Understanding and Reforming the Reading Proficiency Trap

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance has a dire message about children and reading in the US:

The 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test results demonstrate that far too many young people continue to read below grade level. Sixty five percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient,” which means that they are not reading at grade level. Only 35 percent of fourth graders are reading at or above grade level. In addition, 64 percent of eighth graders are reading below grade level, whereas 36 percent are reading at or above grade level.


Doubt this claim? Well, try the NYT and Nicholas Kristof:

Kristof laments: “One of the most bearish statistics for the future of the United States is this: Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient in reading.”

That 2/3 of US children are below grade level reading is a staggering and damning statistic, nearly hard to believe until you do a little simple Googling:

Well, that Googling is a heap of trouble actually. But the message has a consistent core—the use of NAEP reading data to claim that 2/3 of students are not reading on grade level.

But I imagine there is another simple Google search that organizations, parents, journalists, and politicians are not doing:

NAEP student achievement levels are performance standards that describe what students should know and be able to do. Results are reported as percentages of students performing at or above three NAEP achievement levels (NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced). Students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards (e.g., state or district assessments). See short descriptions of NAEP achievement levels for each assessment subject.

Scale Scores and NAEP Achievement Levels

While still a complicated statistic and claim, the reality is that if we use NAEP data as evidence, about 2/3 of students in the US read at or above grade level.

That is much different than what has become common knowledge among reading crisis advocates.

As I have explained, grade-level reading proficiency is a problematic statistic that is more grounded in textbook and testing concerns than in supporting student learning or effective teaching.

Especially in the high-stakes accountability era since the 1980s, statistical efforts to evaluate and reform education have made grade-level proficiency increasingly important and a high-stakes aspect of how we treat children in our schools.

One of the most harmful consequences has been the rise in grade retention at grade 3 based on testing data—a policy associated with the Florida Model but currently celebrated in Mississippi.

Grade retention, in fact, has made grade-level proficiency an even more complicated and problematic statistic since retention removes the lowest scoring students from the testing population and then reintroduces them into a grade level one year older than their peers.

States with high levels of retained students often see test scores increase, but those increases may be from students being older and not from any identifiable academic gain (note that many states with increased grade 3 or 4 scores, the gains disappear by middle school).

In fact, test scores are highly correlated with birth months:

Therefore, for testing and especially teaching and learning, grade-proficiency should likely be replaced with age-level proficiency.

Along with shifting from grade-level to age-level proficiency, as the NAEP explanation above reveals, we need to establish a normalized standard for “proficiency.”

And next, we must stop using proficiency levels to punish students:

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

• retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;

• basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and

• retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Finally, once we move from grade-level to age-level reading proficiency, create a standard for measuring that proficiency, and stop using proficiency in punitive policy, we have to come to terms with the threshold for proficiency.

One central confusion that persists with testing is the expectation for students meeting or exceeding proficiency at any designated point (grade or age).

One of the greatest flaws in NCLB was the mandate that 100% of students achieve proficiency by 2014. That impossible goal in many ways brought an end to the NCLB era.

However, we are confronted with two problems with setting age-level reading proficiency.

First, if we want age-level proficiency to be attainable by all students at any given age, that standard may be so low as to be pointless.

Next, as is more statistically valid, if we establish age-level reading proficiency where most students can be at or above proficiency, we must come to a social agreement on what percentage below proficiency is acceptable.

Historically with NAEP, that has been about 1/3 of students, which may be evidence that this is normal, even as it causes discomfort in the context of equally compelling and misleading beliefs about the urgency of third grade reading proficiency.

Our current reading crisis is doubling down on the worst aspects of all the previous reading crises as well as the worst elements of education reform.

One way to rise above these historical failures is to understand and then reform reading proficiency as one tool for supporting student achievement and teacher effectiveness.


The Indoctrination Paradox: The Christian Conservative Crusade for Public Schools

They like to get you in a compromising position
They like to get you there and smile in your face
They think, they’re so cute when they got you in that condition
Well I think, it’s a total disgrace…
I fight authority, authority always wins

“Authority Song,” John Mellencamp

As an educator for 40 years who doesn’t grade or test, I hate to do this, but let’s start with a pop quiz (and the worst possible kind, multiple choice):

In the US, where are children being indoctrinated?

  1. public schools
  2. their homes
  3. their churches
  4. all of the above

Let’s add another just for fun:

When children are indoctrinated, what ideology is being imposed on those children in the US?

  1. Liberal
  2. Conservative
  3. Both
  4. Neither

I’ll let you ponder those while you read, now, because the point here is to work our way to these answers.

I want to start with a few stories of my life and time as a public school English teacher in my small hometown that is very conservative and mostly fundamentalist Christians.

As I have written often, my childhood was nearly as idealistic as I recall. My parents were fun and doting—lots of play initiated by my parents and lots of formative engagement with my parents that lay the foundation of my becoming an academic, an avid reader, and a writer.

But, well into my late teens, I lived under the possibility of physical violence and anger from my father—although what I call “violence” was pretty mild compared to the beatings that were seen as normal in the South throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

My point is that I was raised in a household where the authoritarian/patriarchal norm was supported by corporal punishment.

By adolescence, however, I had recognized in myself a strong aversion to authority. My father’s credo, “Do as I say, not as I do,” taught me the opposite of his intended lesson.

I came to loath hypocrisy and authority-for-authority’s-sake.

In the privacy of my room, I listened to George Carlin and Richard Pryor for hours and began to read voraciously. The result was that by college, I had become a completely different person than my parents, than almost everyone in my hometown.

I toyed with rejecting religion in high school (even as I was elected president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes my senior year), and then, I did the embarrassingly aggressive atheist routine for my first few years of college.

Ironically, although I rejected much of what my parents taught me directly and indirectly—their heavy smoking, their subtle and not-so-subtle racism, etc.—college taught me a lesson similar to my father but completely unlike my father’s mandates; in college I learned to shut my mouth an listen.

I was well into my thirties before I could recognize the distinction between authoritarian and authoritative (Paulo Freire), but that was my journey away from conservative ideologies (authoritarian) and toward liberal ideologies (authoritative) grounded in the sanctity of the human mind and the glorious possibilities of ideas most often found in books.

By the end of college, I had dedicated myself to being a teacher and a writer, always reading multiple books at a time.

My missionary zeal, then, worked in a different way than what I had witnessed growing up in a small rural town in South Carolina; I took a position in that hometown high school determined to give my students the opportunity to find their own minds, their own intellect, and not embarrass themselves as I had if and when they went off to college.

Being a teacher in a conservative small town in the South introduced me to the indoctrination paradox, in fact.

Nearly daily, I was the one being accused of indoctrination even as I had chosen to teach directly as a rejection of indoctrination. Of course, those most adamant that I was indoctrinating were the most fundamentalist people in town who were terrified of a diversity of ideas, who were the first to try to ban books, who were convinced of their own certainty in a way that was terrifying.

I have hundreds of examples, but one situation stands out to me to this day.

A beautiful part of teaching literature is that novels open the door to ideas and class discussion.

Having students read Kurt Vonnegut or Margaret Atwood, among many others, often led to discussions of free will, but when I would note to students that it defied logic to assert that there is an all-knowing god and human free will, many of my most conservative and religious students would have melt downs in class (this occurred also when we read The Scarlet Letter and confronted Original Sin).

For many of my students, my class was their first experience with questioning ideas and coming to their own understanding as opposed to simply accepting the authority of what their parents or churches told them was the Truth.

Increasingly over my nearly two decades as a public school teacher, I had homeschooled students transfer into our public school, and as a college professor at a selective liberal arts college, I teach a significant number of homeschooled students.

The subset of homeschooled students who often fit inside very conservative and fundamentalist Christian ideology was similar to those experiences while I was a K-12 teacher, but often even more pronounced.

I enter my year 40 as an educator this coming fall. For my entire career (and what I have explored as a historian of education), universal public education, books, and independent thought have always been under attack—especially from conservatives and Christians.

However, the most recent wave of book bans and curriculum gag orders focusing on CRT and chilling charges that LGBTQ+ materials are grooming children is a level of ugliness I never really expected.

The indoctrination paradox is gaining momentum because the end game of Christian conservatives is not to eradicate indoctrination or grooming from public schools, but to have complete control of indoctrination and grooming.

If you want to know what that end game looks like, take a peak inside the world of Christian conservative homeschooling: The revolt of the Christian home-schoolers by Peter Jamison.

These are the chilling highlights but you’d do yourself a service to read the entire piece, carefully:

Corporal punishment, aversion to different ideas, a fear of books, and, most chilling of all, “to reshape America according to biblical principles.”

This is the America being built in Florida, where the governor claims that book bans are not book bans.

So here is the disturbing answers from the opening pop quiz.

The first answer is “4. all of the above,” and the second answer is “2. Conservative.”

And that is the indoctrination paradox.


Just How Secular is Europe Compared to the United States?

Disaster Reform and Shadow Reading Legislation: The Politics of Reading Crisis pt. 2 [UPDATED]

Republican/conservative education reform has been a subset of disaster capitalism for decades now, most prominently after Hurricane Katrina when Republicans used the natural disaster to dismantle public education and erase the existing teacher workforce in New Orleans.

In 2023, Republicans have continued to manufacture educational crises in order to reform education, where “reform” is a veneer for dismantling education.

The twin conservative attacks on schools include the anti-CRT/curriculum gag order movement and the “science of reading” (SOR) movement—both depending on false claims of educational failures by teachers and public schools.

What flies under the radar is that anti-CRT and reading legislation are being promoted by conservative organizations and ideologies in the form of “model legislation” and fact sheets that are devoid of facts.

In the context of the crisis/miracle narratives about education in the media, among the public, and by politicians, disaster reform has evolved into its own powerful and harmful machine.

Not surprising, a key example comes from Florida and Jeb Bush: ExcelinEd.

The disaster education reform organization is Orwellian in its claims but insidious in its carefully packaged information and templates for policy. The key point here is that the SOR movement as a media and parent advocacy event has now fully been folded into the existing Republican education reform machine that is more about dismantling education than supporting student learning or teacher quality.

In short, the materials about reading presented by ExcelinEd are false but very well designed and compelling to the general public and politician looking for ready-made legislation and effective talking points.

As the NCLB/NRP era showed us with Reading First, however, the entire Bush family is driven by market interests, not a pursuit of democratic education for all.

ExcelinEd offers online a series of PDF resources:

The short version of concern here is that nearly all of the information above is misinformation; however, as the SOR movement has shown, most people remain easily targeted by claims of a reading crisis and a set of simplistic blame and solutions.

As I have shown, there simply is no reading crisis in the US, but there is a very long history of political negligence in terms of providing marginalized students and their teachers with the learning and teaching environments as well as social conditions that would support earlier and more developed reading in our students.

Two aspects of the materials above deserve highlighting (again).

First, the Republican commitment to SOR is grounded in doubling-down on punitive policy, grade retention.

The two states identified over and over in the materials above are Florida and Mississippi; however, those states are examples of mirages, not miracles.

ExcelinEd only cites work by Winters [1] to “prove” the effectiveness of grade retention. This strategy is cherry picking “research” by a conservative “scholar” who (surprisingly) only finds positive results for the conservative reform of the day—school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, and now, grade retention.

The research on grade retention is complicated but politically attractive since grade retention (the likely sources of “success” in FL and MS) can raise reading scores in grades 3 or 4, but those “gains” disappear by middle school.

Grade retention distorts the population of students being tested by removing the lowest scoring students and reintroducing older students to grade-level testing. As I have noted before, students achievement can vary significantly by just a month of age difference:

A review of the Florida Model that depends on grade retention has concluded that research does not show whether any short term gains are from retention or additional services. Further, a comprehensive study still notes that grade retention is harmful, especially to marginalized populations of students:

The negative effect of retention was strongest for African American and Hispanic girls. Even though grade retention in the elementary grades does not harm students in terms of their academic achievement or educational motivation at the transition to high school, retention increases the odds that a student will drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma.

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243

A second problematic aspect is the hyper-focus on three-cueing, which fits into the Rufo “caricature” approach to attacking CRT.

Republicans have latched onto the SOR misinformation campaign that perpetuates a cartoon version of three-cueing and fabricates a crisis around claiming that teachers are telling students to guess words instead of using phonics/decoding strategies.

Three-cueing, in fact, is a research-based approach better referred to as “multiple cueing”:

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

ExcelinEd’s prepackaged misinformation campaign and templates for legislation are yet more proof that the SOR movement is another nail in the coffin of public education, an anti-teacher and anti-public school movement that depends on crisis rhetoric and fulfills the goals of disaster reform driven by Republicans and conservatives who serve the needs of the educational marketplace—not students, or teachers.

[1] UPDATE: Another Mississippi “miracle” article in the NYT highlights grade retention positively, again citing only a new study by Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus A. Winters.

First, this is a working paper supported by Mississippi Department of Education and the acknowledgements add: “This project was made possible by a grant from ExcelinEd.”

Here are some key additional caveats beyond how biased this report likely is in terms of meeting the ideological aims of ExcelinEd:

  • The policy brief concedes: “That said, though the results are distinctly positive for the policy treatment overall, the analysis cannot entirely disentangle the extent to which the observed benefits in ELA are due to the additional year of instruction or to other specific features of the approach Mississippi took to providing literacy-focused supports and interventions to students.”
  • In the full working paper, section “2.1 Within-Age vs Within-Grade Comparisons” details a common failure of analyzing grade retention: “Comparing the later outcomes of students retained at a point in time to students in their cohort who were promoted is complicated by the fact that the two groups are enrolled in different grade levels during later years.” The findings of this working paper must be tempered by this fact of the study: “Unfortunately, within-age comparisons of student test scores are not possible in Mississippi because scores on the state’s standardized tests are comparable within grades over time but not across grades.” In other words, as noted above, higher test scores may be the result of students simply being older in a tested grade level, and not because grade retention or any of the services/instructional practices were effective. Again, these “gains” are likely mirages.

Daredevil and Echo: “See No Evil. Hear No Evil”

The Daredevil universes are in flux at Marvel.

With anticipation building for the streaming series reboot from Netflix to Disney+—Daredevil: Born Again—Marvel has announced the end to Daredevil v7 and the launch of Daredevil v8 over the summer of 2023.

In the midst of the industry and narrative turbulence around one of Marvel’s iconic and foundational characters comes what feels like a semi-classic re-centering of the Daredevil myth, Daredevil & Echo, reaching back to Daredevil v2 and the introduction of Echo:

Daredevil v2 10
Daredevil v2 11

Some of the semi-classic re-centering is grounded in the creative team, notably the artwork of Phil Noto:

Daredevil & Echo 1

Daredevil & Echo 1 is a powerful Hell’s Kitchen story that includes the standard focus on justice but weaves a dual narrative about past and present in the visually distinct way Noto portrays Daredevil:

Art by Phil Noto

This limited 4-issue series opens with parallel stories and characters, switching between 1835 and present day Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil and Echo in present day are juxtaposed with Tommy Murdock and Creeping Death (Soena’hane’e).

The tension of the narratives dramatize a truism about history:

Then, with the pairing of Daredevil and Echo, writers Taboo and B. Earl introduce a motif of ableism between the characters’ acknowledgement of blindness and deafness:

Another motif in this issue is innocence as Daredevil and Echo must confront a powerful child, depicted with Noto’s flair for spreads and use of color:

The elements of ableism and innocence are then merged as the child is deaf:

Further, the narratives also begin to overlap with the central evil force being the Blind One

The narrative pacing and interchanging panels for past and present build tension as the reality of the evil force emerges even as Daredevil and Echo find nothing as well: “See no evil.l Hear no evil”:

The many ways in which Marvel ends and restarts characters is often maddening, but with characters such as Daredevil, there are enduring reasons to remain loyal to what will happen next.

The Daredevil & Echo interlude during one of the most turbulent seasons for Daredevil is off to a very promising start that feels like meeting Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen again for the first time.

The Politics of Reading Crisis: From the FL Model to the MS “Miracle” and the TN Disaster

On August 16, 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson closed his speech at the Democratic National Convention with a refrain: “Stay out of the Bushes.”

Twenty-three years later, Jackson’s political message is just as relevant, but now in terms of the two decades of reading crisis that have been perpetuated since that address.

The Bushes, George W. and Jeb, built their political careers on crisis rhetoric about schools.

George W. Bush’s false Texas “miracle” was parlayed into the federal overreach and impossibly idealistic No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which mandated 100% of students would be proficient in reading by 2014.

Jeb Bush mirrored his brother’s pose as an education governor, in part by supporting draconian reading legislation that became known as the Florida Model:

Florida, which passed it’s Just Read, Florida! retention-based third-grade literacy policy in 2002, is largely considered the trailblazer of such policies (CCSSO, 2019). Florida’s policy includes several provisions designed to improve students’ literacy in grades K-3, including early identification of students who need additional supports, ongoing monitoring and communication with families, a range of literacy interventions, and third-grade retention for students who do not meet a certain score on the state assessment. By 2021, 19 states had adopted retention-based third-grade literacy policies that contained several elements of Florida’s policy.

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Changehttps:// link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Crying “crisis” and promising education “miracles” always fails. Here is FL NAEP reading data over the recent years since they adopted harsh grade retention policies, a story of flat scores:

Florida has not improved reading achievement but the state has retained a huge number of students, disproportionately minoritized children:

Unintentionally, FL has also established that inflated grades 3 and 4 test data are achievement mirages, according to a recent analysis: “a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s ‘learning rate’ was the worst in the country — by a wide margin,” and thus:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math. Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

However, the Florida Model mirage has maintained media and political momentum, laying the foundation for the next “miracle” that wasn’t, Mississippi. Starting in 2019 and continuing through 2023, MS is characterized as a “miracle” based on NAEP data—even though no research exists for why MS has had a steady increase in NAEP score for decades, well before “science of reading” or grade retention legislation:

Just like FL, MS has seen gains in early grades, but stagnant achievement by middle school:

8th grade reading trends

Yet, political propaganda continues to mislead by suggesting success where none really exists.

Especially in the South, and notably among Republican led states, the FL Model and MS “miracle” have inspired state reading policy and expanded grade retention, despite decades showing great harm for retention.

With the media uncritically spreading political propaganda—see Alabama and Louisiana compared to MS and FL—the damage is spreading to what should be dubbed the Tennessee Disaster:

More than half of Tennessee third graders fell short of a threshold required to move on to fourth grade unless they meet exemption standards, up their scores in a retake, attend summer school, undergo tutoring or file an appeal.

The state education department said in a news release Monday that 60% of third graders scored as “below” or “approaching” proficiency on the English language arts section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

Third grade reading scores: Tennessee reports 60% fall short on TCAP test

TN has learned the Republican play book, in fact.

First, create a false reading crisis; note that TN’s NAEP reading (like the rest of the nation) has been flat for decades:

Yet, as a next step, the FL Department of Education has proclaimed “Tennessee Makes Historic Gains in Third Grade Reading, Offers Strong Support for Students” even as the state data is underwhelming and, once again, flat:

The reality in TN is a snapshot of the entire nation; there is no reading crisis and the reform is mostly about political agendas:

So why do Lee and Schwinn want parents, taxpayers and legislators to think that two-thirds of Tennessee public school students can’t read? Why do they want you to think that your kids’ and grandkids’ teachers are not doing a good job teaching them to read when, in fact, almost 90% of Tennessee students are reading on grade level by the time they graduate?

It’s because they want to create a fake crisis to make it easier to continue the privatization of public schools through private school vouchers and privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools.

Don’t believe claims that Tennessee students can’t read

The current SOR movement has been fully integrated into the manufactured crisis machine of Republican efforts to dismantle public education with false charges of failure and simplistic reform that causes great harm to students.

Jackson’s rhetorical flurry, “Stay out of the Bushes,” hits a bit differently in 2023, but we still should heed the warning if we care about students, reading, and public schools.


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Test Scores Reflect Media, Political Agendas, Not Student or Educational Achievement [UPDATED]

In the US, the crisis/miracle obsession with reading mostly focuses on NAEP scores. For the UK, the same crisis/miracle rhetoric around reading is grounded in PIRLS.

The media and political stories around the current reading crisis cycle have interested and overlapping dynamics in these two English-dominant countries, specifically a hyper-focus on phonics.

Here are some recent media examples for context:

Let’s start with the “soar[ing]” NAEP reading scores in MS, LA, and AL as represented by AP:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

Now, let’s add the media response to PIRLS data in the UK:

Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey
Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey

Now I will share data on NAEP and PIRLS that shows media and political responses to test scores are fodder for their predetermined messaging, not real reflections of student achievement or educational quality.

A key point is that the media coverage above represents a bait-and-switch approach to analyzing test scores. The claims in both the US and UK are focusing on rank among states/countries and not trends of data within states/countries.

Do any of these state trend lines from FL, MS, AL, or LA appear to be “soar[ing]” data?

The fair description of the “miracle” states identified by AP is that test scores are mostly flat, and AL, for example, appears to have peaked more than a decade ago and is trending down.

The foundational “miracle” state, MS, has had two significant increases, one before their SOR commitment and one after; but there remains no research on why the increases:

Scroll up and notice that in the UK, PIRLS scores have tracked flat and slightly down as well.

The problematic elements in all of this is that many journalists and politicians have used flat NAEP scores to shout “crisis” and “miracle,” while in the UK, the current flat and slightly down scores are reason to shout “Success!” (although research on the phonics-centered reform in England since 2006 has not delivered as promised [1]).

Many problems exist with relying on standardized tests scores to evaluate and reform education. Standardized testing remains heavily race, gender, and class biased.

But the greatest issue with tests data is that inexpert and ideologically motivated journalists and politicians persistently conform the data to their desired stories—some times crisis, some times miracle.

Once again, the stories being sold—don’t buy them.


Three Twitter threads on reading, language and a response to an article in the Sunday Times today by Nick Gibb, Michael Rosen

[1] Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314


Mainstream media continues to push a false story about MS as a model for the nation. Note that MS, TN, AL, and LA demonstrate that political manipulation of early test data is a mirage, not a miracle.

All four states remain at the bottom of NAEP reading scores for both proficient and basic a full decade into the era of SOR reading legislation:

Open Letter: To Curriculum Coordinators in South Carolina School Districts, Diane Stephens

May 16, 2023

To Curriculum Coordinators in South Carolina School Districts:

I was a professor at USC-Columbia for 18 years before I retired in 2017; I was a professor in other states for 12 years before that. My area of expertise is reading assessment and instruction. In the last couple of years, I have heard from several SC educators about proposed changes to literacy practices in SC schools. These changes were recently detailed in Senate Bill 418 which has now been held over until the next legislative session. It is my understanding that the bill was held over because a number of individuals and organizations disagreed with parts of what was proposed.  

As a professor, I had the opportunity to work with legislators and came to understand that because no one legislator can have a broad and deep knowledge on all topics, they regularly end up having to vote on legislation which is outside their area of expertise. When I became aware of Senate Bill 418, I wrote to members of the House and Senate Education and Public Works Committees providing them with some information about reading process, assessment, and instruction.  I also suggested changes to the wording of the bill so that it could reflect current knowledge in the field. If you wish to read that letter, it is attached. 

Here though is the basic information:

There is a science of reading.  By this I mean that there have been thousands of studies published about reading process, assessment, and instruction. This body of research is quite wide and includes research on many different aspects of reading. Indeed, the International Reading Association recently devoted two entire issues of Reading Research Quarterly to this topic. 

While there are differences of opinion on some particulars, the research conducted by reading researchers and which appears in peer-reviewed literacy journals has found that many factors contribute to reading success including:

(1) Knowledgeable teachers who know how to assess the strengths and needs of their students and then provide instruction – whole group, small group, and one-on-one – based on what they know about their students. Because children vary, they do not use a one-size-fits all approach.  

(2) Children who understand that reading is supposed to make sense. The alternative is for education to produce students who can read every work fluently but who cannot retell the story or answer questions about what they read. (Teachers sometimes refer to this as students “who can read but not understand what they read.”)

(3) Children who believe they are capable of making sense of print and so willingly spend time reading. This is often referred to as agency and Dr. Peter Johnston has a very helpful chapter on that in his book Choice Words. Like all of us, children do not choose to do things at which they believe they will fail.

(4) Children who have access to books with which they can be successful both at home and in school. Just as we do not expect athletes to improve without appropriate equipment (like soccer balls for soccer players), we cannot expect children to grow as readers if they do not have books to read.

(5) Children who have time to read both at home and in school. Research has shown conclusively that there is a link between volume of reading and reading achievement. 

(6)  Children who have a variety of skills and strategies to problem-solve meaning. Those skills and strategies include knowing about written language. For the youngest children, this includes understanding that books in English are read left to right and top to bottom. Children also need to understand that words can be segmented and blended and that there are some reliable sound/symbol relationships. Some consonants, for example, can be counted on to make just one sound, while seven of them (e.g., the letter C) make two sounds.  Similarly, there are combinations of letters – /an/ for example – which almost always “says” the same thing as in man, tan, fan. As children progress, children then recognize that /an/ appears in words such as manufacturing, slant and fantastic. Children also learn about grammar and punctuation and story structure and genre. This list goes on and on.

Sometimes, some journalists and salespersons) assert that there is one correct sequence of skill and strategy instruction. Those individuals also argue that phonics instruction should precede the opportunity to read. In addition, they claim that a one-size-fits-all approach is best. This approach is often referred to as Science of Reading (SOR). 

It is important to note that the SOR is not the same as the science of reading discussed earlier in this letter. 

What reading research (the science of reading) has shown is that there are no differences in outcomes among the various approaches to teaching phonics and that a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective. Knowledgeable teachers know best about what instruction is needed at what time for their students. In addition, as authors Reinking, Hruby and Risko (2023) explain in their research article, phonics instruction has been shown to be “more effective when embedded in a more comprehensive program of literacy instruction that accommodates students’ individual needs and multiple approaches to teaching phonics—a view supported by substantial research.”

There simply is no research support for SOR or for a product, called LETRS, often associated with it. There have not been controlled studies in which the progress of students in classrooms taught by SOR teachers were compared to the progress of students taught by teachers whose practices were consistent with research on best practices. And there is absolutely no research which shows that LETRS is an effective instructional approach. (See HERE).

SOR advocates also suggest that phonemic awareness (PA) be taught orally while the National Reading Panel found that PA is best taught using letters, as a part of phonics instruction.

In the midst of what are often media-created reading wars, it is particularly important that decision-makers rely on the wide body of research on reading (the science of reading) and not on an approach with the misleading title, SOR. 

It is also very important not to be misled by unsubstantiated claims.  Reading-research published in peer-refereed journals and teacher expertise should guide decisions about reading process, reading assessment, and reading instruction. Our focus as educators should be on assuring that all students have knowledge teachers, access to books, time to read and instruction based on the strengths and needs of the children in our care.

Please contact me if you would like further information.  Meanwhile, a consistently reliable resource about best practices in reading is the federal What Works Clearing House.

Thank you for your attention to this.

Diane Stephens

Distinguished Professor Emerita

John E. Swearingen, Sr. Professor Emerita in Education

University of South Carolina 

Fact Checking SCDOE Science of Reading Infographic

The South Carolina Department of Education distributed an infographic on the “science of reading” (SOR). The flyer includes a number of mischaracterizations and misinformation, which is a common event since the SOR movement now drives new or revised reading legislation in 47 states (often emphasized strongly in Republican-led states along with CRT bans, curriculum gag orders, and book censorship).

This is a fact check for educators, elected officials, media, and the public interested in supporting effective and accurate information about students learning to read and teaching reading in SC.

The infographic:

What is the state of reading achievement in the US and SC?

FACT: Reading achievement in the US and most states has remained essentially flat for three-plus decades. There is no credible evidence of a reading crisis, although historical negligence to serve marginalized populations of students is supported by the data.

Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? David Reinking, George G. Hruby, and Victoria J. Risko
SC NAEP Grade 4 Reading

Was there a Mississippi “miracle”?

FACT: The Mississippi “miracle” is a manufactured narrative created by the media. MS has had steady increases in early reading achievement for over three decades, well before any SOR legislation or LETRS training. MS also has a very high rate of grade retention and flat grade 8 achievement despite the grade 4 increases, suggesting that the early score increases are a “mirage.” There simply is no scientific evidence of a MS “miracle” or that implementing SOR and LETRS training increased reading achievement.

MS Grade 8 NAEP Reading
Grade retention data

Recommended: A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Does LETRS training improve reading instruction or reading achievement?

FACT: There is no scientific evidence that LETRS training is effective for increasing student reading achievement. Teachers seem to feel more confident after the training, however.

LETRS [access materials HERE]

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Research Roundup: LETRS (PDF in link above also)

Have whole language, balanced literacy, and three cueing failed to provide students with adequate reading instruction?

FACT: There is no research showing WL, BL, or three cueing (multiple cueing) have failed students. WL and BL do include phonics and skills instruction, and achievement over many decades has remained flat regardless of the teaching theory or reading program being implemented. Multiple cueing is a research-supported practice, but political attacks on three cueing are based in caricature.

Recommended: Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Multiple Cueing Approaches [access materials HERE]

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

What is the value of the National Reading Panel (NRP) report?

FACT: The NRP report is now 20+ years old, and reading research has advanced beyond the report’s findings. The report also was underfunded and incomplete and should not be viewed as “settled” science. The media and political misrepresentation of the NRP report, however, continues to mislead; the report found systematic phonics instruction increases pronunciation of nonsense words in grade one, but does not improve comprehension. As well, the report found systematic phonics was no more effective than WL or BL.

National Reading Panel

Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

Phonemic awareness. (n.d.). Big ideas in beginning reading. Center on Teaching and Learning. Oregon University. http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/pa/pa_what.php

Stephens, D. (2008). The federal government wants me to teach what? A teacher’s guide to the National Reading Panel report. National Council of Teachers of English. https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/resources/newsletter/magazine/nrp_report.pdf

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report: Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489535.pdf

Shanahan, T. (2003, April). Research-based reading instruction: Myths about the National Reading Panel report. The Reading Teacher, 56(7), 646-655.

Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

Garan, E.M. (2001, March). Beyond smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan82(7), 500-506. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170108200705

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Yatvin, J. (2002). Babes in the woods: The wanderings of the National Reading Panel. The Phi Delta Kappan, 83(5), 364-369

Yatvin, J. (2003). I told you so! The misinterpretation and misuse of The National Reading Panel Report. Education Week, 22(33), 44-45, 56. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2003/04/30/33yatvin.h22.html

Yatvin, J. (2000). Minority view. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/minorityView.pdf

What is the “SOR”science of reading”?

FACT: Starting as a media movement supported by state-based dyslexia organizations, SOR has become a political movement due to its direct impact on state legislation. That movement has misrepresented the reading sciences. Further, SOR has increasingly become a marketing label for reading materials and programs, often identified as “structured literacy,” which can be scripted programs that de-professionalize teachers and impose a one-size-fits-all approach to phonics on all students.

Note: Mark Seidenberg, a key neuroscientist cited by the “science of reading” movement, offers a serious caution about the value of brain research: “Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how, and for whom at a level that is useful for teachers [emphasis added]” (RRQ 441).

Recommended: SOR Movement Maintains Conservative Assault on Teachers and Public Schools

Simple View of Reading (SVR) and Structured Literacy [access materials HERE]

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Barber, A.T., Cartwright, K.B., Hancock, G.R., & Klauda, S.L. (2021). Beyond the simple view of reading: The role of executive functions in emergent bilinguals’ and English monolinguals’ reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly56(S1), S45-S64. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.385

Cervetti, G.N., Pearson, P.D., Palincsar, A.S., Afflerbach, P., Kendeou, P., Biancarosa, G., Higgs, J., Fitzgerald, M.S., & Berman, A.I. (2020). How the reading for understanding initiative’s research complicates the simple view of reading invoked in the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S161-S172. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.343

Brain Research [access materials HERE]

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly55(S1), S119-S130. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119-S129. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 7 December 2022]

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

The Negative Legislative Consequences of the SOR Media Story: An Open-Access Reader

Open Letter on Reading Legislation

Open Letter: S.418 Reading Bill in SC – Diane Stephens

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

educator, public scholar, poet&writer – academic freedom isn't free