approached the library director and informed her that these leveled readers are not appropriate for struggling readers or those like my daughter, who are using an Orton Gillingham tutoring program. Thanks for the suggestions for some better options. I will be passing them on to the library director!

    • alison says:

      Hi Erin, one of my jobs for Learning Difficulties Australia is organising a letter to all public libraries in my state (and if it works well, across the country) asking them to stock decodable books and recommending a list of these books. I have drafted the letter but not checked it with our new President or sent it yet, but your comment reminds me that I must get this finished over the summer holidays, as it’s crazy that public libraries don’t have a decent range of books suitable for beginners. Thanks for the reminder! Alison

    • Lora says:

      So is it accepted that LLI conflicts with the instruction of OG if given together?

      • alison says:

        Hi Erin, I think you are asking whether Leveled Literacy Intervention by Fountas and Pinnell and Orton-Gillingham based approaches conflict if taught together, and I’m not sure I can give you a straight “yes” or “no” answer, as I don’t use either approach, but their logic doesn’t seem to me very compatible, at least in the early stages. LLI seems to me to be a predominantly Whole Language approach, with little emphasis on phonics, and OG obviously has a focus on phonics. So if one teacher is using LLI and encouraging a child to look at pictures and guess words, and another teacher is teaching the child to sound out words and not guess from pictures, that child will probably be mighty confused, and of course the guessing (a strategy used only by weak readers) undermines the sounding-out all beginners must learn to do if they are to be strong readers.

  8. Christine Calabrese says:

    Thank you for this analysis of this faulty reading program. It amazes me, though that these two ladies have mesmerized the entire educational community with their razzle-dazzle nonsense. Really, they are quite the sales ladies and have done a great job of marketing their trash to every single school district in the U.S.A.

    • alison says:

      Yes, Christine, the take-up of LLL is an object (or perhaps more accurately, abject) lesson in the importance of good marketing, from which synthetic phonics advocates can and must learn.

  9. Tori Whaley says:

    This is a great, spot on review of their intervention!  What's worse, their assessment system is used to identify students in need of intervention in many US schools.  Bright dyslexic kids can whiz through these repetitive books and don't begin to appear "off level" till their 2nd or 3rd year, or even later!  


    Worst of all, because one of the lead researchers is at Harvard, graduates of that school's education program come out believing in and prescribing this approach!  

  10. Concerned Mom says:

    Thank you, thank you! As a mom of a severely dyslexic child, I am very aware of the drawbacks of utilizing these readers for either reading and/or assessment. For a child with decoding and fluency challenges, these readers cause extreme frustration, since the child struggles to get through each page. They also take a hit to their self esteem, since they "should" be able to read them — at least according to the subjective graded level of the reader. There is a real need for quality, Orton Gillingham based readers for older students (middle school and high school).  I also long for the day when the Fountas & Pinnell Asssessment scores are not considered the standard. How about (as a wonderful neurologist once suggested to me) we test for the student's strengths and provide them with materials truly developed to systematically improve their mastery? 

    • alison says:

      Yes, I don’t know a lot about the F&P early literacy assessment except that it comes out of the same repetitive look-and-the-picture-and-guess mindset as the readers, so it doesn’t pick up kids with weak Phonemic Awareness for whom early, structured, systematic phonics teaching is essential if they are to keep up with peers. The President of Learning Difficulties Australia, Jan Roberts, has written to all public library acquisitions managers in this state asking them to stock decodable readers, and providing a suggested list of titles, so in the holidays I will do some follow-up phone calls to see if they have done so, and perhaps if that works we will ask the libraries in other states. I’ve also been encouraging the parents of my clients to ask their local libraries for these books. At least if they are in public libraries, parents and kids can access them, even if their school doesn’t have any.

      • Christine Calabrese says:

        This is an excellent idea! I am including a link of the SSR&W program which is extremely popular here in the USA amongst the homeschoolers. Many school teachers love it as well. Take a look at the comments of the parents:

        I am also giving you a link to the readers:

      • Donna says:

        I love the idea of reaching out to public libraries to stock decodable readers Thank you!

      • Andriana says:

        Hi Alison, I am just reading this article and this comment now. Did you end up calling Jan Roberts from LDA to follow up about getting decodable books in public libraries? If so, how did you go?
        I am in Victoria and would be very interested in seeing some decodable books in our libraries 🙂



        • alison says:

          Hi Andriana, 2014 seems like a lifetime ago, but I think I did ask Jan to chase up public libraries, and at least the ones in my area are now stocking a few decodable books, I’ve spent time with kids’ librarians from Yarra, Darebin and Melbourne public libraries and Moreland also has at least some Little Learners Love Literacy books. I think if you ask your local library to get some in and show them examples, most kids’ librarians are interested and keen to help. All the best, Alison

  11. […] Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention | Spelfabet. […]

  12. […] Recommending Interventions for students that are ineffective, even detrimental (i.e. LLI) […]

  13. Linda says:

    Try High Noon's Sound Out Chapter Books for older students and go to Educator's Publishing Service and Flyleaf Publishing for younger students. Decodable text is essential for beginner dyslexic readers.


    • alison says:

      Hi Linda, yes, I agree, decodable text is essential and I don’t know why it’s not used with all beginners as well as strugglers. It just makes sense to strip out the complexity and learn a few patterns at a time. I use and love the Sound Out Chapter books and workbooks, their new app, and the Flyleaf books, but I didn’t know about Educators Publishing Service. Looking it up now, thanks so much!

  14. Christine Calabrese says:


              Unfortunately, The F&P Leveled Assessments have taken hold here in the USA and especially in NYC.  Teachers ask "What level is your student on?" and teachers are measured by the advancement of their students on these levels.  This assessment does NOT measure word attack sklls and in fact it is sight word, picture clue based. The books advance in such a haphazard manner that no one would know what a "level" means. Suggestions for a better measure of reading ability would be the Gates MacGinitie Reading Assessment or or the BEAR (Basic Early Assessment of Reading… In fact Riverside Publishing has a few good tests. 

     Unfortunately however, here in the USA, this "Leveled"  measurement has taken hold of most early childhood assessments. This is a direct product of the Whole Language, Reading Recovery, nonsense and I, personally, think it's an easy way for many for remain stuck in their paradigms.


  15. BFWOBS says:

    Can I ask what was the approximate size of the image that you placed here (before the publisher demanded it be taken down)?

    Most publishers are happy with **small** images and extracts being put on blogs as long as they are credited and links are provided, even though this might technically infringe copyright, because blog discussion provides free marketing and promotion. Looks to me like the company is trying to shut down critical discussion of their product. Bit sad, really, if that is the case.

    • alison says:

      Hi, it was a photo of the cover of one of their books, I’m not sure what size it was, but I also had photos of the inside pages of the book in the post. I thought that since the book is part of the Leveled Literacy Intervention reading scheme, it was OK to put photos of a sample book on my blog. But they told me to take all the images down. As I recall it was shortly after I spoke to the Pearson people here who market the Leveled Literacy Intervention program, and told them that their program is predominantly a Whole Language one and as such not consistent with the best evidence about how children learn to read. I asked them to instead market Bug Phonics, which is a program in their UK catalogue, one of the authors is Rhona Johnson who did the Clackmannanshire study. It’s only possible to buy the Bug Phonics books in Australia, not the whole program, I am not sure why, I guess the program they are heavily marketing is Leveled Literacy Intervention, and if people started using Bug Phonics they would soon find it is much more effective and stop buying Leveled Literacy Intervention.

  16. Emily says:

    Your article mentions the publisher did the ‘research’ but I was wondering if there was any recent research or evidence?

    Also, which readers do you recommend for libraries? Id love to get some books in my library.

  17. steve says:

    Hi Alison

    Do you know much about Multilit

    Many thanks – Steve

    • alison says:

      Hi Steve, I haven’t used Multilit but I know it is an evidence-based program for teaching catch-up readers that’s quite effective, but it doesn’t really help with spelling, there are a lot of kids who have done it who now read quite well but they still can’t spell. So then they need spelling intervention. Ideally the two are integrated in teaching and boost each other. Hope that helps. Alison

  18. Debbie says:

    Alison – I’ve now added your important post to this thread at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction forum, ‘Is there a role for predictable texts in beginning reading instruction?’:

  19. I couldn’t agree with you more! I just attended a professional development session on it. I brought up every single thing you mentioned in your article. Why would anyone use this substandard program when there are incredible programs available like Explode the Code?

  20. […] numerous studies highlight the lack of efficacy of build-in assessments in programs such as Fountas and Pinnell, Reading Recovery, as well as the utility of utilizing Running Records, for reading […]

  21. James Lemondine says:

    Thanks Alison. I also watched the video link.

    So I’ve enrolled my prep child in a local catholic school. The annual report boasts about the LLI and how preps are learning their 100 sight words and first letter decoding strategies as well as picture cue strategies. I am worried. I am an ed psych. How do u suggest i talk to the school about my concerns?

    • alison says:

      Dear James, I’m not sure I am the best person to give you advice on how to tactfully raise your concerns with your child’s school! I sometimes get accused of teacher-bashing when I point out the gap between research and practice in teaching early reading and spelling. Catholic schools seem to sometimes pay scant attention to whether a program has proper evidence behind it or not, for example there are Catholic schools in Melbourne using the Arrowsmith approach, for which I am not aware of a single shred of peer-reviewed evidence, despite it having had a research program spanning almost two decades. However, I think the advice in this blog post is well worth taking seriously The Frameworks Institute in the US has a lot of useful information about how people can be persuaded, and I’m sure as a psychologist you are aware of the research on confirmation bias showing that facts are not what persuade people, see for example Perhaps a fairly open, inquiring approach, probing why they use LLI, seeking information about its evidence base and building rapport prior to raising your concerns and getting specific about why you have them? I hope that’s helpful, and good luck with it! Alison

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