Category Archives: literacy

Does Instruction Matter?

For me, the pandemic era (and semi-post-pandemic era) of teaching has included some of the longest periods in my 39-year career as an educator when I have not been teaching.

The first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years included also teaching adjunct at local colleges during the academic year along with always teaching summer courses (even while in my doctoral program).

Currently in my twenty-first year as a college professor, in addition to my required teaching load, I have always taught overloads during the main academic year, our optional MayX session, and (again) summer courses.

Teaching has been a major part of who I am as a professional and person since my first day at Woodruff High (South Carolina) in August of 1984.

However, during pandemic teaching, I have experienced several different disruptions to that teaching routine—shifting to remote, courses being canceled or not making (especially in MayX and summer), and then coincidentally, my first ever sabbatical during this fall of 2022 (in year 21 at my university).

One aspect of sabbatical often includes the opportunity to reset yourself as a scholar and of course as a teacher. As I was preparing my Moodle courses for Spring 2023, I certainly felt an unusually heightened awareness around rethinking my courses—an introductory education course, a first-year writing seminar, and our department upper-level writing and research course.

Here is an important caveat: I always rethink my courses both during the course and before starting new courses. Yes, the extended time and space afforded by sabbatical makes that reflection deeper, I think, but rethinking what and how I teach is simply an integral part of what it means for me to be a teacher.

For two decades now, I have simultaneously been both a teacher and teacher educator; in that latter role, I have been dedicated to practicing what I preach to teacher candidates.

I am adamant that teacher practice must always reflect the philosophies and theories that the teacher espouses, but I am often dismayed that instructional practices in education courses contradict the lessons being taught on best practice in instruction.

Not the first day, but a moment from my teaching career at WHS.

In both my K-12 and higher education positions, for example, I have practiced de-grading and de-testing the classroom because I teach pre-service teachers about the inherent counter-educational problems with traditional grades and tests.

Now, here is the paradox: As both a teacher and teacher educator my answer to “Does instruction matter?” is complicated because I genuinely believe (1) teacher instructional practices are not reflected in measures of student achievement as strongly (or singularly) as people believe and therefore, (2) yes and no.

The two dominant education reform movements over the past five decades I have experienced are the accountability movement (standards and high-stakes testing) and the current “science of reading” movement.

The essential fatal flaw of both movements has been a hyper-focus on in-school education reform only, primarily addressing what is being taught (curriculum and standards) and how (instruction).

I was nudged once again to the question about instruction because of this Tweet:

I am deeply skeptical of “The research is clear: PBL works” because it is a clear example of hyper-focusing on instructional practices and, more importantly, it is easily misinterpreted by lay people (media, parents, and politicians) to mean that PBL is universally effective (which is not true of any instructional practice).

Project-based learning (PBL) is a perfect example of the problem with hyper-focusing on instruction; see for example Lou LaBrant confronting that in 1931:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant and I both are deeply influenced by John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of teaching (noted as the source for PBL), but we are also both concerned with how the complexities of progressivism are often reduced to simplistic templates and framed as silver-bullet solutions to enormous and complex problems.

As LaBrant notes, the problem with PBL is not the concept of teaching through projects (which I do endorse as one major instructional approach), but failing to align the project in authentic ways with instructional goals. You see, reading a text or writing an essay is itself a project that can be authentic and then can be very effective for instruction.

My classrooms are driven, for example, by two instructional approaches—class discussions and workshop formats.

However, I practice dozens of instructional approaches, many planned but also many spontaneously implemented when the class session warrants (see Dewey’s often ignored concept of “warranted assertion”).

This is why Deweyan progressivism is considered “scientific”—not because we must use settled science to mandate scripted instructional practices but because teaching is an ongoing experiment in terms of monitoring the evidence (student artifacts of learning) and implementing instruction that is warranted to address that situation and those students.

So this leads to a very odd conclusion about whether or not instruction matters.

There are unlikely any instructional practices that are universally “good” or universally “bad” (note that I as a critical educator have explained the value of direct instruction even as I ground my teaching in workshop formats).

The accountability era wandered through several different cycles of blame and proposed solutions, eventually putting all its marbles in teacher quality and practice (the value-added methods era under Obama). This eventually crashed and burned because as I have noted here, measurable impact of teaching practice in student achievement data is very small—only about 10-15% with out-of-school factors contributing about 60-80+%.

The “science of reading” movement is making the exact same mistake—damning “balanced literacy” (BL) as an instructional failure by misrepresenting BL and demonizing “three cueing” (see the second consequence HERE, bias error 3 HERE, and error 2 HERE).

Here is a point of logic and history to understand why blaming poor reading achievement on BL and three cueing: Over the past 80 years, reading achievement has never been sufficient despite dozens of different dominant instructional practices (and we must acknowledge also that at no period in history or today is instructional practice monolithic or that teachers in their classrooms are practicing what is officially designated as their practice).

In short, no instructional practice is the cause of low student achievement and no instructional practice is a silver-bullet solution.

Therefore, does instruction matter? No, if that means hyper-focusing on singular instructional templates for blame or solutions.

But of course, yes, if we mean what Dewey and LaBrant argued—which is an ongoing and complicated matrix of practices that have cumulative impact over long periods of time and in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

From PBL to three cueing—no instructional practice is inherently right or wrong; the key is whether or not teachers base instructional practices on demonstrated student need and whether or not teachers have the background, resources, teaching and learning conditions, and autonomy to make the right instructional decisions.

Finally, hyper-focusing on instruction also contributes to the corrosive impact of marketing in education, an unproductive cycle of fadism and boondoggles.

In the end, we are trapped in a reform paradigm that is never going to work because hyper-focusing on instruction while ignoring larger and more impactful elements in the teaching/learning dynamic (out-of-school factors, teaching and learning conditions, etc.) creates a situation in which all instruction will appear to be failing.

Reforming, banning, and mandating instruction, then, is fool’s gold unless we first address societal/community and school inequities.

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

Blog Review: 2022

After about a decade blogging on other open sites and dabbling in social media as part of my public work, I committed to blogging at WordPress in 2013, and to date, had my highest traffic year in 2014.

Between my Twitter presence and blog, I always expected to have a greater reach at Twitter, but by 2022, I have just short of 8000 followers on Twitter and over 10,000 at this blog.

As part of my current fall sabbatical, I revised and redesigned this blog to make it more appealing and (I hope) to better present the work as professional (blogs continue to be discounted and marginalized despite the vast majority of my posts being heavily cited).

I am on track for 2022 to be the third or second best year:

And here are my top 10 posts of 2022 (eight original to this year):

Access these posts as follows:

While the “science of reading” dominated my work, I am quite proud of my comic book posts throughout 2022, notably my series on Black Widow and my frequent posts on my collecting Daredevil.

I also want to highlight two of my scholarly projects:

Why do I blog?

Primarily, I am a writer and writing is who I am so blogging is a wonderful way to write and draft, a way to think through important issues while also contributing to the public discourse that drives not only what people think but actual policy.

Also, blogs are accessible (essentially free to anyone who have internet access), and I feel far more valuable and effective than traditional scholarship that sits behind paywalls.

I have been an educator for almost 40 years, shouting the entire time that we mostly do this thing called education badly because we are thinking wrong or simply stuck in a rut of doing things only one way (for education, that way is “Crisis!> reform > Crisis! > reform, etc.).

Yet, I think we can do better, and I know we should.

Thank you for reading because that is the thing we writers are mostly seeking—those genuinely and sincerely engaged in the ideas we are drawn to interrogate and explore.

Let us hope for a better, more kind and peaceful 2023.

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.

Paulo Freire: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

While Paulo Freire is strongly associated with critical pedagogy, I often remind myself that Freire came to his philosophy of teaching and learning through his commitment to teaching adults to read and write.

The U.S, finds itself repeatedly in a state of crisis-paralysis because people periodically discover illiteracy and aliteracy among our students and even adults.

The irony of the nearly nonstop and melodramatic cries of “reading crisis” is that the need for literacy always remains vital for human autonomy, human dignity, and human freedom, but the crisis approach always fails that need.

The problem is that public fears around illiteracy and aliteracy are often overly simplistic, and then calls for solving the “reading crisis” are equally simplistic.

The current Reading War driven by the “science of reading” movement is once again repeating that failed dynamic, notably by claiming that the simple view of reading (SVR) is the current and settled reading science (it isn’t; see here).

And concurrent with this Reading War is a dramatic rise in censorship and book banning—yet another layer of misunderstanding reading and teaching/learning.

Since we seem destined to remain stuck in misreading reading, I want to share Freire’s The Importance of the Act of Reading as an ideal text to reconsider what reading is and why literacy is central to the human condition.

First and vital to understanding literacy, Freire begins by asserting “the practice of teaching—which is political practice as well.”

In other words, teaching reading and any reading done by students (or anyone) are inherently political acts—behaviors that necessarily place humans in situations of power imbalances.

Freire’s meditation on reading was originally presented as a talk in Brazil in 1981. Then, Freire challenged the mechanical and reductive view of reading:

Reading is not exhausted merely by decoding the written word or written language, but rather anticipated by and extending into knowledge of the world. Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world. Language and reality are dynamically intertwined. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

One side of the reading debate often focuses on isolated text-only approaches that argue for phonics-first and/or systematic phonics instruction for all before addressing comprehension (or critical comprehension, which is often only approached for some students deemed “advanced”).

Freire, however, grounds reading in the context of reading the world before beginning to decode text for meaning.

In short, context matters, and lived experiences form the basis of anyone acquiring reading and writing. This is key to understanding the problem with focusing exclusively or primarily on in-school reading and writing instruction.

If we in the U.S. value reading for all students and adults, we must acknowledge that addressing the lived experiences of all people—eliminating poverty, food insecurity, job insecurity, etc.—is an essential aspect of needed reading policy.

Simply changing how we teach reading will never achieve the goals we claim to have.

And in this talk, Freire used his own experiences to think aloud and complexly about reading:

I put objective distance between myself and the different moments in which the act of reading occurred in my existential experience: first, reading the world, the tiny world in which I moved; afterwards, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Yes, young students must make the transition from reading their world to reading the word, but those acts of reading cannot (and should not) be separated (think of the reductive practice of having students pronounce nonsense words).

Freire speaks not only to acquiring reading, but also to why we read—and this is a powerful refuting of the rise in censorship and book bans being imposed by some parents onto all parents and students:

As I became familiar with my world, however, as I perceived and understood it better by reading it, my terrors diminished.

It is important to add that reading my world, always basic to me, did not make me grow up prematurely, a rationalist in boy’s clothing. Exercising my boy’s curiosity did not distort it, nor did understanding my world cause me to scorn the enchanting mystery of that world. In this I was aided rather than discouraged by my parents.

It was precisely my parents who introduced me to reading the word at a certain moment in this rich experience of understanding my immediate world.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Like Freire, my journey to literacy was enthusiastically driven by my parents and their commitment to me having free access to essentially anything I wanted to read. And like Freire, I had that freedom significantly reinforced by teachers when I was in high school:

I would like to go back to a time when I was a secondary-school student. There I gained experience in the critical interpretation of texts I read in class with the Portuguese teacher’s help, which I remember to this day. Those moments did not consist of mere exercises, aimed at our simply becoming aware of the existence of the page in front of us, to be scanned, mechanically and monotonously spelled out, instead of truly read. Those moments were not reading lessons in the traditional sense, but rather moments in which texts were offered to our restless searching, including that of the young teacher, Jose Pessoa.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Reading and all literacy as well as formal and informal education are human ways of coming to understand the world—including the dark and light—so that we gain agency in our living, so that we are not paralyzed by fear and ignorance.

The why and how of reading, then, are not mere mechanics, but a complex process of critical comprehension:

Mechanically memorizing the description of an object does not constitute knowing the object. That is why reading a text taken as pure description of an object (like a syntactical rule), and undertaken to memorize the description, is neither real reading, nor does it result in knowledge of the object to which the text refers.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

And regardless of the simplistic calls by Republicans and conservatives to “just teach” and to not be political, we must recognize that all teaching, learning, and literacy are political acts. As he did throughout his career, Freire denounced the banking concept of teaching that erases human agency and views students as empty piggy banks into which teachers deposit value:

First, I would like to reaffirm that I always saw teaching adults to read and write as a political act, an act of knowledge, and therefore as a creative act. I would find it impossible to be engaged in a work of mechanically memorizing vowel sounds, like in the exercises ba-be-bi-bo-bu, la-le-li-lo-lu. Nor could I reduce learning to read and write merely to learning words, syllables, or letters, a process of teaching in which the teacher fills the supposedly empty heads of the learners with his or her words. On the contrary, the student is the subject of the process of learning to read and write as an act of knowing and a creative act. The fact that he or she needs the teacher’s help, as in the pedagogical situation, does not mean that the teacher’s help annuls the student’s creativity and responsibility for constructing his or her own written language and reading this language.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Freire builds to this: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

Reading is not simply decoding text or recognizing whole words. Reading is context, and reading requires context—a context that is far more than letters, sounds, words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Reading is a very human and individual act because “reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and re-wrìting what is read,” which is how Freire wrote his talk before sharing it aloud as yet another act of re-reading in order to re-write.


Freire’s essay anchors this award-winning volume: The SAGE handbook of critical pedagogies.

Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

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

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

Structured Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

74  Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

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

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

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

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

Wyse, D. & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

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

Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

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

States across the U.S. continue to revise and introduce new reading legislation. As well, states are updating reading standards—all of which is being strongly influenced by the “science of reading” (SoR) movement.

While the SoR movement maintains that powerful influence over policy and classroom practice, I have strongly criticized the media and marketing aspects because of central concepts that are overly simplistic and ultimately harmful for teaching and learning reading. Those key fatal flaws are a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) [1] and practicing phonics-first with beginning readers (systematic phonics for all students in K-2 that is often without context or isolated from comprehension goals).

Recently on social media, a literacy educator raised concern that proposed revised state standards in K-2 ELA do not include comprehension in foundational skills. As I commented, this is the exact problem I have been criticizing and expecting as a result of embracing SVR, an out-of-date and simplistic theory of reading (see note 1 below).

Many, if not most, SoR advocates endorse intensive systematic phonics for all students before they are expected to demonstrate comprehension; some argue K-2 students can’t comprehend. Begun several years ago, this aspect of the SoR movement has re-energized the use of DIBELS, an assessment tool that evaluates student ability to pronounce nonsense words in isolation. This nonsense is often presented as “reading,” even though simply decoding (pronunciation) words in isolation is not reading.

As I will explain later, saying students pronouncing nonsense words is reading proficiency is the same as saying children riding bicycles with training wheels are cyclists.

In short, commitments to SVR and phonics first are a distortion of goals in reading instruction, replacing the authentic goal (critical comprehension) with measuring if students have acquired the entire set of phonics rules. Phonics instruction and emphasizing decoding must remain some of the means and not the ends of instruction; however, the SoR movement too often has created that fatal flaw.

I want to examine here why these commitments are not reading science, but more significantly, why these commitments are harmful to students.

First, recently I was helping my granddaughter, Skylar, with her homework on parts of speech. See the exercise here:

I had to smile and encourage her as I quietly bled internally. This can only be described by the first word—”silly.” Not only is this isolated activity nonsense, I am certain it is ultimately harmful to emerging readers and writers.

Many of these words can function as several parts of speech once in the context of actual usage; for example, “camp” as in “We camp,” “The camp,” “A camp site,” etc.

Setting aside that many aspects of grammar and usage are intuited by proficient and expert readers (we drive our cars without being able to name all the engine parts, without having to know how to disassemble the engine, etc.), even when there is some instructional value in explicit instruction in grammar and usage, that has been shown for a century to be effective only in holistic and contextual ways.

If parts of speech matter (I suspect they don’t), help young readers and writers interrogate that in the reading of authentic texts and in their own original writing.

This essential problem is analogous to misrepresenting and overemphasizing phonics and decoding—especially when the instruction is isolated and not firmly anchored to the real goal of reading instruction, critical comprehension.

So let’s circle back to the bicycling analogy.

Using training wheels to teach children to ride a bicycle is a traditional and deeply misguided approach, one that is grounded in misreading what riding a bicycle is at its core—not the pedaling but the balancing. Therefore, balance bicycles are the better way to start.

Keep in mind one can coast on a bicycle and still be riding if the person has mastered balancing—as well as several other skills that include braking, holding a straight line, turning, and of course pedaling.

Reading is not dependent on decoding, and a child is only reading if they are making meaning from text. Just as someone can ride a bicycle by coasting, a child can read text for meaning purely by using sight word knowledge.

Yes, to be a cyclist one must eventually (and soon) master pedaling, and yes, no one reads entirely by sight word recognition (although expert readers depend on many comprehension strategies, and likely rarely use phonics rules to accomplish understanding).

And as I noted above, both proficient cyclists and proficient readers exhibit a huge array of skills simultaneously, intuitively, and independently—the ultimate goal of any instruction.

For reading instruction with beginning readers, then, systematic phonics instruction in a phonics-first setting that prioritizes pronouncing nonsense words is misguided and harmful practice.

As Stephen Krashen has shown, both systematic phonics for all students and no phonics instruction are harmful; instead, beginning readers need basic phonics combined with many other reading strategies that are all targeting critical comprehension.

Let’s think more deeply about decoding and phonics in ways I asked us to do with parts of speech. Consider asking students to pronounce “dove” and “wind” out of context, and now consider these sentences:

  • The dove dove out of the tree and scared Brees. 
  • Because of the fog, you can watch the wind wind through the valley. 

Phonics first fails in the same way as using training wheels to teach bicycling. Phonics rules provide only one skill in the complex journey to critical comprehension. And phonics is not even foundational or essential when a text includes sight words recognized by the reader.

Finally, again like riding a bicycle, becoming an independent, eager, and expert reader—one who has a large vocabulary and a complex toolbox for making meaning (including phonics)—mostly comes from doing the authentic thing—not from isolated skills instruction as a prerequisite to doing the real thing.


[1] SVR, at best, is one of the major reading theories of the late twentieth century; in my view, it is not even the most compelling. But current theories of reading have moved beyond SVR; for example, (1) according to Duke and Cartwright (2021), current theories have supplanted SVR in three ways: (a) by identifying additional reasons for struggling readers, (b) by demonstrating that rather than being sequential, pronunciation and comprehension overlap, and (c) by stressing the importance of “active self-regulation” in learning to read, and (2) according to Filderman, et al., (2022) SVR is inadequate for teaching students comprehension.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860


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.

CONTENTS
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 educator, 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

Publications

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 http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


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]


Presentations/Keynotes, Podcasts, Webinars

UPDATE (Supplement for Presentations below)

Update: Science of Reading Movement (PP) 2 February 2023

2022

Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022

Webinar

Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)


Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Webinar (view online)

PowerPoint HERE

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

November 10, 2022


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

Keynote

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse (click for PP)

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” (click for PP)

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 (click for PP)

Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War (click for PP)

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC


Consulting: Charleston County School District

Reading programs, “science of reading,” and potential PD for faculty and administrators

November 21, 2022


Schoolutions podcast

December 20, 2022


2023

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

Keynote – 8:00 – 9:00 CT January 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 – 9:15 – 10:45 CT January 20, 2023

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 – 11:30 – 1:00 CT January 20, 2023

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET

Monday, January 30, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm ET

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.

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

Monday, January 30, from 8:00 – 8:30 am


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

PROGRAM

Thursday, February 9, 11:15-12:30 B01

Creating Worlds of Possibility: Closing Our Opportunity Gaps Through Recognizing the Sciences of Literacy and Learning

Expert Panel Discussion with Dr. Annalee Good, Dr. Lara Handsfield, Dr. Carol Lee, Dr. Paul Thomas, Dr. Don Vu

Thursday, February 9, 2:00-3:15 C08

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.

Friday, February 10, 9:45-11:00 A10

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.


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 https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

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

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

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

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

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

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis.

[4] From Coles:

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

[5] Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S259. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

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