About the science in “The Science of Reading”

I was recently in a group zoom meeting (a groom? a zoup?) with some educators who meet to expand their knowledge of reading research. A guest speaker gave a rambling talk about “science of reading” (SoR) issues. Then an experienced educator whose work includes teaching other teachers, asked: “if a student is a good reader, do we need to continue with phonemic awareness instruction?” 

My heart sank. Why would a person need to ask this? The goal of teaching children to read is reading, not phonemic awareness. We know that learning to read does not require being able to identify 44 phonemes or demonstrate proficiency on phoneme deletion and substitution tasks because until very recently no one who learned to read had to do these things. Instruction in subskills such as phonemic awareness is justified to the extent it advances the goal of reading, not for its own sake. 

If a student is reading–if they’ve “broken the code,” as Phil Gough1 put it years ago–instruction can focus on the many more things that need to be learned to become a skilled reader. Instructional time is limited and the clock is ticking down to 4th grade.Time spent jumping through PA hoops could instead be spent on activities that expand the knowledge that supports comprehending texts of increasing complexity and variety.

These conclusions seem obvious to me, given my understanding of the relevant research literature and the conditions under which children learn to read. They weren’t obvious to the questioner, or to the people who posted to “chat” thanking them for asking, and they won’t be obvious to many people reading this document.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here: The treatment of PA in the “science of reading”–the idea that a certain level of PA is prerequisite for reading, and that PA training should continue until the student becomes highly proficient at PA tasks regardless of how well they are reading–is emblematic of problems that have arisen within the SoR approach. It is an overprescription that reflects a shallow understanding of reading development, yet has become a major tenet of the “science of reading”. The PA situation and other developments suggest to me that the SoR is at risk of turning into a new pedagogical dogma, consisting of a small set of tenets loosely tied to some classic but dated research, supplemented by additional assumptions that are ad hoc and ill-advised. 

Worse, I see the “science of reading” approach as replicating several conditions that fostered the misbegotten practices of the recent past for which the “science of reading” is meant to be a corrective: well-intentioned individuals with limited research backgrounds who offer strong but flawed recommendations (and products) to teachers and school districts. They are treated as authoritative sources by an audience that cannot tell if they are or not.

The situation is not as bad as the stories that Emily Hanford covered in her programs. There is now much greater awareness of what was wrong with previous approaches and of the potential to create more effective methods using what is known from decades of research about reading, language, learning, development, and other topics. The Simple View of Reading is definitely a better place to start than the 3-cueing method, but a little knowledge can also be a dangerous thing. Especially if you aren’t aware that it only is a little knowledge.

I think that hard questions need to be asked about what is being taught in the name of “the science of reading”, and why. They are the same questions that were asked about Calkins, Fountas & Pinnell, Goodman and others whose views are now, deservedly, in disrepute. Applying the same criteria in evaluating all work regardless of one’s personal beliefs is a basic principle in science. It is especially important to examine the tenets of the SoR now because they are being implemented via legislation and regulation. As in these other cases, recognition of the flaws in an approach is an important step toward change.

After spelling out the concerns I will offer some suggestions about where to go next in the ongoing effort to bring cognitive research into reading education.

Before starting I need to address a couple of potential concerns. I want it to be clear that I think that effective methods for teaching reading need to be grounded in cognitive science and neuroscience research about how reading works and children learn, the causes of reading difficulties, and other relevant topics. Such methods (and their scientific basis) could then be taught to prospective teachers and incorporated in curricula and other instructional materials. There is no viable alternative as far as I can tell; approaches such as figuring out what works from personal experience or relying on the personal vision of a “thought leader” are inadequate. So is exposing teachers to a variety of perspectives on reading and leaving it to them to fashion a personal teaching philosophy.

I know this discussion is likely to be unpopular among people who have embraced the SoR. The main response I’ve gotten to talks in which I’ve raised some of these issues is that the comments were rude, even mean-spirited, and not what the audience wanted to hear. That is itself symptomatic of a problem. My concerns are not about loyalty to a movement or affinity to an author or product. They are not about whose team a person is on.They are not about the people involved though they are about their work. Mainly they are about improving literacy outcomes using basic research in cognition, language, and development–and avoiding the mistakes of the past. 

Insofar as they are critical of certain aspects of the SoR, they are also likely to be welcomed by people who have opposed research-based reforms.That would be a mistake. The research base is strong and the logic of using it to improve instruction is impeccable. However, connecting research and practice is difficult, and what is being offered right now are interim solutions. There is only a problem if we fail to recognize this. The movement is on the right path, but the destination is still off in the distance. Criticism of a particular product or activity that has been offered in the name of the science of reading doesn’t mean I oppose linking research and practice. It means I have a problem with that particular product or activity and think others should take a good look for themselves.

I recently saw a TikTok post that said “the reading wars are over–the science of reading won!” Nothing has been “won” until we see that many more children are being taught more effectively with more of them becoming more highly skilled. I am writing these comments with those goals in mind.

Finally, about the expression “the science of reading”:  The term isn’t in wide use among researchers. There isn’t a field called “the science of reading” and people rarely identify as “reading scientists,” in my experience.2 In reading education, the term has been taken up by a movement (often abbreviated SoR) to reform instruction, teacher education and curricula. This movement/approach is not the same as the body of research about reading. For one thing, the former has as yet incorporated very little of the latter. For another, the “science of reading” has to deal with real-world issues, such as how to change deeply-held but mistaken beliefs about reading, and how to make use of research on reading and related topics given teachers’ and other educators’ limited backgrounds and many other responsibilities. These are issues about using research in education, which is different from basic research on how reading works, children learn, etc. I will use SoR to refer to the approach to reforming reading education, and expressions such as “cognitive science research related to reading” to refer to the research itself. 

I have a lot to say and will be rolling it out in a series of posts. The issues raised below will be considered further in later posts.

1. Creating demand. We have been very successful in convincing people about the need to reform reading instruction, curricula, and teacher education. The “we” here includes numerous people and organizations. My book had an impact; Emily Hanford’s outstanding documentaries, which are both riveting and infuriating, have reached a much wider audience. Decoding Dyslexia and other advocacy organizations led the pursuit of legislative remedies after years of educational stonewalling. There have been other participants and forces at work. Let’s just say that a variety of events caused demand for reforms to skyrocket. Moreover, people want things to change starting now. Having convinced many teachers (administrators, legislators) that the methods in wide use are flawed, they want to know what to do instead.

This is wholly understandable. If you’re told you have a serious medical condition that requires surgery, you want to have it treated as soon as possible. Knowing that there is a potential treatment but having to wait months until there is an opening in the surgeon’s schedule would be excruciating (I imagine). This also holds for teacher education: recognition that it is inadequate has created demand for ways to address the gaps in people’s knowledge (e.g., PD for in-service teachers).

The demand for change is such that reforms began to be mandated via “science of reading” laws passed in many states, and via similar regulations at the local educational agency (LEA) level. 

Thus, we have a situation in which there is high demand for the “science of reading,” coming from both bottom up (teachers, parents) and top down (government, LEAs). This is a big advance, opening a path to overcoming resistance from schools and departments of education. The question then is how this demand is being satisfied. 

2. A Big Barrier. As I have noted since I began writing about these issues, incorporating scientific findings and attitudes into education is a monumental challenge. The educational establishment is a very large, complex ecosystem that evolved over many decades without incorporating cognitive research. (Indeed, the system instead evolved defenses against scientific incursions.) We are now observing, in real time, what happens when basic research is released into this environment.

The biggest barrier to successfully joining research and practice is the lack of expertise in the relevant science–how the research is conducted and assessed, how findings are weighed in drawing conclusions, what is known and isn’t known, with what certainty–at every level of the educational establishment. That includes the college and university programs responsible for preparing future teachers for their jobs; the educators who design curricula and the companies that publish them; the professional and labor organizations that represent teachers; and, finally, the state and local government agencies that fund the teacher education programs in public colleges and universities, establish the qualifications for being permitted to teach, operate the schools, and purchase, at great expense, the curricula, consumables, and support services. It also includes the many commercial enterprises and NGOs now serving the market for “evidence-based” materials consistent with “the science of reading.”3

The opposite is also true: few researchers have much expertise related to education–specifically, the conditions in schools and classrooms, expectations for teachers and students, the numerous other demands on teachers’ time, and other “real-world” considerations. In fact, there aren’t many cognitive science researchers who are even paying attention, which is also a big problem.

In short, stoking the fires created demand for curricula and other materials that incorporate “evidence-based” practices consistent with the “science of reading,” and for teacher education (professional development courses, workshops, symposia, conferences) on the topic. The solutions that are being offered must accommodate end-users (mainly teachers) whose unfamiliarity with this type of research limits what they can absorb. Teachers are not alone in this regard. Government education agencies are run by civil servants and elected officials (such as school board members) for whom familiarity with cognitive science related to reading is not in the job description. These people establish educational policies (e.g, qualifications to teach) and decide which instructional materials and approaches can be used. 

3. Starting points. Given teachers’ limited knowledge in the area, the SoR has had to start with a few basic findings and resources. These include the Simple View of Reading, the 5 recommendations from the National Reading Panel report, the 4-part processor, the Reading Rope, Ehri’s orthographic mapping theory, and a few others.4 My point here has three parts: First, these are excellent resources for the purpose of getting teachers (and others) on board and conveying some basic ideas from the research literature. Second, they are not adequate as the basis for making instructional decisions (about what to teach, when, how much, and so on), because the studies didn’t address these issues. Such decisions should and could be informed by other research–but that requires looking beyond these canonical studies. Third, this work is nonetheless being used to justify all manner of materials and practices, including ones that other research suggests are ill-advised.

In short, the narrow focus on a few classic studies is valid for one purpose: introducing some basic concepts to teachers and others who are just starting out. It’s understandable why teachers don’t know much about cognitive science related to reading: it wasn’t part of their professional training. (I hope it is obvious that I’m not blaming teachers here.) But it’s a mistake to extend this same beneficence to the people, organizations, and commercial enterprises that offer materials about the “science of reading” approach to instruction. They are supposed to be experts who are convey this material to teachers. However, they too have emphasized the classic studies as the justification for their work, filling in what’s missing with additional assumptions that aren’t supported by these particular studies and are called into question by other research.

That’s not right. It leads to wonky prescriptions for teaching phonemes, among other problems.

This point is so important I feel compelled to restate it. Teachers aren’t cognitive scientists. A PD course on research related to reading doesn’t make one a cognitive scientist, either, although it may be useful and informative. Teachers need to have enough background to be able to use curricula and other instructional materials that draw on the broader research literature–materials that have the relevant science baked in. Creating such materials requires knowing the research literature and being able to distill valid precepts from it.

This isn’t happening, and I think I know why: the people who are designing the materials, running the workshops, and selling the products aren’t cognitive scientists either. Like many others, they are learning as they go along. They too may be more comfortable with science at the level of the classic studies.

This conjecture explains another characteristic of the SoR. Let’s say a company’s goal is to create curricula and instructional software that is “evidence-based” and “consistent with the science of reading,” as stipulated in many states and LEAs. The people at the company read the classic studies carefully and use the findings and recommendations to guide product development. They explain the SVR, the Reading Rope, the 5 pillars of instruction on their web site. Therefore, they claim, their product is “evidence-based” and “consistent with the science of reading”.5

The reasoning isn’t valid, of course, because these classic studies are consistent with numerous practices. So, for example, from their review of the literature the NRP concluded that phonemic awareness was relevant to learning to reading and a teachable skill. By the flawed reasoning I’m referring to, any program/product that incorporates PA is consistent with this recommendation of the NRP, and thus “evidence-based” and in accord with the “the science of reading” (a phrase that doesn’t appear in the report). That includes teaching phonemes in the dark, teaching phonemes in a particular sequence to “mastery” levels of performance on specific tasks, and other questionable approaches whose efficacy is unknown.

Relying on classic studies sets the bar far too low for incorporating research into practice. In future posts I’ll discuss some ways to raise it.

Also coming up:

• If the ed schools don’t provide leadership, who does?

• Learning to read is only a little unnatural.

• Just because you can teach it doesn’t mean you should.

• Reading difficulties aren’t always (or even usually?) about reading

• Learning does not follow a scope and sequence

• Tenets for Teachers revisited

And other topics. I hope these observations are helpful in addition to provocative.


1. Gough and Hillinger, “Learning to read: An unnatural act.” 1980.

2. The term was introduced by Snowling and Hulme (2005), editors of “The Science of Reading: A Handbook;”  the second edition appeared in 2022.  

3. The corporations that contract to run public schools should probably also be included, but I have not looked into the reading curricula they use. 

4. Such as Share’s self-teaching hypothesis and the baseball study of the role of background knowledge. There is a canon of studies here, and as with canons of literature there can be debates about exactly which studies to include.

5. An example: “The Science of Reading refers to the pedagogy and practices proven by extensive research to effectively teach children how to read. To easily understand the complex combination of skills that result in reading fluency, you need two main frameworks: The Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Rope.

22 thoughts on “About the science in “The Science of Reading””

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’d like to address the comments about “the 3-cueing system approach.” What’s interesting to me is that the much-aligned cueing systems were never intended to be a teaching methodology but rather a way to analyze children’s oral reading errors. What’s mind-boggling to me is that this is basically the same thing as the Simple View AND the Reading Rope….phonemic awareness/phonics/decoding is the V in MSV. Syntax and Semantics are both included in the LC side of the equation….these are the M and S of MSV. In essence, students need to incorporate all three “cueing systems” in order to be proficient readers. In a 3-way Venn diagram of MSV, the “sweet spot” was the intersection of all three. This is no different than the Reading Rope or the Simple View formula….emphasis on one strand over the others will result in a very weak rope. In the multiplication formula, if one of the factors is zero, the result will be zero.

    The other piece from neuroscience that cannot and should not be ignored is the research on affective factors of learning. A steady diet of scripted curricula, worksheets (both paper and video games that are essentially worksheets), and direct instruction will not a reader make. Readers also need to feel engaged, interested, and motivated to read. Constructivists and Affective Neuroscience have more in common than they may think. My point here is that there are MANY sciences that inform learning. This is what makes teaching – and reading – complex.

    1. It’s hard to follow a discussion or comment that uses acronyms without an antecedent. This is really important for parents, school board members and the general public who are interested in this issue.

  2. OK, I admit up front I need to read the entire post and consider. However, Marc hit on a button of mine early in his blog. Teachers are given overviews of this or that, but lack the deep understanding of the how, when and why. So, trying to implement what they were taught in their one hour inservice they subject every child to lessons/activities/assignments that are not appropriate for many. Yes, we want to teach children to read and reading print on the page requires accurate word identification. So, we have many children who readily learn the orthography, they quickly develop good word reading and spelling and apply to reading text fluently. Do we have them sit through Heggerty lessons in grade 2 when they are already reading chapter books? I see this where I work. I see teachers, who have a quick, or not so quick, inservice implement strategies and lessons either inappropripately, or sometimes downright incorrectly, because they lack the understanding that is needed to discriminate and to differentiate effectively. I also hear, “It won’t hurt them” when I suggest perhaps 1/2 the class doesn’t really need these lessons. Maybe not, but even if those chapter book reading 2nd graders were encouraged to read while their classmates who still need to learn word identification skills and might actually need P.A. lessons, perhaps they would be better served down the line. This is driving me nuts and is the same thing we encounter when we prescribe “programs” to teachers and insist upon using the “program” with fidelity. Teachers need tools and they need to be able to pick, choose and adjust to differentiate their instruction. This is not happening in many instances.

    1. This is SO important. Teachers are not trained thoroughly (or even appropriately) in their university coursework. Then they’re micromanaged by a “program” and by administrators. If they DO become (perhaps as an autodidact) more thoroughly and legitimately versed in what may be called the science of reading, research based instruction, valid pedagogy, or a linguistic method THEY ARE DENIED THE AUTONOMY THAT LEGITIMATE TRAINING SHOULD CONFER ON THEM AS A PROFESSIONAL.
      It’s a dilemma when some teachers are capable and prepared properly while others can offer little more than well-intentioned malpractice. Autonomy should not be conferred equally. How nuts is this?!

  3. Thank you so much for your thought provoking article. I am doing the work of obtaining my reading license and my reading specialist license. I agree, although the moves have been substantial the classics are not enough to establish true research based instruction in our classrooms. My son is studying at the U of MN with a major in psych and minor in neuroscience and we are amazed at all the things we are learning from each other in our fields. I feel the divide between cognitive neuroscience and teaching needs to be melded and am glad your in the forefront and leading our cause! (Getting every child to read!)

  4. I commend your comments. I have concerns aswell because if we don’t clearly define science of reading then yes it will become subject to manipulation by whole language supporters. Constructivism doesn’t work. I am surprised you said a narrow view of studies. Please read the work of Alice Ansara. Please credit the work of Jeanne Chall. We have the studies. Structured Literacy and Synthetic Phonics works. Whole Language and analytics phonics does not.

    1. Where I work, I am not hearing anyone touting whole language, or even balanced literacy any more. In at least some places this may not be the huge issue some continue to make it out to be. Frankly, I see phonics instruction as being part of pretty much every program and foundational classrooms, at least in my area. What our teachers need is a deeper understanding of the process to learning to read and the nuances that can and do make huge differences and enable teachers to competently differentiate for their students.

  5. Thank you for these thoughts. I wish the findings of the “classic studies” like those examined by the National Reading Panel were not applied to sub-populations of children who were not included in those studies: children learning to read in English as their second language. Applying the same instructional approaches with students for whom the benefits do not equally apply is unjust, inequitable and a form of monolingual bias.

  6. I am loving reading articles that challenge my thoughts, beliefs, etc. especially when they are about a system that I follow/support. I don’t want to be convinced away from how I view teaching reading on a macro level (Balanced Literacy, SOR) but as a professional who wants to do what’s best for my students, I do want/need micro level information that helps me apply things more effectively.

  7. Thank you for this post which, coupled with a recent interview with Susan Brady, has helped me finalize my recommendations to colleagues regarding the basics of reading instruction. In the section on PA, I’ve recommended:

    Always Teach
    Phonemic Awareness with letters as part of both encoding and decoding lessons using dictation, word chains, and decodable text.

    Never Teach
    A progression of phonological awareness skills: syllables, rime units, phonemes; repeated practice to master larger phonological units before teaching phonemic awareness.

    Choose to Teach or Choose Not to Teach
    Fun, whole-body phonemic awareness exercises without letters as brain breaks; follow phonemic awareness activities without letters with application to independent writing to provide opportunities to link phonemes with graphemes.

  8. “Time spent jumping through PA hoops could instead be spent on activities that expand the knowledge that supports comprehending texts of increasing complexity and variety.”
    Or that time could even be spent on reading itself!

  9. I have said my entire teaching career….Teachers are not curriculum designers and should not be relying on themselves to design their reading lessons. I always relied on experts to provide me the best tools/curriculum. I had the most success using Reading Mastery Signatures. Never ever couldn’t teach a kid to read and comprehend and write and spell and do on DIRECT INSTRUCTION curriculum is exquisite. Project Follow Through in the 70’s is a story that should always be shared. The study and the reactions to the study.

    1. Lori Agar, I was so excited to read your response about Reading Mastery. I think it is one of the best interventions and it is hardly ever mentioned.

  10. This is a thought provoking blog. In our work to teach students to read, it’s never just about the reading. It is about how young scholars discuss their understanding of what they have read, but when it comes to phonemic awareness, this is largely a diagnostic tool for educators (at least in my context) to understand the child’s development toward their skill at hearing sounds and then being able to write the graphemes associated with the sounds. The way our scholars are expected to communicate their learning relies heavily on their ability to write with clarity with their encoding abilities being a critical piece to determine that success.
    I think it is important for our educators to continue to ask the questions and be able to do this without judgment, but move forward with educated curiosity about what is best for scholars to grow their reading skills into the realm that allows them to be able to communicate with the world through both spoken and written world.

  11. For me, your article proved both helpful and provocative. These discussions need to continue for education to truly meet its mandate. As you point out, nothing has been ‘won’ until more children are seeing success in reading. I do wish the tone of this discussion would change though. It seems as though you’ve traded blame for shame when characterizing teachers. Why would a teacher ask the question about providing more PA lessons? Namely, beacuse teachers want to do what they are supposed to, but also because there is much about reading that is counter Intuitive to what teachers think they already know and how learning happens in general. Let us all find a way to encourage those questions instead of feeling despondent. Let not your heart sink, those questions are the only path to actually winning the reading wars.

  12. If you’re a researcher, you’ll likely understand how applicable all these nuances are. On the other hand, I’m a little worried about nitpicking from academics regarding science of reading discourse and its influence. How can we avoid empowering the status quo in places like California [and all the decades of entrenchment that you’ve mentioned] when we highlight the inadequacies of classic theories and the like? Or how you’ve suggested following up on this post: “learning doesn’t follow a scope and sequence”? Although you obviously come at this from a completely different perspective, bite size premises like these are frequently used to justify the status quo. Talking about too much PA is one thing, but slowing down actual progress made by the SoR movement across the board is another.

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