A Call for a New (and Honest) Reading Story for 2023

The 2010s into the 2020s has been another decade of high-intensity concern for reading achievement by students, resulting in several rounds of reading policy reform.

Maren Aukerman (University of Calgary) has recently joined a growing number of literacy scholars [1] who are documenting how that high-intensity concern for reading is significantly misleading and misguided.

In her third and final post, Aukerman makes an important plea:

Kick the polarization monster to the curb whenever writers practice divisive reporting: refuse to accept flawed premises and call media outlets out on it, whether you are drawn more toward balanced literacy or more toward what gets called “the science of reading” – or if neither term adequately describes your approach.

My exhortation to education journalists is simpler still. Acknowledge that reading teaching and research are complex; follow best practices for journalism to avoid the aforementioned errors; read a range of high-quality research that takes different perspectives; don’t use the phrase “science of reading” unless you acknowledge it as multi-faceted, evolving, and the domain of all serious reading researchers; and remain curious and open-minded. And finally, stop feeding the polarization monster with what you write. Reading educators and other stakeholders all want children to read well, after all, and we need each other’s voices, perspectives, and research in conversation rather than in battle in order to best make that happen.

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

I strongly agree with Aukerman not only in the analysis of media coverage of the “science of reading,” but also for this plea.

What we need is a new (and honest) reading story for 2023.

The essential problem is that the current reading story is driven by oversimplification and sensationalistic anecdotes that are being leveraged to attack and blame singular causes for another reading “crisis.”

Let’s start the new story by admitting the following:

  • Reading achievement today is little different than at any point in the past century. Marginalized and vulnerable students today are and have always been underserved, mis-served, and ignored. In short, we have no “crisis,” but are still confronted with not teaching students to read as well as they deserve and with political negligence to address the complicated factors impacting negatively student achievement.
  • No one or two programs or teacher practices are solely (or dominantly) to blame for “failing to teach students to read.” This is an oversimplification that ignores the first point above.
  • Research for decades has shown that measurable student reading achievement is linked (causation) to out-of-school (OOS) factors, and the remaining causal links (in-school factors) show that teacher quality/practice is only about 10-15% of that measurable achievement. And thus, hyper-focusing on reading programs and classroom practices is doomed to failure since it is a distraction from larger causal factors in reading achievement.
  • Teacher education continues to need reform, but (again) over-emphasizing the role of teacher education in teacher practice and student achievement is another distraction from the complex story and the many factors impacting student achievement.

We need, then, a new (and honest) reading story that “[k]ick[s] the polarization monster to the curb,” calls for a different approach to reading policy reform, and includes the following:

Out-of-School Policy

  • Well paying, stable work = reading policy
  • Universal healthcare = reading policy
  • Stable housing = reading policy

In-School Policy

  • Address teaching/learning conditions—class size, teacher expertise/experience, and education funding.
  • Eliminate punitive reading policies (for example, grade retention) and inequitable reading policies (for example, tracking).
  • Stop adopting lock-step reading programs, and provide teachers all resources they identify as needed to serve the individual reading needs of all students.
  • Resist narrow definitions of “science” and evidence, and honor the day-to-day evidence used by classroom teachers.
  • End the blame game, “miracle” schools narrative, and high-stakes deficit practices (testing and remediation).
  • Separate education materials and programs from the free market; the profit urge of the market distorts reading practices and creates fadism and boondoggles that waste tax funds.

A new (and honest) reading story is not as sexy as the tired reading war story that depends on crisis rhetoric and simplistic good v. bad characters.

A new (and honest) reading story also isn’t simple, and complexity as well as nuance can be frustrating and even counter-intuitive (see the OOS list above).

And a new (and honest) reading story is quite frankly hard to swallow: The reality is that human behavior (including student learning) will always fall along a spectrum at any identified point. We can never achieve “all third graders will be proficient readers.”

Yes, grade 3 is important, but we would all do better to acknowledge that grades 3 through 8 are key years over which we must be diligent about purposefully monitoring student progress and providing the instruction each student needs regardless of where that student falls on the spectrum of achievement.

We have a recent example of the inherent failure of 100% proficiency goals (NCLB), and students will be much better served if our new (and honest) reading story includes patience and realistic goals.

Frankly, I do not believe in compromise or taking a middle-of-the-road approach. I do believe that we need a community effort to address individual student needs that is grounded in honesty and accuracy, which is often messy and still in a state of becoming.

I strongly advocate for addressing OOS factors first or concurrently with establishing equity goals for in-school reform, but I also advocate for starting our reading reform with classroom teachers and literacy scholarsacknowledging that these key stakeholders will not universally agree.

“It is essential that translational research include, rather than blame and devalue, teachers and teacher educators,” as MacPhee, Handsfield, and Paugh conclude.

The current state of reading “science” and evidence is actually a powerful debate with strong elements of agreement and several key areas of evolving understanding rooted in disagreement.

Demanding lock-step adherence to “settled” science is a fatal flaw of the “science of reading” story.

A new (and honest) reading story admits that classroom practice is (and will always be) in a constant state of becoming, just as all science and research are.

Finally, we cannot persist in allowing mainstream media and social media to create the reading story that results in reading policy.

That’s an old and failed story.

We need and deserve instead a new (and honest) reading story in 2023.


[1] Media Coverage of SOR [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

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145-S155. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?, Maren Aukerman, The University of Calgary

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

[Aukerman three posts as PDF]

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida