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