A recent scholarly commentary by professors Reinking, Hruby, and Risko note: “Since 2015, 47 state legislatures have enacted, or are currently considering, a remarkable total of 145 bills that address reading and reading instruction in public schools.”
Many literacy and policy scholars  have also noted that this wave of reading legislation is often grounded in the “science of reading” (SOR) movement that has been characterized as misleading, overly simplistic, and driven by melodramatic anecdotes.
Further, the growing number of states adopting SOR-based reading legislation includes bans of reading practices and programs as well as narrow mandates for different reading practices and programs.
A 2020 policy statement warned about using the SOR movement to inform legislation, however, by:
• Failing to place the current concern for reading in a historical context.National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.
• Overemphasizing recent test scores and outlier data instead of longitudinal data with greater context (for example, NAEP).
• Misrepresenting the “science of reading” as settled science that purportedly prescribes systematic intensive phonics for all students.
• Overstating and misrepresenting the findings of the National Reading Panel report of 2000, without acknowledging credible challenges to those findings.
• Focusing blame on K-12 teachers and teacher education without credible evidence or acknowledgement of challenging teaching and learning conditions and the impact of test-based accountability policies on practice and outcomes.
• Celebrating outlier examples of policy success (in particular, the Mississippi 2019 NAEP data) without context or high-quality research evidence for those claims.
The policy statement remains an important guide for revising reading legislation in order to avoid continuing to under- and mis-serve the individual needs of all students and to de-professionalize teachers.
The recommendations remain urgent and include the following for what legislation should not/should do:
• Should not fund or endorse unproven private-vendor comprehensive reading programs or materials.
• Should not adopt “ends justify the means” policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term that have longer-term harms (for example, third-grade retention policies).
• Should not prescribe a narrow definition of “scientific” or “evidence-based” that elevates one part of the research base while ignoring contradictory high-quality research.
• Should not prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching reading, addressing struggling readers or English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals), or identifying and serving special needs students.
• Should not prescribe such a “one-size-fits-all” approach to preparing teachers for reading instruction, since teachers need a full set of tools to help their students.
• Should not ignore the limited impact on measurable student outcomes (e.g., test scores) of in-school opportunities to learn, as compared to the opportunity gaps that arise outside of school tied to racism, poverty, and concentrated poverty.
• Should not prioritize test scores measuring reading, particularly lower-level reading tasks, over a wide range of types of evidence (e.g., literacy portfolios and teacher assessments), or over other equity-based targets (e.g., access to courses and access to
certified, experienced teachers), always prioritizing the goal of ensuring that all students have access to high-quality reading instruction.
• Should not teacher-proof reading instruction or de-professionalize teachers of reading or teacher educators through narrow prescriptions of how to teach reading and serve struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, or students with special needs.
• Should not prioritize advocacy by a small group of non-educators over the expertise and experiences of K-12 educators and scholars of reading and literacy.
• Should not conflate general reading instruction policy with the unique needs of struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, and special needs students.
• Should guarantee that all students are served based on their identifiable needs in the highest quality teaching and learning conditions possible across all schools:National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.
o Full funding to support all students’ reading needs;
o Low student/teacher ratios;
o Professionally prepared teachers with expertise in supporting all students with the most beneficial reading instruction, balancing systematic skills instruction with authentic texts and activities;
o Full and supported instructional materials for learning to read, chosen by teachers to fit the needs of their unique group of students;
o Intensive, research-based early interventions for struggling readers; and
o Guaranteed and extensive time to read and learn to read daily.
• Should support the professionalism of K-12 teachers and teacher educators, and should acknowledge the teacher as the reading expert in the care of unique populations of students.
• Should adopt a complex and robust definition of “scientific” and “evidence-based.”
• Should embrace a philosophy of “first, do no harm,” avoiding detrimental policies like grade retention and tracking.
• Should acknowledge that reading needs across the general population, struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, and special needs students are varied and complex.
• Should adopt a wide range of types of evidence of student learning.
• Should prioritize, when using standardized test scores, longitudinal data on reading achievement as guiding evidence among a diversity of evidence for supporting instruction and the conditions of teaching and learning.
• Should establish equity (input) standards as a balance to accountability (output) standards, including the need to provide funding and oversight to guarantee all students access to high-quality, certified teachers; to address inequitable access to experienced teachers; and to ensure supported, challenging and engaging reading and literacy experiences regardless of student background or geographical setting.
• Should recognize that there is no settled science of reading and that the research base and evidence base on reading and teaching reading is diverse and always in a state of change.
• Should acknowledge and support that the greatest avenue to reading for all students is access to books and reading in their homes, their schools, and their access to libraries (school and community).
This current cycle of the reading wars is another example of reducing historical and current failures of reading instruction to unwarranted crisis rhetoric and then resorting to the same failed patterns of education reform enacted for nearly five decades.
The individual needs of all students as readers can only be served by autonomous teachers in educational environments that support learning and teaching—not by mandates for scripted programs that enforce a once-size-fits-all approach to learning and teaching.
Reading legislation has the potential to do great harm or great good for the children of the US and our democracy. Once again, political leaders have chosen to do great harm.
School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct
- The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?, Maren Aukerman
- 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
- Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? David Reinking, George G. Hruby, and Victoria J. Risko
- 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
- 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
- Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida
- Harvard EdCast: To Weather the “Literacy Crisis,” Do What Works
- Disrupting the Disruptors: Reimagining Policy Advocacy in a Post-Truth Era, Helen Aydarova
- Caught In a Web of Privatizers: Science of Reading Reforms in the State of Tennessee, Helen Aydarova
- “Whatever You Want to Call It”: Science of Reading Mythologies in the Educational Reform Movement, Helen Aydarova