Category Archives: Education

On Art, Imposter Syndrome, and Epistemic Trespassing

Ada Limón’s “The Raincoat” ripped through me as I read the poem; it begins:

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. 

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975 as I was about to enter ninth grade. My entire high school experience was shaped (literally) by wearing a full upper-torso brace.

This was deeply traumatizing for an anxious, skinny, and deeply self-conscious teenager, but it was also unimaginably moving—especially in hindsight—because my working-class parents never hesitated to seek out, pay for, and support anything I needed medically or emotionally to straighten my spine and live somewhat normally once it was removed.

My scoliosis years are also my introduction to reading, collecting, and drawing from Marvel comic books.

Recently, I have come back to creating art although I abandoned my aspirations to be a comic book artist somewhere in my early 20s.

I started out simply tracing from comic books in 1975, but soon began drawing freehand from my favorite artists working at Marvel. By my senior year and into early college, I was drawing more realistic pencil work usually from photographs.

I was entirely self-taught because my high school in the late 1970s had no art courses (until my senior year when the only art class offered was during a required class), just as it had no Advanced Placement courses.

Early in life, I was engaged in self-education in a way that seems logical as I remained in formal schooling until I was 37, when I finished my doctorate.

Yes, I have degrees in education, but my real expertise is learning.

I also spent decades learning to be a serious cyclist and my own bicycle mechanic. And my life as a creative writer, now mostly poetry, is very much self-taught (although I did enroll in one graduate creative writing course during my EdD).

However, all of this sparks a real tension for me that can be captured well in two concepts—imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

While I have returned to art, prompted by my partner exploring art for the first time in her life through Procreate, I have had to revisit what it means to do any sort of work from a naive and inexperienced position while there are people doing that same work from a position of expertise and many years of purposeful pursuit of that work.

My nephew is a professional photographer, yet, much as my partner expressed, he recently worried over texting about his submitting an art display on school shootings. He and my partner are very aware of both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing (although the latter, more so as a concept and not necessarily the term).

The conversations with both of them while I have committed anew to being a visual artist myself (which has not progressed as I anticipated; see here and here) have allowed me to think carefully and deeply about how to justify being self-taught, how to navigate imposter syndrome, and how to avoid epistemic trespassing.

First, as I explained to my nephew, to do any creative work, art for public consumption, takes a degree of arrogance—the assumption that your expression matters in some way and that others should or need to experience it.

As a writer, I have the fortunate “gift” that despite my trepidations and insecurities, once I feel the urge to write something, I do it, I do it with zeal, and then I share it. (Yes, later I suffer the terror of having done all that, but the terror never impedes my doing it, fortunately.)

But as we in the literary world know, arrogance is a dangerous thing; arrogance is so dangerous, much of literature bangs the warning drum repeatedly: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains” (“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Next, then, since creative acts take at least a modicum of arrogance, the key is the most important lesson I learned over three decades as a dedicated student: The moment you have a “great idea” you must understand that there are many people who have already had that idea and spent years upon years purposefully exploring that idea (or behavior).

Your creative arrogance must be tempered by humility, a healthy alternative to both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

A doctorate (not exclusively of course) like any advanced formal schooling or training provides skills in that humility—such as first knowing there are experts that have come before you (and concurrent with you), researching who those people and their work are, and then assessing how to navigate their expertise in ways that inform your coming to know and to do.

My scrawny ass, fully braced, standing at the bar of my parents’ house knew that I deeply wanted to draw something as wonderful as Gil Kane, something as stunning as Jim Steranko, something as beautiful as Frank Frazetta.

During that same time I was falling in love with writers—reading, reading, and mimicking.

Being creative requires that balance between arrogance and humility; however, I also think one other reality is very important to confront.

American culture tends to suggest that many human behaviors are for gifted people only—especially visual arts and poetry, for example.

So, most of us pause when we have creative urges—”Who am I …?”—although, and I cannot emphasize this enough, to be human is to be creative.

Creativity is not for the gifted only. Or better yet, we are all potentially gifted, and thus, potentially creative.

My new life of visual art isn’t what I planned or expected. It involves the wonders of technology (iPad and Procreate) that allow me to blend my very naive attempts at photographs, my latent and self-taught abilities as a visual artist, and my many decades as a purposeful and serious writer.

For me, then, I move forward arrogantly with the humility of “Who am I …?” as my background music while I work.

Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

Increasingly, this is how students are being assessed in classrooms, but also in standardized tests of “reading,” often as evidence that the “science of reading” works (see Coles for a thorough examination of how the media and schools make this misleading claim [1]).

This approach is grounded in DIBELS [2], an assessment of nonsense words, but many reading programs that are phonics-first and phonics-intensive now incorporate having students pronounce nonsense words and promote the programs as the “science of reading” and/or “structured literacy.”

Structured Literacy

Structured literacy describes a scripted approach to teaching reading that requires uniform instruction. It may include the following: scripted lessons, systematic phonics (including programs such as Orton-Gillingham [59] ), decodable texts, [60] prescribed reading instruction for all students based on the needs of struggling students, structured literacy reading programs, and strict requirements for program compliance. [61] Structured literacy draws from cognitive psychology, brain research, and neuroscience, although literacy researchers caution there is still much to learn about the brain and learning to read. [62]

While proponents of competing theories all claim research support, there is general agreement that the evidence-based literature presents at least three consistent and compelling conclusions: Reading is a complex process consisting of a wide range of skills and strategies; culture and experience impact learning to read; and student needs change as they develop reading proficiency. [63]

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

Several problems exists with this new emphasis on systematic phonics and phonics-first instruction (devoid of comprehension). First, focusing on strict rules of phonics and using nonsense words teaches young readers that mere pronunciation is reading (which it isn’t) and allows overly simplistic definitions to feed overly simplistic (and misleading) assessments.

And that leads to a second problem—raising scores on basic pronunciation of words, especially nonsense words that are designed to meet the simplistic rules being taught, is much easier to do than to teach and assess comprehension. Notably, raising these scores is even easier once other policies are in place, such as the harmful but effective use of grade retention.

Current examples of reading “miracles” (such as Mississippi from 2019; see here) are mirages; the score gains are distortions of data and the assessments are simply not measuring reading (again, they are measuring a very reduced type of pronunciation devoid meaning).

The greatest problem, however, is that the current nonsense word focus significantly misrepresents what the reading science shows about systematic phonics:

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

Although phonics is only one essential aspect of reading, many researchers emphasize the importance of systematic phonics instruction for beginning and struggling readers. Research on the direct impact of phonics on reading comprehension is complicated because many approaches to phonics exist—from synthetic or analytic phonics [68] and systematic phonics programs (such as Orton-Gillingham) to phonics instruction embedded in holistic instruction [69] (such as whole language and balanced literacy [70]).

In short, research on the importance of phonics instruction is clear, but there is much less clarity about what type of phonics to teach and how much direct instruction students need or when. [71] There is consensus that proficient readers have strong phonics knowledge, but how that occurs (through direct instruction, reading, or both) remains a point of debate.

One recent overview of 12 meta-analyses [72] of the effectiveness of systematic phonics concluded that systematic phonics instruction for all students was no more effective than whole language or balanced literacy approaches. This analysis raises concerns about conducting research comparing competing instructional reading practices and recommends that policy-makers seek additional approaches to reading instruction. [73] As noted earlier, a 2022 analysis of England’s shift to systematic phonics concluded that the new phonics-first approach was not as effective as a “balanced” approach to reading instruction. [74]

Recent research on systematic or direct phonics instruction continues to show effectiveness in children pronouncing real and nonsense words (notably in Grade 1), but less effectiveness in promoting comprehension, especially in kindergarten or for readers in later grades. [75] Instead of systematic phonics, reading amount and comprehension instruction are more effective or at least as important as phonics for fostering comprehension and learning to read. [76]

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

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is oversimplifying the messages the public, parents, and political leaders receive concerning how to teach reading, what counts as reading, and how to assess reading.

Learning to read is complex, and unique to each student; thus, teaching reading is also complex and somewhat haphazard. Ideally, formal schooling in reading should foster reading over many years, recognizing that individual students will progress at different rates.

Yes, we want eager and skilled readers, and we should work purposefully to provide all students the experiences they need to learn both the enjoyment of reading and the power of critical literacy. And yes, skilled critical readers have decoding skills, content knowledge, and a number of inter-related strategies for making meaning from text and other communication signals (we “read” icons all across our technology devices, for example).

But for many of us who are skilled readers, we have gained all those skills from reading, not from doing isolated, decontextualized, and nonsense practice instead of reading.

Pronouncing nonsense words is complete nonsense, and even worse, it is not reading—but it is wasting valuable teaching and learning time that every student deserves, time better spent with meaningful experiences with real words and real texts.


Notes

[1] Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3).

[2] The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is – What It Does, Ken Goodman


59  “Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that was adopted by the International Dyslexia Association to refer to the many programs (like Orton-Gillingham) that teach reading by following the evidence and research behind the Science of Reading. Programs that exemplify the components and methods that are outlined in the term, Structured Literacy, have been found to be beneficial for all students and essential for students who struggle with reading.” Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

60  See, for example, The Reading League. (2022). Decodable text sources. Reading Rockets. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/decodable-text-sources

61  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

62  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119-S130. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

63  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348


70  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

71  Brooks, G. (2022, July 18). Current debates over the teaching of phonics. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/ acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-1543

Yelland, N. (2020, August 19). Phoney phonics: How decoding came to rule reading lost meaning. Teachers College Record. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://foundationforlearningandliteracy.info/wp-content/ uploads/2020/09/Phoney-Phonics.pdf

72  “Meta-analysis is the statistical combination of results from two or more separate studies.” See Deeks, J.J., Higgins, J.P.T., & Altman, D.G. (2022). Chapter 10: Analysing data and undertaking meta-analyses. Cochrane Training. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://training.cochrane.org/handbook/current/ chapter-10

73  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

74  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(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

75  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Pearson, P.D. (2019, October 12). What research really says about teaching reading—and why that still matters [Video]. International Literacy Association 2019 Conference. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https:// ila.digitellinc.com/ila/sessions/123/view

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(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

76  Allington, R.L., & McGill-Franzen. (2021). Reading volume and reading achievement: A review of recent research. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S231-S238. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.404

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

August 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]

State Reading Policy: An Overview

In the 2000s, the National Reading Panel (NPR) report and the reports from its subgroups[1] were adopted into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, mandating scientifically based instruction[2] and establishing a framework for how reading should be taught in the U.S.—what is often identified as the Five Pillars of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.[3]

However, only two decades later, the U.S. is facing another reading “crisis” along with an increase in state-level reading legislation and policy being revised or introduced.[4] The current movement is often the result of advocacy by parents concerned about dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia[5]) and media coverage of the “science of reading.”[6] That advocacy and media messaging have been incredibly effective in terms of driving legislation and policy; however, many literacy scholars and researchers have noted the media-based movement exaggerates and oversimplifies claims about reading, science, and research; depends on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and creates a hostile social media climate around reading debates.[7]

A summer 2022 analysis by Education Week shows that at least 30 states have passed revised or new reading legislation in the past decade and 2/3rd of those states includes grade retention policies.[8] Over that decade, state-level reading policies and practices include the following:

  • Legislation focusing on reading proficiency by 3rd grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing.[9]
  • Commercial reading programs being banned at the state level and re-evaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices targeting dyslexia, including universal screening and mandates for systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham[10]).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics in teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.[11]

Two aspects of this reading “crisis” and subsequent legislation and policy are important for all policy makers in states across the U.S.: (1) Continuing to follow the same in-school only policy approaches to education and reading[12] are destined to fail again,[13] and (2) several elements of the “science of reading” movement are contradictory and even harmful for students.[14]

Below, this examination focuses on grade retention as reading policy, highlighting the complicated impact of grade retention on reading achievement (specifically standardized test scores) as well as the disproportionate negative impact of retention on vulnerable populations of students (racial minorities, multilingual learners, students identified as at-risk, high poverty, below reading proficiency, etc.)

Grade Retention as Reading Policy

As noted earlier, grade retention as reading policy is relatively common and expanding across the U.S.:

The “science of reading” movement has increased state policies mandating grade retention based on high stakes testing, copycat versions of the post-NCLB “Florida model,” despite evidence suggesting that retention remains harmful.[15] Media have presented increased standardized test scores in Mississippi (see an examination of Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores below) as proof of the effectiveness of reading science reforms,[16] although it is likely, as Todd Collins for Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains, that Mississippi’s high retention rate[17] and not classroom instruction reform is the primary source of the score increases. Evidence since the mid-2000s confirms grade retention can increase test scores short-term, but the long-term impact is negative, since grade retention remains associated with students dropping out of high school.[18]

Because of short-term reading score increases, grade retention policy remains politically compelling for policy makers because high-profile research is covered in the media and used by advocates to impact policy change based on standardized reading scores.[19] Yet, policy makers must be cautious because research has not yet clarified if those increases are caused by retention or other policies impacting retained students: “This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services”; reviews of short-term gains continue to show that they fade over time and that negative consequences of grade retention (like eventually dropping out of school) remain.[20]

Ultimately, grade retention increasing 3rd and 4th grade standardized test scores is likely a statistical mirage (notably since evidence shows those gain disappear by middle school). That mirage is likely the result of how grade retention changes the population of students being tested by

(1) removing students likely to score low from the testing pool (students retained in 3rd grade would not be in their peer testing pool in 4th grade) and

(2) creating a population of students to be tested when at least one year biologically older than the pool being testing (once those retained in 3rd grade are promoted to 4th grade).

Since grade retention as reading policy is unlikely to produce valid increases in reading proficiency among students and since grade retention remains strongly associated with negative outcomes for students (dropping out of high school, for example), policy makers are strongly encouraged to eliminate grade retention mandates based on standardized test scores in grade 3 as identified by a Resolution from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.[21]

What about Mississippi?

While a high-profile article in the New York Times suggested a Mississippi reading “miracle” based on 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores,[22] that conclusion was greatly misleading and incomplete. However, a closer and more nuanced look at Mississippi provides a valuable understanding for current policy makers concerned about reading legislation and policy.

First, as noted above by Collins, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores are significantly impacted by grade retention, and policy makers must acknowledge that grade retention disproportionately impacts vulnerable student populations (see NCTE Resolution), for example:

[SOURCE: Civil Rights Data Collection, USDOE]

Table 1 shows that, specifically for example, Black students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention. Numbers of students retained and that disproportion are strong indicators of the harm and punitive impact of grade retention.

Further, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for grade 4 were outliers compared to the rest of the U.S, that outlier status suggests that Mississippi may not be a valid source of scaling up reform for other states. Nonetheless, Mississippi’s longitudinal data, since 1998,[23] suggests improved test data over time and well before many of the recent policies:

Although Mississippi’s policies, standards, and assessments have varied since 1998, the state has shown gradual but persistent improvement in grade 4 reading scores on NAEP. The 2019 large increase used by the “science of reading” movement to claim “miracle,” however, is not unique; see the significant increase from 2002 to 2009, occurring well before any use of the term “science of reading.”

Important to understand is that improvement in education is likely complicated to cause and difficult to link to any single practice; therefore, policy makers must be diligent about “first, do no harm” by avoiding policies that may have politically expedient outcomes at the expense of the best interest of students and teachers. The relative increase and success by Mississippi in 2019 when compared to the rest of the U.S. is strongly tempered by a fuller analysis also:

[Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here]

Many policy makers have been seeking ways to close these gaps for decades, and Mississippi shows us that even when there is gradual and persistent improvement, problems of inequity remain.[24] Therefore, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP data are not a “miracle,” but they are an important red flag about the insufficiency of school-only policy and of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.[25]

Grade retention distorts test data, disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students, and creates a distraction from reading reform’s ultimate goal of increased student reading proficiency.

Third-Grade Proficiency and the “Word Gap”

Along with grade retention, policy makers must reconsider two other aspects of reading that often influences policy and practice—third grade reading proficiency and the “word gap.”

Policy makers and educators tend to focus on third grade reading proficiency because it (like grade retention) is correlated with negative outcomes for students, such as dropping out and prison.[26] However, while these concerns are valid, grade-level reading must be recognized as a measurement primarily created and used by the textbook industry; identifying “third grade reading level” is not as accurate or useful as many people think. More importantly, research suggests a correlation between third grade proficiency and negative outcomes, which does not warrant creating high-stakes policy around a single grade or a single measurement.[27]

Based on a popularize and often cited study by Hart and Risley from 1995,[28] it has become “common knowledge” to associate literacy with social class, specifically that high-poverty students have low literacy (fewer words) and that middle-class and affluent students have high literacy (more words). A number of scholars, however, have discredited the study as well as called into question associating literacy with simple word counts.[29] Curt Dudley-Marling notes that the Hart and Risley study is marred by poor methodology (should not be used to generalize about all students) and is grounded in class and race stereotypes; in short, the “word gap” is little more than a misguided assumption about students, reading, and literacy.[30]

Alternative Policy: A Recommendation

States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.

While a broad range of new approaches are needed for state policy and classroom practice,[31] immediately states must repeal retention policy linked to high stakes testing in 3rd grade. Grade retention creates a test-score increase that is a mirage, harms students in the long run, and distracts from more effective and supportive reading policy.

Instead of punitive policies such as grade retention, state policy makers should consider the following:

  • Eliminate high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd – 5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input, etc.).
  • Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.

See Also

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. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


Notes

[1] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[2] Wilde, J. (2004, January). Definitions for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Scientifically-based research. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/rcd/BE021264/Definitions_of_the_NCLB_Act.pdf

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[4] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[5] See https://www.decodingdyslexia.net/

[6] Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APM Reports. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[7] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/ 

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

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. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log]. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://radicalscholarship.com/2019/12/06/mississippi-miracle-or-mirage-2019-naep-reading-scores-prompt-questions-not-answers/

[8] Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[9] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

[10] International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

See https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

[11] 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

[12] Duran, L., & Hikida, M. (2022, May 2). Making sense of reading’s forever war. Kappan, 103(8), 14 – 19. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://kappanonline.org/readings-forever-wars-duran-hikida/

[13] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

[14] Thomas, P.L. (2022). How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students:

A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (2nd ed.). Information Age Publishing.

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[15] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

[16] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[17] Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

[18] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

Access grade retention data from the USDOE/Office of Civil Rights here https://ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2017-2018

[19] Perrault, P., & Winters, M.A. (2020, July 28). Test-based promotion and student performance in Florida and Arizona. Manhattan Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.manhattan-institute.org/student-retention-policies-impact-student-success

[20] Robinson-Cimpian, J.P. (2015, December). Review of The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-NBER-retention

[21] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[22] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[23] Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading?grade=4

[24] Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

[25] National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

[26] Hernandez, D.J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school Ggraduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf

[27] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[28] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Brookes.

[29] See an overview of that research here: https://radicalscholarship.com/2015/02/17/the-word-gap-a-reader/

[30] Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1), Article 5. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction (NEPC Policy Brief)

Please access this policy brief on the “science of reading” movement from NEPC:

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. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Find Documents:

Publication Announcement: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication- announcement/2022/09/science-of-reading

NEPC Publication: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


The policy brief emphasizes the need to avoid one-size-fits-all reading policy and practice. For context, please see:

We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools. Right now, what matters most is finding ways to address and improve students’ mental health so they can get back on track with learning. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate.

Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators with busywork and preventing authentic improvement.

Why one-size-fits-all metrics for evaluating schools must go

See Also

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction (NCTE)

Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice in the Science of Reading (Reading Recovery Community)

A warning on political strategies to boost reading (WFAE)

MY TURN: Different direction needed on state reading policy (Statehouse Report, Charleston, SC)

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)

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

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

Beware The Reading League

The Fatal Flaws of the SoR Movement: SVR and Phonics First

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

Black Widow Underestimated: “I Am What I Am”

In the Marvel Universe(s), including the MCU, Black Widow has endured just about every compelling and nonsensical plot line and character development that represent the larger sub-genre of superhero comic books. As I have been documenting, however, Marvel and even their best creative teams find ways to underestimate (and, of course, hypersexualize) Natasha/Black Widow.

With Marvel committing more issues and superstar teams in v.5 and v.6, readers may have held out hope that the fate of Black Widow (both inside the comic book universe and more broadly as a character Marvel would develop more substantially) had turned a corner. However, v.7 ultimately is a regression with only 5 issues, and then, the Web of Black Widow offers another brief 5-issue run after that.

Black Widow v.7, issue 1 (cover art by Clayton Crain) and Web of Black Widow issue 3 (cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon) remind us that too often Black Widow is hypersexualized with her outfits and the relentless urge to show her bound.

Since we have the benefit of hindsight—this post sitting as it does after one of the best (if not the best) run on Black Widow, v.8 (thanks to Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, and others)—many of us are now dealing with both the afterglow of a stellar 15-issue run and the recurring disappointment of Black Widow once again trapped in publishing limbo.

Here, I want to consider v.7 and Web as a stumbling journey to that excellent Thompson series, holding onto the hope that at some point Marvel will overcome underestimating and hypersexualizing Natasha/Black Widow.

Black Widow, Lost and Found

The creative team of Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska, writers, and Flaviano Armentaro, artist, are tasked with v.7 in the wake of Natasha Black Widow’s death in Secret Empire issue 7.

Cover art by Max Brooks.

The opening of v.7 issue 1 establishes, again, the double-identity and secret identity motifs very common in superhero comics, but especially in Black Widow narratives. Here, the dual Captain Americas (one of which has killed Black Widow in Secret Empire before she is resurrected through cloning and memory implants) face off again as Natasha helps—while trying to maintain the veil of people believing she is dead.

While Black Widow and the real Captain America fight the evil Captain America, this volume returns to considerations of dual and secret identities as well as the tensions at the core of being a superhero—fighting for good while trying to honor human life.

Natasha is a perfect pairing for Captain America’s identity crisis since she has long suffered doubt and suspicious about her loyalties despite her heroism.

The dynamic between Black Widow and Captain America works well here, but once again, sexual banter returns in a way that feel reductive and unneeded:

Hypersexualized Black Widow would not seem as abrupt in v.7 if not for the more nuanced and fuller explorations of the character in v.5 and v.6.

The core tension of this issue is one of the most enduring elements of the superhero subgenre, one that includes the problematic aspects of vigilanteism, embodied by Black Widow and Captain America arguing over taking a life:

Black Widow, cold and practical, resists Captain America’s idealism with “I am what I am.”

And Natasha remains vividly aware of who she is: “The violence. The rage”:

Ominous beginnings for v.7 highlight what likely are the strongest elements of the Black Widow narrative, a woman fighting herself because of the injustices she has suffered even as she seeks to fights for other people’s justice.

For v.7, the Soska sisters explain the are committed to “Black Widow … unleashed,” and placing Natasha motivated by avenging child sex trafficking provides fertile soil for just that—as Black Widow herself revels in the opportunity:

Natasha’s passionate resolve stand in contrast to Captain America’s naive view of the ugliest aspects of humanity.

And Black Widow unleashed shifts the reader’s gaze away from Natasha’s body (when creators underestimate the character) and highlights the violence she has embraced, and justifies. We must confront the allure along with the problems of ends-justify-the-means justice:

Placed side-by-side with Wilson Fisk’s infamous car door scene in Netflix’s Daredevil, v.7, issue 2 allows Black Widow to take no prisoners.

The focus of v.7 maintains the “unleashed” commitment of the writers, and much of the action involves several women characters—Black Widow, Tyger Tiger, Madame Masque—against the backdrop of the most horrific child sex trafficking (including a child recovered who had her hands cut off).

Throughout this series, I struggle with Flaviano’s artwork, however. Too often the style leans to the cartoon side, unlike the dynamic and even hyperrealism of previous artists such as Phil Noto and Chris Samnee. These concerns are more about my tastes than quality, I think, because Flaviano’s work suits well the “unleashed” tone throughout.

As one example, the creators of v.7 turn the tables on one of the most reductive ways Black Widow is portrayed—bound (and often nude or semi-nude):

A great deal is at work here in v.7, issue 3—a twist on the bound motif, the working-class slur, and extended scenes between two women in what is too often a misogynistic media.

However, after Natasha takes on Madame Masque’s identity to infiltrate the child trafficking ring, issue 3 slips right back into old habits—Natasha exposed, and bound:

It is hard not to be disappointed when creative teams cannot resist Natasha returning to the role of victim and almost always finding herself bound, helpless, and exposed.

By issue 4, “unleashed” becomes hyperviolent and cathartic for Black Widow, and likely readers. Despite my concerns raised above, Flaviano’s paneling and design lend a powerfully dynamic look that reinforces the narrative.

And at the center of it all, the weight of Natasha’s past remains at the heart of Black Widow, super-agent, and Natasha, deeply traumatized woman:

“I am through being a plaything, a pawn”—this refrain drives v.7, but also speaks to the essence of my series, raising concerns about underestimating and hypersexualizing this important character.

Identity and rebirth open the last issue of this series with Black Widow surviving a blast, portrayed with subtle phoenix imagery:

Survival and rebirth sits at the center of who Natasha is a woman and as a superhero.

The volume ends with some of the strongest aspects of this too-short series. Natasha/Black Widow imposes her world view—not Captain America’s—on her revenge, exposing the emptiness of the sex traffickers and fulfilling her own resolve to enact justice (even as that takes life).

The final pages reveal Natasha providing Winter Soldier-like hands to the mutilated girl and reuniting with Steve Rogers: “It doesn’t matter how our story started. It’s up to us how it’s going to end.”

This series becomes a story of power with the gender roles reversed—Natasha taking control of her world and urging Steve to let go of his fatalistic worldview.

Black Widow ends, again, yet the rage remains:

One of the best pages of v.7 occurs at the very end.

O, What a Tangled Web…

Marvel released a limited solo series, Web of Black Widow, after v.7 and before v.8, the celebrated Thompson run.

Web, regretfully, immediately introduces Tony Stark, and of course, Natasha’s cleavage:

Web is written by Jody Houser with artwork by Stephen Mooney. Issue 1 doesn’t suggest another brief series, 5 issues, will rise above well-worn ground.

While issue 1 too often remains reductive and derivative, Mooney’s artwork soars none the less:

Mooney captures many of the best qualities found in superior runs of Black Widow.

Noted above, v.7 built to an issue of power; Web establishes the issue of history, switching the tension from between Natasha and Captain America to between Natasha and Iron Man.

Natasha continues to build who she is on who she has been, and how her history has often been what others do to her.

Web is intended as a noir take on Black Widow, and as acknowledged earlier, the artwork certainly aspires to the very best of previous Black Widow series, but too much of this solo run falls back into the underestimated and especially the hypersexualized:

Cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon

Comic books have long suffered the misleading, unnecessarily provocative covers. Throughout Web, we are confronted not with Natasha’s cleavage, but the possibility of her cleavage behind that zipper. I am reminded of a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale: “They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose” (p. 25).

I am unable to trust what choices are allowed for Natasha in Web, genuine power and autonomy, against the objectification of her throughout. But I do sense a strong grounding of Web in all that has come before, not just Natasha’s backstory but the many series I have been covering:

Issue 2 alludes to v.6, issue 9 as the Winter Soldier is introduced to this plot line.

Ultimately, Web proves to be a mildly interesting thought experiment, Black Widow noir, and it looks good while muddling through being mostly derivative.

Worse things can be said about a comic book series, but I continue to hope for better, and with my last post coming next, I can assure you that v.8 is better—if not the best.

The Fatal Flaws of the SoR Movement: SVR and Phonics First

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) [1] 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.


[1] 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 Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860


Beware The Reading League

In 2019, Richard Allington [1] confronted the outsized influence of state chapters of Decoding Dyslexia on state legislation and classroom practices related to not only dyslexia but also teaching beginning readers.

Ultimately, despite the good intentions of this advocacy and despite the need to address any and all students struggling to read (disproportionately among marginalized and vulnerable populations), Decoding Dyslexia advocacy has caused more harm than good, Allington and others assert.

This dynamic should give all of us pause because the same pattern is now occurring with The Reading League, a national advocacy organization promoting the “science of reading” through an expanding number of state-level affiliates.

The Reading League implores people to “join the movement” and has issued a Defining Guide on the “science of reading,” available as a book or a downloadable PDF (if you fill out a form and share a good deal of your information):

The cover page of the ebook (formatted throughout like a PowerPoint presentation) sets the stage for what proves to be more advocacy that “science” despite the emphasis on “defining” and “science.”

This 40-page ebook is a disturbing but perfect illustration of the core problems among “science of reading” advocates. As other literacy scholars have noted, all across the different factions of “science of reading” advocates, the arguments and claims are riddled with contradictions, oversimplifications, cherry-picking, and casual lapses into anecdote [2].

Similar to many other advocacy organizations masquerading as a (We Don’t) Think Tank (for example, NCTQ), The Reading League uses slick PDF creation and the veneer of scholarly citation (as well as an inordinate number of brain images) to mask the many ways this ebook fails to meet the standard they themselves set for the teaching of reading.

All must beware of The Reading League and its growing influence because this “movement” fails in the exact ways confronted by Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors (2020) in Reading Research Quarterly: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques” (S259). [3]

Here I will detail a few of the essential failures of The Reading League’s “movement” in their “Defining Guide.”

The organization advocates for a “common” definition of the “science of reading” and offers one on page 6 with a note to see further justifications for the limited (and limiting) parameters of that definition on page 11. In short, The Reading League is recycling the “scientifically-based” mantra of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and limiting the “science of reading” to experimental/quasi-experimental research.

While this is a popular and politically enticing approach, that limitation has been refuted for a couple decades now. Let me share just a couple reasons (see endnotes for sources) for why excluding evidence outside that parameter is wrong for education and wrong for guiding reading instruction:

  • Problems with the reports issued by the NRP and the difficulty of implementing that evidence have been widely documented by a number of literacy scholars. [4] Repeating the errors of the NRP is bad policy, bad advocacy, and bad thinking.
  • Educational practice requires a wide range of evidence, not a limited view of what counts as science. Many scholars has addressed the tyranny of using “science” as a weapon, a distortion of both the essence of “science” and the on-going nature of inquiry (hint: the science of any field, including reading science, is not settled). [5]

Another element of the limited and limiting parameters for what counts as reading “science” is an over-reliance on brain research. The defining guide implies a diversity of disciplinary sources for defining reading “science,” but their little list suggests otherwise:

The limited parameters are grounded in psychology, and brain research.

If you dont get the focus on “brain research,” the guide is there to make it clear:

Oddly, this image has no text, no citation, leaving me to wonder what the hell this is for (except this is how my brain feels when I have to engage with “science of reading” nonsense).

Here is an extremely important point: Scholars have challenged the conclusions being drawn from brain research:

Within the neurosciences, however, serious critiques of brain-imaging methods have emerged. Many researchers in neurobiology (e.g., Elliott et al., 2020; Hickok, 2014; Lyon, 2017) have voiced alarming concerns about the validity and preciseness of brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect reliable biomarkers in processes such as reading and in the diagnosis of other mental activity….

However, Elliott et al.’s (2020) statement “that commonly used task-fMRI measures lack the minimal reliability standards” (p. 801) for identifying abnormal brain activity should raise serious caveats in interpreting any imaging study as applicable to classroom applications. [6]

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

And Mark Seidenberg, a key neuroscientist cited by the “science of reading” movement, offers a serious caution about the value of brain research: “Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how, and for whom at a level that is useful for teachers [emphasis added].” [7]

Finally, the ultimate failure of the guide and the “science of reading” movement promoted by The Reading League is the reliance of the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and peppering the guide itself with surprisingly old sources (scroll through for cutting edge scholarship from the 1980s, for example).

About SVR, well, there are a number of problems addressed by leading scholars in the field of literacy. [8]

Notably, Duke and Cartwright explains that the filed of literacy has moved beyond SVR:

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. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

And, possibly more significantly, Filderman, et al., conclude:

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. [emphasis added]

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

The Reading League “movement” is not a comprehensive view of reading and how to teach reading; it certainly isn’t settled (or even compelling) science.

Beware The Reading League because it is an advocacy movement that is too often little more than cherry-picking, oversimplification, and a thin veneer for commercial interests in the teaching of reading.


[1] Allington, R.L. (2019, Fall). The hidden push for phonics legislation. Tennessee Literacy Journal, 1(1), 7–20.

See also:

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

[2] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/  

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

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. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log].

[3] 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

[4] Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

Garan, E. M. (2001, March). Beyond smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 500–506. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170108200705

Stephens, D. (2008). The federal government wants me to teach what? A teacher’s guide to the National Reading Panel report. National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/resources/newsletter/magazine/nrp_report.pdf

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report: Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489535.pdf Shanahan, T. (2003, April). Research-based reading instruction: Myths about the National Reading Panel report. The Reading Teacher, 56(7), 646–655.

[5] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

Wormeli, R. (n.d.). The problem with, “show me the research thinking.” AMLE. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.amle.org/the-problem-with-show-me-the-research-thinking/

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[6] Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[7] Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S121. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

See also:

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

[8] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

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 Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Rank: Having a foul or offensive smell

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.

Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.

The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

Once again, our schools are ranked 46th out of the 51 public school systems, according to the website WalletHub.

Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.

Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Where is the accountability for student learning?

Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.

W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.

The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.

If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?

Do they not see failing as a bad thing?

The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.

To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.

In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.

I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.

JAMES DANIELS

Lake City

Why does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?

There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.

The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.

The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”

But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.

Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:

At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:

Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.

Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.

There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).

But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.

Recommended

Brief: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

Howard Zinn: August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn was born 100 years ago today, and I cite, quote, and draw inspiration from his work often. My public work and scholarship are grounded in one of Zinn’s central concepts:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

In 2022, Zinn’s radical confrontation of the past and present as well as his steadfast commitment to activism is urgently needed.

See the Zinn Education Project and a couple posts of mine below:

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure Post-Vergara

Looking Back to Understand “Science of Reading” and Censorship: Lou LaBrant 1936-1949 [Updated]

One of the most important aspects of understanding any issue or field of knowledge, I think, is to have nuanced historical perspective. That is vividly true about education and especially reading.

The current reading crisis, often referred to as the “science of reading” movement, and the incredibly chilling impact of curriculum bans, book censorship, and attacks on teaching and learning are not, I regret to emphasize, all that new (except the degree of the bans are in many ways unprecedented).

I am currently working on completing my online annotated bibliography of Lou LaBrant, and offer below some historical perspective on teaching reading and why censorship is always wrong for education and democracy.

Access my blog post on each work by clicking the hyperlink in the essay titles; many of her publications can also be accessed through JSTOR (links at end of bibliographies when available). I am including memes of key passages from LaBrant with the recommended works below.


Witty, P.A., & LaBrant, L.L. (1936, June). Aims and methods in reading instructionEducational Trends, 5-9, 18.

LaBrant, L. (1939). The relations of language and speech acquisitions to personality development. In P.A. Witty & C.E. Skinner (Eds.), Mental hygiene in modern education (pp. 324-352). Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), 289-291. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20330759

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

LaBrant, L. (1943, March). Our changing program in languageJournal of Educational Method, 21(6), 268-272.

Witty, P., & LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching the people’s language. Hinds, Hayden, & Eldredge, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

LaBrant, L. (1949, January). A little list. English Journal, 38(1), 37–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/808110