This is one in a series of intermittent posts about issues that arise in trying to use research in cognitive science and neuroscience about reading, language, learning, development and related topics to improve literacy outcomes. This “post” is more like an article, with footnotes and references. I’m going to post it in three bite-sized pieces, plus supporting materials. Some light summer reading! It expands on issues I raised in my previous post, and in talks and articles over the past few years.
As a scientist who advocates using research to inform instruction, curricula, and teacher training, I think it is important to assess what is being done under the rubric “the science of reading.” The first hurdle, convincing a critical mass of people that reading education could be improved by utilizing basic research, seems to have been cleared. That’s important progress. The next challenge is to develop a research-based approach that is also effective, efficient, and equitable. Connecting research to practice is difficult, and the “science of reading” is a work in progress. If the first step was recognizing what is possible, the next step is doing it well enough to achieve the goal of increasing literacy, especially among people who are usually left behind. That is the focus of these posts.
The “science of reading” approach in education is being carried forward by influencers whose background in cognitive science is limited. I don’t think teachers either want or need the amount of detail I provide here. This level of analysis is highly relevant, however, for the people who are creating curricula, assessments, professional development courses, and policies.
My previous post ended with some concerns about the focus on a small number of classic studies in the “science of reading” (SoR) movement. These include the Simple View of Reading, the National Reading Panel report, the Reading Rope, and a few others. Some of the classic studies are useful for introducing basic concepts and findings to teachers and others who want to learn more. When I spoke to teacher groups about connecting research and instruction ten years ago, people would often say they were surprised to find out that this research even existed. Now many more teachers have heard about it, and in many places they are being required to learn more about it via PD courses.
Here is a conundrum for the SoR: What makes these classic studies good for onboarding teachers–their narrow focus on a few accessible concepts–is what makes them wholly inadequate as the basis for a science-based approach to reading instruction. The problem with these studies isn’t just that they are out of date, although they certainly are: research progress didn’t stop after the NRP report in 2000–in fact, it accelerated. Some of the later work was motivated by the limitations of these classic studies and led to theories and findings that superseded them. The further concern is that these studies simply do not speak to many of the most important issues, such as the impact of children’s experience of language and the world prior to school entry on learning to read, and the roles of different types of learning. This canon of studies is nonetheless being taken as the core science in the SoR and used to justify a variety of practices.
That is a mistake. If these are the findings and concepts you’re working with, you’ll have to make a lot of additional assumptions to link them to the classroom. Such assumptions could be based on other research, but currently they are being decided in an ad hoc way by the people, organizations, and companies that have stepped in to meet the demand for instructional materials and PD activities. New products and approaches are being assessed in terms of their consistency with the “science of reading,” but the studies taken as representing the science are consistent with many approaches to instruction, including ones that would be seen as ill-advised if other research were considered.
In the previous post I conjectured that this is happening because leaders of the SoR movement are themselves newcomers to reading research. Changes in teacher education, curricula, and practices are badly needed. Who is carrying the ball forward? Not the major schools of education.1 Not the cognitive scientists who conduct research. Mainly, people with expertise in allied areas such as school psychology, teacher education, curriculum and instruction, or software development. That’s different from being a cognitive scientist who reads and contributes to the research literature, understands the methods and data analyses that are used, and can assess evidence and claims appropriately. Teachers aren’t that far behind the people teaching them about the SoR.
The current situation reflects a simple mismatch between supply and demand. The demand for courses and materials based on reading research is high. The supply of quality resources is low, in part because few cognitive scientists look at instructional issues.
We can do better, certainly. Capitalizing on the present opportunity to improve literacy outcomes by incorporating basic research demands that we do so. There is only a problem if we stop asking questions about what we are doing. Recognizing that current practices and materials are only interim solutions is preferable to institutionalizing what happened to be available when the “science of reading” caught fire. I will flesh out these points with a detailed example here. My goal is to make room for highly relevant later research that has yet to enter the discussion.
You may be wondering why I don’t just cut to the chase and tell people what they should do instead of merely analyzing what is going on. In later posts I will describe other strategies for developing research-based approaches to reading instruction, curricula, and teacher education. They won’t be definitive, of course, but they should be helpful. My own contributions aside, it’s important to recognize that translating research into practice is not easy and that developing new ways to teach reading based on cognitive research is a process. This process includes formulating and assessing approaches and materials, lather rinse repeat. That is how we successfully transitioned from Whole Language/Balanced Literacy to the present, and it is how we will progress further.
Journalists such as John McWhorter and Nicolas Kristoff of the New York Times have popularized the view that “we know how reading should be taught,” as though the only challenge is replacing one method with another. It would be more accurate to say we know what is important for learning to read (and what to avoid), and are currently figuring out how best to teach it. Looking critically at new approaches to classroom instruction, teacher education, and curricula is part of the process.
Finally, I view my primary role as teaching people about research, including what has been found and how to develop and assess implications for instruction. I am also trying to enable educators, publishers, and government officials to ask the kinds of questions I’m raising here.
Nobody Doesn’t Like ‘The Simple View of Reading’
Let’s start with the Simple View of Reading, because that’s where the “science of reading” usually starts. I’m reminded here of the discussion of reading to children in my book (p. 113). I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s memories of being read to by grandma or of reading to their children. Reading with young children is great but it’s not sufficient to insure they’ll learn to read, which almost always requires some amount of instruction. The Simple View of Reading is also great but not sufficient to decide important issues about how to teach reading.
I remember hearing about the SVR at a conference at the University of Texas-Austin organized by Phil Gough in 1986. (My talk was about a neural network model of dyslexia.)2 The SVR was developed in a series of articles published in academic books and journals, starting with Gough & Tunmer (1986), and followed by several others. The SVR was an idea, an observation about learning to read, not a conclusion based on empirical research. I thought the idea was important and discussed the Simple View in my book (p. 118). The SVR says that reading is the product (in the arithmetic sense) of word recognition and language comprehension. Stated in words, the SVR holds that:
1. Reading comprehension can commence if children learn how the printed code represents words they already know from speech. They can then access everything they already know about such words: what they mean; how they combine with other words in sentences; images, actions, and sounds associated with them, and more.
2. Reading comprehension depends on both components being sufficiently developed. You can’t read without knowledge of print; you can’t understand print without knowledge of language.
These points seems obvious–once stated this way. Children do not re-learn language in order to read; rather, they learn how to access knowledge of language and the things we use language to talk about in a new way, from print. Knowledge of both print and language are necessary.3
Beginning readers need to learn about print, but how? Gough and colleagues argued that it requires instruction. A child has to learn that there is such a thing as reading, that it involves a code that represents spoken language, and how the code works. Compared to learning a first, spoken language it is an “unnatural act,” another of Gough’s pithy expressions, but more about that one soon.4
The SVR makes a compelling case for instruction to support reading words. It is very useful in debates with people who continue to believe that children will “pick it up” in a “literacy rich environment,” or that print instruction is only for poor readers. Once the basic point has been absorbed, focus can turn to how children acquire these types of knowledge, how instruction can promote progress, what kinds of obstacles can arise, how they can be addressed, and so on.
The SVR doesn’t have much to say about these issues, as the authors were careful to acknowledge.5 The SVR is like a cake recipe that specifies the main ingredients but not the quantities or the procedures for combining them. It’s useful to have the ingredients spelled out this way; you just can’t bake the cake. Actually, the SVR is more like a cake recipe that specifies “wet ingredients” and “dry ingredients”, because the terms “word recognition” and “language comprehension” can signify many things. What kinds of information and mental computations are involved in each? How are they learned? How do they fit together? Why do learners differ in how they progress? The SVR doesn’t provide much guidance because these questions weren’t the focus of the work.
Teachers nonetheless want to know what SVR says about other instructional issues (I’m paraphrasing actual posts here):
“Print knowledge and language are separate components in the SVR. Does that mean they should be taught separately?”
“Decoding and language comprehension are different components in the SVR. Does that mean I should teach decoding using nonsense words, which don’t involve comprehension?”
“The simple view says that children already know how to comprehend spoken language and need instruction about print. That means they don’t need additional instruction about spoken language, right?”
Such questions are raised repeatedly on social media. Why?
People clearly don’t know that the SVR doesn’t address these issues, probably because they’ve learned about the work via secondary sources that emphasize its importance without mentioning its limitations. They may not be concerned because they’ve been led to believe that this concept, along with a few others, is the science relevant to instruction. Every curriculum or approach inspired by the SVR is therefore consistent with the “science of reading”. People also may have heard that the SVR has been confirmed in over 150 studies, which sounds like it covers a lot of ground. And the SVR does state a fundamental truth: people learn to read by learning how the written code represents spoken language they already know. All of these factors have magnified the expectation that the SVR should also have further implications for instruction. It doesn’t. Let’s look.
This is the first of three parts. Coming up: What’s in the components; are they independent; is the SVR sufficient; the 150 studies supporting the SVR; connecting the SVR to the Reading Rope; where else to look.
I am posting this in piecemeal fashion, but will compile the parts into a PDF along with complete references, footnotes, and acknowledgements. In the meantime, I have to point out that I am by no means the first person to have raised many of the issues discussed in these posts. This article by Hugh Catts and this post by Timothy Shanahan are particularly relevant.
1. Paradoxically, the demand for in-service training in the “science of reading” may allow schools of ed to forgo including this material in pre-service teacher education programs.
2. Seidenberg, M.S. (1991). Dyslexia in a computational model of word recognition in reading. My wife Maryellen MacDonald (whom I had yet to meet) was an undergraduate research assistant in Gough’s lab at the time.
3. Ideas very similar to the “simple view” are discussed by Jeanne Chall In her classic book “Learning to Read: The Great Debate”, who attributes them to Leonard Bloomfield, one of pivotal figures in modern linguistics. Chall wrote that Bloomfield “questioned the initial emphasis on ‘meaning’” in prevailing views of beginning reading and “called instead for making learning of the ‘code’ or the ‘alphabetic habit’ the first step. Since the child comes to school with a considerable command of spoken language, he reasoned, reading instruction should begin by teaching him [sic] the printed equivalents for his oral vocabulary. And since English spelling is irregular, he added, this is best accomplished by teaching those words that are spelled regularly.” (Chall, p. 24) Gough and Hillinger (1980) discussed this work.
4. Gough & Hillinger (1980), “Learning to read: An unnatural act.” Gough was fond of a clever phrase (and probably still is though I’ve had only occasional email contact with him since he retired around 25 years ago). He also referred to the printed code as a “cipher,” as in “breaking the cipher,” but that term is so archaic it didn’t catch on.
5. As Hoover has noted, ”The Simple View is neutral regarding how reading should be taught.” (Reading League Journal, 2021). The discussions of how reading works and children learn in the original SVR articles are thoughtful and nuanced (I only fault them for hijacking the term “decoding”). That nuance is not preserved in illustrations of the theory that circulate widely among educators.