The “Science of Reading”: A Movement Anchored in the Past

One of the defining moments of my first-year writing seminar is my reading aloud the first few paragraphs from A Report from Occupied Territory by James Baldwin.

This essay in The Nation from July 11, 1966, offers students dozens of powerful examples of compelling and purposeful writing, Baldwin at his best. But the circumstances of the essay are what first strike my students.

“There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys,” Baldwin writes. “They were running from the police.”

We note that Baldwin uses “police[men]” five times in the first paragraph, which focuses on people in the Harlem “in terror of the police” because “two of the policemen were beating up a kid.”

Students immediately noted that Baldwin was addressing exactly the same racism grounded in policing that has been the source of social unrest in the U.S. throughout 2020.

In other words, racism in policing in the U.S. is not a recent crisis, but a historically systemic fact of policing.

The more things change, we noted, the more they stay the same.

The history of education in the U.S. is often fascinating and surprising, but it also is like being Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day—especially when it comes to bandwagons and political and public cries of “crisis.”

Fews aspects of education represent this pattern more than reading, suffering the “science of reading” (SoR) movement since early 2018.

The SoR movement is nothing new, a movement anchored in the past.

But as David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby note at The Answer Sheet (The Washington Post), “More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.”

Reading was declared a crisis in the 1940s because of literacy tests of WWII recruits, throughout the 1950s and 1960s because of Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, in the 1990s because of handwringing over NAEP scores, during the George W. Bush presidency with the National Reading Panel and No Child Left Behind, and, as noted above, over the last couple years because of the SoR movement prompted by the journalism of Emily Hanford.

As my students came to recognize about racism and policing in the U.S., anyone who examines the history and current bandwagon of reading will see that schools, teachers, and students have, like Phil, lived the same day over and over—reading is in crisis and here is the silver-bullet for all students to read.

One must wonder why we never pause to confront that this formula has never resulted in anything other than the same crisis.

And one must acknowledge that something cannot be a movement if it is anchored in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Take for example The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement.

The Coalition Members include a strong connection to The Reading League, formed in 2016.

Both the website and the League represent the very worst of missionary zeal and good intentions; and they both fail the fact check necessary for claims about a reading crisis and the bandwagon of SoR.

First, The Reading League grounds their concerns in a misguided and false red flag about whole language, as reported on “Murray is referring to the large base of research and knowledge that proves scientifically-grounded methodology in teaching reading is more effective than the ‘whole language’ approach most curriculum takes.”

This argument has two significant flaws. First, whole language has been replaced by balanced literacy for decades. And second, the 1990s revealed a discredited assault on whole language and an ignored analysis of by Darling-Hammond that showed a positive correlation between higher NAEP scores and students being in whole language classrooms.

The website, The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement, is complicated to fact check because there seems to be a purposeful effort to appear to be different than the SoR bandwagon by rejecting the term as a “buzzword” and demanding “We must preserve the integrity of reading science.”

Further, in the Preamble to their The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide, one sentence stands out: “We know that our children can be taught to read properly the first time.”

“The first time”?

Literacy and reading are lifelong learning experiences, and this claim raises a genuine red flag about this movement.

But the biggest reveal about the so-called SoR movement is in the definition, where there is a narrow parameter set for “scientifically-based”: experimental/quasi-experimental study design, replication or refinement of findings, and peer-reviewed journal publication.

If that sounds familiar, you have simply awakened to the same day some twenty years ago when the National Reading Panel made the exact same claim—and proved to be a deeply flawed report while the policy implications not only did not improve reading but also became mired in funding corruption with Reading First.

The SoR movement is a bandwagon with its wheels mired in the same muddle arguments that have never been true and silver-bullet solutions that have never worked.

Like Phil, we find ourselves waking up to the same day in reading.

This is no crisis, but it certainly is a tired, old story that needs to be left behind through some other vehicle than a bandwagon.

See Also

Greenville News (SC): SC should not “jump on bandwagon” of “science of reading” movement

Open Letter to SC House and Senate Concerning Bill 3613 [UPDATED]

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students


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