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.“