Studying “Units of Study”

Lucy Calkins and her team have published the much-anticipated revisions to her popular K-2 reading curriculum. An EdWeek article asks, are the changes to the materials sufficient? A better question is, sufficient for what? 

1. Are the revisions sufficient to get the curriculum approved for adoption in states with “science of reading” laws that require instruction in areas that the previous version neglected or discounted? 


I have not seen the revised curriculum yet. I did receive about 50 pages of what looked to be corrected proofs of the K and grade 2 curricula a few months ago, around the time of Dana Goldstein’s New York Times article. I couldn’t tell much from them because it wasn’t clear if they were final versions or how they were selected. But looking at other curricula that have been approved, it seems likely that the new materials will be acceptable because of where the bar has been set.

The lists of approved curricula vary by state, as summarized by Sarah Schwartz in another of her outstanding EdWeek articles. Most states are including comprehensive curricula such as Wonders (McGraw Hill) and Journeys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). These curricula are the legacy of Balanced Literacy, which held that neither phonics nor whole language worked for every child, and that effective instruction should incorporate elements of both. Teachers were encouraged to use the methods that worked best for them. Publishers responded with comprehensive curricula that cater to every taste. They include at least some phonics and sight word learning and other basic skills instruction; they also include ways to help children learn to read with minimal instruction of this sort. There’s far too much in these curricula to actually teach all of it. The teacher has to create a scope and sequence out of these blocks of marble. The teacher’s manuals are cluttered with options. For teachers who are strapped for time–and who isn’t?–this is an unreasonable burden. 

The fact that these curricula include basic skills instruction is apparently sufficient to get them on many of the approval lists. That doesn’t ensure that the material is used, let alone used effectively, because these same curricula support other approaches. The same issue arises with the new Calkins curriculum. The authors were compelled to incorporate specific kinds of basic skills instruction in order to check the regulatory boxes. If you are looking for keywords like “phonics” and “orthography,” they will be there. It is essential to examine what they have created, obviously. However, it is equally important to look at what teachers are told about using this material, in the teacher’s manuals, in the workshops and webinars on how to use the new materials, in the on-line support, on social media.* 

The revised materials may well satisfy the letter of the law(s). The further question is whether buying them is ethical. The authors and publisher are offering a replacement of unknown quality for the defective product they sold for many years. Allowing them to profit from the mess they created seems very wrong to me.

2. Are the changes sufficient to maintain the allegiance of the many teachers who have been adherents of Calkins’ approach?


Lucy Calkins is a guru, the longtime leader of a large community of teachers and other educators. From her books, videos, and social media presence, it’s apparent that she creates strong bonds with teachers by treating them as partners and taking their concerns personally. She speaks their language rather than the language of a reading researcher or educational bureaucrat. She clearly cares about teaching and about teachers. She is dedicated to them and many are dedicated to her. 

Calkins also gained a following by filling the gap that ed schools created by failing to prepare teachers adequately for the job. Many teachers learn about reading via materials offered by figures such as Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell, authors of another popular but misguided reading program. Teachers are grateful for the seemingly authoritative guidance these people provide. They join a supportive “community of learners” who share beliefs and goals. Ceding professional training to the producers of commercial materials is a fundamental mistake in my view.

Calkins has faced the tricky challenge of modifying her approach without alienating her base. Satisfying the states’ new adoption criteria required incorporating additional basic skills instruction, including phonics (which she had previously treated as a method of last resort), and removing discredited elements such as the “3-cueing method.” These modifications entail significant departures from views she had advocated. Calkins has been preparing her adherents for this shift via position pieces and social media activities. 

In November 2019 she circulated a manifesto “No one gets to own the science of reading,” which coupled a vigorous defense of her approach with an ugly attack on the “hype about phonics” and “phonics-centric” advocates of “phonics at the expense of everything else.” Teachers responded with heartfelt expressions of gratitude on social media for defending their beliefs and for challenging the scientists. I responded here

Calkins’ missive didn’t make reading research or concerns about her approach disappear, and states such as Arkansas began passing “science of reading” legislation. Calkins then pivoted to acknowledging that phonics and basic print skills are important and that her curriculum needed “rebalancing.” “Postcards From a Journey” (summer, 2020) announced what seemed to be a major shift in direction, which elicited heartfelt expressions of disappointment, confusion, and denial on social media. The outpouring was such that Calkins posted a long statement to her Facebook group addressing their concerns. 

Whereas “Postcards” described modifications of the curriculum significant enough to merit an announcement, the Facebook post said “What stays the same in our work with K-1 readers? 98% of it.” Reports that the revisions would be more extensive were fake news: “While the journalists will try to persuade you otherwise (controversy gets more eyes on the page than consensus), this is actually a small shift in our thinking….”

Now the final product has arrived. Is it a serious “rebalancing” or just a minor nod in the direction of “the science of reading” to satisfy outsiders’ demands? I look at these previous events and conclude that the answer will depend not only on what is in the curriculum itself but also on what is said to teachers about it. That will be important to monitor. My principal aim in writing this post is to raise awareness of this background and draw attention to the issues that have arisen since the revision was announced. 

3. Are the changes sufficient to enable teachers to teach reading more effectively, using materials and practices that incorporate modern research on how reading works and children learn?

This is the important question, of course. The answer is that we do not know. Much depends on the quality of the materials and how they are used. Having this group develop a curriculum that includes phonics and phonemic awareness may seem a little like asking a vegetarian to write the Complete Book of Meat, but they are smart, experienced people who were highly motivated to make this revision a success.

My main concern is probably obvious by now, that the authors may have only done as much as needed to retain access to a massive marketplace in which they have a lucrative share. Doing more than that would risk alienating more of the supporters who are critical to the product’s success as well as a source of revenue (via fees for workshops, webinars, and merchandise). Have they done a good job with material they would not otherwise have included? They could have. Is this material bolted on to their previous approach or an integral component of an improved approach? We’ll have to see. 

I recommend looking especially carefully at the treatment of phonics. Documents circulated in the run-up to the publication of the new materials (“No one gets to own,” “Notes from a Journey,” the Facebook group post; handouts from an October 2021 TCRWP workshop; the 50 pages from a version of the new curriculum) described an approach to phonics and other basic skills (such as memorizing “snap words,” i.e., sight words) that was seemingly patterned on the 3-cueing method. Here’s an example of “possible prompts for coaching readers” from a handout from the October 2021 workshop:

A 3-cueing approach to phonics inherits the problems with using the approach to identify words that I described in my 2017 book. This is not an efficient way to teach, given the properties of print and language, and how children learn. As in the original use of 3-cueing, the phonics document describes a scenario in which the reader engages in a series of successive approximations to the correct response. When an error is made they are given feedback in the form of a clue (or “cue”). The process repeats if additional errors are made. The inefficiency arises from the fact that learning occurs throughout this sequence, not only when the correct answer is finally produced. An alternative is to provide sufficient instruction and practice to minimize such errors and allow the student to benefit from simple and direct feedback when they occur. 

I will end the speculation here. Let’s see what Calkins and her crew have come up with.

Final disclaimer: I think that all of the big commercial curricula are part of the literacy problem. None of them were developed using modern cognitive science research as a foundation. Patching these products to meet the new state regulations is certainly better than nothing, but not as good as designing better curricula from the ground up. The existing ones are hard to use, and teachers work around them (using other materials) as well as with them. If it were up to me, I’d declare a moratorium on purchasing any of them. Invest the money in more direct support for teachers and students, such as coaches, reading specialists, tutors in the classroom, and professional development. I am not in charge; this isn’t going to happen any time soon, and so we are forced to decide which are the best of a flawed bunch.


* My question about how the materials will be used may be less of an issue in states that are also regulating the content areas that must be covered, such as the five identified in the National Reading Panel report. Such legislation raises other issues I will take up another time.

Back in the saddle again

Hi there. We are back. Did we miss anything? Molly and I have been recharging ourselves and the website, which is now focused on blog posts and a few other resources (talks, articles, our Reading Meetings). We have a lot of issues on our minds and hope to discuss them here. Consider this a (re)start.

If you’re reading this you probably believe, as I do, that literacy outcomes can be improved by using instructional practices and materials that incorporate findings from research on reading, language, learning, development and related topics. Many people are pursuing this goal under the rubric of “the science of reading.” 

As it has developed over the past several years, the First Principle in this approach is that learning to read requires instruction about print and the relations between print and oral language (speech).This idea has strong research support. The growing acceptance of this point is itself a big advance over what came before. Putting this insight into educational practice requires going further: deciding what to teach, when, how to teach it, for how long, taking into account differences among children (e.g., in language background, temperament), and environments (e.g., access to resources in home and community). Many people are laboring hard on these crucial issues. 

In the meantime, teachers have to teach. They need answers. This reality has resulted in the adoption of practices based on a few key ideas derived from reading research. For example, reading is treated as a set of teachable components as in the National Reading Panel report. Print skills and language skills are treated as distinct as in the Simple View of Reading. There is a lot of focus on instruction about spelling (orthography), sound (phonology), and the mappings between them (phonics). Then there is the issue of how children can learn enough “high frequency” words to get reading off the ground. Finally, assumptions are made about learning. For example, that components should be taught in sequence with mastery of one (e.g., all letter names) the prerequisite for moving to the next (e.g., letter-sound mappings). There is heavy reliance on explicit instruction and on assessments of student progress. 

There are many variants on these basic ideas, and others I won’t get into here. Details vary. The general approach is appealing to teachers because it addresses their questions about what to teach, when, how, and for how long. 

I view these practices as interim solutions. They can be justified on the basis of filling an immediate need; they can’t be justified on the basis of fidelity to reading research. They raise questions for me about efficacy (are the practices effective), efficiency (can they be implemented in reasonable time), and equity (do they work for all children regardless of background). There seems to be a misplaced emphasis on mastering components of reading rather than reading itself. 

In my view, we need to continue using research to identify questionable practices and develop alternatives that have as strong an empirical and theoretical basis as possible. This doesn’t require waiting until someone has a bolt of insight about what to do. It requires incorporating more of what has been learned from reading research. 

The great neglected topic is learning: How do children learn? What is the optimal balance between explicit instruction and implicit learning? Which types of knowledge are best learned by which procedures? Given the limits on instruction time and a clock that is ticking, how can children’s experiences be structured to facilitate rapid progress? How does learning change as the child develops? I’m not posing these questions to be philosophical. We know a great deal about these topics and can use that knowledge to create approaches that are more effective, more efficient, and more equitable. 

To be continued.

Coming soon to a screen near you

Some of you know that I gave a talk in Atlanta last week that created some, um, friction. It presented under poor conditions and wasn’t recorded properly. I have re-recorded it. It should be available via the Atlanta Speech School soon. Here are the slides. Update: talk is here.

I took advantage of the opportunity to make some revisions based on useful feedback. I agree that my comments about LETRS didn’t do justice either to LETRS or to the questions I wanted to raise. Through her research studies, Louisa Moats single-handedly raised awareness of the fact that most teachers lacked knowledge of basic properties of spoken language and print relevant to reading instruction. We know this is because of gaps in pre-professional training which continue to this day. She also acted on her findings, developing LETRS with Carol A. Tolman. Many in-service teachers have benefited from LETRS training and will continue to do so.

In place of those remarks about LETRS, I offer the following issues and questions that LETRS raised for me and perhaps others.

1. No one method will work equally well for all teachers in all contexts. Having other approaches is a good thing. Here is a historical analogy that may be apt:

Time was, when people bought new computer software it came with a thick manual that was a comprehensive guide to using it. Everything you needed to know was in the manual, if you could find it. Some time in the 1990s, people working in HCI (human-computer interaction) realized that people didn’t want to read a manual and then start using the program; they wanted to start using the program as quickly as possible and consult the manual when necessary. This led to the  “minimal manual” approach: a shorter guide that provided the essential information needed to start using the program. This approach achieved a balance between explicitly telling users how the program worked and giving them a way to look up things as they were needed. 

The “minimal manual” approach might be adopted for PD related to reading. I think that is the philosophy behind Reading Simplified and Top Ten Tools. I am only noting a positive feature of these programs, not providing a global assessment of their value. 

2. Are we conflating what teachers need to know to be able to teach with what children need to know to be able to read? Teachers should know about things like phonemes, onsets and rimes, inflectional and derivational morphology, relative clauses, collocations, and other basic components of language. “Know” here means being able to explain the concept and provide illustrations. Does a child need to know these concepts? I shudder when I see words like “phoneme” and “orthography” being used in teaching 6 year olds. This issue does not only arise with LETRS. 

3. From material on social media and from my own discussions with teachers and people who teach teachers, it seems clear that many “science of reading” proponents ascribe to the following view or a close variant of it: Children need to learn about the components of spoken words in a sequence that starts with bigger units like words and ends with phonemes. Acquiring this knowledge is the prerequisite for learning about print and phonics. Phonemes are the minimal components of spoken words and phonemic awareness can be developed via spoken word activities. 

I do not think these assumptions are correct. I have explained several of the reasons in the lectures about phonemes, phonemic awareness and reading posted elsewhere on this website and in several talks, including one for the International Dyslexia Association (slides), and as the keynote speaker at the inaugural conference of The Reading League. Other reasons will be apparent from the principles/guidelines that Margaret Goldberg and I are developing. 

I have mainly focused on the common but mistaken idea that phonemes are properties of spoken words (they are an abstraction that depends on exposure to an alphabet), and that children need to demonstrate knowledge of all of them (44, 38, or some other number depending on your theory), prior to moving on to reading. I think it’s folly to devote precious time to teaching children the “correct” pronunciation of each phoneme. Since phonemes aren’t isolable segments of speech, whatever pronunciation we assign to, e.g. b is a bit of fakery, a useful fiction, but not how we talk.

I especially take issue with the idea that “phonemic awareness” refers to knowledge of the structure of spoken words independent of print. Evidence that the phonemic abstraction depends on exposure to an alphabet has been accumulating since the 1980s. The title of Read et al.’s breakthrough (1986) article (click to download) is “The ability to manipulate speech sounds depends on knowing alphabetic writing”. In the same year, Derwing et al. (Phonology Yearbook, 3) stated that their studies and others “go so far as to suggest that … the very ability to segment speech [into phonemes] may be a by-product of learning an alphabetic orthography.” The NRP (2000) review of PA also emphasized the role of print, but more important, the issues were greatly clarified by behavioral, computational, and neural research conducted over the subsequent 20 years (cf. my talks). 

The “phonemes first” approach seems to have coalesced out of several sources. LETRS K-3 Unit 2 is one of them. It says:

Although learning phonics requires phonemic awareness, the term phonics pertains to learning to read printed alphabetic symbols. Phonemic awareness activities, on the other hand, do not involve print.  They are listening and speaking activities; they can be done in the dark or with a blindfold on. (However, it is recommended that students watch the mouth of the speaker they are listening to.). p. 93

In other places the text includes statements about phonemic awareness that place greater emphasis on its connection to print. For example, this table about ages when children typically acquire knowledge of various phonological elements is very informative. I included it in the second talk here. The ability to use phoneme-level knowledge to perform tasks such as phoneme identification, deletion, blending and others typically develops relatively late, after the onset of reading instruction (and even longer after preschool children start learning letters, letter sounds, and letter names). The treatment of phonemes and phonemic awareness in LETRS is somewhat inconsistent and open to different interpretations regarding instruction.

The idea that children need to learn their phonemes before they learn to read is seen in other work that is prominent in education.  In “Equipped for Reading Success,” David Kilpatrick states that 

“PHONEME AWARENESS has to do with sounds in spoken words. It has nothing directly to do with letters. It is an awareness of the sounds in spoken language. It is a mental/linguistic skill.” p.15

A footnote on this entry says

“Phonological awareness is about understanding and being aware of the sounds we make when we say words. The minute you introduce letters, you have left the realm of phonological awareness and entered the realm of phonics.”

These observations (and others in the same chapter) are contradicted by research on how orthography, phonology, and the mappings between the codes develop. I’ll get into this in more detail in a separate post. Here I will only note that the assertions about the nature of phonemic awareness and phonics, and the boundary between them aren’t part of mainstream theories of learning to read. 

Finally, I should mention the Heggerty multi-year phonemic awareness curriculum that builds levels of phonemic knowledge through the use of PA tasks of increasing difficulty. 

In light of the extensive research evidence on the reciprocal development of orthographic and phonological knowledge from a very young age, I think these assertions and practices need to be carefully reconsidered. I am particularly concerned about the treatment in LETRS because it such a widely used resource.

4. Finally, LETRS contains a version of this figure, the Tolman Hourglass, which is probably popular because it seems to convey reading science in an easily comprehended way. If the figure is meant as a literal representation of how the various types of knowledge come together to support reading, it is grossly incorrect. Among other things, it conveys the idea that orthography and phonology are separate domains, and that each of them consists of a strict hierarchy of discrete structures that somehow come together to create 1:1 (?) mappings between letters and sounds. It strongly suggests an instructional strategy of stepping through the levels, from the simpler ones to the harder ones, which is inefficient and unnecessary. The figure isn’t a good representation of the structure of language, the structure of print, or how children learn about this stuff on the way to reading and spelling. If it is merely meant as a mnemonic for all those terms, that could be done without the graphics.

I hope this post clarifies these concerns and the reasons I have mentioned LETRS in particular. Of course, this post settles nothing, but it could lead to fruitful discussions and positive changes. I will be pursuing the issues further in future posts and other media.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Recently people on the Internet have asked whether I “believe in the science of reading”.  

Funnily, I’ve never been asked this before.

I’ve devoted my professional career to using scientific methods to investigate reading, language, learning, and other questions. I made a conscious decision to use this approach to address questions that interest me. I consider this a rational choice not a matter of belief.  So, I engage in scientific research on reading and have a strong commitment to it, yes.

Am I committed to trying to use what we have learned from this research to improve how teachers are prepared for their jobs and how children are taught? Absolutely. I think it’s a really good idea. Much needed.

Do I support the “science of reading movement,” the efforts of a loosely-defined cohort of individuals and organizations to link reading research and educational practices?  Yes and no.

Yes, I support efforts to make the linkage and participate in them myself. No, I do not approve of all activities that are being undertaken under the rubric of the “science of reading”. My investment in using research to improve literacy outcomes is such that I will do what I can to identify policies and projects that seem ill-advised or ill-informed, given what I know about reading and the educational context.  And do what I can to help devise better approaches based on what researchers have found, taking into account the conditions that govern learning in the real world. That is certainly the more difficult task.  

I hope that answers that question.

I’m also being asked whether I (still) think that children require instruction in order to learn to read (yes) and whether I think phonics is important (yes). However, I differ from many people about exactly what to teach and how. 

At the moment, I am concerned about over-reliance on teaching children rules for things (among other issues). Some instruction of this sort is clearly necessary (e.g., so that children learn that print is a code that represents spoken words at a certain level of abstraction). However, many people seem to think that this is the only way that children learn and that if they aren’t explicitly taught everything that’s relevant to reading, they won’t learn it. Because, you know, reading is an unnatural act.

I think that’s wrong for many reasons. I’ve written about this already (this longer article, this short one in The Reading League journal) and will have some new material soon. Explicit instruction is important but it also contains the seeds of its own destruction. It enables the learner to begin learning with less and less, and ultimately no, reliance on explicit instruction, so-called “implicit” learning.  The two work together and the relation between them changes over time.  Explicit instruction at the outset “scaffolds” the implicit learning that does most (though not all) of the work in learning to read.

Think of vocabulary. You know tens of thousands of words. You were explicitly taught a tiny fraction of them. Somehow you were able to learn the rest (the statistical structure of language is the key).  Explicit instruction (which starts with infants being taught the names of people and things) is necessary to create the structures that will allow learning via the implicit mechanism. Same holds for learning about print. 

OK: I should really save this for a separate post. The main point is that learning a rule is a form of rote learning. The rule is an arbitrary thing to be memorized. If you learn the rule, there is a big payoff, generalization: The rule can be applied to new, novel patterns. But, learning a lot of rules is hard. It’s slow. It requires conscious attention and effort. So does using them, which is the antithesis of rapid, automatic, fluent word recognition. There are a lot of them in reading, spelling, and language, too. Finally, one of the biggest developments in the cognitive science of learning is that for many types of knowledge, which include things like orthotactics, phonotactics, phonics, and vocabulary, generalization doesn’t require rules. It can be done using knowledge acquired via implicit, statistical learning. For example, you learn about the spelling patterns that occur and do not occur and use that knowledge in processing novel words. No rules, which is good thing because who knows all the rules for combining letters?

As I’ve said elsewhere, the goal isn’t balanced literacy, it’s balanced learning. That means coupling the appropriate dose of explicit instruction at a given point in development to sufficient opportunities to expand what has been learned via the implicit, statistical learning mechanism.  

I’ve probably said both too much and too little.  I’ll return to “balanced learning” soon. It’s on the stack.



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.