Category Archives: literacy

Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

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

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

Structured Literacy

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

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

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

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

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

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

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

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

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

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

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

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

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

60  See, for example, The Reading League. (2022). Decodable text sources. Reading Rockets. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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

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

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

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

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

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

70  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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

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

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

73  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

74  Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

75  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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

Wyse, D. & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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

Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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.

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.

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

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

Published 2022

The twenty-first century Reading War is, in fact, nothing new, but some of the details are unique to our current culture driven by social media. This volume seeks to examine the current Reading War in the context of the historical recurrence of public and political debates around student reading abilities and achievement.

Grounded in a media fascination with the “science of reading” and fueled by a rise in advocates for students with dyslexia, the current Reading War has resulted in some deeply troubling reading policy, grade retention and intensive phonics programs.

This primer for parents, policy makers, and people who care confronts some of the most compelling but misunderstood aspects of teaching reading in the U.S. while also offering a way toward ending the Reading War in order to serve all students, regardless of their needs.

The revised/expanded 2nd edition adds developments around the “science of reading,” including the expanding impact on state policy and legislation as well as robust additions to the research base around teaching students to read.

Introduction: Parent Advocacy and the New (but Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading. Acknowledgments. CHAPTER 1: A Historical Perspective of the Reading War: 1940s and 1990s Editions. CHAPTER 2: The 21st Century Reading War: “The Science of Reading,” Dyslexia, and Misguided Reading Policy. CHAPTER 3: Misreading Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. CHAPTER 4: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions About Literacy. CHAPTER 5: The “Science of Reading” in 2022, and Beyond: Not Simple, Not Settled. Conclusion: The Science of Literacy—A 5-Decades Journey and Counting. Appendix A: Recommended Reading. Appendix B: Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”—A Quick Guide for Teachers.

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educators, I was a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina, my hometown in fact. I never imagined doing anything else, but I did attain my doctorate in 1998, still planning to be Dr. Thomas, high school teacher, for my entire career.

It is 2022, and I just completed 20 years in higher education, where I am a full professor in education and (fortunately) also teach first-year and upper-level writing. This fall I am taking my first ever sabbatical.

However, if anything, my scholarly schedule is more packed than at any time in my career. If you are interested in my work, I invite you to join me at the following presentations/keynotes and/or look for my upcoming publications.

Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule


How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)(2nd Edition) – IAP – [first edition]

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]


Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022


Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)

Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm


Unpacking Reading Science to Inform a Different Path to Literacy 

The “Science of Reading” movement that began in 2018 has gained momentum and has had outsized influence on state reading policy and classroom practice. However, the SoR movement presents two negative impacts on long-term literacy education—a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and mandates for phonics-first instruction for all beginning readers. In this webinar, Paul Thomas, Ed.D. (Professor of Education, Furman University, and author of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students) places the SoR movement in the context of the robust but complex current state of reading science. Come join us on October 20, 2022, at 4 p.m. as we explore what’s next in literacy education.

Ohio Education Association

Education Matters podcast; grade retention


University of Arkansas

October 24 at 6:30

The Jones Center for Families

Serving the Literacy Needs of All Students: While Resisting Another Reading War

30th annual Reading Recovery Council of Michigan Institute, Thursday, November 17, 2022, Somerset Inn, Troy, Michigan


The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means. I detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream media during 2018. “Science of reading” as discourse, as marketing, and as a research base.

Break-out Session

How to Navigate Social Media (and RL) Debates about the “Science of Reading”

Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” advocates on social media. However, if you enter into a social media or real-life debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read or hear that debate, and be prepared with credible and compelling evidence.

NCTE 2022, November 17 – 20, 2022, Anaheim, CA 

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title: Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC

Role: Roundtable Leader

Event Title: The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 2:00 PM PST – 3:15 PM PST

Location: 204-B

Role: Roundtable Leader

2023 Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference, Chicago, IL, January 18-20, 2023 


Teaching Literacy in a Time of Science of Reading and Censorship

The key elements of the science of reading (SOR) movement as well as the current move the ban books and censor curriculum are outlined against historical and research-based contexts. The unique challenges facing literacy educators iden/fied with considera/on of how literacy teachers can maintain professional autonomy in the classroom and prac/ce ac/vism in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of “science” and research as well as in support of academic freedom.

90-minute breakout sessions

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free: Teachers as Activists

The US is experiencing one of the most significant waves of book bans and educational gag orders impacting academic freedom, access to diverse voices and history, and the safety of teachers and students. Teachers are historically required to be apolitical and avoid advocacy in and out of the classroom. This session examines the politics of calling for no politics among educators, and explore with participants both the need to advocate for their professional autonomy and academic freedom as well as for academic freedom.

Unpacking the “Science” in the Science of Reading for a Different Approach to Policy and Practice

The science of reading (SOR) movement and the use of the “science of reading” in marketing literacy programs have had a significant impact on reading policy and practice across the US since 2018. Policy and practice related to dyslexia, adopting reading programs, teaching reading (and the role of phonics instruction), however, have too often been guided by a misleading and overly simplistic version of SOR portrayed in the media and advocated by parents and politicians. This session examines the contradictions between claims made by SOR advocates and the current research base.

LitCon 2023, January 28 – 31, Columbus, OH

Rethinking Reading Policy in the Science of Reading Era

Since 2018, states have been revising or adopting new reading legislation prompted by the science of reading movement. Placed in the context of several reading crises over the last 100 years, however, this movement is deja vu all over again, destined to fail and be replaced by another reading crisis in the near future. This session explains why and offers a new approach to reading policy at the state, district, and school levels.

WSRA 2023 Conference, Milwaukee, WI, February 9-11, 2023 

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S. Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, in this session, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018. The session will cover the research base around the SoR movement for context. Participants will be invited to discuss their experiences with these three versions as well.

Banning Books Is Un-American

The U.S. is experiencing a wave of book censorship and educational gag orders. This session examines the historical context of censorship as it impacts the teaching of literacy and literature by focusing on writer Kurt Vonnegut’s response to censors. The session will include powerful policy and position statements supporting the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn, including The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE), Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE), and Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE). Participants will have an opportunity to discuss and explore how and why educators must and can seek ways to defend academic freedom and thew right to teach and learn.

PSLA Conference 2023, February 23-25, 2023

Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Friday, February 24, 2023, 8:00 – 9:00

Invited Speaker: Rethinking Reading Science: Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Paul Thomas

Focusing on reading science published since 2018 addressing reading, dyslexia, and phonics, this session details a complex but robust state of reading science. Media and think-tank messaging parents, political leaders, and the public are receiving about the “science of reading” are oversimplified, cherry-picked, and contradictory to that current state of reading science. Classroom teachers deserve the autonomy to interrogate reading science, understand the individual needs of all their students, and then the teaching and learning conditions to serve those students with evidence-based practice.

Saturday, February 25, 2023, 10:15 -11:15 

Panel: Carving a Path Forward: Equity, Neuroscience, Policy Mandates and Literacy Education 

The Politics of Teaching Reading, Paul Thomas

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

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

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).

[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

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).

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.

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

NYT Blasts Calkins with “Science of Reading” propaganda

Just 10 days after the New York Times ran a factually misleading piece on a dyslexia program championed by Mayor Eric Adams, Dana Goldstein amplified the “science of reading” attack on Lucy Calkins and the Units of Study reading program.

Margaret Thornton (Princeton) offered on Twitter the essential problem with this mainstream media coverage:

Goldstein’s uncritical use of “science of reading” propaganda fits into a pattern of mainstream media, particularly the work of Emily Hanford, that weaponizes “science” while trafficking in anecdote and grand misrepresentations. Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors explain:

Hanford critiqued approaches named as balanced literacy and whole language without citing any evidence around these claims. She continued with anecdotes on how a focus on the SOR has improved student performance, but there is not a single citation of evidence in support of this claim. … It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.

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.

The NYT’s article on Calkins has several significant problems. First, since the bar in journalism for citing evidence is much lower than in academia, the piece itself oversimplifies and misrepresents complex and important issues about reading and teaching reading, often with no citation or by cherry-picking (and misrepresenting) a single link to evidence.

Next, the fundamental problem with the article is the continued uncritical acceptance by mainstream media of the “science of reading” movement and marketing. This last point, the marketing aspect of the “science of reading,” must not be ignored since phonics-heavy programs are committed to taking market share away from current popular reading programs such as those by Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell.

And finally, the framing of the article fails to recognize, as Thornton does (as well as Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors), that both Calkins’s programs and the “science of reading” deserve critical interrogations against research and best practice.

Goldstein’s lede begins in misrepresentation and without citation: “For decades, Lucy Calkins has determined how millions of children learn to read. An education professor, she has been a pre-eminent leader of ‘balanced literacy,’ a loosely defined teaching philosophy.”

“Balanced literacy” (BL) is not “loosely defined,” and even so, that definition is quite accessible and important to this discussion:

A balanced approach to literacy development is a decision-making approach through which the teach makes thoughtful choices each day about the best way to help each child become a better reader and writer. A balanced approach is not constrained by or reactive to a particular philosophy. It is responsive to new issues while maintaining what research has already shown to be effective. It is an approach that requires and frees a teacher to be a reflective decision maker and to fine tune and modify what he or she is doing each day in order to meet the needs of the child.

Spiegel, D. (1998). Silver bullets, babies, and bath water: Literature response groups in a balanced literacy program. The Reading Teacher, 52(2), 114-124.

That definition, in fact, directly contradicts the “science of reading” propaganda that phonics is rejected by BL advocates and programs. Goldstein reports without context: “But in recent years, parents and educators who champion the ‘science of reading’ have fiercely criticized Professor Calkins and other supporters of balanced literacy.”

Yes, there are critics of BL, but more often than not, those critics are simply misinformed and that criticism is misguided.

However, the false representation of BL is matched only by the skewed misrepresentation of teaching phonics: “They cite a half-century of research that shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

This link, a rare citation, refers readers to the National Reading Panel (NRP), which raises two problems. The NRP was widely discredited (see Garan) when it was released as a cornerstone of NCLB, and since that release, the findings of the NRP have been repeatedly misrepresented (See Yatvin).

The NRP found that systematic phonics was effective in grade 1 only, and that effectiveness was linked to pronunciation, and not comprehension (see Stephens).

Since the inception of “science of reading” movement, the persistent misrepresentation of systematic phonics for all students (and students with dyslexia [see ILA, 2016 and Johnston and Scanlon, 2021) is discredited by a number of studies:

  • 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.
  • Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy.
  • 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.
  • 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 Review of Education10(1), e3314.

The last study, in fact, examines the systematic phonics mandate begun in 2006 throughout England (synthetic phonics); Wyse and Bradbury concluded:

Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful….

In addition to the importance of contextualised reading teaching as an evidence-based orientation to the teaching of reading we hypothesise the following pedagogical features that are likely to be effective. Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics teaching with children younger than this is not likely to be effective. A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy. Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective. Insistence on particular schemes/ basals, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal. Well-trained classroom assistants, working in collaboration with their class teachers, could be a very important contribution to children’s reading development.

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 Review of Education10(1), e3314.

The most recent research, then, on national mandates for systematic phonics instruction concludes the need for “balance,” and pedagogical practices that strongly match Spiegel’s original definition for BL.

One other claim lacking any link to evidence focuses on the narrow view of “science” being promoted by the “science of reading” movement: “With brain science steadily adding to that evidence, there is a sense — at least for many in the education establishment — that the debate over early reading instruction may be ebbing. Phonics is ascendant.”

Several problems exist with invoking “brain science,” as explained by Yaden, Reinking, and Smagorinsky

[W]e specifically address four limitations that we believe raise questions about the assumptions underlying, and thus conclusions reached, when the SOR is limited to the nature side of the binary and the experimental methods that typically accompany that view: (1) too heavy a reliance on a narrow conception of science claimed to be authoritative and monolithic, (2) too little accounting for environmental factors that complicate the idea that the brain functions identically across the whole of the human population, (3) an exclusive view that experimental designs and replicability are the gold standard of scientific research when other approaches have generated many useful insights, and (4) dismissal of all other conceptions of reading as unscientific and, therefore, of marginal value in generating knowledge about reading and how to teach it.

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.

This article misreads Calkins/Units of Study and the “science of reading,” and thus, readers do not get the central message: This shift by Calkins is a market response to state legislation banning the adoption of Units of Study; this shift is not a concession that the “science of reading” is right.

Further, the result of this extended critique of Calkins and Units of Study is that the reasonable and needed challenges to this or any reading program is reduced to a propaganda vehicle for the “science of reading.”

As I have examined before, the problem with Calkins’s Units of Study and BL is how the program is implemented. Many teachers find the prescriptive and silver-bullet approaches to any program or ideology as de-professionalizing and harmful to students.

Too often, teachers are being held accountable for implementing the program, covering the standards, and preparing students for (awful) high-stakes tests.

If we need a reading revolution, and we do, the blunt solution is that we must stop teaching programs, stop teaching reading ideologies, and stop teaching reading to children.

Instead, let’s teach children to read, and to learn.

As some prominent authors of a reading program lamented recently, hit pieces on reading programs, grandstanding about the “science of reading,” and passing prescriptive and misguided reading legislation is all about the adults trying to one-up each other—and not about the students.

See Also

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

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

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

Don’t Buy It: The Marketing Scam of MSM and the “Science of Reading”

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

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

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, 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


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.

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Published in 1947 in The Elementary English Review, a flagship journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that later became Language Arts, “Research in Language” is one of the most cited pieces by Lou LaBrant in my scholarship and public writing about education and literacy.

LaBrant served as president of NCTE in the 1950s, and along with being an active and influential literacy scholar, LaBrant was a practitioner over a staggering 65 years of teaching.

LaBrant made two incisive claims in this article:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. (pp. 88-89)

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

Having written an educational biography of LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, I am vividly aware that LaBrant taught and wrote as a complex progressive who used the term “research” in broad Deweyan terms that included everything from gold-standard experimental research to the daily observations made by classroom teachers.

I cite her because as a practitioner and scholar I also embrace a very complicated understanding of “research,” “evidence,” and the word of the moment, “science.” I am also deeply skeptical of textbooks and programs.

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S.

Almost for as long—I discovered the movement a few months after it began—I have been waving a red flag, advocating for skepticism and extreme caution about that discourse, the media, public/parental, and political rhetoric. For that reason, I persist in placing the phrase in quote marks since I am specifically criticizing the discourse.

If anything, my criticism is having far too little impact on the consequences of the “science of reading” discourse that is driving many states to adopt new reading legislation. And on social media, I am routinely attacked, often quite aggressively, as a science denier and someone intent on hurting children (although I have been a life-long educator across five decades as both a K-12 classroom teacher and a college professor).

I am also often discredited and told that journalists, parents, and politicians understand my own field better than I do.

Part of the problem with debating the “science of reading” movement is the term itself, one that has at least three different meanings, a multiverse if you will (although absent, darn it, Doctor Strange or Wanda).

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, here, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018.

“Science of Reading” as Media, Public/Parental, and Political Discourse. Beginning with Emily Hanford and then perpetuated by mainstream media (Education Week and the New York Times, notably), the “science of reading” is a narrative that claims teachers are not teaching students to read using the “science of reading” because teacher educators have failed to teach the “science of reading” in teacher prep programs. Concurrently, this discourse also blames low student reading achievement on the dominance of balanced literacy reading programs (often erroneously) since, as advocates claim, balance literacy is not grounded in the “science of reading.” This version of the “science of reading” maintains that primarily (or even only) cognitive science research is the “science” that counts and that the “simple view” of reading is the one valid theory of reading supported by the “science of reading.” [Note: This is the version of the “science of reading” that most of my scholarly and public writing challenges as misguided and harmful; see here, here, and here.]

“Science of Reading” as Marketing and Branding. Since the “science of reading” advocacy identified above has been extremely effective, states are adopting new reading legislation, some of which directly bans popular reading programs and then narrowly mandates the use of materials and programs that meet the narrow characterization above. This means education companies, especially ones focusing on literacy, have begun to brand and rebrand their materials as programs with the “science of reading.” For example:

As a market response to legislation, as well, some popular reading programs have responded to this version of the phrase. This marketing dynamic is very common in education. Many years ago, I attended a state-level literacy conference where Smokey Daniels spoke. Daniels is one of the top literacy scholars associated with the term “best practice”; however, he warned then that the term had been quickly co-opted by textbook publishers and that there was no mechanism for insuring that something labeled “best practice” was, in fact, demonstrating those concepts (the same problem exists for “whole language” and “balanced literacy”).

“Science of Reading” as Shorthand for the Research Base for Teaching Reading. This is what LaBrant referred to as the “research currently available” in 1947. The irony in this use of the phrase is that many people have been using some form of this phrase for a century—”research,” “science,” “evidence.” And of course, scholars and practitioners are often aware of and practicing many aspects of that “science”—even though science, research, and evidence are all necessarily in a state of flux (and thus, LaBrant’s nod to “currently available”). To be blunt, no reasonable or informed person would reject this use of the “science of reading.” However, I must note that this use is almost entirely absent in public discourse; it remains used almost exclusively among researchers and some practitioners. Another irony, in fact, is that the first use of the phrase above is itself a gross mischaracterization of this complex and broad use.

Because of these different and often conflicting uses of the “science of reading,” we are experiencing incredibly jumbled and even nonsensical outcomes such as teachers being required to attend training in programs that are not supported by research (LETRS) and states adopting reading legislation that implement practices that are not supported by research (grade retention).

So, if you return to LaBrant’s claims above, you may notice an eerie similarity between her valid assertions and the current “science of reading” discourse that is not credible even as it is highly effective.

The problem is that teaching, learning, and literacy are extremely complex human behaviors that resist simple labels or explanations—and also defy efforts to prescribe templates that will magically fulfill the urge for “all students must.”

Alas, in this multiverse there is no magic.


Paul Thomas How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

Thoughts from Moon Knight and Saga in Days of Darkness

Throughout the last century, education and intellectual freedom have suffered a persistent assault from ideologues on the right—conservatives determined to protect tradition.

In the wake of Trump, the U.S. is currently experiencing one the most intense such moments, very dark days for teachers, students, education, and intellectual freedom.

Recently, I have begun catching up with Saga by reading Compendium One, which collects the first half, 54 issues, of the series that has recently restarted. Just before that, I had added Moon Knight to my collecting and reading commitments.

In the context of our dark days in education, those readings have struck me in powerful ways.

Moon Knight 8 (v.9) presents two dynamic pages that resonate beyond the narrative itself:

Moon Knight 8 (v.9) (Jed MacKay, writer; Alessandro Cappuccio, artist)
Moon Knight 8 (v.9) (Jed MacKay, writer; Alessandro Cappuccio, artist)

“And then she became something more—a legend,” Flint explains about Scarlet, adding:

In the beginning was the word.

Words, Hunter’s Moon, words have power.

It is with words that we make stories. And stories are the most powerful thing in the world….

She was born of words. …

Because words, taken together, make a story. And so I became a story.

A story that could kill.

Moon Knight 8 (v.9)

Beyond the Moon Knight narrative, this scene captures both the importance of story, books/texts, and reading as well as why people in power fear story, books/texts, and reading.

Banning and censoring books/texts and ideas are acts of power, always, and acts of power in a state of fear.

Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen of Saga also interrogate the power of stories. First in Chapter sixteen:

Saga Chapters Sixteen (Brian K. Vaughan, writer; Fiona Staples, artist)

“Mister, Heist, isn’t that a little … dark for Hazel?” Marko asks. And the reply:

All good children’s stories are the same; young creature breaks rules, has incredible adventure, then returns home with the knowledge that aforementioned rules are there for a reason.

Of course, the actual message to the careful reader is: break rules as often as you can, because who the hell doesn’t doesn’t want to have an adventure?

Saga Chapters Sixteen

Along with the pages from Moon Knight, again, we must acknowledge why people in power fear children reading freely.

And then in Chapter Seventeen:

Saga Chapters Seventeen (Brian K. Vaughan, writer; Fiona Staples, artist)

This full-page panel, dazzling and concise, fits perfectly into the core of the efforts by conservatives to censor and ban—the fear of confronting racism, a story of the U.S. that has only one Truth, only one side.

People in power fear Truth, and depend on compromise, especially in contexts where there is no room for compromise, to hold power for as long as possible.

Returning to Chapter Sixteen, Izabel reminds us of the accidents inherent in what anyone reads and how reading is what matters, not exclusively what is read: “I learned the alphabet from one of my parents’ [guerrilla] training manuals.”

Bans and censorship are always acts of fear and power; nothing can justify them, especially in the lives of children.

Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Maybe these maps and legends/Have been misunderstood

“Maps and Legends,” R.E.M.

The metaphors of literature as windows and mirrors have become standard ways to advocate for diversity in the texts we invite our students to read [1]. Texts that are windows provide students opportunities to witness and understand people, lives, and cultures unlike their own; texts that are mirrors reflect people, lives, and culture similar to their own.

As an educator, I have been compelled by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, who both make incredibly powerful and personal cases for mirrors in the reading and lives of minoritized and marginalized students as well as how those texts provide windows for students with race and gender privilege.

My journey as a reader and human has been profoundly impacted by texts as windows; particularly during my undergraduate years when my ideology was transformed by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and other Black writers and thinkers.

The importance of windows and mirrors extends beyond the texts included in our classrooms, however, and must be a commitment to the curriculum of all courses our students navigate.

In 2022, curriculum, instruction, and text/book selection are under assault. State legislators are proposing and passing legislation banning curriculum and texts/books; further, additional legislation seeks to expand the role of parents in not only having access to curriculum and instruction, but also to review and over-ride teacher autonomy in curriculum and instruction.

The most extreme example of the latter is a mandate for teachers to submit a year of lesson plans by mid-summer for review and approval.

At their core, these partisan bills reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about lesson plans, instruction, curriculum, and the complexity of teaching and learning.

The curriculum/text/book bans as well as the parental rights bills are rooted in a White backlash, a fear that White students are being taught in w ays that cause them harmful discomfort.

A few aspects of this must be unpacked.

First, why have these same advocates not raised concerns about the discomfort of girls/young women confronted for decades by texts and curriculum that are male-centric and often portray negative messages about women; why no concern about the discomfort of Black and Brown students who must read texts that include racist language and hateful stereotypes; why no concern for LGBTQ+ students who must navigate texts and curriculum almost entirely populated by people unlike them (or worse, presented with narratives that suggest simplistic views of gender and sexuality)?

Second is the broader failure to recognize the need for curriculum as windows and mirrors for all students to instill self-awareness and empathy—and the related need for learning to be, at time, uncomfortable.

Discomfort is an essential element with changing and growing.

Intellectual and ideological discomfort is distinct from discomfort due to emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort grounded in fear. Education requires the former and is corrupted by the latter.

Despite the White backlash against a more diverse curriculum, a backlash that believes the Whiteness of that curriculum has disappeared, evidence shows that marginalized and minoritized students remain under-represented:

Findings from the report suggest there is disparity in representation of characters from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. When portrayals of these groups are present, they tend to be affirming and authentic portrayals. However stereotypes, limited roles and inaccurate information are still present and tend to be unique to specific communities. Based on the review, the results indicate a need for educational materials that create a sense of belonging, develop cultural authenticity, and recognize nuanced identity in different characters.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters [2]

Current education legislation de-professionalizes teaching, but that legislation is also suggesting solutions to problems that simply do not exist (such as banning CRT, which isn’t present or even relevant to K-12 education).

In 2014, Christopher Myers confronted the “apartheid of literature,” how Blackness remained mostly absent or misrepresented in the texts published and thus the texts students read. He addresses the value of texts as windows, but deems that inadequate; Myers argues:

Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”…

The children I know … see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

The Apartheid of Children’s Literature

We must acknowledge that the curriculum and book/text bans are coming in a time of U.S. public education when over half of students are Black/Brown while teachers remain overwhelming White (and mostly women). What possibilities are Black/Brown students witnessing daily simply by being students in schools?

And, more broadly, we must accept that whoever decides what students can or cannot read or learn is also deciding who students can become.

At the core of teaching, our commitments should be grounded in what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (instruction) as that serves who we teach (students).

All students deserve, then, curriculum as windows and mirrors that will serve them in building the map of who they become.

[1] Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

[2] See a review of this report here.


Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction