Category Archives: education reform

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

Since around 2013 and then increasingly since 2018, states have been adopting new or revised reading legislation often prompted by or identified as the “science of reading” (SOR).

As a result districts, schools, and teachers are experiencing major changes to reading programs and materials. Some states and districts have banned and removed materials that teachers have been using for decades, and many reading teachers are required to attend new PD as well as training in new reading programs.

This upheaval is not only common in K-12 education, but also highly disruptive to teaching as well as learning by students.

At a fundamental level, this cycle of crisis and reform has never worked, and only serves to de-professionalize educators and, once again, fails to address the individual literacy needs of all students.

In this policy brief, I offer an overview of the current SOR movement and recommend a different approach to reading policy and practices, including:

On a more local level, school- and district-level policymakers should do the following:

• Develop teacher-informed reading programs based on the population of students served and the expertise of faculty serving those students, avoiding lockstep implementation of commercial reading programs and ensuring that instructional materials support—rather than dictate—teacher practice.

• Provide students struggling to read and other at-risk students with certified, experienced teachers and low student-teacher ratios to support individualized and differentiated instruction.

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

In order to achieve my recommendations, local districts and schools must have access to high-quality research and resources in order to support well informed teachers who can then be tasked with developing the sort of reading programs that match the unique and individual needs of the student populations they serve.

Therefore, below I am providing a resource collection by topic that matches the current media, parent, and political pressure that educators, schools, and districts are facing.

Links to resources are being provided for PD and educational purposes only and anyone accessing these resources are asked to respect fair use of scholarship.

Resources by Topic

Access a PowerPoint of these topics HERE.

Brain Research [access materials HERE]

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly55(S1), S119-S130. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

Dyslexia [access materials HERE]

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

Socioeconomic dissociations in the neural and cognitive bases of reading disorders, Rachel R. Romeo, Tyler K. Perrachione, Halie A. Olson, Kelly K. Halverson, John D. E. Gabrieli, and Joanna A. Christodoulou

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children87(4), 397–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402921993406

Hall, C., et al. (2022, September 13). Forty years of reading intervention research for elementary students with or at risk for dyslexia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.477

LETRS [access materials HERE]

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

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

Mississippi

Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 15 February 2022]

Multiple Cueing Approaches [access materials HERE]

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

Simple View of Reading (SVR) and Structured Literacy [access materials HERE]

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

Barber, A.T., Cartwright, K.B., Hancock, G.R., & Klauda, S.L. (2021). Beyond the simple view of reading: The role of executive functions in emergent bilinguals’ and English monolinguals’ reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly56(S1), S45-S64. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.385

Cervetti, G.N., Pearson, P.D., Palincsar, A.S., Afflerbach, P., Kendeou, P., Biancarosa, G., Higgs, J., Fitzgerald, M.S., & Berman, A.I. (2020). How the reading for understanding initiative’s research complicates the simple view of reading invoked in the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S161-S172. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.343

[UPDATE]

The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction, P.L. Thomas

The Science of Reading and the Perils of State Literacy Policies: Virginia’s Cautionary Tale, Dorothy Suskind

Systematic Phonics [access materials HERE]

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

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 Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

Testing the impact of a systematic and rigorous phonics programme on early readers and also those that have fallen behind at the end of Key Stage 2. (2022, October). Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/read-write-inc-and-fresh-start

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper, G. Coles (2019) New Politics


As a career educator for about 40 years, including almost two decades in K-12 teaching, I am advocating for teacher autonomy and professionalism to serve the individual needs of students.

Therefore, I think curriculum and instruction must be driven by classroom teachers—not media narratives, parental advocacy, or political mandate.

Regretfully, media, parental, and political pressure for policy and practice are too often oversimplified and misleading, but honored over teacher experience and expertise.


Please feel free to reach out for additional resources or revising as needed (paul.thomas@furman.edu).

I am available for PD or possible professional reading groups, etc.

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

The High Cost of Marketing Educational Crisis

My foundations of American education course serves as an introduction to public education and our education majors, but the course also fulfills a general education requirement.

The class comprises mostly first- and second-year students, and those considering education as a major or career can be most of the class or very few. None the less, virtually all of them are a bit disoriented when we begin the course reading philosophers—Foucault, Deleuze, and Freire specifically.

I invite them to read some relatively brief passages from all three, warn them that reading philosophy is challenging, and then reassure them that we are simply using these ideas to begin our semester-long interrogation of how we have public schools and why.

When 2022 NAEP data were released, I immediately thought about a few things.

First, with the dramatic coverage of math scores dropping (see HERE and HERE), I told a few friends to brace themselves for the inevitable next step. And it took only about one day for my prediction to happen with an ad popping up on Facebook:

In the U.S., notably since the release of A Nation at Risk (see HERE and HERE) in the early 1980s, the easiest thing to predict is that the education market place is going to profit from educational crisis.

This fits into my second thought, which is the current and ongoing “science of reading” crisis that was prompted in 2018 by Emily Hanford, but was significantly boosted by the cries of “reading crisis” after the release of the 2019 NAEP data (see HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Now, I regret to note, math will be the next over-reaction, as the ad above shows now that edu-businesses scramble to add math to their offering for reading—solutions need a problem, and high-stakes testing is a problem machine.

And the big picture thing I thought about was Deleuze, from the reading I have students consider:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

Deleuze builds to a powerful and prescient warning:

For the school system (emphasis in original): continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling. (p. 7)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

As a key example, many (if not most) teachers of reading in the U.S. now are being told that their university training was useless, and that they need new training in the “science of reading.” And education corporations are lining up to sell schools that training, a story sold with the “science of reading” label (see about LETRS).

Just to be clear, this is not about the failure of teacher certification or about teaching teachers to teach or students to read; this is about profit through perpetual crisis and (re)training.

And here is the disconnect.

While I carefully help students over the course of a semester examine the claimed democratic foundations of public education (well documented in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and key figures in American education such as John Dewey), we quickly uncover that those democratic ideals are often secondary—or even erased—by market commitments.

So here we are in 2022 still riding the wave of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing that began with A Nation at Risk and built to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As early as the 1990s, however, many education scholars warned that this education crisis was manufactured—essentially a political lie that was bolstered by a media frenzy and a market grab.

The education crisis/education market place dynamic has been in full swing for over forty years now, and the ugly truth is that all of the crisis rhetoric used to justify incessant accountability layered onto a constant process of new standards and new tests is, as Berliner and Biddle documented, manufactured, a lie.

As compelling as it is, we simply do not now have a reading crisis; we have never had a reading crisis.

And NAEP 2022 data do not expose a math crisis.

“Crisis” suggests something new, immediate, and pressing to address.

Student learning has been about the same for nearly a century. Some students thrive (mostly correlated with affluence and being white), many students learn in spite of the system, and too many students are neglected or mis-served (correlated strongly with poverty, minoritized race, multi-language learning, and special needs).

Just to swing back to reading, there is no decade (or even year) over the last 80 years that public, media, and political opinions expressed satisfaction in reading achievement; student reading proficiency has always been characterized as failing, and a crisis.

Always.

As we creep toward an election, we need to admit a few things.

First, the market and commercialism matter more in the U.S. than democracy or even freedom.

We not only want schools to produce (compliant) workers, but also have turned public education into a crisis-based education market place.

Take a little journey to Education Week‘s web site and note that flurry of ads for the “science of reading,” for example:

And monitor over the coming weeks; you’ll see more and more addressing math.

Since 2018, media has generated millions of clicks with coverage of the “science of reading,” journalists are winning cash awards and receiving huge speaking fees to discuss the “science of reading,” and education corporations are pulling in millions for software, programs, and training labeled the “science of reading.”

Please take just a brief historical overview since the 1980s. Not a single reform has worked, not a single crisis/reform cycle has been deemed a success.

As Deleuze explains, the point of crisis/reform is to remain always in crisis/reform because that cycle creates a market, and for some people, that market generates profit.

But that crisis/reform cycle has a high cost for students, teachers, and society.

The “science of reading” crisis ironically follows just about two decades after the reading crisis identified by the National Reading Panel and at the center of NCLB—which mandated that teachers had to implement only scientifically-based practices (notably in reading).

That failed (apparently) and the current response is to shout (once again) “crisis!” and demand that mandates restrict teaching to the “science of reading.”

Four decades-plus into a crisis/reform hole and we continue to dig.

Part of me feels sorry for what is about to happen to math, and part of me feels really bad that I hope the coming math nonsense will relieve a little pressure from reading.

But mostly, I hate the lies, political, media, and commercial interests that are eager to shout “crisis!” because in the spirit of the good ol’ U.S. of A., there is money to made in all that bullshit.


Recommended

Did we need NAEP to tell us students aren’t doing well? (The Answer Sheet)

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

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

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)

The Pendulums Of Education And The Science Of Reading (Forbes)

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

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


Media and Parental Advocacy Not Credible Sources for Reading Policy

Peter Greene, former teacher and one of the best public thinkers about education today, found this Tweet “familiar” as a veteran of education reform debates:

Greene and I share long careers in education and the mind-numbing experience of rebuking education reform claims and policies over the last few decades. Education reform, in fact, has followed the exact path Richard Sever warns against in his Tweet.

While some of the larger aspects of the education reform movement that began after A Nation at Risk was released under Ronald Reagan have sputtered—charter schools, Teach For America, standards and high-stakes testing, stack ranking and value-added methods for teacher evaluation—the reform du jour is focused on reading.

Since the mid- to late 2010s—specifically 2018—the science of reading (SOR) movement has been driven by media and parental advocacy, resulting in new or revised reading legislation in dozens of states across the U.S. [1]

The problem is that political leaders are disproportionately influenced by inexpert advocacy such as Emily Hanford’s journalism and parent organizations for dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia).

Journalists and parents often share missionary zeal for topics, especially issues related to education, but lack historical, disciplinary, and statistical expertise to see clearly both the very real failures in education and the complex solutions that are needed.

Are too many students being mis-served as emerging readers in our schools, as media claim? Yes!

Is the current education system failing to identify and serve students with reading challenges, including dyslexia, as parents claim? Yes!

None the less, media and parental evidence, claims, and demands for solutions are mostly jumbled, misleading, and not scientific.

And the really bad news is that political leaders and the public receive almost exclusively the misleading messaging from media and parent advocates, but not the high-quality scholarship that debunks the claims and offers more credible and needed solutions.

For example, Hanford’s “Hard Words” and Decoding Dyslexia’s advocacy are both compelling on the surface, especially to the general public and political leaders with no background in education or literacy.

Hanford triggered the SOR movement by highlighting the claimed outlier success of schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania linked to a phonics-intensive program and increased test scores, for example:

This arguments fits into the larger education reform narrative started decades ago—that poverty is an excuse (and thus the “no excuses” reform movement) and that simply changing how we teach students can increase achievement (in-school only reform absent social change).

As those of us in education have witnessed since the 1980s, this argument is very compelling to the public and political leaders, and it is completely false.

“Miracle” schools, in fact, do not exist. [2]

The problem with media covering education miracles is that the basic evidence is both accurate and deeply misleading.

Because of pressures to raise test scores during the accountability era of education, many educators and policy makers have found ways to raise scores, but those test score gains are mostly weak forms of assessment (do they really measure what they claim?) and those gains often disappear over time (see the Florida model that uses grade retention to raise scores [3]).

To the first concern—are the test scores measuring reading?—those of us in the field of literacy recognized that the test data is from DIBELS, a phonics-intensive program that teaches and then measures students’ ability to pronounce real and nonsense words.

In other words, this test defines reading as “pronunciation”—not comprehension, which intensive phonics instruction does not increase [4] and which, in most cases, is what we mean when we are concerned about “reading.”

Therefore, yes, these schools did raise pronunciation test scores among high-poverty students, but no, this is not a reading miracle.

And to the second concern—are increased test scores real, sustained learning over time?—Gerald Coles investigated and discovered:

As I noted above, follow-up studies on the effects of early phonics programs have failed to find long-term benefits on reading achievement. Therefore, I wrote to two administrators in the Bethlehem schools, asking for information about the students’ reading ability in later grades. Neither replied to my request. Consequently, I used the publicly available Pennsylvania reading/language arts tests results, which provided scores for Bethlehem schools. By these measures, the reading achievement for students in SBSL early-reading program either stayed the same as students who had not used the program in previous years or else made only very modest improvement….

[T]here is Hanover Elementary school, where only 15.6 percent of students qualify for free or discounted lunch. There the impact of students’ economic circumstances was clearly in the opposite direction: About 85 percent of its students—virtually the same percentage as lunch standards—met the reading/language arts standards both before and after the introduction of SBSL program. Similar parallels between the beginning reading skills program and literacy outcomes can be found for all other Bethlehem schools.

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

Like almost all the “miracle” claims before this—often among charter school advocates—Bethlehem, PA is a mirage, not a miracle.

But this misrepresentation is typical of media coverage of SOR in that journalists advocate for “science” but use “anecdotes” as their evidence. In short, Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors conclude: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.”[5]

Parental advocacy has the same problems as media advocacy, as represented by the Decoding Dyslexia movement. Richard Allington has detailed that Decoding Dyslexia is both highly effective in advocating for dyslexia legislation while also being misinformed about the complexity of dyslexia, a highly contested diagnosis within the fields of literacy and special needs.

Parents advocating for struggling readers is grounded in a valid concern. However, recent overviews of the research on dyslexia and the International Literacy Association (ILA) have clearly detailed the following: (1) no clear definition for identifying dyslexia exists, (2) no one instructional approach is appropriate for all students identified with dyslexia (including Orton-Gillingham phonics or systematic phonics for all students), (3) universal screen for dyslexia is likely to cause more harm than good, and (4) teacher expertise and autonomy are essential for teaching any students struggling to read.

Yet, parents advocating for dyslexia endorse policy and practices counter to that research while also likely greatly overestimating the number of students who should be identified as dyslexic.

The irony of the SOR movement promoted by media and parental advocacy is that it is significantly out of touch with the evidence, the research, and the science.

The media and parents certainly can and should play a role in monitoring how well our education system teaches reading and serves the needs of all students. But neither the media or parents are credible advocates for identifying either the problems or the solutions around reading achievement.

Media and parents demonstrate both the hubris Richard Sever warned about in his Tweet and the tragic flaw of hubris portrayed in literature for eons. The expertise and humility that come with understanding the complexity of science and research, it seems, is far more important than good intentions and the sort of arrogance that comes from never having thought long and deeply about an issue.


[1] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policymakers 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

[2] Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo (Eds.), Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA (pp. 223-232). Charlotte, NC: IAP.

[3] 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.

[4] From Coles:

Based on the research on phonics in previous decades, cited in the Report of the National Reading Panel, these results should not be surprising. The conclusions of one study on phonics and similar word-level training represents the overall findings on intensive phonics instruction: Benefits for “reading comprehension were not significant” (Reading the Naked Truth, 92). A recent analysis by literacy researcher Jeff McQuillin drew similar conclusions from a large-scale study in England.20 Once again, “phonics instruction has a modest effect on initial literacy levels, but little to no impact on reading achievement in later grades.”

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

[5] 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), S259. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

See also Hanford’s misleading claims about Mississippi as another false SOR “miracle.”

Media and Political Misreading of Reading (Again): NYC Edition [UPDATE]

NYC Mayor Eric Adams is proving to be an unreliable source on just about anything he mentions. Adams seems more interested in crying false “crisis” for political gain than doing the hard work of political leadership.

First, crime:

With context and data, Adams’s claim is more than “a very strange thing”; it is simply false, political fearmongering:

Next, reading and dyslexia:

Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday the details of a plan to turn around a literacy crisis in New York City and, in particular, to serve thousands of children in public schools who may have dyslexia, an issue deeply personal to the mayor, who has said his own undiagnosed dyslexia hurt his academic career.

Mayor Adams Unveils Program to Address Dyslexia in N.Y.C. Schools

Unfortunately, neither Adams nor the NYT will receive the sort of public correcting for the nonsense in this article, but Lola Fadulu’s coverage of Adams’s dyslexia program is just as much political fearmongering as Adams’s misrepresentation of crime.

In fact, media, parents, and political leaders have been following a similar and misleading playbook for several years now—one that Fadulu and Adams demonstrate so perfectly it could read as parody:

Currently, there is a well-organized and active contingent of concerned parents and educators (and others) who argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties, affecting approximately 20% of the population, and that there is a widely accepted treatment for such difficulties: an instructional approach relying almost exclusively on intensive phonics instruction. Proponents argue that it is based on “settled science,” which they refer to as “the science of reading” (SOR). The approach is based on a narrow view of science and a restricted range of research focused on word learning and, more recently, neurobiology, but pays little attention to aspects of literacy like comprehension and writing or dimensions of classroom learning and teacher preparation.

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

That misleading playbook includes the following:

  • “School officials plan to screen nearly all students for dyslexia.” Universal screening for dyslexia is a crisis response to a false crisis. Johnston and Scanlon explain: “Good first instruction and early intervention for children with a slow start in the word reading aspect of literacy reduces the likelihood they will encounter serious difficulty. Thus, early screening with assessments that can inform instruction is important. Screening for dyslexia, particularly with instructionally irrelevant assessments, offers no additional advantage [emphasis added].”
  • “School leaders are requiring school principals to pivot to a phonics-based literacy curriculum, which literacy experts say is the most effective way to teach reading to most children.” Systematic phonics for all students, and specifically for students identified with dyslexia, is an old and false solution for students struggling with reading, per Johnston and Scanlon: “Evidence does not justify the use of a heavy and near-exclusive focus on phonics instruction, either in regular classrooms or for children experiencing difficulty learning to read (including those classified as dyslexic [emphasis in original].”
  • “New York is facing a literacy crisis: Fewer than half of all third to eighth graders and just 36 percent of Black and Latino students were proficient on the state reading exams administered in 2019, the most recent year for which there is data.” The NYT helped fuel the newest round of “reading crisis” in the U.S. with an over-reaction to 2019 NAEP reading scores, but the cold hard truth is that marginalized students have never been equitably served in NYC schools or anywhere in the U.S. as any point in history. (See how the reading crisis around NAEP is misrepresented HERE.)
  • “It is difficult to say how many children have dyslexia in the city because the department hasn’t been able to systematically identify them, said Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. But she noted that national figures estimate that one in five children have dyslexia.” Dyslexia advocacy and political responses to dyslexia are misrepresenting dyslexia by overstating how common dyslexia is (some credible experts suggest dyslexia isn’t even a credible label for reading, in fact), and are ignoring that no common definition for dyslexia exists. “Definitions of dyslexia vary widely, and none offer a clear foundation—biological, cognitive, behavioral, or academic—for determining whether an individual experiencing difficulty with developing word reading skill should be classified as dyslexic,” Johnston and Scanlon conclude.
  • “Naomi Peña said she has four children with dyslexia, and is one of several parents who helped launch the Literacy Academy Collective, an advocacy group.” Parental advocacy groups addressing dyslexia have had direct impact on reading and dyslexia policy across the U.S.; however, that impact has overwhelmingly prompted misguided legislation and policy. Writing about similar political responses to dyslexia in Tennessee, Allington raises a key concern: “What I find most disturbing about the recent Tennessee dyslexia law is the absence of any input from the Literacy Association of Tennessee (LAT) as well as the absence of members of the Dyslexia Advisory Council drawn from the membership of LAT.”
  • “The additional support includes more intensive instruction steeped in the Orton-Gillingham approach [1], which teaches reading with more hands-on methods that break down words into smaller, more digestible parts.” While the larger push for systematic phonics instruction for all students is misguided, advocates for dyslexia often focus on Orton-Gillingham specifically. Yet, as the International Literacy Association (ILA) shows: “As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty (Mathes et al., 2005). For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003).”
  • “Under the new plan, school officials will require principals, who can choose their curriculums, shift toward a reading program that is based in reading science. Many currently use one developed by Lucy Calkins, an academic at Teachers College, Columbia University, that has repeatedly come under fire.” The dyslexia movement is part of a larger “science of reading” movement that overemphasizes the role of systematic phonics but also attacks popular reading programs across the U.S. See How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED] for a thorough examination of the flaws with misusing the term “science.” See also A Response to EdReports’ Assessment of Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Writing and Phonics.

Media and political leaders as well as parent advocates are trapped in a false belief about reading and dyslexia—paralleling the public misunderstanding about crime rates.

Do students struggling to read, especially marginalized students, deserve to be better served in our schools? Absolutely, whether they are diagnosed with dyslexia or not.

But NYC’s plan is political fearmongering, not good policy or practice.

Political leaders would be well served to heed Johnston and Scanlon’s guidelines, including these:

Although there are likely heritable dimensions to reading and language difficulties, there is no way to translate them into implications for instructional practice….

Legislation (and district policies) aligned with the SOR perspectives on dyslexia will necessarily require tradeoffs in the allocation of resources for teacher development and among children having literacy learning difficulties. These tradeoffs have the potential to privilege students experiencing some types of literacy learning difficulties while limiting instructional resources for and attention available to students whose literacy difficulties are not due (exclusively) to word reading difficulties.

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

[1] Current research does not support O-G as more effective than other, and less expensive, methods; see here and these recent studies/overviews:

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

Hall, C., et al. (2022, September 13). Forty years of reading intervention research for elementary students with or at risk for dyslexia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.477

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children87(4), 397–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402921993406

Recommended

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading” (NEPC)

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

Thomas, P.L. (2020). How to end the Reading War and serve the literacy needs of all students: A primer for parents, policy makers, and people who careCharlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Lehre Ist Tot

This past week an early career teacher, highly regarded in the classroom and very accomplished in the field of education, received a parental request that a student not be required to read The Great Gatsby. That parent, however, had signed a consent agreement with all texts, including that novel, identified as required reading at the beginning of the course.

The parent then reached out to the administration, who confirmed that the teacher had to assign a different work. This, of course, undermines the teacher and the process established, but it also creates more work for teachers already under incredible strain.

While parental oversight of assigned reading has been common in education for decades, this situation comes as states are increasingly passing parental trigger legislation, which moves the parental power from each parent’s own children to parents being able to ban works for all teachers or students to explore in classes.

That same teacher, frustrated and disillusioned, later that day read aloud their resignation letter to me in the context of telling me that much that they had taught in the first three years of teaching could no longer be taught in the last couple years—and increasingly will be directly banned in the coming year (as my home state is poised to pass its own educational gag order this spring).

The teacher cried while reading the letter aloud, and added that the resignation was depressing; this, you see, was a career they had been working toward since high school—and within 6 years, teaching is dead.

The current anti-teacher climate in the U.S. is incredibly harsh and driven by orchestrated false narratives:

Right-wing media are creating parental trigger structures even without the concurrent legislation:

While teacher and school bashing (notably as “liberal indoctrination”) has a long history in the U.S., reaching back to Catholic schools fighting for market space as public schooling increased in the 19th century, the current anti-teacher climate has its roots not in Republican politics but in the Obama administration’s education agenda.

Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education heralded an era of education reform that actually doubled-down on the worst aspects under George W. Bush, and that doubling down feed into a growing media attack on “bad teachers”:

Time was a repeat offender in terms of media bashing of teachers.

Instead of rejecting the standard approaches to education reform begun under Reagan and federalized under W. Bush, the Obama administration turned their blame to teachers and teacher quality. During the Obama years, the great experiment in value-added methods (VAM) devastated the teaching profession.

The perennial paradox of education has always been that teacher quality matters but it remains a very small part of measurable student achievement (only about 10-15%). Therefore, the Holy Grail of the VAM experiment—identifying “good” and “bad” teachers through standardized test scores of students—was always doomed to fail.

But it did accomplish planting the seeds of today’s multi-pronged attack on teachers—the “science of reading” movement blaming teachers and teacher educators for student reading achievement and the anti-CRT/educational gag order movements being linked to parent trigger laws.

Throughout the education reform era over the past 40 years, many of us in education have argued that education reform initiatives are less about improving education and more about killing public education and the teaching profession—charter schools and voucher schemes, Teach For America, VAM and merit pay, demonizing and dismantling unions and tenure, etc., to name a few.

From Fox News lies to parental trigger laws and education gag orders, the evidence is very clear now that this current wave of teacher bashing is definitely about killing the profession, and not about student discomfort.

Let me return to the opening teacher story.

When the parent was asked for reasons why they wanted their child not to read The Great Gatsby—so the teacher had context for choosing an alternate text—the parent responded that they did not want the child (a high school student) to read about inappropriate relationships and sexual content. So here is a point of fact about the insincerity of these challenges; that student had already read and studied The Crucible, without any complaint, a play grounded in adultery.

I am certain some parents challenging what their children are being taught are sincere, but I am also certain the larger political motivation among conservatives is to completely dismantle public education.

Just as I have explained that there simply is no CRT propaganda agenda in K-12 schools, there is no liberal indoctrination/grooming occurring in K-12 (or K-16) education either.

The Ingraham rants are simply political lies.

And these lies are not improving education.

They have one goal and it seems to have been effective: Teaching is dead.

The Politics of Reading Proficiency (and Charter Schools)

It seems almost quaint now, except for the racism, but in 2009, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie” at Barack Obama. Post-Obama, the issue of political lies intensified dramatically, however, with Donald Trump building his presidential campaign on an extreme practice of lies that was well outside the norm of the sorts of lies people tend to expect from politicians.

In the wake of Trump, political lies have maintained the new low bar set by Trump; however, as I have detailed, there is a long history now of political leaders building their political careers on education reform, recently reading legislation, and that strategy in part depends on politicians, not educators, having the power to mandate standards, high-stakes testing, and most important of all, what counts as “proficiency” for reading achievement (currently, by the way, “proficiency” is set by each state with no federal oversight [see explanation here]—despite the stated goals of the Common Core movement to address that).

Many elements of the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s have served a similar political function, especially charter schools; the Obama administration, for example, solidified charter school expansion as a bi-partisan political strategy.

Since the release of the 2019 NAEP data on reading and after high-profile media coverage, a key example of politicians using reading achievement as political capital is Mississippi. The so-called “Mississippi Miracle” (a haunting cousin of the “Texas” and “Harlem” miracles that proved to be lies) is easily unmasked as a mirage (a lie) once the data is contextualized.

While Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for 4th grade were heralded as an aspirational outlier, Mississippi is not alone in its effective political game of smoke and mirrors using reading proficiency scores; see the following comparison of state proficiency scores compared to national NAEP data:

Most states have some degree of lower standards for proficiency than NAEP, but the issue is not that NAEP is a credible measure of reading (it isn’t); the issue is that state-level reading proficiency is a political tool of elected officials.

While the media and political leaders in Mississippi have claimed “miracle” for the state, the data show otherwise:

As the scatterplot suggests, Mississippi has a fairly normal strong correlation between socioeconomic status and reading achievement (low poverty correlated with high scores and high poverty correlated with low scores). Yes, Mississippi has had a long pattern of raising reading scores since the 1998 while not closing key achievement “gaps” (see NAEP longitudinal data), but the state is not somehow miraculously serving high-poverty students (because of the “science of reading”) in a way that is superior to other states (whose failures are being falsely attributed to an absence of the “science of reading”).

While a perverse way to say it, Mississippi reading achievement isn’t a “miracle” (and there currently is no scientific evidence that reading achievement gains are caused by a switch to the so-called “science of reading”) but is mostly “normal” in terms of producing measurable student achievement that is more a reflection of socioeconomic status (and race) that actual achievement.

In short, if you look at the data from all states, you will find a pattern of political hype (lies) not matching the data.

Similar to Mississippi, my home state of South Carolina tends toward that normal, but since this tool allows adding charter schools, please note how charter school (red dots) achievement (as I have documented before) mostly matches traditional publics schools (TPS), with a few outperforming and several underperforming when compared based on similar demographics:

The key to charter school analysis is to compare charter and traditional public schools with similar demographics (in the scatterplot above, that is the vertical axis); note that most charter schools cluster with TPS, but several fall lower on achievement when compared to TPS.

None the less, a great deal of political capital has been and is currently being spent on claiming the “science of reading” has created “miracles” (a lie) and that charter schools save children in poverty and Black/brown students (another lie).

Reading achievement is once again a hot media and political topic, but that discourse and legislation coming from it, are mostly lies that are serving the needs of political leaders and not students.

Dear Legislators: Your Job Is Funding, Not Dictating, Education

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Your elected state legislators are confronted with a series of bills addressing crumbling bridges and roads in your state. After a period of typical partisan debate, a final bill is proposed that not only funds new bridge and road construction, but also dictates how those bridges and roads must be constructed.

Most of the legislators who wrote and voted on the bill have laws degrees or career experiences in business; none of the legislators are structural engineers, and thus, no expertise in constructing bridges or roads.

Structural engineers and those whose profession is building bridges and roads note that the legislation is dangerous, ill conceived, and certainly will result in bridges and roads that will cost people’s lives.

None the less, the bill passes and then is signed by your governor.

This thought experiment likely seems outlandish, but it represents a key distinction about the role of legislators as that impacts public institutions (in this hypothetical situation, our highway/road infrastructure). In brief, it is the role of legislators to fund and ensure at least adequate if not excellent public institutions; it is not the role of legislators to dictate how those public institutions should be realized since a legislative body often lacks the expertise to create those mandates.

This brings me to my primary area of expertise, education.

Specifically since the last months of the Trump administration, there has been a wave of state-level legislation censoring curriculum, banning books and ideas, and mandating all aspects of formal education (curriculum and instruction)—often including mechanisms for parents to trigger censorship and even dismissal of teachers and professors based on personal ideologies and perceived “discomfort” by students.

This partisan political trend fits into a larger contemporary and century-long history of legislators mandating not just that education by provided but what and how that education must include.

As one example, since about 2018, states have proposed and passed very detailed and prescriptive reading legislation, a movement that fits into the accountability era of education that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

My home state of South Carolina is a powerful example of good intentions that have gone terribly wrong.

Under the guidance of then-governor (and future Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton) Richard Riley, SC established the now-familiar structure of K-12 public education, broadly labeled as accountability—state-level standards (approved by legislators), state-level high-stakes testing (approved by legislators), and various consequences for schools and teachers meeting or not those mandated parameters.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, bolstered by the misleading and partisan A Nation at Risk report released under Ronald Reagan, governors increasingly discovered that focusing on education reform paid significant political dividends (regardless of political party).

The narrative was simple, although deeply misleading: U.S. public education is failing students and the country because of the inherent flaws of the education establishment; therefore, it is the responsibility of elected officials to mandate all aspects of education.

By the mid-1990s into the 2000s, George W. Bush pushed the envelope of being an education governor onto the national stage; Bush created another false narrative around his so-called “Texas Miracle” (along with Rod Paige as Texas superintendent of education) that helped propel Bush to the White House and then take the state-level template for education reform to the federal level with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

While NCLB floundered, never producing the results promised in the same ways that state-level accountability never fulfilled promises, the template was set for governors and presidents; the Obama administration (embodied by Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education) doubled-down on the Bush/ Paige/ Spellings model, in fact.

In many ways, the current wave of curriculum gag orders and book censorship (as well as the copy-cat legislation imposing a misguided “science of reading” mandate on reading instruction) is the logical progression within that accountability approach to education.

In that model, authority is centered in elected officials, and expertise is trumped by that political authority.

Since the 1980s, accountability legislation and political micromanaging have not improved education in the U.S. (at regular intervals, the same crisis discourse is repeated, followed by the same strategies for reform, just under different political leaders), but that model has served political careers well at the expense of education, democracy, and now, academic freedom.

Legislators, then, have replaced their democratic responsibilities for funding and ensuring public institutions with using education, for example, as a political football for their own careers.

Just as legislators should fund but not mandate how to build our roads and bridges, they should fully fund but not dictate how or what teachers teach—especially when their mandates are serving ideological agendas and not teaching or learning in a country that claims to respect individual liberty, democracy, and academic freedom.

RECOMMENDED: The Language of Literacy Education (Brill, 2021)

Public and media debate as well as public policy driven by those debates is too often driven by misuse and misunderstanding of key terms and concepts, especially for the field of education.

Two such terms—Critical Race Theory and the “science of reading” (SoR)—have demonstrated that phenomenon over the past few years.

SoR debates have resulted in many states adopting harmful reading policy (often including practices not supported by research, such as grade retention and citing discredited sources such as the National Reading Panel and NCTQ).

With reading and literacy a high-priority focus of the media and state-level legislation, understanding and using terms and concepts around reading and literacy correctly and clearly are urgently needed. Therefore, I strongly recommend a new volume, Language of Literacy Education, edited by Vicki S. Collet, Associate Director, NWA Writing Project, and Associate Professor, CIED, University of Arkansas.

The volume offers research-based explanations for literacy terms [1], such as SoR, the simple view of reading, etc., that often contrast with the way these terms are used in public and media discourse as well as in state-level legislation debates and policy.

For example, the volume’s definition for SoR is how the term should be used and understood:

Science of reading, broadly defined, is research results from a variety of fields and methodologies, including basic and applied science, related to reading and reading instruction. The science of reading is supported by ongoing research with a “dynamic interplay among methods, theories, and findings” (Pearson, 2020). Examining this full range of science “can be a helpful policy guide to initiatives that seek to improve students’ reading ability and appetite” (Collet et al., 2021)….

Because of the complexity of reading and the differences among learners and contexts, no single instructional approach has been found to be effective in teaching all students to read (Compton-Lily et al, 2020; International Dyslexia Association, 2018; Malloy et al., 2019).

Collet, V.S. (2021). Science of reading. In V.S. Collet (Ed.), The language of literacy education (p. 66).  Brill Publishers.

While I strongly endorse the full definition provided here for a nuanced and robust understanding of SoR and how people learn to read over their entire lifetime, I find the inclusion of the current problems with the misuse of SoR as compelling:

Some instantiations of the “science of reading” are narrowly construed to emphasize basic research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics that describe how the brain learns to read in the early years. Public discourse sometimes focuses on the alphabet principle (Liberman et al., 1989) and a simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). This overly-restrictive view “is being used to shape public policy and silence other perspectives” (Hoffman et al., 2020, p. S258) and to narrow curricula (Compton-Lily et al., 2020; Vaughn et al., 2020) and should not be confused with the body of scientific studies of reading, which includes an interdisciplinary store of knowledge about “reading-related skills, processes, antecedents, and outcomes” (Alexander, 2020, p. S90). A “cautionary disposition to avoid drawing unwarranted inferences about the efficacy of pedagogical alternatives that have not themselves been rigorously examined” (Cervetti et al., 2020, p. S168) is needed. In contrast, research on reading instruction and the preparation of literacy teachers is robust, extensive, and useful for guiding reform efforts (Hoffman et. al, 2020).

Collet, V.S. (2021). Science of reading. In V.S. Collet (Ed.), The language of literacy education (p. 66).  Brill Publishers.

Ultimately, Collett reaches an important conclusion that should be driving our understanding of reading, teaching reading, and reading policy: “At times controversial, the science of reading is an ongoing body of research, ‘an area for inquiry rather than a foregone conclusion’ (Woulfin et al., 2020, p. S111).”

Parents, the media, politicians, and anyone advocating for better literacy instruction must have this volume at their side in order to navigate this debate in ways that could benefit our teachers and their students.

Misinformation and misusing terms result in harmful debates and ultimately extremely harmful educational policy.


See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2020). How to end the Reading War and serve the literacy needs of all students: A primer for parents, policy makers, and people who careCharlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading” (NEPC)

Making Early Literacy Policy Work: Three Considerations for Policymakers Based on Kentucky’s “Read to Succeed” Act (NEPC)

Red Flags, Red Herrings, and Common Ground: An Expert Study in Response to State Reading Policy

[1] Terms included:

Annotation
Argumentative Writing
Assessment
Background Knowledge
Biliteracy
Close Reading
Comprehension
Comprehension Strategies
Comprehensive Literacy Instruction
Construction-Integration (CI) Model
Context
Contextual Reading Model
Critical Literacy and Critical Media Literacy
Cueing Systems
Culturally Responsive Instruction
Decoding
Diffferentiation
Digital Literacies
Direct Instruction
Disciplinary Literacy
Discourse Analysis
Discussion
Dyslexia
Embodied Literacies
Emergent Literacy
Fluency
Four-Part Mental Processor
Genre
Gradual Release of Responsibility
Grammar and Mechanics
Graphic Organizers
Guided Reading/Writing
Independent Reading/Writing
Informational text Integrated Instruction
Intervention
Language Development
Learning Progressions
Literacy/Literacies
Literary Devices
Mentor Texts
Miscue Analysis
Modeling
Morphology
Motivation
Multicultural Literature
Multimodality
Narrative Text
New Literacies
Peer Response
Perspective and Point of View
Phonics
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Pragmatic Knowledge
Question Answer Relationship
Read Aloud
Readability
Reading Recovery
Reading-Writing Relationships
Reciprocal Teaching
Rhetorical Factors and Devices
Running Record
Scafffolding
Science of Reading
Semantics
Sentence Frames
Shared Reading/Writing
Sight Words
Simple View of Reading
Small-Group Instruction
Sociocultural Perspective
Standards
Story Elements/Story Grammar
Text Structures and Text Features
Theme
Thesis
Think Aloud
Transactional Theory
Translanguaging
Understanding
Vocabulary Instruction
Voice
Workshop (Reading & Writing)
Writing Process
Zone of Proximal Development