Category Archives: Educational Research

The Long and Tired History of Media-Driven Reading Wars

Consider the following excerpts from a scholarly journal of literacy. The articles included are responses from literary scholars to a political and media claim of a reading crisis.

First from Emmett A. Betts:

Next, from William S. Gray:

And then, from Lou LaBrant:

Finally, Paul Witty:

These patterns may seem familiar in 2023 to anyone following the “science of reading” movement:

  • Public schools are failing to teach adequately children to read.
  • Reading teachers are ill-equipped to teach reading.
  • Reading and teaching strategies are not scientific.
  • Political leaders and the media drive the criticism.
  • And literacy scholars carefully debunk the entire narrative, to no avail.

These excerpts are from 1942 and collected in The Elementary English Review (The National Council of Teachers of English), which would become Language Arts [1].

The reading crisis was spurred by high illiteracy rates in WWII draftees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to action and media coverage of the reading crisis.

The blame game, like now, is misguided and ill informed. Progressive education was the scapegoat, but LaBrant and others noted these soldiers had attended mostly traditional schooling.

Scholar after scholar also note that high illiteracy rates were caused by high poverty levels.

In 2023, as we are trying to stay afloat during the “science of reading” tidal wave of misinformation, we must acknowledge that this current reading war does not differ in any significant way from several since the 1940s.

We must also acknowledge that at no point has the US found reading achievement adequate regardless of teacher training, reading theories, or reading programs and instructional practices.

Reading Wars, then, are reductive, misleading, and ultimately ineffective—over and over.

The “science of reading” movement is another round of misguided blame, misinformation, and yet more hollow calls for “reform” that isn’t anything new or valid.

The “science of reading” is tired and lazy journalism, politics, and ultimately education.


[1] Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636 [access HERE]

The Return of Missionary Zeal in Education Reform: “Science of Reading” Edition

Increasingly, I am contacted by email or spoken to in person by teachers with a similar and disturbing series of experiences.

These teachers ask to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because they have already been reprimanded or dismissed for simply asking questions about their school/district’s implementing the “science of reading.”

One recent communication I received represents well that pattern (I am paraphrasing and reducing specifics to protect anyone trying to identify the specific teacher, and this is representative of dozens and dozens of similar communications).

The teacher has been a literacy educator well over a decade and also has earned a doctorate. A few years ago, this teacher had a first experience with LETRS training being required for university faculty where they were on one-year contracts.

After asking about why LETRS was being required and noting that the research base doesn’t support that training as effective, the teacher was shunned by their administrator and then their contract wasn’t renewed.

Before leaving that school, they noticed some faculty had simply stopped attending the training, but the administrator sought other faculty to log in to complete that training. The teacher grew concerned that there seemed to be some incentive for simply having many faculty trained.

At a new school, that teacher was immediately required to go through LETRS training. They described the training as a “cult” experience in which professional educators were handed pipe cleaners and asked to make models of the “simple view” of reading (Scarborough’s rope).

While I have repeatedly documented (along with several other scholars; access materials HERE) that the “science of reading” movement is primarily over-simplified narratives and misinformation, I want here to address that the central flaw in the movement is one we have seen in recent history regarding education reform: missionary zeal.

It is important to emphasize that I am aware of no one who rejects that a body of reading science/research exists and that should be a significant part of what drives classroom practice.

However, the media-driven SOR movement and the political consequences of that advocacy that has resulted in SOR-labeled policy are oversimplified and misguided versions of that research base.

And that new policy is often unscientific and harmful such as the pervasive implementation of grade retention.

Further the SOR movement fails to ground the narrative in the history of the field of reading and education reform.

For example, during the “miracle” school/teacher era spanning from George W. Bush through Barack Obama, missionary zeal drove Teach For America, charter schools, “miracle” school claims, and value-added methods for evaluating teachers.

At the core of these connected elements of education reform is a missionary zeal that ultimately failed to produce what was guaranteed, primarily because the reformers misidentified the problems and offered misguided solutions. In the case of the SOR movement, the same mistake is being made by claiming that reading science is simple and settled.

Currently, the “science of reading” movement has fallen into the missionary zeal trap as represented by The Reading League:

The similarities in these two recent movements are important and damning:

The criticisms I have raised are directly targeting the missionary zeal and misinformation found in the media story [1] and the political reaction [2] to that false narrative.

Reading proficiency in the US is about the same now as well before anyone implemented balanced literacy or current popular (and demonized) reading programs. And persistently over the last 80 years, scholars have lamented the “considerable gap” between research and practice in all aspects of K-12 education.

Throughout those 80-plus years, no one has ever been satisfied with student reading achievement regardless of the reading theory being implemented or the reading programs being adopted.

And teacher preparation has been significantly hampered for the past 40 years by top-down accountability mandates that have reduced most teacher certification to more bureaucracy than preparation. A dirty little secret that SOR advocates ignore is that how teachers are prepared to teach reading matters little because most teachers are bound to reading programs and reading standards once they enter the classroom. A huge gap exists between how teachers are prepared and how they are allowed to teach.

But manufacturing a crisis, perpetuating melodramatic stories, and casting simplistic blame are doing the same things we have done in education reform for decades without ever truly supporting teachers or better serving all students.

Just like the TFA and charter/”miracle” school era immediately behind us, the SOR movement is anti-teacher and anti-schools. The public and political leaders have been well primed since the 1980s to believe that schools are horrible and that teachers are incompetent. Regardless of what SOR advocates intend, that is what most people hear.

SOR advocates have falsely attacked teacher expertise, both that of K-12 teachers and that of teacher educators (many of whom had long careers as K-12 teachers); these attacks are often grounded in agendas and reports that are not themselves scientific (such as reports from NCTQ), and solutions offered (LETRS) lack scientific grounding as well.

Just as there is a robust and deep body of reading science, there are sincere educators who are engaged with that research base but also recognize that the SOR movement and SOR policy are not aligned with the complex and still developing reading science.

The SOR movement and much of SOR implementation are corrupted by missionary zeal that creates a veneer for the essentially anti-teacher elements—scripted curriculum (structured literacy), mandated retraining (LETRS), and caricatures of teacher educators, teacher education, balanced literacy, three cueing, and reading programs

An authentic embracing of reading science would acknowledge that current research is complex and evolving, that the causes of students struggling to read are also complex and include influences beyond and in the classroom (not just teacher practice but teaching/learning conditions such as class size and funding), that professionals engaging with research should raise questions and challenge conventional wisdom and traditional assumptions in order to serve the individual needs of students, that one-size-fits-all solutions for students and teachers don’t exist, and that educational practices should be grounded in teacher expertise—not journalists, parents, and politicians.

Missionary zeal is problematic in the same way as people who claim to know the mind of god (I unpack that in the newest arc of Daredevil), creating tunnel vision and arrogance while casting blame and judgment toward anyone or anything that dare raise a valid question or concern.

Just as TFA lured thousands into the program and thousands more to champion the idealistic (and unrealistic) blame-game as well as promises of miracles only to collapse under the weight of its own propaganda, SOR is following the same guaranteed-to-fail strategy.

And, yes, many good people jump on bandwagons with good intentions (I have several people I greatly admire who came through TFA), but eventually, we must all come to terms with the deeply flawed elements of this SOR movement. We must remain committed to individual student needs and teacher autonomy—not movements, slogans, and market boondoggles.

The reasons students have struggled for decades to acquire reading as well or as soon as we’d like are multi-faceted and mostly grounded outside of schools; therefore, the solutions are also complex and quite large.

From the TFA/”miracle” school era to today’s SOR movement, these false narratives are compelling because they are simple (simplistic), but they are destined to cause far more harm than good to students, teachers, and schools.

Beware missionary zeal—especially when dealing with why our schools and students struggle and what solutions advocates offer with passionate certainty.


[1] 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

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida

[2] 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

Does the “Science of Reading” Fulfill Social Justice, Equity Goals in Education? (pt. 1)

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

First, simply stating something (or posting on Twitter) doesn’t make it true.

And, second, good intentions are not enough—especially in education.

Before considering whether or not the “science of reading” movement is fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, let’s acknowledge how two relatively recent movements in education help inform a credible answer to that question.

For many years now, educators have been embracing both grit and growth mindset uncritically, promoting these concepts and practices as both scientific and especially necessary for marginalized and vulnerable populations of student (Black students, poor students, multi-language learners, and special needs students). [See HERE and HERE for research and examinations of grit and growth mindset.]

However, two important aspects of these movements must be considered: the science and research base is increasingly challenging the initial claims of both grit and growth mindset, and the appeal of both are grounded in deficit ideologies that are essentially racist and classist.

Grit and growth mindset prove to be cautionary tales, in fact, because education is often victim of faddism that spreads before the full science is understood and that is embraced without critical analysis of how well the concepts and practices actually accomplish what advocates claim.

Grit and growth mindset speak to a cultural belief that struggling students (disproportionately minoritized racial groups, speakers of languages other than English, impoverished students, and special needs students) lacks experiences and qualities existing in students who excel (disproportionately students who are white and affluent).

These beliefs are a subset of the rugged individualism mythology of the U.S. that needs success and failure to be centered in who people are and whether or not people work hard, even in the face of substantial challenges not of their making (and even when we are dealing with children).

This is why faddism in education is often driven by sloganism also—“no excuses” charter schools thrived even as they harmed the vulnerable and marginalized populations that they were disproportionately marketed to.

That belief system either carelessly ignores or brazenly rejects the power of systemic forces such as racism and classism.

Again, the science is gradually catching up with these claims and proving them to be false: A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform.

Over the past few years, the “science of reading” movement has ridden a similar wave of claiming “scientific” paired with advocates associating the movement with social justice and equity goals. As a result, the “science of reading” movement is still in the uncritical phase of fadism.

What complicates this dynamic is that we have a century of evidence that the students who struggle the most as learners and as readers are the very vulnerable and marginalized groups that these fads’ advocates target, and justifiably so.

This brings us to the opening points: Saying the “science of reading” movement is a social justice and equity movement doesn’t make it true, and those very real and justifiable good intentions simply are not enough to ignore that the “science of reading” movement, in fact, is harming the students who need reading reform the most (see, for example, HERE).

Over the course of a 65-year career, educator Lou LaBrant lived and worked through multiple back-to-basic movements, lamenting those cycles in her memoir.

In the U.S., we seem fatally attracted to viewing children and students in the most harsh and deficit perspectives, determined to prove that those who succeed and those who fail somehow deserve those outcomes.

The “no excuses” movement has been one of the worst examples of demanding that children/students and their teachers somehow ignore the realities of their lives when they enter schools and just suck it up and learn.

Like grit and growth mindset, the “science of reading” is a reductive and deficit belief system that diagnoses students struggling to read as lacking structure and basics (the exact same claim that has been made without success for a century, LaBrant lived and documented).

The result is reading policy that promotes scripted curriculum that erases teacher autonomy and student individual needs and then reduces reading in the early grades to pronouncing nonsense words.

The social justice and equity reckoning hasn’t quite taken hold yet with the “science of reading,” as it has with grit and growth mindset, and the “science of reading” movement has successfully deflected that the practices and policies actually are not supported by science (see HERE).

But the evidence is starting to build as critics have warned.

First, the education miracle machine is being unmasked. Florida, for example, represents how political marketing can use early test-based achievement mirages to mask that the entire system still fails to meet the needs of all students (see also Mississippi where celebrating 2019 NAEP grade 4 reading scores masked their persistent achievement gap and struggling students at later grades).

And, reading programs marketed as meeting the “science of reading” mandate are being exposed as failing to meet social justice and equity goals.

Consider for example two reading programs heavily marketed as “science of reading” endorsed: Wonders and HMH Into Reading [1].

An analysis from NYU of three programs, including these two, found the following:

1. All three curricula were Culturally Destructive or Culturally Insufficient.

2. All three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.

3. All three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling that provided a single, ahistorical narrative. 

4. All three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color, while encouraging empathy and connection with White characters.

5. All three curricula provided little to no guidance for teachers on engaging students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds and cultures; or reflecting on their own bias, beliefs and experiences.

We found that these three curricula, which collectively reach millions of students across the country, have deficits that are mostly not being raised in the current public debate about curriculum. Their texts, language, tone and guidance communicate harmful messages to students of all backgrounds, especially Black, Indigenous, students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. 

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The “science of reading” movement is often championed for legitimate concerns about learning and students and by people with good intentions. But that movement is also another example of faddism and marketing boondoggles at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized students who need and deserve a reckoning for reductive mythologies and deficit ideologies.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is not fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, and like grit and growth mindset, the reckoning is one the horizon, but our students and teachers deserve better and now.


Recommended

Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from
deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology
in teacher education
, Paul C. Gorski

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

[1] See A Private Equity Firm, The Makers of the MAP Test, and an Ed Tech Publisher Join Forces, Steven Singer

A Call for a New (and Honest) Reading Story for 2023

The 2010s into the 2020s has been another decade of high-intensity concern for reading achievement by students, resulting in several rounds of reading policy reform.

Maren Aukerman (University of Calgary) has recently joined a growing number of literacy scholars [1] who are documenting how that high-intensity concern for reading is significantly misleading and misguided.

In her third and final post, Aukerman makes an important plea:

Kick the polarization monster to the curb whenever writers practice divisive reporting: refuse to accept flawed premises and call media outlets out on it, whether you are drawn more toward balanced literacy or more toward what gets called “the science of reading” – or if neither term adequately describes your approach.

My exhortation to education journalists is simpler still. Acknowledge that reading teaching and research are complex; follow best practices for journalism to avoid the aforementioned errors; read a range of high-quality research that takes different perspectives; don’t use the phrase “science of reading” unless you acknowledge it as multi-faceted, evolving, and the domain of all serious reading researchers; and remain curious and open-minded. And finally, stop feeding the polarization monster with what you write. Reading educators and other stakeholders all want children to read well, after all, and we need each other’s voices, perspectives, and research in conversation rather than in battle in order to best make that happen.

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

I strongly agree with Aukerman not only in the analysis of media coverage of the “science of reading,” but also for this plea.

What we need is a new (and honest) reading story for 2023.

The essential problem is that the current reading story is driven by oversimplification and sensationalistic anecdotes that are being leveraged to attack and blame singular causes for another reading “crisis.”

Let’s start the new story by admitting the following:

  • Reading achievement today is little different than at any point in the past century. Marginalized and vulnerable students today are and have always been underserved, mis-served, and ignored. In short, we have no “crisis,” but are still confronted with not teaching students to read as well as they deserve and with political negligence to address the complicated factors impacting negatively student achievement.
  • No one or two programs or teacher practices are solely (or dominantly) to blame for “failing to teach students to read.” This is an oversimplification that ignores the first point above.
  • Research for decades has shown that measurable student reading achievement is linked (causation) to out-of-school (OOS) factors, and the remaining causal links (in-school factors) show that teacher quality/practice is only about 10-15% of that measurable achievement. And thus, hyper-focusing on reading programs and classroom practices is doomed to failure since it is a distraction from larger causal factors in reading achievement.
  • Teacher education continues to need reform, but (again) over-emphasizing the role of teacher education in teacher practice and student achievement is another distraction from the complex story and the many factors impacting student achievement.

We need, then, a new (and honest) reading story that “[k]ick[s] the polarization monster to the curb,” calls for a different approach to reading policy reform, and includes the following:

Out-of-School Policy

  • Well paying, stable work = reading policy
  • Universal healthcare = reading policy
  • Stable housing = reading policy

In-School Policy

  • Address teaching/learning conditions—class size, teacher expertise/experience, and education funding.
  • Eliminate punitive reading policies (for example, grade retention) and inequitable reading policies (for example, tracking).
  • Stop adopting lock-step reading programs, and provide teachers all resources they identify as needed to serve the individual reading needs of all students.
  • Resist narrow definitions of “science” and evidence, and honor the day-to-day evidence used by classroom teachers.
  • End the blame game, “miracle” schools narrative, and high-stakes deficit practices (testing and remediation).
  • Separate education materials and programs from the free market; the profit urge of the market distorts reading practices and creates fadism and boondoggles that waste tax funds.

A new (and honest) reading story is not as sexy as the tired reading war story that depends on crisis rhetoric and simplistic good v. bad characters.

A new (and honest) reading story also isn’t simple, and complexity as well as nuance can be frustrating and even counter-intuitive (see the OOS list above).

And a new (and honest) reading story is quite frankly hard to swallow: The reality is that human behavior (including student learning) will always fall along a spectrum at any identified point. We can never achieve “all third graders will be proficient readers.”

Yes, grade 3 is important, but we would all do better to acknowledge that grades 3 through 8 are key years over which we must be diligent about purposefully monitoring student progress and providing the instruction each student needs regardless of where that student falls on the spectrum of achievement.

We have a recent example of the inherent failure of 100% proficiency goals (NCLB), and students will be much better served if our new (and honest) reading story includes patience and realistic goals.

Frankly, I do not believe in compromise or taking a middle-of-the-road approach. I do believe that we need a community effort to address individual student needs that is grounded in honesty and accuracy, which is often messy and still in a state of becoming.

I strongly advocate for addressing OOS factors first or concurrently with establishing equity goals for in-school reform, but I also advocate for starting our reading reform with classroom teachers and literacy scholarsacknowledging that these key stakeholders will not universally agree.

“It is essential that translational research include, rather than blame and devalue, teachers and teacher educators,” as MacPhee, Handsfield, and Paugh conclude.

The current state of reading “science” and evidence is actually a powerful debate with strong elements of agreement and several key areas of evolving understanding rooted in disagreement.

Demanding lock-step adherence to “settled” science is a fatal flaw of the “science of reading” story.

A new (and honest) reading story admits that classroom practice is (and will always be) in a constant state of becoming, just as all science and research are.

Finally, we cannot persist in allowing mainstream media and social media to create the reading story that results in reading policy.

That’s an old and failed story.

We need and deserve instead a new (and honest) reading story in 2023.


[1] 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

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

[Aukerman three posts as PDF]

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida

Is Reading a “Guessing Game”?: Reading Theory as a Debate, Not Settled Science

The word “theory” is a technical term in the sciences that doesn’t mean “guessing.” “Theory” is not “hypothesis,” even as “hypothesis” isn’t really guessing either (maybe it is an educated guess).

Yet, average people tend to use “theory” as just a guess. That tension between laypeople and scientists is central to many problem with attempting to create evidence-based (“scientific”) policy in the context of media, public, and political debate that is mostly among laypeople.

Reading theory is rarely labeled “theory” in those debates among laypeople. Popular labels, such as “whole language,” often lose their theory origin and become teacher practice.


About a decade into teaching high school English, I taught a group of tenth graders with whom I immediately bonded (and was fortunate to teach again as seniors). Many of these students, now well into their 40s, remain friends of mine.

This class was very bright and genuinely eager to learn, but they were also driven to be “pleasers.” I worked hard to help them become more independent thinkers (instead of being incredibly compliant).

The worst way that urge to do the right thing hindered these students is reading. Early in the course, they pleaded with me that they could not read the assigned texts as fast as I wanted. This seemed odd because no class had ever complained about that, and the amount was quite manageable.

We set aside a class period to discuss how they read and such. What I learned was that these students in the early 1990s had been taught (or learned) that reading is done letter-by-letter to create words and word-by-word to create complete thoughts.

And there was their problem with reading speed.

I shared with them an epiphany I had in my MEd program during a course on early literacy. In that class we discusses how proficient and fast readers actually read. The process is much closer to what many would call skimming (“reading” large chunks at a time) and includes skipping as well as continually reading faster until the reader senses a loss of meaning before circling back.

My epiphany was that this described me perfectly as a reader, but I had always thought I was doing something wrong for not sticking to letter-by-letter and then word-by-word.

The discussion freed many of these students from a perception of reading that simply wasn’t accurate.


That explanation of highly proficient readers is also a story about reading as guessing and why reading theory remains a debate and not settled science.

The current “science of reading” movement depends heavily on melodramatic anecdotes to drive a narrative about reading and teaching reading that is overly simplistic and often simply wrong (see Media Coverage of SOR HERE).

One of those anecdotes portrays a teacher prompting a student struggling to read simply to guess at the words instead of using any sort of decoding strategy (what most people would call “sounding it out”).

So a key issue in the current reading debate is “guessing.”

To understand how “guessing” is part of the debate, we have to return to “theory.”

Whole language is a reading theory that is strongly associated with scholar Ken Goodman (see Whole Language HERE). In the 1960s, Goodman published Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.

Goodman’s stated purpose in the piece is as follows:

Simply stated, the common sense notion I seek here to refute is this:

“Reading is a precise process. It involves exact, detailed, sequential perception and identification of letters, words, spelling patterns and large language units.”

In phonic centered approaches to reading, the preoccupation is with precise letter identification. In word centered approaches, the focus is on word identifications. Known words are sight words, precisely named in any setting.

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

And his alternative, where the issue with “guessing” has its roots:

In place of this misconception, I offer this: Reading is a selective process. It involves partial use of available minimal language cues selected from perceptual input on the basis of the reader’s expectation. As this partial information is processed, tentative decisions are made to be confirmed, rejected, or refined as reading progresses.

More simply stated, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. It involves an interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. The ability to anticipate that which has not been seen, of course, is vital in reading, just as the ability to anticipate what has not yet been heard is vital in listening.

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

While Goodman noted later that “guessing” may have not been the best choice, whole language proposed a theory of reading that valued meaning over accurately reading every word. And while the pervasiveness of whole language in K-12 education, I think, is greatly overstated, elements of holistic and workshop approaches certainly impacted practice and informed what would later be called “balanced literacy.”

The problem with “guessing” is the same as the problem with “theory”; both have very specific meanings in science and quite different (and often negative) meanings in day-to-day use.

And when theory is translated into practice, it is entirely possible, even likely, that some practitioners misunderstand and misuse “guessing.”

But it is quite a huge leap, as the “science of reading” movement has done, to announce that we have a unique reading crisis now that can be traced to teacher education teaching “guessing” and a couple reading programs that rely exclusively on “guessing.”

That “guessing” is also being identified (and even banned by some states) as “three cueing.”

So there are a few things to note about Goodman’s “guessing.”

First, that essay and idea is well over forty years ago; Goodman himself noted that he would later in his career have written a much different piece.

Next, the line between Goodman’s theorizing and the use of “guessing” or “three cueing” is complicated and extremely long.

Finally, it is much better to have a debate about reading theory and practice if we all agree to use important terms accurately. Here is a great and well cited overview of “multiple cueing”:

In some cases, proponents of structured literacy approaches have denigrated instructional practices that attend to multidimensional aspects of reading. For example, Spear-Swerling (2019) argued against encouraging students to attend to multiple-cueing systems when reading. Arguing that explicit teaching of decoding/phonics skills should dominate reading instruction, she warned against coaching students to use “meaning in conjunction with print cues and having students ‘problem-solve’ with teacher guidance (e.g., Burkins & Croft, 2010)” (p. 205). Spear- Swerling cited two reports (Foorman et al., 2016; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) to argue that “research on students’ reading development… has conclusively disproven the multiple-cuing-systems model” (p. 206), although neither of these reports directly addressed or tested that model.

This rally against multiple-cueing systems models has been reiterated by scholars (Paige, 2020) and journalists (Hanford, 2018, 2019, 2020). Although it may be true that as readers become more proficient, they attend less to illustrations, this does not negate the role that illustrations play in helping young students learn to attend to meaning while reading. In short, drawing students’ attention to illustrations is one means of helping them attend to the stories and information presented in texts. Learning to attend to meanings that emerge while reading is essential for understanding both the simple and increasingly complicated texts that students encounter as they become skilled readers. Describing multiple-cueing systems models as having students draw on “partial visual cues to guess at words (Adams, 1998; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989; Solman & Stanovich, 1992; Stanovich, 1986)” (Paige, 2020, p. 13) misrepresents these models and ignores the important role of illustrations as tools for learning to access and monitor meaning construction.

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

In 2022, scholars of literacy have moved beyond Goodman’s initial theories of whole language, but they have also moved on from the “simple” view of reading (yet, SOR continues to blame whole language and balanced literacy while endorsing the “simple” view).

And the current state of reading theory remains a debate, not settled science. And that debate has those who focus on letters, sounds, words, and meaning versus those who envision proficient readers who scan text and create meaning through dozens of strategies, many of which aren’t grounded in letters and words.

This is more of a theory than a guess, but our only hope of not continuing the cycle of reading crisis, reform, reading crisis, reform, etc., we must begin to understand the complexities of reading and teaching reading instead of declaring winners and losers in order to play the blame game.

Understanding “Science” as Not Simple, Not Settled: Meta-Analysis Edition

A powerful but often harmful relationship exists among research/science, mainstream media, and public policy.

One current example of that dynamic is the “science of reading” (SOR) movement that is driving reading legislation and policy in more than 30 states (see HERE and HERE).

Mauren Aukerman, who has posted two of three planned posts on media coverage of SOR (HERE and HERE), identifies in that second post a key failure of media: Error of Insufficient Understanding 3: Spurious Claims that One Approach is Settled Science.

For example, Aukerman details with citations to high-quality research/science: “In short, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any single approach, including the particular systematic phonics approach often elided with ‘the science of reading,’ is most effective.” And therefore, Aukerman recommends: “Be skeptical of ‘science of reading’ news that touts ‘settled science,’ especially if such claims are used to silence disagreement.

What makes media a dangerous mechanism for translating research/science into policy is that journalists routinely oversimplify and misrepresent research/science as “settled” when, in reality, most research/science is an ongoing conversation with data that presents varying degrees of certainty about whatever questions that research/science explores.

In education, research/science seeks to identify what instruction leads best to student learning—such as in the reading debate.

The other problem with media serving as a mechanism between research/science and policy is that journalists are often trapped in presentism and either perpetuate or are victims of fadism.

Despite no settled research/science supporting media’s coverage of the current reading “crisis,” the initial “science of reading” narrative created by Emily Hanford has now become standard media narratives without any effort to check for validity (again, I highly recommend Aukerman’s first post).

Regretfully, education (and students, teacher, parents, and society) is regularly the victim of fadism at the expense of research/science. The list of recent edu-fads that were promoted uncritically by media only to gradually lose momentum because, frankly, they simply never were valid policies is quite long: charter schools (notably no-excuses models), value-added methods for evaluating/paying teachers, school choice, Common Core, etc.

Two fads that represent well how the misuse of “science” helps this failed cycle in education are “grit” and growth mindset. Both gained their introduction to mainstream education because media portrayed the concepts are research/science-based (even justified, as “grit” was, by the Genius grant).

While schools fell all over themselves, uncritically, to embrace and implement “grit” and growth mindset, the research community gradually revealed that both concepts have some important research and ideological problems. Scholars have produced research/science that complicates claims about “grit” and growth mindset, and many critical scholars continue to call for interrogating the racist/classist groundings of both concepts.

Growth mindset has been in the news again (and discussed on social media) because two recent meta-analyses reach different conclusions; see this Twitter thread for details:

Tipton and co-authors, in fact, have published an analysis and commentary on this problem: Why Meta-Analyses of Growth Mindset and Other Interventions Should Follow Best Practices for Examining Heterogeneity.

The issue raised about meta-analyses parallels the exact problem with media coverage of research/science—scientific methodologies that fail due to oversimplification. See this Tweet, for example, about meta-analyses:

Especially in education, when individual student needs greatly impact what is “best” for teaching and learning in any given moment, Tipton’s final Tweet cannot be over-emphasized:

The use of “science” in research is necessarily limiting (see HERE) when that “science” is restricted to experimental/quasi-experimental designs seeking proof of cause (does instructional approach X cause students to learn better than instructional approach Y).

While causal conclusions and research methods that address populations and controls are the Gold Standard for high-quality research/science, this type of “science” is often less valuable for the practical day-to-day messiness of teaching and learning.

Educators are better served when research/science is used to inform practice, not to mandate one-size-fits-all practice (see HERE).

The media and journalists more often than not turn research/science into oversimplified truisms that then are used as baseball bats to beat policy advocates into submission. The conversation and nuance are sacrificed along with effective policy.

The public and policymakers are left with a challenge, a way to be critical and careful when either the media or researchers present research/science.

As Aukerman warns, if journalists or researchers start down the “simple, settled” path, then they are likely not credible (or they have an agenda) because the real story is far more complicated.


See Also

The misdirection of public policy: comparing and combining standardised effect sizes, Adrian Simpson

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

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.

Additionally, journalists and mainstream media have been recycling the original claims (see Aukerman below) made by Hanford’s Hard Word, despite a lack of science behind those claims.

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. Further, I am available for educators or journalists who want to investigate the “science of reading” movement critically.

Resources by Topic

Access a PowerPoint of these topics HERE.

Historical Context [access materials HERE]

Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

McQuillan, Jeff (1998) “Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States,” Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation: Vol. 6 , Article 1.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.7275/em9c-0h59
Available at: https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol6/iss1/1

Literacy Crises: False Claims and Real Solutions by Jeff McQuillan

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

Research Roundup: LETRS (PDF in link above also)

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

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida

Mississippi

Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 7 December 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

[UPDATE]

(Decodable texts)

The Case Against Decodable Texts, Jeff McQuillan, Language and Language Teaching, Issue No. 21, January 2022 

[UPDATE]

Bowers, J.S. Yes Children Need to Learn Their GPCs but There Really Is Little or No Evidence that Systematic or Explicit Phonics Is Effective: a response to Fletcher, Savage, and Sharon (2020). Educ Psychol Rev 33, 1965–1979 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09602-z

(Fluency)

A Meta-Analysis of Non-Repetitive Reading Fluency Interventions for Students With Reading Difficulties, Leah M. Zimmermann, Deborah K. Reed, and Ariel M. Aloe. Remedial and Special Education 2019 42:2, 78-93

NCTQ

NEPC Review: 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management (National Council on Teacher Quality, October 2020)

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

NEPC Review: Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know (National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ])


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.


Recommended

Reading Science: Current and On-Going Research (updated bibliography)

Research Based…Questions to Ask

Reading Research Quarterly:

Volume 55, Issue S1, Special Issue: The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions

Volume 56, Issue S1, Special Issue: The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions


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

I am available for interviews, podcasts, webinars, 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 [UPDATED]

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. [1]

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.


[1] UPDATE: See The Science of Math, and note the use of NAEP 2022 as you scroll down HERE.


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

SOR October Update: Phonics Fail in UK, Documentary Fail in US

Phonics Fail in UK

Since 2006, England has been implementing mandatory systematic phonics for all students—a policy approach very similar to the “science of reading” (SOR) movement in the U.S.

Recent research on that policy called for balance and found the focus on intensive phonics has not produced promised results.

Now, a study released in October 2022—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—offers two important conclusions that are highly relevant to being skeptical about the SOR movement and related reading policy in the U.S.:

  • Reading programs are not one-size-fits-all solutions to challenges related to reading achievement.
  • Intensive phonics instruction for beginning readers can raise phonics assessment scores in the short run, but greater care should be taken to not call phonics tests “reading improvement” and (once again) those early increases disappear as young readers develop (see the reading science on phonics in the policy brief linked below).

Here is the key chart:

Documentary Fail in US

A documentary on the “science of reading” movement is imminent, The Truth about Reading.

I was deeply skeptical when I first heard about the documentary (see Nancy Bailey’s concerns HERE).

However, I agreed in good faith to be interviewed this past summer, but now that I have seen the promotional trailer, I feel as if my initial skepticism was warranted.

The trailer is melodramatic (think Corridor of Shame, a documentary with good intentions but deeply problematic delivery), and continues to forefront journalists while misrepresenting teacher practice and reading science.

In short, beware.

Recommended

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

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

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