Sondheim on reading

Well, not exactly. But he did say something that captures an important element of  learning to read.

Terry Gross of Fresh Air is running three shows in remembrance of Mr. Sondheim. In a 2010 interview, Terry asked him a hoary question: which comes first, the music or the lyrics? His answer yielded a small gem. You can listen or read the transcript.

Sondheim says, paraphrasing mightily, that neither comes first. You have to work back and forth between them because each influences the other.  He says, “So the thing to do is to do [them] together or in tandem, but not one and then the other. It’s one then the other, one then the other, the same time.”

The relevance to reading? Many people think of reading as consisting of components that the child needs to master. The NRP report encouraged this view: Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. “The 5 Pillars of Reading,” the targets for instruction. There are classrooms where they are taught separately, which is a very inefficient thing to do because they are interrelated. In other approaches, the putative components are taught in sequence, e.g., spoken phonemes, letters and letter names, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and beyond. Here’s an illustration (click to embiggen) of the difference from one of our recent Reading Meetings:

Sondheim was an interactionist. Bits of the music might inspire bits of the lyrics, which then affect further progress on the music, and so on, “one then the other, one then the other, the same time.” In Sondheim’s hands, the words and music eventually come together to form a piece in which they hardly seem separable.

I am not a serious Sondheim fan–I don’t listen to Assassins for light entertainment–but loved Officer Krupke (West Side Story) and Small World (Gypsy) as a kid and was thrilled to learn much later that he had written the lyrics. In my book I described learning to read as the question of “how the various types of knowledge that support skilled reading develop and come into alignment, like the characters finding their places in the tableau that will become the Seurat painting in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.”

Mr. Sondheim was apparently an extraordinary teacher. A person can learn from a truly extraordinary teacher even after they are, sadly, gone.

Running starts in reading

My post about the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) curriculum takes issue with their emphasis on “word solving,” the use of a variety of strategies to figure words out. I mentioned “get a running start,” taking it as representative of strategies that are inefficient and unreliable. Re-reading the post I wondered whether “get a running start” was from F&P or the Lucy Calkins-TCRWP curriculum, which I’ve also been examining. Both emphasize the use of multiple strategies for reading words. They seem very similar to me in this respect, although they differ in other ways. Nonetheless, I wanted to check the provenance of the phrase for accuracy.

That exact wording is apparently from Calkins, not F&P.  It’s found here, for example:

I also retrieved my Fountas and Pinnell books from a borrower and looked at the discussions of strategies and word solving. Many strategies are discussed (e.g. more than 50 word solving actions in the Fountas & Pinnell, 2017a, guide), but I did not find the phrase “get a running start.” It is hard to tally all of the strategies described in Fountas & Pinnell (2017b): there are multiple ones for every grade and for every level in their A-Z continuum. But, I didn’t find “running start there, either.  Guided Reading (1996) discusses re-reading the sentence containing a problem word but it isn’t called getting a running start.  I haven’t read all of the materials that F&P have produced, but it appears that the phrase should be credited to Calkins and TCRWP. Regardless of what it is called, the point is the same: using the recommended procedures for figuring words out is inefficient and unreliable compared to using the spelling of a word and its associated pronunciation. The point holds for both curricula.

Re-reading F&P, I was reminded just how complex their system is. That may be why it gets reduced to classroom posters like this one:

How children would be expected to remember and use the dozens of word solving activities described in these books is a mystery to me. I also wonder how easy these materials are for teachers to use, and whether there is sufficient time in a school year to even cover all of these possibilities. I hope that people who have far greater familiarity with these curricula than me can comment and correct any other errors.


Fountas & Pinnell (2017a), Comprehensive phonics, spelling and word study guide. Heinemann.

Fountas & Pinnell (2017b), The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum, expanded edition. Heinemann.

Fountas & Pinnell (1996), Guided Reading. Heinemann.

Clarity about Fountas and Pinnell

Fountas and Pinnell have written a series of blog posts defending their popular curriculum, which is being criticized as based on discredited ideas about how children learn to read. (See Emily Hanford’s post here; EdReports evaluation here, many comments in the blogosphere.) The question is why school systems should continue to invest in the F&P curriculum and other products if they are inadequate. 

Their blog posts indicate that Fountas and Pinnell (hereafter F&P) have not benefited from ongoing discussions about approaches to reading instruction. They are staying the course. The posts are restatements of their views that add little new information.

Here are some further observations, from a reading researcher who has been looking closely at several curricula that dominate the enormous market for such materials. I’ve summarized basic flaws in their approach and responded to their defense of it. The quotes are from the F&P “Just to clarify” posts.

1. Fountas and Pinnell’s misconceptions about the knowledge and mental operations that support reading, and how they are acquired, make both learning to read and teaching children to read more difficult.

Being able to read and understand words quickly and accurately is the basic foundation for reading, which enables the development of more advanced forms of literacy. 

Because the F&P curriculum  doesn’t adequately address the development of these skills, it focuses on coping with the struggles that follow. Beginning readers are seen as plodders who, knowing little about the written code, need ways to figure words out. This can be done by using several “word solving” strategies.  There is greater emphasis on teaching children how to cope with their lack of basic skills than on teaching those skills in the first place.

Thus: Fountas and Pinnell’s approach to reading creates learning difficulties for which their curriculum then offers solutions. The rationale for the approach collapses if children are given sufficient opportunities to gain basic skills.

2. In defense of their approach, F&P (like Lucy Calkins) cite the example of a child who reads the word HORSE as PONY. This example clarifies what is at stake.

For F&P such errors are a natural occurrence in beginning reading. The error shows that the child understands the context (perhaps from pictures) and just needs the tools to correct the error, with the teacher’s support. Later they will be taught to “monitor” their own reading to identify when errors have been made and use the strategies to correct them.

I view the error quite differently: it indicates an astonishing instructional flaw, failing to teach the child basic facts about print. A child who is attending to the printed word and has learned that the spelling of a word represents its sound would know that the word cannot be PONY. This type of error is called a semantic paralexia when it occurs in adults whose reading is impaired because of stroke or other brain injury. It’s a rare error among beginning readers unless they haven’t been adequately taught about print.

3. The best “cue” to a word is the word itself. That is the great thing about alphabetic writing: the spelling of a word tells you what the word is.  B-o-o-k is the word BOOK, pronounced /bʊk/–rhymes with  /tʊk/ and  /lʊk/, similar in meaning to TEXT and MAGAZINE. The spelling is far more informative than strategies such as look at the picture, take a running start, skip the word and go back at the end, and other ways to “solve words.” Readers who have gained the ability to recognize words quickly and accurately from the written code do not need the F&P strategies. The proof is that they can do this for words in isolation–with no context and no strategic options. This ability carries over to reading words in sentences, where skilled readers recognize words with little dependence on context. 

Context is important, of course, just not in the way F&P recommend. A reader or listener uses the context in which the word occurs to determine which of its senses is relevant: whether TEXT is used as a noun or verb, for example, or whether the magazine is a periodical or weaponry. Language being inherently ambiguous we do this all the time, rapidly, automatically, and without conscious awareness. Recognizing a word and integrating it with the prior context is much more efficient than predicting or deducing the word using context and strategies. (For details, see chapter 11 in my book.)

4. Skilled word recognition is like a reflex: looking at a word elicits recognition within a fraction of a second, providing access to information that is associated with it. This process is so automatic it is hard to prevent from happening. The goal of instruction is to help the child develop this “reflex” as efficiently as possible, allowing them to move on to the many other aspects of literacy. Whereas my model for reading words is the reflex–an involuntary response to a stimulus–F&P’s model is figuring it out. Like this:

          [Child has misread the word HORSE. Teacher responds.]

          Try that again.

          You said PONY; the letter P is not in this word. Try again!

          Get a running start this time.

          Look at the picture. What is that?

         The children are at a farm. What kinds of animals live on a farm?           

And so on.

Word solving is the opposite of word recognition as I’ve described it. It is slow and effortful. It requires conscious awareness. Whereas the spelling decisively identifies the word, the strategies are fallible and vary in how efficiently they guide the child to the word. Readers are meant to use “all types of information simultaneously,” but the process of remembering and combining relevant information is effortful and inefficient.

F&P nonetheless remain concerned that teaching children to recognize words from print–sometimes called “decoding”–is ill-advised because it may draw their attention away from understanding the text:  

“They may give so much attention to decoding that they have little attention to give to thinking about the meaning, the language, and the messages of the text.”

This is only true if, as in the F&P program, children haven’t been adequately taught to decode. Acquiring this skill requires instruction, feedback, and practice. There’s a learning curve. It too can initially be slow and effortful. But the payoffs are huge. The reader gains sufficient knowledge to continue learning with less and less direct supervision. Facility with words frees attention to be focused on comprehending the text, the principal goal. That is why doing a good job with basic skills instruction is so important.

Ironically, F&P’s focus on word solving itself draws children’s attention away from comprehending the text. The child is focused on figuring out the word rather than following the text. Whereas learning about the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of words carries over into and promotes the development of skilled reading, the strategies do not. “Get a running start” is not an element of skilled reading.

5. There is a major problem with the top-down, word-solving approach that seems to have been wholly overlooked. As in the horse-pony example, children often need several tries to “solve” the word (the same is true in the Calkins approach). Readers will often make multiple errors along the way: incorrect guesses, multiple mispronunciations, re-reads that produce new errors, and so on. Advocates of this approach ignore the fact that children learn from the errors they produce, not just when they arrive at the correct answer.  Say a child has misread a word. The teacher suggests a strategy and the child produces another error. Such errors are not consistently corrected or explained; the teacher may instead turn to a different strategy. And then another. The child is continuously learning from these exchanges, including their incorrect responses.

This is a deep flaw in the strategies-guessing-solving approach. It creates a massively inefficient form of learning, which we know from studies of learning in humans and in AI systems (“machine learning”).  The scenarios that F&P offer as illustrations of the merits of their approach have characteristics that produce slower, less efficient learning in computational learning systems.

I have only a few additional brief comments.

6. It’s widely agreed that teachers need better preparation for teaching reading than colleges currently provide. Teachers are left to learn on the job, and on the job they learn about reading from curriculum gurus such as Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins. The teacher’s manuals, supporting documents and materials, workshops, posters, websites and, yes, blog posts shape teachers’ beliefs and practices.  

Why are we ceding teacher education to the individuals and corporations that market these materials?

7. The leveled texts. The other big part of the F&P program is their unique system of assigning texts to levels. It’s a complex, proprietary system with a scientific veneer. The leveling system and leveled texts raise concerns that I just cannot get into here. The basic concern (as expressed by teachers and other observers) is that the texts are not challenging enough. Children succeed at reading them but learn very little from the effort. I have not studied the links between the curriculum and the texts. But, if children are having difficulties gaining basic reading skills because they aren’t adequately taught, and word solving strategies are fallible and inefficient, then the texts might well have to be simplified for children to get through them.

Finally, F&P note that teachers matter more than programs. I completely agree. But in the context of their blog posts, F&P seem to be saying: look, our materials may be flawed but not to worry, teachers matter more than programs. So, stay with us. I think that teachers need to have the best preparation for the job and the best instructional materials to use. They are not getting either from F&P. I’d like to see a moratorium on purchasing these systems until better ones come to market, which will happen. Invest the savings in teachers: in-service support, professional development, reading coaches and classroom aides. 

Thanks to Emily Hanford, Maryellen MacDonald, and Steve Dykstra.

Some context on context

Let’s talk about ”background knowledge.” The term refers to things a child knows about the world–about people, events, and situations; categories such as animals and clothing; topics such as animal habitats and how plants grow. These are things we use language to talk and write about. This knowledge provides the “background” or context for understanding a text.
Unsurprisingly, there are differing views about the role of background knowledge in early reading.

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You can find an audio recording of this post at the bottom of the page. 

Let’s talk about ”background knowledge.” The term refers to things a child knows about the world–about people, events, and situations; categories such as animals and clothing; topics such as animal habitats and how plants grow. These are things we use language to talk and write about. This knowledge provides the “background” or context for understanding a text.1

Unsurprisingly, there are differing views about the role of background knowledge in early reading. 

One side is represented by theories such as the Simple View of Reading, which states that early reading has two components: knowledge of the written code (the part that is unique to reading), and knowledge of language (already known from speech).2 The Simple View is an observation about conditions at the onset of reading. By learning about print readers gain a portal to all they have already learned from using spoken language. Background knowledge is implied in this theory (because language is used to talk about things in the world) but not treated as a principal component of beginning reading. Theories that emphasize the primacy of learning about the printed code in early reading are sometimes said to emphasize “skills” rather than “meaning” or “literacy”. 

An opposing view assigns far greater weight to background knowledge in learning to read. Proponents of this view emphasize “literacy” and “meaning” over “skills.” Reading is seen as “an active, constructive, meaning-making process.” The words on the page are only the starting point for generating the interpretation of a text, which varies as a function of a reader’s personal experience, knowledge of the world, and culturally-determined beliefs about the purpose of reading. Skilled reading is seen as a heavily top-down, knowledge-driven process: given sufficient knowledge of language, topic, and genre, a child can accurately anticipate words in texts and only has to sample the letters lightly to confirm their guesses. The instructional implication is that children need to learn how to combine different types of background knowledge (or “cues”) to recognize words, doing away with the need to dwell on “skills” such as gaining familiarity with the spellings of words and their pronunciations. 

We think that these seemingly opposing views can be reconciled by taking a cognitive perspective, which addresses the mental operations involved in reading, and a developmental perspective, which addresses how behavior changes as children acquire knowledge over time. Let’s look at how.

Take Me Out To “The Baseball Study”

When people talk about background knowledge they invariably bring up Recht and Leslie’s 1988 Baseball Study.3 Many people have heard of the study, but how many have actually read it? Relying on the second-hand, simplified version of a research study can lead to instructional practices that are meant to be consistent with the “science of reading” but are actually only loosely related to it. The Baseball Study illustrates that concern, so let’s take a closer look at it.

The article reports a small behavioral study in which middle school students read a passage about a half inning of a baseball game. Participants then performed several tasks to assess their comprehension of the passage and memory for specific statements. The researchers also obtained separate measures of the students’ reading ability and their knowledge of baseball (the “background knowledge” relevant to the passage). Participants were sorted into four groups based on these measures:

High reading skill
High baseball knowledge

Low reading skill
High baseball knowledge

High reading skill
Low baseball knowledge

Low reading skill
Low baseball knowledge

We want to know how the individuals in the 4 groups performed on the comprehension and memory measures. The surprising finding that accounts for the study’s notoriety is that performance was determined by background knowledge not reading skill. The participants with better knowledge of baseball did better than those who knew less about it. But, that was true for both good and poor reader groups. Conclusion? The study seems to indicate that in comprehending a text, background knowledge plays a more important role than reading skill. Knowing a lot about a topic can compensate for differences in ability to read. This interpretation is consistent with the top-down, guessing approach we mentioned above. It reinforces the idea that readers don’t have to pay close attention to the text if they have sufficient background knowledge.


If you want to get deeper into the “science of reading,” you want to learn to think like a reading researcher. That means looking at how a study was conducted and whether the data actually support the authors’ conclusions. Sometimes they don’t. 

We’ve created a bar chart that makes it easier to understand the results of this experiment. We want to assess the impact of two factors, Reading Ability (high vs. low) and Prior Knowledge (high vs. low), on performance. We’ve plotted the data from a measure of participants’ memory (“verbal recall”) for content of the text; the results are very similar for the other performance measures. The figure shows each group’s mean performance on the task (it’s the average of the scores of all the individuals in that group). The lines on each bar (called “error bars”) are the standard deviations of the means, which indicate how variable the scores are in the group. As a rule of thumb, the means between two conditions only differ reliably if the error bars do not overlap. 

Baseball graph

This is a 2 x 2 design: two factors (reading skill, prior knowledge) each of which has two levels (high, low). The data analyses are not complicated. Was there an effect of reading skill (high better than low), ignoring baseball knowledge? Was there an effect of baseball knowledge (high better than low), ignoring reading ability? Then we ask about the combination of the factors. That means asking whether any of the four conditions differ from each other. Did the two reader groups with high baseball knowledge perform alike or differently? For the two groups with low baseball knowledge, did higher reading ability allow the participants to perform better? And so on.

The results show a big effect of Prior Knowledge: people with better knowledge of baseball performed better on this measure. In both reader groups, the blue bar differs from the red. The other main finding is that the results are very similar for the high and low reading ability groups. There is no effect of reader group in this study: the high and low reading groups did not differ in performance. Eyeballing the data, it looks like the means in the two low reading ability groups are lower than in the two high reading groups, but these differences are not statistically reliable. The small numerical difference between the means in the two high prior knowledge groups (blue bars) is not statistically reliable: the standard deviations overlap. Each mean falls within the standard deviation of the other group. Informally, the two means do not differ given the “margin of error”. The same is true for the two low knowledge conditions: it looks like the low reading ability/low prior knowledge group performed worse than the high reading ability/low prior knowledge group, but the means do not differ statistically. 

Finally, the interaction between the two factors is also not significant. The effect of baseball knowledge was the same for high and low reading groups. 

What have we learned from the study? Participants who knew more about baseball performed better than those who knew less. This finding is obvious. It doesn’t pass the “Grandmother test,” which is, could your grandmother guess the result correctly? You ask your grandmother, “if people read a story about a baseball game, who will remember more about it later: people who know a lot about baseball or people who don’t?” Your grandmother says, “the people who know more about baseball. This is what you study?”

What about the fact that the impact of baseball knowledge was the same for better and poorer readers? Does this mean that text comprehension is mainly determined by background knowledge–knowledge of the topic? That background knowledge can compensate for differences in reading skills such as recognizing and understanding words? Does the study support the top-down guessing theory? 

Folks, the study says exactly nothing about the relative importance of background knowledge and reading skills. The authors wanted to compare good and poor readers but didn’t succeed in doing so. There are no effects of reader group in this study. The procedures used to select participants did not yield groups that differed in reading skill. The study therefore does not show anything about the effect of reading skill or the interaction of reading skill and prior knowledge. The experiment would have yielded the same results if the texts had been read aloud to the participants–if there were no reading involved at all.

The authors made the Stats101 error of interpreting null effects–the absence of a reliable statistical effect of reading skill or interaction between reading skill and prior knowledge–as providing positive evidence that reading level didn’t matter, only background knowledge. That is not OK. The results are equally consistent with the conclusion that the groups didn’t differ in reading skill, or at least enough to have any measurable impact on the performance in this experiment. 

The study didn’t yield a valid test of the impact of reading skill because of choices that were made in designing and conducting it. First, the differences between the good and poor readers were small because the authors excluded certain poor readers: “We selected low-ability subjects who scored above the 30th percentile in vocabulary to avoid word-recognition problems.” The weakest readers–the ones who really struggle with reading words–were excluded. Moreover, the simple tests that were used to assess reading skills have their own imprecision (margin of error). The net result is that the good and poor readers did not differ substantially in reading ability. The problem could have been avoided by choosing participants from a broader range of reading skills.

Second, there were only 16 participants in each condition. How many participants should there be in a study? Is 16 a large number or small? That depends on what’s being measured. Given the subtle, at best, differences between the good and poor readers, this number of participants does not yield enough data to detect differences between groups, should they exist. Statisticians would say the study lacked sufficient power to detect effects of reading skill. The study did have sufficient power to detect the effect of background knowledge because it is huge: readers who don’t know much about baseball will have great difficulty remembering what they read. Big effect: doesn’t take many observations to detect. Small effect: you’re gonna need a bigger sample. 

Bottom line: though widely cited, the study is fatally flawed and the conclusions do not follow from the results. The study says nothing about the relative importance of background/prior knowledge versus reading skill. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because a study is published the conclusions are correct. 

There’s a better way to look at the roles of background knowledge and basic reading skills, and it doesn’t require comparisons between good and poor readers. In a classic study by Bransford and Johnson, high school and college students heard a passage and then were asked how easy the passage was to comprehend and to recall as many ideas as possible.4 Sounds similar to the Baseball Study, but try it yourself:

If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Since the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face to face contact, the least number of things could go wrong.

How did that go for you? What was happening in the passage? You likely know all the words and yet didn’t understand what was happening. It was the same for participants in the experiments. However, the results were different when the study was repeated with one change: participants saw the following picture before hearing the passage (hover your mouse over the box below to see the picture).

Bransford Image

Suddenly, the passage makes more sense. The participants who saw the picture first showed better recall and comprehension than the participants who didn’t see the picture or even those who were shown the picture after hearing the passage.

Here’s another passage to try:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell.

Got it? What if I told you the passage is about washing clothes? Read it again—suddenly it makes sense! This experiment, along with the others in the paper, suggest that providing enough context about the topic of a passage is critical to comprehension and recall.

However, it does not mean that knowing the topic is enough for comprehension. Just as with the Baseball Study, if the students in the Bransford paper didn’t know the meanings of the words in the passages, telling them the topic wouldn’t help them very much. Without the ability to both read and understand the words presented to you, background knowledge or context is pretty useless. 

Implications for Instruction?

These studies and the research that has followed highlight the importance of relevant background knowledge and linguistic context for reading comprehension.5 Children’s reading difficulties can indeed result from lacking such knowledge, rather than problems with recognizing words. This issue arises in many real-world situations. A math word problem may describe a situation that is unfamiliar to some readers because it is outside their culture or experience–like a question that asks about health club membership fees. The same holds for standardized assessments of reading comprehension: children read texts that describe situations, events, objects, and people who are more or less familiar given their backgrounds. The materials are written as if children share certain types of knowledge, but that assumption is often untrue. 

Background knowledge is important, and overlooked in formulations such as the Simple View of Reading. It doesn’t follow, however, that having background knowledge is sufficient, or does away with the need to attend closely to the words in a text. The Bransford studies show that a good reader who lacks the relevant background knowledge will comprehend poorly. But numerous studies also show that texts are hard to comprehend if people can’t read the words (ask your Grandma). The goal of instruction is to get children to the point where they recognize words quickly, accurately, automatically. Reading then allows the child to expand their knowledge of language and the world, gaining additional practice reading words and comprehending texts.

This is a developmental perspective. It is not just that both basic skills (word recognition) and background knowledge are important for reading comprehension–though they are. It is that they develop, in different ways, at different time scales. A recipe contains a list of ingredients, but making the dish is a series of steps, some overlapping and some sequential. Moreover, the components are not independent: background knowledge affects reading which depends on word recognition which affects which background knowledge is relevant which depends, in part, on reading varied texts for varied purposes. Basic skills and background knowledge cannot be disentangled from each other–they are intrinsically intertwined and therefore must both be the focus of instruction.

— Mark Seidenberg & Molly Farry-Thorn

Download Audio

(this will open the audio in a new page where you can click the three dots and then click download)

1. How Knowledge Helps, Willingham (2006)

2. Where the Simple View of Reading was introduced, Gough & Tunmer (1986)

3. The “Baseball Study”, Recht & Leslie (1988)

4. Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding, Bransford & Johnson (1972)

5. How Much Knowledge Is Too Little? When a Lack of Knowledge Becomes a Barrier to Comprehension, O’Reilly, Wang, & Sabatini (2019)

Lost in Translation?

We (Mark, Matt Cooper Borkenhagen, and Devin Kearns) have a new paper about the science of reading and education, to be published in an issue of the journal Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ) devoted to this topic. The title is “Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice”.

Some of you will want to read the paper. It isn’t very technical but it is nonetheless written mainly for the people who read articles in RRQ. With that in mind, we (my colleague Molly Farry Thorn and I) will be breaking down the major topics in a series of blog posts here. We are also going to cover some important issues that didn’t make it into the paper, e.g., efforts to seek legislative remedies for low literacy.

What’s this new paper about? Here’s the abstract

We (Mark, Matt Cooper Borkenhagen, and Devin Kearns) have a new paper about the science of reading and education, to be published in an issue of the journal Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ) devoted to this topic. The title is “Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice”.

Some of you will want to read the paper. It isn’t very technical but it is nonetheless written mainly for the people who read articles in RRQ. With that in mind, we (my colleague Molly Farry Thorn and I) will be breaking down the major topics in a series of blog posts here. We are also going to cover some important issues that didn’t make it into the paper, e.g., efforts to seek legislative remedies for low literacy.

What’s this new paper about? Here’s the abstract:

Can the science of reading contribute to improving educational practices, allowing more children to become skilled readers? Much has been learned about the behavioral and brain bases of reading, how children learn to read, and factors that contribute to low literacy. The potential to use research findings to improve literacy outcomes is substantial but remains largely unrealized. The lack of improvement in literacy levels, especially among children who face other challenges such as poverty, has led to new pressure to incorporate the “science of reading” in curricula, instructional practices, and teacher education.

In the interest of promoting these efforts, we discuss three issues that could undermine them: the need for additional translational research linking reading science to classroom activities; the oversimplified way the science is sometimes represented in the educational context; the fact that theories of reading have become more complex and less intuitive as the field has progressed. Addressing these concerns may allow reading science to be used more effectively and achieve greater acceptance among educators.

There are many obstacles to making better use of science to improve literacy outcomes. We know that many teachers aren’t exposed to basic facts about how reading works and how children learn as part of their professional training. Teachers who gain this background through their own efforts then run up against colleagues whose beliefs are very different—and principals who know little about the controversies. Teachers also have to work with commercial curricula that make it hard to know what to teach, when, how, and for whom (e.g., children from different language or economic backgrounds). I discussed many of these issues, and their long history, in my book.

But that’s not what this paper is about. 

The question we ask is: how much of what we’ve learned from the “science of reading” is useful to teachers? We think there isn’t enough translational research that speaks to how findings from the scientific literature can be incorporated in effective teaching materials and practices. We say:

[O]ne reason the science doesn’t get into the classroom is because it does not provide sufficient guidance about what to do there. It is not only that cognitive science is not a part of teacher education. If it were clear to teachers how such science could improve their effectiveness and their students’ progress, they would clamor for it. Some already do.

Sound interesting? Take a look at the article. And stay tuned to this station.

— Mark & Molly