The “science of reading” is a work in progress

In the past month I’ve given two talks that are the beginning of a concerted attempt to address some issues about connecting reading research and educational practice to improve literacy outcomes.

Connecting research and educational practice is essential. The ongoing effort to make this happen (which I’ve called the “science of reading movement”) is a landmark development in the history of reading pedagogy. However, it is also a work in progress. Education is a massive enterprise with numerous stakeholders whose interests are not all alike. Creating the paths to meaningful change is difficult in this environment. Course corrections may be necessary along the way.

From my perspective as a researcher, I have concerns about where these efforts are heading. In the talks I began to voice them.

This note is to say: please wait. There’s a limit to how much information can be conveyed in an hour-long talk. The talks raised issues but did not settle them. (It was also deeply unfortunate that there was no discussion after my Atlanta talk, due to problems with the conferencing tech.) There is more coming. (For one thing, I will be re-recording both talks because neither is available in intact form on-line. They will be posted here very soon.)

I know from experience that when I say anything critical about beliefs or approaches that people value, it creates discomfort. A little discomfort is OK, but panic is not. Sometimes people conclude from a talk that they’ve been doing everything wrong and want to be told what they should be doing instead. My main message is that people need to think about what they are doing and why, taking into account new information that I’m offering. It isn’t “you’re all wrong and you should immediately change what you doing.” You’re not and you shouldn’t.

Obviously not: I can’t tell you what to do in class tomorrow or in a session with a severe dyslexic. I’m a scientist, not a K-5 teacher or reading specialist. My expertise is in conducting and explaining research. I am trying to use this expertise to help improve effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of instruction.

I am very aware that it is far easier to say what’s wrong with a given approach or curriculum than to offer a replacement. I have to believe that identifying the limitations of an approach—based on research that people may not know about—will be helpful in improving instructional materials and practices.

It is a frustrating role, however. Here’s something that happened to me recently. I was approached by my local school district about sitting on a committee that was deciding which reading curriculum to adopt. I have worked with the school district before. I have been studying several of the major curricula to see how they are designed and where they agree and disagree. I have some relevant knowledge. When I gave it a little thought I realized that I wouldn’t be much help. The school system is committed to investing in a new curriculum; I would find it very hard to recommend any of the major ones. I’d rather see money spent on supporting in-service teachers, developing a cadre of well-trained coaches, providing high quality PD, adding support personnel and so on. These needs are even greater now because of the catastrophic impact of COVID. But, if you want to buy a curriculum, plus the support services, software, and other add-ons, I don’t have much to contribute. That doesn’t feel great.

I do know something about reading research, however. My concerns focus on the difficulties in making effective use of it. The science of reading movement has been enormously successful in raising awareness about the existence of basic research relevant to reading instruction. Many teachers have benefited from personal and professional development activities in the area. There is a lot of forward momentum that I am trying not to dissipate.

There also are growing pains, however. The SRM seems to be coalescing around a small number of topics, studies, and authorities. This is yielding a simplistic version of the “science of reading” that is encouraging some practices that are questionable with respect to efficacy, efficiency, and equity.

This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research in order to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.

I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.

Relying on a few studies and authorities is ill-advised for another reason. Every study has its limitations; every authority only knows so much (yes, I am including myself). The limitations create easy targets for people who aren’t sympathetic to the “science of reading.”  I’d rather identify the problem areas (with an eye towards fixing them) than leave it to them.

For some time I have been thinking about ways to communicate important, useful research findings more effectively. I’ve settled on focusing on what we know (with good confidence having weighed the relevant research), not individual studies or authorities. Margaret Goldberg and I will be giving a talk about this collaborative work at the next meeting of the SSSR.  We intend to begin rolling out this material well before then. It won’t tell people what to teach or which system to use. It will provide a set of principles or guidelines that can be used in making educational choices and designing curricula and activities.

In the meantime, what else could be done to advance the integration of research and practice? It seems pretty obvious that progress depends on collaborations between active researchers who know the science and are familiar with the educational issues, with educators who are in the schools or manage what happens there (teachers, principals, superintendents) and educators who provide pre- and in-service training (in schools of education, in for-profit and non-profit companies). What could be done to make more of this kind of collaboration happen?

Here are some things that might be tried. I have no particular expertise here or inside information about what will work.

  1. All those companies that are marketing educational materials based on the “science of reading”: ask who the scientists are on the team. Not just people with advanced degrees; I mean, people who have conducted and published basic research in serious journals. Are they actively involved in developing products or acting as advisors who lend credibility to a product?
  1. Is there a way to increase the participation of active scientists in education efforts? I don’t know—try asking. The incentives for collaborating with educators to improve materials and policies are not high. Researchers do research. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards come from significantly increasing what we know about ourselves and the world. It is hard to pry good people away from their work. And many of us have had unsuccessful experiences working in the educational-industrial-political complex. However, the COVID pandemic has demonstrated that a crisis can be highly motivating. Many serious researchers in areas such as immunology and infectious diseases have gotten deeply involved in communicating complex science, challenging misinformation, and calling out charlatans (see, e.g., @laughterinlight on TikTok). Perhaps more cognitive science researchers could be recruited if they had a better understanding of our literacy crisis and why their participation is needed.
  1. Ask philanthropies what they are doing to connect research and practice in reading and other areas of education. Many of them have topics such as education and child health as parts of their portfolios. The advocacy efforts that succeeded in the passage of legislation in many states could be directed at funding projects to join education and science in the service of increasing literacy.
  1. Contact the government agencies that fund education-related research and ask: are you funding projects that would bring educators and researchers together to develop materials, formulate guidelines, create curricula for teaching teachers or coaches, etc. Or ask your representatives in Congress.  You might start with, though there are other agencies as well.
  1. Is there a college in your area that offers degree programs for future teachers? Ask the department or school of education: do you offer courses in cognitive science as part of teacher education? Do you have full-time staff with expertise in this research who are actively involved in teacher education? Do you partner with any departments on campus where such experts are found (e.g., psychology, communicative sciences and disorders, linguistics, educational psychology). Again, if the answers aren’t satisfactory, that could suggest a focus for future advocacy activities.

I hope this is helpful and not too disruptive.  More to follow.

14 thoughts on “The “science of reading” is a work in progress

  1. Being involved with curriculum selection though would give such great insight into what practitioners have to wade through. Many of us philosophically disagree with aspects of the materials we are handed and we have to figure out how to maneuver, with what we are given, with limited time to patch the holes/improve the weaknesses, to differentiate for 25-30 kids. We as teachers/tutors/reading specialist often find ourselves choosing the best we can under the constraints we are in. I just recently had 3 teachers reach out to me, their district adopted curriculum and they don’t want to walk in blind next year. I collected a variety of resources on the curriculum and will walk through them with 3 teachers to help them next year try to patch the problems it looks like the curriculum has (3 cueing would be one, a bad kinder scope and sequence another, leveled readers would be another issue we have to sort through). No one asked me, no one cares, and if I could I would have yelled “NO!” but I live in an imperfect world and the best I can do is help 3 teachers navigate a curriculum they didn’t choose to be in either. That’s the world of a teacher, it would be nice if we could just say we have philosophical differences and walk away. We don’t. We figure out what we can do to make it better because if those of us who are informed don’t wade into the mess nothing will be done to help the 25-30 kids we are given responsibility for.

    1. Hi Jessica. As I understand it, there is the issue of trying to make productive use of existing curricula, and there is the issue of developing better materials for the future. I hesitate to generalize because there are so many teachers with different backgrounds and experiences working in a huge range of settings. I have looked closely at curricula such as Wonders. Journeys, F&P. and TCRWP (Calkins), and though they differ in many ways, they seem to share the philosophy that most decisions about what to teach and how should be left up to teachers. They provide materials that allow teachers to create instructional plans that work for them and their students. (Maybe some of these decisions are made on the district level, I’m not sure.) This can be seen as empowering teachers to control what happens in their classrooms, which sounds like a good thing. It might also be a “be careful what you wish for” situation, however. I look at the teachers’ manuals for some of these programs and wonder how they can be used in practice. The publishers’ response to the controversies about reading instruction was to provide materials that support whatever approach the teacher/school/district prefers. They provide the tools, you figure out what to do with them. It appears that people improvise in ways you describe, using some parts and ignoring others, or supplementing the curriculum with their own materials and stuff from other teachers, and by consulting reference books like “Teaching Reading Sourcebook”. Seems like an enormous time sink to me. Seems like the publishers shifted responsibility for developing a coherent, effective approach to the teachers. Also makes me wonder, how many different ways are children being taught to read? Providing tools that would make it easier for teachers to navigate the current situation could be helpful, and that is definitely on my radar. But, we also need to look ahead. What kinds of materials do teachers need, given the limits of existing curricula and the impact of COVID on education? Designing the teaching environments of the future is a job for a team that includes teachers and other people in the schools, the authorities who manage policies and budgets, and maybe, you know, some researchers.

      I wish I could be more helpful. The pot has been stirred, however, and it may be that we will transition to approaches that are more effective for both teachers and learners.

  2. Dr. Seidenberg, A step in the right direction. Thank you for additional clarification. Lots of stakeholders in education, as well as in research, are alarmed at the ‘reading crisis’ (NY Times article title this month)–and you, I, and lots of others know that this ‘crisis’ has been occurring for quite some time–obviously predating Covid. Best wishes for your success in terms of fostering the SRM in a positive direction. Best regards, Lori Josephson

  3. Thank you for taking the time to clarify these issues and offer guidance going forward. Here’s a good example of a simple (not simplistic) recommendation. I’ve just finished watching Linnea Ehri’s acceptance of the Hollis Scarborough award from AIM. At 52:00 (for about 4 minutes) she discusses research that supports integrating spelling (decoding) with meaning when teaching new vocabulary. I had originally heard this recommendation from Susan Chambre in her presentation to the Reading League two years ago. This is a great example of an instructional technique that can be incorporated into existing vocabulary instruction without necessitating the purchase of a new program. I look forward to watching this discussion develop.

  4. CKLA amplify, or just the free and excellent CKLA, Voyager Sopris including LETRS Training, and EL education. The EL education and CKLA are both free and are comprehensive. My personal favorite is CKLA, as the knowledge domain truly provides rich learning experiences in a sequential and systematic way. For teacher training Letrs is amazing.

    I’m a parent who is LETRS trained because of the reality we live in and that reality is the school my son attends teaches reading based on a theory that has been disproven, yet everyone is walking on eggshells so that teachers aren’t feeling attacked. Maybe we should think about how the child who needs correct instruction feels at school when being asked to read using methods which have been disproven. It’s difficult watching your child go through something that is just wrong. I’m confused how teachers even think this method makes logical sense. I was shocked when I saw this form of teaching happening and immediately questioned it. This did not help any, as the silly idea was explained about making meaning. I then explained my understanding of how the brain reads and was told my son could use any strategy he wanted to solve words. However, my son didn’t need multiple strategies as a beginning reader. He needed to decode so he could orthographically map the words he was decoding. If he was using strategies instead of decoding the process would take much longer and form bad habits in the process. Breaking the guessing habit was very hard to do after this started. Making meaning is important, but the first order of business should be on decoding, but this seems to be the very last strategy that is recommended.

    I think you’re work is amazing and people are beginning to listen. However, there are some schools who still don’t get it and continue to use the cueing to solve words. Our principal said that they are using heggrety in addition to the Lucy Calkins reading workshop. One negates the other.

    1. Thanks for the support. LETRS works for a lot of people and if it worked for you, great. No program of that sort is going to work equally well for everyone. I will clarify my views about LETRS very soon. My concerns focus on some of the material in Grades K-3 Unit 2, which I think are contributing (possibly inadvertently) to some ill-advised practices.

      1. Oh, you have my attention. I really want to hear more of your thoughts on LETRS in general and specifically about the “ill-advised practices” you mention above.

  5. Your references to a narrowing of focus is alarming – in the past I’ve used ineffective methodologies that have not served my students. Am I doing that again? What are the practices and topics that concern you? I understand you are reluctant to mention specific curricula, but I keep rereading your words searching for clues – Shmamplify? Shmexia? Shmoyager? Blink twice if I am OK connecting PA sounds with letter writing. Thanks for your support of teachers. Time to delve into the primary research on the nuances of air exchange rate rates. My brain hurts.

    1. Kathleen, your comment bothers me because I don’t want teachers to feel like the rug is being pulled out from under them–again. In fact, one of my concerns about the current focus of the “science of reading” is just that. We invest in advanced phonemic awareness; then it turns out to be unjustified and probably unnecessary; what is that–oops? At the same time, programs aren’t all good or all bad. It may just be that parts need fixing. Margaret Goldberg and I are going to offer some useful guidelines, as soon as we can. In the meantime, here are a couple of points. (1) Yes, linking phonemic awareness and print is a good idea. (2) There can be too much explicit instruction. The goal is reading not learning rules. (3) Need to carefully distinguish what a teacher needs to know, e.g., about the structure of words and what the student needs to know. I know what onsets and rimes are and can structure activities around those units, which affects how the words are stored in memory in beneficial ways. Doesn’t mean I have to explicitly label onsets and rimes. I need to know what phonemes are, but children need to be able to treat syllables as consisting of component sounds. (4) The goal is reading. Instruction about the parts has to be related to its impact on reading (recognizing and understanding words, and later sequences of words). I will have more to say soon. No headaches–please!!

  6. Thank you @markseidenberg

    Your caution against a simplistic version of #SoR and a narrow focus on a small number of topics, studies, and authorities should cause all to take pause. What’s should be more important than unquestionable practices with respect to efficacy, efficiency, and equity. if we really want to create schools that serve all students well, don’t we need an intellectual community the questions and pushes?

    Why the panic? We fall in love with what they do! We forget to ask what works best with respect efficacy, efficiency, and equity instead of just what works?

    People are getting worked up and it is a real struggle to debate and find the best ways to move the conversation along. Research has made a powerful case for the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction. But just how explicit do we need to be? For whom? What does research really tell us? People are not getting worked up about being explicit and systematic with phonics instruction; they are talking about exhaustive, encyclopedic phonics instruction!

    In “Reading Science and Educational Practice: Some Tenets for Teachers” you caution educators not to overextend what we know from science by labeling things that aren’t quite true. You wrote:

    “The optimal balance is somewhere between these extremes…. For many types of problems, the most efficient type of learning is what is called “semi-supervised.” It is our best account of the balance between explicit and implicit learning. For problems such as learning how to pronounce letter strings (or spell), a large amount of implicit learning combined with a smaller amount of explicit instruction seems to be optimal.”

    The idea that we do not have to teach everything explicitly has become unthinkable. The choice for this exhaustive/encyclopedic phonics instruction has deep, long-lasting consequences in that it expects teachers and kids to become “linguists” before they become readers and leaves no room for implicit learning…resulting in a one-size fits all approach that slow walks kids through school and discredits their assets.

    So keep the pressure on, but make your research more accessible to educators so we don’t need the middlemen to translate…or even worse…to leave it out all together because they do not understand it themselves!

    1. Thanks for responding. I realize that the current situation is difficult–headache-inducing, even. We’re in a transitional period. We’re successfully breaking free of old models (well, many people are) but the new one hasn’t quite come into focus. We agree about things that need to be done (e.g., child has to be taught that there is this thing reading, that there are graphical symbols, they combine to spell words, the symbols represent the sounds of words at certain level, etc.) We haven’t converged on the best methods. We will get there but in the meantime, you have students to teach and have to do the best you can. And it is very likely to be better than what might have been done before.

  7. First, I want to thank you for taking the time to clarify so many important points. Second, I want to ask your forgiveness for posting long, unedited versions of what I shared with my literacy group on Sunday before and after viewing your Atlanta video. This may all be way too long for anyone to read, but I feel better having shared my thoughts on topics that, as a reading specialist, I deal with on a daily basis. Looking forward to following what you’re planning–and definitely looking forward to continued clarity.

    First email:

    Stephen and Stacy–thanks for the slides and the extended analysis. As someone who works with 48 struggling first and second graders (in addition to teaching a third grade class once a week), I grapple with these issues on a daily basis. I watched Seidenberg’s ‘reading meetings’ last spring (available on YouTube) and also watched his three-part presentation about phonemes. I have also been closely following the back-and-forth related to criticism of David’s recommendations.

    So what’s a practitioner to do! I have looked to nutritional science for guidance where recommendations vary widely and often conflict. In Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto he analyzes the research, looks at eating patterns worldwide and concludes: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

    Similarly, I have drawn from the following to guide me:

    Seidenberg’s warnings (overcorrection in SOR, overkill in some of what SOR recommends–I don’t teach syllable types)

    Ouellette and Gentry’s recommendations in Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (hear it, say it, write it, read it,)

    David’s Orthographic mapping activities in Chapter 6 of Equipped for Reading Success (introduce words orally first before reading a text)

    Ehri’s emphasis on how the brain orthographically maps words (uniting orthography with phonology through segmentation)

    Phono-Graphix training (phoneme manipulation helps students with flexible pronunciations and set for variability)

    My current conclusion:

    Teach Phonemic Awareness, Mostly with Letters, Not Too Much

    Below is an example from last week’s lesson. Before reading the text, I dictated the words with the target sound /ie/ so that each subsequent word only varied by one phoneme, had students analyze the phonemes and say each sound as they wrote it. This is based on the ‘minimal contrast’ research by McCandliss, Beck, Sendak and Perfetti ( Note that as we read the text and a student read ‘snack’ as ‘snake’, when I prompted the student to ‘try a different sound’ the student had to have an understanding of the phonemic structure of the word to understand what to do. My students who are dyslexic really struggle with this substitution. When they, for example, make the word ‘gum’ as ‘gm’ and I run my finger along the bottom of the Elkonin boxes, hovering in the middle so that they can hear the /u/, the lightbulb goes off and they grab the right letter–and promptly plop it down at the END of the word, lacking an understanding of its phonemic sequence.

    No doubt about it–we’re changing the tires while driving the car!

    Second email:

    Thank you so much for sharing this video (great company while I did dinner prep). Surprisingly–as a departure from most of what I’ve seen from Seidenberg–I have to agree with Stacy that Mark does not provide enough clear direction for practitioners beyond his section on phonemic awareness. Here are three examples:

    1) He begins with a clear emphasis on the importance of choosing methods that do not depend on literacy experiences/extensions in the home. And yet at the end, when he discusses the development of phonemic awareness and how it emerges in conjunction with print, he refers to how this happens long before kids arrive at school–in the home–via exposure to the alphabet, read alouds, shared reading, etc. And yet we know from the research by Anne Fernald and others that it is precisely because there is a great deal of variation in literacy experiences 0 to 5 that we need to choose wisely when we receive these students in kindergarten. Yes–all the more reason to integrate PA with print–but it’s also important to acknowledge the larger literacy landscape and how to deal with it.

    2) He references the ‘classics’ in reading science, those studies and models that the science of reading movement is relying on–SVR, the five pillars, the reading rope, 4-part processor, orthographic mapping–and he mentions that these are a good place to start but so much more has happened since their development, and we must look to the latest research to guide our practice. And yet the only updated research he refers to is that related to phonemic awareness. This is crucially important, of course, but after downplaying the ‘classics’ he doesn’t provide us with their replacements, which is deeply disappointing.

    3) He refers to David’s emphasis on memorizing a huge number of sight words, which strikes me as flat out wrong, and I would love for others to weigh in on this. Every presentation I’ve seen Dave give emphasizes that the goal is for all words to become ‘sight words’ (what Ouellette and Gentry call ‘brain words’ and what Jeannine Herron calls ‘auto words’), which means that we need to attend to the phonology and orthography in all words including high frequency words or so-called exception words. I replayed this part of the webinar and it really seems as though Mark thinks that David is promoting whole word memorization.

    This webinar emphasizes efficiency, efficacy and equity in the choices we make–which are great goals. And Mark asks us to think deeply about what we teach, when, how, how much and for whom. Also great. But with the exception of his views on PA, this particular presentation did not offer me the clarity I need going forward to become efficient, effective and equitable in my instructional practices.

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