States across the U.S. continue to revise and introduce new reading legislation. As well, states are updating reading standards—all of which is being strongly influenced by the “science of reading” (SoR) movement.
While the SoR movement maintains that powerful influence over policy and classroom practice, I have strongly criticized the media and marketing aspects because of central concepts that are overly simplistic and ultimately harmful for teaching and learning reading. Those key fatal flaws are a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR)  and practicing phonics-first with beginning readers (systematic phonics for all students in K-2 that is often without context or isolated from comprehension goals).
Recently on social media, a literacy educator raised concern that proposed revised state standards in K-2 ELA do not include comprehension in foundational skills. As I commented, this is the exact problem I have been criticizing and expecting as a result of embracing SVR, an out-of-date and simplistic theory of reading (see note 1 below).
Many, if not most, SoR advocates endorse intensive systematic phonics for all students before they are expected to demonstrate comprehension; some argue K-2 students can’t comprehend. Begun several years ago, this aspect of the SoR movement has re-energized the use of DIBELS, an assessment tool that evaluates student ability to pronounce nonsense words in isolation. This nonsense is often presented as “reading,” even though simply decoding (pronunciation) words in isolation is not reading.
As I will explain later, saying students pronouncing nonsense words is reading proficiency is the same as saying children riding bicycles with training wheels are cyclists.
In short, commitments to SVR and phonics first are a distortion of goals in reading instruction, replacing the authentic goal (critical comprehension) with measuring if students have acquired the entire set of phonics rules. Phonics instruction and emphasizing decoding must remain some of the means and not the ends of instruction; however, the SoR movement too often has created that fatal flaw.
I want to examine here why these commitments are not reading science, but more significantly, why these commitments are harmful to students.
First, recently I was helping my granddaughter, Skylar, with her homework on parts of speech. See the exercise here:
I had to smile and encourage her as I quietly bled internally. This can only be described by the first word—”silly.” Not only is this isolated activity nonsense, I am certain it is ultimately harmful to emerging readers and writers.
Many of these words can function as several parts of speech once in the context of actual usage; for example, “camp” as in “We camp,” “The camp,” “A camp site,” etc.
Setting aside that many aspects of grammar and usage are intuited by proficient and expert readers (we drive our cars without being able to name all the engine parts, without having to know how to disassemble the engine, etc.), even when there is some instructional value in explicit instruction in grammar and usage, that has been shown for a century to be effective only in holistic and contextual ways.
If parts of speech matter (I suspect they don’t), help young readers and writers interrogate that in the reading of authentic texts and in their own original writing.
This essential problem is analogous to misrepresenting and overemphasizing phonics and decoding—especially when the instruction is isolated and not firmly anchored to the real goal of reading instruction, critical comprehension.
So let’s circle back to the bicycling analogy.
Using training wheels to teach children to ride a bicycle is a traditional and deeply misguided approach, one that is grounded in misreading what riding a bicycle is at its core—not the pedaling but the balancing. Therefore, balance bicycles are the better way to start.
Keep in mind one can coast on a bicycle and still be riding if the person has mastered balancing—as well as several other skills that include braking, holding a straight line, turning, and of course pedaling.
Reading is not dependent on decoding, and a child is only reading if they are making meaning from text. Just as someone can ride a bicycle by coasting, a child can read text for meaning purely by using sight word knowledge.
Yes, to be a cyclist one must eventually (and soon) master pedaling, and yes, no one reads entirely by sight word recognition (although expert readers depend on many comprehension strategies, and likely rarely use phonics rules to accomplish understanding).
And as I noted above, both proficient cyclists and proficient readers exhibit a huge array of skills simultaneously, intuitively, and independently—the ultimate goal of any instruction.
For reading instruction with beginning readers, then, systematic phonics instruction in a phonics-first setting that prioritizes pronouncing nonsense words is misguided and harmful practice.
As Stephen Krashen has shown, both systematic phonics for all students and no phonics instruction are harmful; instead, beginning readers need basic phonics combined with many other reading strategies that are all targeting critical comprehension.
Let’s think more deeply about decoding and phonics in ways I asked us to do with parts of speech. Consider asking students to pronounce “dove” and “wind” out of context, and now consider these sentences:
- The dove dove out of the tree and scared Brees.
- Because of the fog, you can watch the wind wind through the valley.
Phonics first fails in the same way as using training wheels to teach bicycling. Phonics rules provide only one skill in the complex journey to critical comprehension. And phonics is not even foundational or essential when a text includes sight words recognized by the reader.
Finally, again like riding a bicycle, becoming an independent, eager, and expert reader—one who has a large vocabulary and a complex toolbox for making meaning (including phonics)—mostly comes from doing the authentic thing—not from isolated skills instruction as a prerequisite to doing the real thing.
 SVR, at best, is one of the major reading theories of the late twentieth century; in my view, it is not even the most compelling. But current theories of reading have moved beyond SVR; for example, (1) according to Duke and Cartwright (2021), current theories have supplanted SVR in three ways: (a) by identifying additional reasons for struggling readers, (b) by demonstrating that rather than being sequential, pronunciation and comprehension overlap, and (c) by stressing the importance of “active self-regulation” in learning to read, and (2) according to Filderman, et al., (2022) SVR is inadequate for teaching students comprehension.
Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411
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 Children, 88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860