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Clearing Up Misconceptions About the "Science of Reading"
Advocates for the Science of Reading need to expand their view of the science and push for curricula that incorporate it.
Opponents and even advocates of the “science of reading” often misunderstand what kind of instruction it supports. Advocates need to take a wider view of the science—and push for adopting curricula that incorporate it.
If you follow news about education, you might have gotten the impression that the dispute over reading instruction is between one camp that opposes all phonics instruction and another that wants “more” phonics. But that oversimplifies the positions on both sides.
Everyone agrees that some children need intensive phonics instruction to become fluent readers. And many teachers in the “anti-phonics” camp believe they are teaching phonics, to all students.
That camp is generally referred to as “Balanced Literacy.” It’s the dominant approach, with 68% of reading teachers saying it was the one they subscribed to in a 2020 survey conducted by Education Week.
Balanced Literacy advocates maintain that only a small percentage of children need systematic phonics instruction—and that too much “drilling” in phonics will kill students’ love of reading, which needs to be fostered through exposure to good children’s literature. In that 2020 survey, only 22% of teachers said phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically.
They may feel phonics instruction is best done as an issue arises—for example, if a child is having trouble reading a particular word. At the same time, teachers routinely ask kids to read books with a lot of phonics patterns they haven’t yet learned, requiring them to guess at words they don’t know. And teachers have been trained to encourage kids to guess, using pictures or context. In the survey, 75% of teachers say they use that approach, often called “three-cuing.”
The other side of the debate is sometimes labeled the “Science of Reading,” although more recently the term “Structured Literacy” has come into use. Whatever you call them (and for shorthand purposes, I’m going to use “SoR”), this group has pointed out that a large body of research indicates that—whether it looks like it or not—all children learn to read by learning to sound out words. For adults, it may feel like we’re using clues from context to guess at words we don’t know—and sometimes we are. But that’s not how anyone actually learns to read.
One problem with encouraging kids to guess is that it’s easier than sounding words out, so a lot of kids end up not getting the phonics practice they need. It can look like the “guessing” system is working, because many kids will figure out how to sound out words no matter what method is used. But that doesn’t mean they’re learning to read through guessing.
SoR advocates aren’t necessarily asking for “more” phonics, but they are asking for more effective phonics instruction. They argue it should proceed systematically, ideally in a sequence determined by a curriculum. Children who are still learning phonics patterns should be asked to read books that consist mostly of words whose patterns they’ve already been taught.
SoR proponents estimate that something like 50 to 60% of all children need this kind of phonics instruction to become fluent decoders, and they argue that kids who don’t need it won’t be hurt by it. It can be hard to tell which children need it and which don’t, they say, so we might as well use it with all of them.
Confusion About What SoR Stands For
As you can probably tell, I agree with the arguments of the SoR camp, although I hope I’ve characterized Balanced Literacy fairly. But I also believe that if SoR advocates present their arguments in a different way, it might clear up confusion and defuse some of the opposition.
An example of this kind of confusion is a recent column by three professors of education (two of them professors emeritus). The piece, which appeared in Valerie Strauss’s blog in the Washington Post, is titled “On the latest obsession with phonics.”
Some of the arguments made by the authors seem disingenuous. They claim, for example, that there’s actually no “reading crisis” in the U.S.—the premise for policy initiatives that are now sweeping the country. To make that argument, they use data from national reading comprehension tests in a misleading way. And they dismiss the “science of reading” as though it were entirely based on “esoteric cognitive and neurological research,” ignoring the many rigorous experimental studies of actual reading instruction showing that systematic phonics works best.
Some of their arguments, however, appear to stem from a misunderstanding of what SoR proponents are arguing for—and what the scientific evidence supports. The professors imply, for example, that SoR advocates want phonics instruction to be the “dominant” or even sole component in a reading program. They claim that in the early 2000s, under a federal program called Reading First that promoted evidence-based reading instruction, teachers were trained to “deliver ‘scientific’ reading instruction that included a numbing 1.5 to 3 hours of phonics instruction each day.”
Maybe that actually happened, but I’ve never heard a scientist or an SoR advocate push for spending that amount of time on phonics. Rather, I’ve heard recommendations that students get 20 to 30 minutes a day of phonics, and only in kindergarten through second grade.
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I’m not blaming SoR advocates for this kind of misconception among Balanced Literacy adherents. But if those advocates want to avoid or counter it, it might help if they talked more about problems with literacy instruction besides ineffective phonics instruction. And there are many—especially when it comes to reading comprehension.
The “Sole Solution” to Reading Difficulties?
One obstacle, though, is that many SoR advocates don’t seem to be aware of those problems. Most focus only on deficiencies in phonics instruction. That can lead to statements like one made by those education professors—that SoR advocates see phonics as “the sole solution to reading difficulties.”
The professors are right that it’s not—although their proposed other solutions are limited to increased funding for libraries, school nurses, and free school meals. I’m not against those things, but a far more immediate cause of reading difficulties—in addition to our failure to teach phonics effectively—is that the comprehension instruction that elementary and middle schools spend hours on every week is largely a waste of time.
If schools just improve their phonics instruction, the boost to reading achievement fades out as kids progress through grade levels. That’s because starting in the upper elementary grades, comprehension becomes more important than decoding ability.
The assumption, in Balanced Literacy and generally in reading instruction, has been that comprehension should be taught directly, as a set of isolated skills—like “making inferences.” The result is that educators approach comprehension the way science indicates they should be teaching phonics, by having students practice discrete skills until they master them.
But comprehension is much more complex than that. The evidence shows it depends far more on the reader’s level of relevant knowledge and vocabulary than on some abstract level of skill. So to boost comprehension, it’s crucial to build students’ knowledge of subjects like history and science, and the vocabulary that goes along with that knowledge.
Spreading the Word About Comprehensive Curricula
So what is the solution? First, it’s crucial to simply let educators know that the Balanced Literacy approach to reading comprehension is seriously problematic. Just as with phonics, teachers often think they’re teaching comprehension when in fact they’re not.
Second, we need to provide educators with a clear, reliable guide to what to do in the classroom—in other words, a curriculum that has the science “baked in,” as reading researcher Mark Seidenberg has said—and the training and support they need to implement it well. It’s important for educators to have some understanding of the science relating to reading—all the science, not just the part relating to decoding. But it’s unrealistic to expect them to translate that science into effective classroom practice.
So rather than just laying out the science, I would suggest that SoR advocates urge administrators and policymakers to adopt a well-designed, comprehensive literacy curriculum. That means a curriculum that covers foundational reading skills in the lower grades—or recommends a separate program that does—and systematically builds knowledge and vocabulary.
It can be hard to know which curricula are truly effective, and SoR advocates may not want to endorse any particular curriculum. But they don’t have to. They can explain the hallmarks of a good literacy curriculum, which are laid out on the website of the Knowledge Matters Campaign. That organization has also identified six effective curricula and the website describes them in detail. (I serve on the board of the parent organization of the Knowledge Matters Campaign.)
I’m not predicting that all teachers will immediately embrace this radically different kind of curriculum. There are likely to be misconceptions, skepticism, and even hostility—just as with phonics.
But I’ve spoken with many teachers who were initially skeptical of a knowledge-building curriculum and then, once they understood the need for it and tried it, came to embrace it with enthusiasm. I imagine there are many others like them—and we need to reach them without further delay. We need to spread the message that to truly solve our literacy crisis, changing our approach not just to phonics but to literacy instruction in general is our only hope.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.