How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED]

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Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” (SoR) advocates on social media.

Ok, so I suspect some of you will enter the fray, and I must caution that you are not going to change the minds of SoR advocates; therefore, if you enter into a social media debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read that debate, others who genuinely want a discussion and are looking to be better informed (SoR advocates are not open to debate and do not want an honest discussion).

First, expect to be attacked and swarmed.

Next, keep focused on the claims made by SoR advocates, and you can anticipate those pretty easily (see below). An important way to hold SoR advocates accountable is to point out the contradictions between calling for a narrow view of “science” and then referring to reports that are released with no peer review (not scientific), such as reports released by NCTQ, and also misrepresenting challenged reports, such as the reports from the National Reading Panel (NRP) under George W. Bush.

Finally, I recommend making evidence-based challenges to the two broad claims of SoR advocacy—that the “science of reading” is simple and settled.

Your best approach is to counter with “not simple, not settled.”

Here, then, let me offer the main claims you will likely confront and resources for responding (also see resources linked after the post).

SoR Claim: Dyslexia is under-diagnosed and students with dyslexia need intensive systematic phonics (likely Orton-Gillingham–based approaches).

Counter: Research does not support one way to address or diagnose dyslexia, there isn’t a strong consensus on what constitutes dyslexia (no unifying definition), and research does not support O-G phonics for all dyslexia issues.

As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty (Mathes et al., 2005). For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003). Reviews of research focusing solely on decoding interventions have shown either small to moderate or variable effects that rarely persist over
time, and little to no effects on more global reading skills. Rather, students classified as dyslexic have varying strengths and challenges, and teaching them is too complex a task for a scripted, one-size-fits-all program (Coyne et al., 2013; Phillips & Smith, 1997; Simmons, 2015). Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA, 2016)

See also:

Currently, there is a well-organized and active contingent of concerned parents and educators (and others) who argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties, affecting approximately 20 percent of the population, and that there is a widely-accepted treatment for such difficulties: an instructional approach relying almost exclusively on intensive phonics instruction. Proponents argue that it is based on “settled science” which they refer to as “the science of reading” (SOR). The approach is based on a narrow view of science, and a restricted range of research, focused on word learning and, more recently, neurobiology, but paying little attention to aspects of literacy like comprehension and writing, or dimensions of classroom learning and teacher preparation. Because the dyslexia and instructional arguments are inextricably linked, in this report, we explore both while adopting a more comprehensive perspective on relevant theory and research.


Johnston and Scanlon answer 12 questions and then offer these important policy implications (quoted below):

  1. There is no consistent and widely accepted basis – biological, cognitive, behavioral, or academic – for determining whether an individual experiencing difficulty with developing word reading skill should be classified as dyslexic. (Questions 1 and 10).
  2. Although there are likely heritable and biological dimensions to reading and language difficulties, there is no way to translate them into implications for instructional practice. (Questions 2 and 11).
  3. Good first instruction and early intervention for children with a slow start in the word reading aspect of literacy, reduces the likelihood they will encounter serious difficulty. Thus, early screening with assessments that can inform instruction, is important. Screening for dyslexia, particularly with instructionally irrelevant assessments offers no additional advantage. (Questions 5 and 6).
  4. Research supports instruction that purposely develops children’s ability to analyze speech sounds (phonological/phonemic awareness), and to relate those sounds to patterns of print (phonics and orthographics), in combination with instruction to develop comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and a strong positive and agentive relationship with literacy. (Questions 7 and 12).
  5. Evidence does not justify the use of a heavy and near-exclusive focus on phonics instruction, either in regular classrooms, or for children experiencing difficulty learning to read (including those classified as dyslexic). (Questions 7, 8 and 12).
  6. Legislation (and district policies) aligned with the SOR perspectives on dyslexia will necessarily require tradeoffs in the allocation of resources for teacher development and among children having literacy learning difficulties. These tradeoffs have the potential to privilege students experiencing some types of literacy learning difficulties while limiting instructional resources for and attention available to students whose literacy difficulties are not due (exclusively) to word reading difficulties. (Question 12).

SoR Claim: SoR advocates rely on a narrow definition of “science,” emphasizing cognitive science and brain research over a broad range of research covering a century in literacy.

Counter: A complex and full understanding of the term “science,” and recognizing evidence on teaching reading must include more than cognitive science and brain research.

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.


In this article, we argue that the “science of reading” (SOR) construct is being used to shape the future of literacy teacher preparation and silence the voices and work of literacy teacher education researchers to the detriment of quality science, quality teaching, and quality teacher preparation. First, we briefly inspect the SOR movement in terms of its historical roots in experimental psychology. Next, we examine the claims being made by SOR advocates regarding the absence of attention to the SOR literature in teacher preparation programs, and the related claims for the negative consequences that occur when these so-called underprepared teachers enter the workforce. Then, we present literature reviews, drawn from a large and dynamic database of research on literacy teacher preparation (over 600 empirical studies that were published between 1999 and 2018); the studies in the database have been excluded from the SOR. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of equity, agency, and design as a pathway forward in improving literacy teacher preparation. (p. S255)

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.

Note also about the lack of science behind LETRS:

A growing number of U.S. states have funded and encourage and/or require teachers to attend professional development using Moats’s commercial LETRS program, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas. This is despite the fact that an Institute of Education Sciences study of the LETRS intervention found almost no effects on teachers or student achievement (Garet et al., 2008). (p. S259)

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.

See also:

Specifically, we address limitations of the science of reading as characterized by a narrow theoretical lens, an abstracted empiricism, and uncritical inductive generalizations derived from brain-imaging and eye movement data sources….

Unfortunately, we believe that in many cases, the cloak of science has been employed to elevate the stature of SOR work and to promote the certainty and force of its advocates’ preferred explanations for what reading is and how it should be taught (e.g., Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Schwartz & Sparks, 2019). What we suggested in this article is that the SOR, when so used in the reading wars, is not science at all in its fullest sense. It neglects an entire domain that influences and shapes human experience. It does so with an unmitigated confidence that evidence from one side of a binary can establish a final truth and that such a truth creates a single prescription for all instruction. Taking that stance, however, is outside the pale of science and dismisses work that has both merit on its own terms and a critical role in advancing the aims motivating reading research and instruction.

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading. Read Res Q, 56(S1), S119– S129.

See The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership):

When it comes to reading instruction, an “all or nothing” approach is actually unscientific.

Every January, my social media feeds fill with ads, free trials, and coupons from the diet and wellness industry, promising to help me with my (presumed) resolutions to be better, faster, leaner, and healthier. Every diet program claims some type of relationship to science.

The same is true with reading instruction. Most programs or approaches claim to be based on “science.” But consider the many possible meanings of this claim. Some approaches to reading instruction are developed as part of rigorous, peer-reviewed research and are continuously evaluated and refined. Others are designed by practitioners who draw on experience, and whose insights are validated by inquiry after development. Many are based on well-known principles from research or assumptions about learning in general, but haven’t themselves been tested. Some “research-based” instructional tools and practices have been shared, explained, interpreted, misinterpreted, and re-shared so many times that they bear little resemblance to the research on which they were based (Gabriel, 2020). Others rack up positive evidence no matter how many times they’re studied. Then there are practices that have no evidence behind them but are thought to be scientific—because they’ve always been assumed to be true.


Recommended: The Problem with “Show Me the Research” Thinking, Rick Wormeli

SoR Claim: SoR advocates attack misrepresentations of balanced literacy and whole language. Neither WL nor BL can credibly be called “failures” in any distinct way from other philosophies or practices in literacy. And claiming WL or BL does not include teaching of phonics is false (see Krashen farther below on types of phonics).

Counter: Detail strong historical context and accurate definitions of BL and WL; also note that programs labeled as “BL” may not be BL, and may be implemented poorly.

In this historical analysis, we examine the context of debates over the role of phonics in literacy and current debates about the science of reading, with a focus on the work and impact of the late literacy scholar Jeanne Chall. We open by briefly tracing the roots of the enduring debates from the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on beginning reading, decoding, and phonics. Next, we explore insights drawn from the whole language movement as understood by Kenneth Goodman and Yetta Goodman, as well as a synthesis of key ideas from Chall’s critique of the whole language approach. We then analyze the shifts across the three editions of Chall’s Learning to Read: The Great Debate and summarize major ideas from her body of work, such as the stage model of reading development. We suggest that reading instruction should be informed by a broader historical lens in looking at the “science of reading” debates and should draw on a developmental stage model to teaching reading, such as the six-stage model provided by Chall. We describe implications for educators, textbook publishers, researchers, and policymakers that address the current reading debates and provide considerations of what Chall might say about learning to read in a digital era given the pressures on teacher educators and teachers to align their practice with what is deemed to be the science of reading.

Semingson, P., & Kerns, W. (2021). Where Is the Evidence? Looking Back to Jeanne Chall and Enduring Debates About the Science of Reading. Read Res Q, 56(S1), S157– S169.

Recommended: Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An Urban Legend from California, Stephen Krashen, and Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

SoR Claim: Reading programs, such as those by Lucy Calkins, and Fountas and Pinnell, have failed students because they rely on balanced literacy. (SoR advocates tend to rely on reviews by EdReports, which has been challenged for biased analyses skewed by the interests of publishers.)

Counter: The problem is strict and misguided dependence on any reading program. After NCLB and the National Reading Program required schools to adopt “scientifically-based reading programs,” evidence shows that scripted, phonics-intensive programs such as Open Court “failed.”


This means teachers did actually implement the program as it was intended, so we can’t blame the results on teachers not doing what they were supposed to do. The randomized design helps ensure (but not guarantee, of course) that the results are due to the treatment and not some other factor. Random assignment is sometimes called the “gold standard” in research design….

This is the key finding: no “main” effects means that the overall impact of the program on reading scores during the first year of the study was zero, nada. By year two of the program, it was slightly negative. Oops.

Closing the Books on Open Court Reading

SoR Claim: SoR advocates support the “simple” view of reading as “settled science.”

Counter: “[T]he simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires” (see Filderman, et al., 2022).

The simple view of reading is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance—in fact, the necessity—of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading. In this article, we synthesize research documenting three of these advances: (1) Reading difficulties have a number of causes, not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view; (2) rather than influencing reading solely independently, as conceived in the simple view, decoding and listening comprehension (or in terms more commonly used in reference to the simple view today, word recognition and language comprehension) overlap in important ways; and (3) there are many contributors to reading not named in the simple view, such as active, self-regulatory processes, that play a substantial role in reading. We point to research showing that instruction aligned with these advances can improve students’ reading. We present a theory, which we call the active view of reading, that is an expansion of the simple view and can be used to convey these important advances to current and future educators. We discuss the need to lift up updated theories and models to guide practitioners’ work in supporting students’ reading development in classrooms and interventions.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading. Read Res Q, 56(S1), S25– S44.

Theoretical models, such as the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), the direct and inferential mediation (DIME) model (Cromley et al., 2010; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and the cognitive model (McKenna & Stahl, 2009) inform the constructs and skills that contribute to reading comprehension. The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) describes reading comprehension as the product of decoding and language comprehension. The simple view of reading is often used to underscore the critical importance of decoding on reading comprehension; however, evidence suggests that the relative importance of decoding and language comprehension changes based on students’ level of reading development and text complexity (Lonigan et al., 2018). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies demonstrate that decoding has the largest influence on reading comprehension for novice readers, whereas language comprehension becomes increasingly important as students’ decoding skills develop and text becomes more complex (e.g., Catts et al., 2005; Gough et al., 1996; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Proctor et al., 2005; Tilstra et al., 2009). However, the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires.

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.
Reading a philosophical investigation, Andrew Davis

SoR Claim: SoR advocates argue SoR-based reading policies will accomplish what no other programs or standards have (consider NCLB and Common Core, both of which claimed “scienticfic”). [SoR advocates will reference Mississippi and the 2019 NAEP scores as “proof” of this.]

Counter: State legislation and policy are often deeply flawed, and prone to failure. No research has been conducted on 2019 reading scores on NAEP for MS, but the likely cause of the score bump is grade retention:

(USDOE/Office of Civil Rights) – Data 2017-2018


See Also:


In many U.S. states, legislation seeks to define effective instruction for beginning readers, creating an urgent need to turn to scholars who are knowledgeable about ongoing reading research. This mixed-methods study considers the extent to which recognized literacy experts agreed with recommendations about instruction that were included on a state’s reading initiative website. Our purpose was to guide implementation and inform policy-makers. In alignment with the initiative, experts agreed reading aloud, comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonological awareness, and phonics all deserve a place in early literacy instruction. Additionally, they agreed some components not included on the website warranted attention, such as motivation, oral language, reading volume, writing, and needs-based instruction. Further, experts cautioned against extremes in describing aspects of early reading instruction. Findings suggest that experts’ knowledge of the vast body of ongoing research about reading can be a helpful guide to policy formation and implementation.

Collet, Vicki S.; Penaflorida, Jennifer; French, Seth; Allred, Jonathan; Greiner, Angelia; and Chen, Jingshu (2021) “Red Flags, Red Herrings, and Common Ground: An Expert Study in Response to State Reading Policy,” Educational Considerations: Vol. 47: No. 1.


Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policymakers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Opinion: Reeves’ Education Mirage

Key point:

To make his case, Reeves — much like the Mississippi Department of Education itself — is chronically selective in his statistics, telling only part of the story and leaving out facts that would show that many of these gains are either illusory or only seem to be impressive because the state started so far behind most of the rest of the nation.

Reeves’ Education Mirage

SoR Claim: SoR advocates return to the misrepresentation of the NRP, particularly in terms of what the NRP revealed about phonics instruction.

Counter: The NRP was a politically flawed process, and the reports received strong challenges from literacy scholars.

See this analysis of what the NRP report identified about phonics:

Recommended: Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics, Elaine M. Garan

SoR Claim: All students should receive intensive systematic phonics instruction.

Counter: Research does not support intensive systematic phonics for all students. Research does support basic phonics (see Krashen below) and a balanced approach to literacy instruction (see Wyse & Bradbury).

Intensive Systematic Phonics

[abstract] The aims of this paper are: (a) to provide a new critical examination of research evidence relevant to effective teaching of phonics and reading in the con-text of national curricula internationally; (b) to report new empirical findings relating to phonics teaching in England; and (c) examine some implications for policy and practice. The paper reports new empirical findings from two sources: (1) a systematic qualitative meta-synthesis of 55 experimental trials that included longitudinal designs; (2) a survey of 2205 teachers. The paper concludes that phonics and reading teaching in primary schools in England has changed significantly for the first time in modern history, and that compared to other English dominant regions England represents an outlier. The most robust research evidence, from randomised control trials with longitudinal designs, shows that the approach to phonics and reading teaching in England is not sufficiently under-pinned by research evidence. It is recommended that national curriculum policy is changed and that the locus of political control over curriculum, pedagogy and assessment should be re-evaluated.

[from the full report] Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.

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 Education, 10, e3314.

Recommended: What is the best age to learn to read? [update]

Range of views of phonics:

It will help to distinguish three different views of phonics: (1) intensive, or heavy phonics, (2) basic, or light phonics, and (3) zero phonics. Basic phonics appears to have some use, but there are good reasons why intensive phonics is not the way to improve reading.

Intensive Phonics. This position claims that we learn to read by first learning the rules of phonics, and that we read by sounding out what is on the page, either out-loud or to ourselves (decoding to sound). It also asserts that all rules of phonics must be deliberately taught and consciously learned.

Basic Phonics. According to Basic Phonics, we learn to read by actually reading, by understanding what is on the page. Most of our knowledge of phonics is subconsciously acquired from reading (Smith, 2004: 152).

Conscious knowledge of some basic rules, however, can help children learn to read by making texts more comprehensible. Smith (2004) explains how this can happen (p. 152): The child is reading the sentence ‘The man was riding on the h____’ and cannot read the final word. Given the context and recognition of h, the child can make a good guess as to what the final word is: the reader will know that the word is not donkey and mule. This won’t work every time (some readers might think the missing word was ‘Harley’), but some knowledge of phonics can restrict the possibilities of what the unknown words are.

Basic Phonics is the position of the authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction: ‘…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive’ (Anderson et al., 1985: 38).

Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.

Does Phonics Deserve the Credit for Improvement in PIRLS?, Stephen Krashen. In Margaret Clark (Ed) Teaching Initial Literacy. Birmingham: Glendale Education 2017.



There is a widespread consensus in the research community that reading instruction in English should first focus on teaching letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences rather than adopt meaning-based reading approaches such as whole language instruction. That is, initial reading instruction should emphasize systematic phonics. In this systematic review, I show that this conclusion is not justified based on (a) an exhaustive review of 12 meta-analyses that have assessed the efficacy of systematic phonics and (b) summarizing the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007. The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction.

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers

See also:

A focus on synthetic phonics comes at a high cost. Not only in terms of the money it costs to purchase these huge, labor-intensive packages that take many hours of time for struggling readers and their teachers to complete and then test, but also in terms of being relevant to contemporary lifeworlds in which meaning-making and comprehension are critical to successfully navigating everyday life in diverse contexts. They are reductionist, simplistic, and do not provide emerging readers with the functional strategies to make meaning from multimodal texts. It elevates one aspect of our language acquisition above all others when in contemporary times we need to be able to interconnect the meaning forms (text, image, space, object, sound, and speech) and not consider them as separate entities.

Phoney Phonics: How Decoding Came to Rule and Reading Lost Meaning, Nicola Yelland

A final point: While SoR advocates will rarely acknowledge the harmful consequences of their advocacy in terms of state policy being adopted that is refuted by research, anyone venturing into social media debates about SoR should emphasize that SoR is often linked with grade-retention legislation, even though grade retention has been discredited by decades of research.


Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. 

Achievement at Whose Expense? A Literature Review of Test-Based Grade Retention Policies in U.S. Schools, Andrew P. Huddleston

Recommended: NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing


Dismantling the “Science of Reading” and the Harmful Reading Policies in its Wake [UPDATED]

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Thomas, P.L. (2020). How to end the Reading War and serve the literacy needs of all students: A primer for parents, policy makers, and people who careCharlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.