Category Archives: reading

Media “Distorts” Coverage of the “Science of Reading”: A Reader

In the first of a series of posts, Maren Aukerman, The University of Calgary, details the dominant media “narrative [that] distorts the picture [of reading] to the point that readers are easily left with a highly inaccurate understanding of the so-called ‘science of reading.'”

As literacy scholars and teachers have noted since the beginning of media coverage of the “science of reading,” Aukerman explains how the coverage often misinforms through oversimplification and switching between claims of “research” and simple anecdotes:

I examine how well-intentioned journalism about the “science of reading” is frequently biased and inadequately research-based, ultimately making the case that such reporting has damaging consequences for the teaching of early reading.

The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?

Mainstream media, in fact, remain selective in what and how they report on education and reading; for example, the daily email from the New York Times sends a different message about reading than their articles on the “science of reading” (notably by Goldstein and Hanford):

More recently, the national test results capture both the initial academic declines and any recovery, and they offer some nuance. While there was a notable correlation between remote learning and declines in fourth-grade math, for example, there was little to no correlation in reading. Why the discrepancy? One explanation is that reading skills tend to be more influenced by parents and what happens at home [emphasis added], whereas math is more directly affected by what is taught in school.

So remote learning does not explain the whole story. What else does? In a sophisticated analysis of thousands of public school districts in 29 states, researchers at Harvard and Stanford Universities found that poverty played an even bigger role in academic declines during the pandemic [emphasis added].

“The poverty rate is very predictive of how much you lost,” Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford who helped lead the analysis, told me.

NYT “Behind the declines” daily email (28 November 2022)

Below, then, are sources from scholarly and public publications/posts examining the patterns and bias identified by Aukerman:

See additional resources for examining media coverage, misinformation, and bias:

Lemmings

My nephew realized during our texting the other day that he had failed to tell me about a sudden memory.

While eating gummy bears, he wasn’t paying attention as he popped one after the other into his mouth until he really liked one. He stopped chewing and checked the half-eaten gummy, a clear one.

That triggered the memory of my mother (his grandmother who mostly raised him) telling him that those were my favorite gummies.

We then texted a while about how and why we have such vivid memories as humans as well as how we know things.

In short, our memories and bodies of knowledge are swirling with many elements of our experiences. I mentioned to my nephew that I usually ask classes of students if they recall the first time visiting a friend’s house and thinking it smelled weird (or even bad).

Virtually everyone immediately perks up because this experience is so vivid in our memories.

My goal in that brief exercise is to help students confront how we associate “different” with “bad,” and as critical educators, we must move past that judgmental state.

But this texting was also a trigger for me.

I am resistant to and very rarely fly—not because I am afraid of flying (yes, I am rational enough to know flying is far safer than driving), but because almost all of the experiences around flying trigger my anxiety.

Flying is a series of first experiences (a nightmare for me), racing to meet schedules beyond your control (including sudden gate changes and flight delays, etc.), and worst of all, a toxic soup of cramped spaces and loud noises.

Last week, I attended and presented at two conferences requiring me to fly from Upstate SC to Detroit (Troy, MI) and then to LA (Anaheim) before returning to the Greenville/Spartanburg SC area. That trip involved 6 plane flights and three hotels over just five days.

The very worst part of the trip was finally arriving at LAX from Detroit, a segment of the journey that began just after lunch EST and involved me walk-running through the Houston airport and having no food from noon EST until midnight PST.

As noted above, I struggle with my anxiety in any new situations and securing an Uber at LAX was my very first Uber experience—which nearly drained me as finding a way to secure a ride through the App wasn’t working in the airport and then took 1.5 hours to complete after reaching the pick up area outside the airport.

I found myself standing at my hotel around midnight being told that they were completely full, and despite my having a reservation, they were moving me to another hotel.

That other hotel was just on the opposite side of the convention center from the hotel where I stood, but the manager gave me the wrong directions leaving me wandering around Anaheim near Disney, again, after midnight.

Sweating, exhausted, and starving, I opened my Google App and discovered I should have turned left instead of the right I was told.

I dropped into bed, still no food, completely exhausted about 1 PM PST, where I stayed only about 4 hours before being up to (finally) eat some food, make my move to the original hotel, and make my major roundtable by 12:30.

Most of this trip felt like standing in line or being packed into seats far too small for humans and everything—every thing—costing far too much—with human choice cast to the ditch all along the way.

It’s a small world after all.

As we stood packed together for one of the flights home, I had a sudden memory like my nephew.

I thought “lemmings.”

My adolescence was spent in the 1970s. I recall vividly discovering the new music of The Police when waking up one morning in my childhood bedroom. The song was “Roxanne,” and The Police would become one of those foundational parts of my music-crush history.

In those formative years, a starting metamorphosis occurred.

Concurrent with my introduction to reading and collecting comic books along with being a closeted science fiction novel fan, I was increasingly drawn to popular music lyrics.

Pink Floyd, The Police, Eagles, Billy Joel, and others provided for me some of the first places that I recognized purposeful writing—of course this genesis of my own love for reading and writing poetry.

Standing in line, mindlessly herded, I thought “lemming,” and also that I learned the word from “Synchonicity II” on The Police’s Synchronicity. That album and song title also led me to explore the word “synchronicity.”

My earliest memory of learning words from popular music is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, a song that drove me to both the dictionary and the Bible.

Toward the end of my year 61, I am also fascinated by my experience with the word “lemming” because like “coyote,” it provides a wonderful example of how idiosyncratic reading, learning to read, and knowledge are for us humans.

The Police were using “lemming” to evoke the song’s message about the dehumanizing aspects of modern life:

Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings
Into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race.

“Synchonicity II,” The Police


When I heard this song 40 years ago, I had no real access or inclination to check the association being made with lemmings, what turns out to be a fabricated story of animals who are suicidal:

So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.

But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.

Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?

So here is the complicated reality about “lemmings” and how I came to know the word.

First, I hear Sting’s British pronunciation any time I think of the word. My Southern version is quite different, but I know the word in a layer of subtle ways to say the word aloud.

Next, I now know not only the flawed but enduring meaning of “lemming” (the metaphor for mindless human obedience that is self-defeating), but also the fascinating and disturbing back story to how an Urban Legend and cultural myth come to be.

To read with comprehension, we humans certainly need a complex toolbox of decoding, word recognition, and knowledge; however, how that toolbox is formed remains mostly idiosyncratic and very difficult to prescribe.

I imagine many of my teachers were given credit by proximity for my developing (and often) advanced literacy throughout my junior high and high school years.

Yet, my word recognition and knowledge base were overwhelmingly fostered out of school—reading comics and science fiction, listening for hours while staring at liner notes in pop music.

Also in my seventh decade on this planet, I watch my grandchildren blossom with literacy that is grounded in video games, YouTube, and cartoons. Their knowledge base, like mine, comes disproportionately from their hobbies, the things they love.

Our literacy, if allowed, is inextricable from our passions.

This is Freire’s writing and reading the world, using our language to make sense of the world we are given and to create the world we want and need.

Here is the great and sad irony: Formal schooling and the teaching of reading are all too often the perfect context for evoking the enduring by inaccurate association we all have with lemmings.

We have a faction of people who persist in “all students must” approaches to very small children coming to know the world and the enchanting beauty of language.

Like the commuters packed like lemmings/sardines in their cars, like all the travelers with me marched through boarding and then packed into those planes, children pre-K through grade 12 are marched through schooling and taught that reading is not in fact beautiful but a way to create the sort of workers The Police recognized: “He doesn’t think to wonder why.”

We are marching together to the end of 2022, a year when literacy and literature are under assault, and thus, our children and our freedom are under assault.

We will goose step into 2023 with “lemmings” being the perfect mascot for who were are, thoughtlessly on a suicide march that was manufactured in a Disney studio.

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources by Topic

Access a PowerPoint of these topics HERE.

Brain Research [access materials HERE]

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

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119-S129. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

Dyslexia [access materials HERE]

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

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

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

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

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

LETRS [access materials HERE]

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

Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

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

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

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

Mississippi

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

Multiple Cueing Approaches [access materials HERE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[UPDATE]

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

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

Systematic Phonics [access materials HERE]

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

Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Parental Rights as Bullying [UPDATED]

I am not a high-profile journalist with platforms at APM, Education Week, and the New York Times.

So I have to imagine that hearing from teachers and parents raising concerns about how the “science of reading” (SOR) movement isn’t representing them and even silencing and bullying them is only a fraction of those experiencing the same thing.

Of course, I too have regularly experienced the visceral anger and bullying coming from SOR and dyslexia zealots (a substantial percentage of the entire SOR movement).

Here, then, I want to focus on how the SOR parental rights bullying has a current and parallel cousin—the anti-CRT, curriculum ban, and book censorship movement driven by conservative culture warriors.

The overlap, in fact, between the SOR movement and the culture war linked to education and attacks on marginalized groups is becoming more and more direct:

[House Speaker] Renner [FL – R] also lodged attacks against measures conservatives and DeSantis have derided as “woke” movements. Ideologues are pushing their politics as a religion and at the expense of education, he said.

“They spend more time defending drag queen story time than promoting phonics and the science of reading,” Renner continued. “In this election, moms and dads sent a clear message to these ideologues: our children are not your social experiment.”

Paul Renner, now House Speaker, promises conservative agenda

First, a typical pattern I experience on social media is that when I post research that challenges and contradicts SOR talking points the bullying begins. That bullying tends to gravitate to asking why I want to ignore (or accusing me of ignoring/discounting) the voices of parents and teachers who are being elevated by Emily Hanford’s articles and podcast.

Well, I have to be clear here that I understand that parents and teachers have quite valid concerns, and I would never silence or ignore those concerns. But the SOR movement isn’t limited to raising their voices; the movement is using those voices to bully and to ram through policies and practices that ironically deny other parents and teachers their voices and concerns.

As I have pointed out numerous times, there is a singular message to Hanford’s work; she has never covered research that contradicts that singular message.

For example, not a peep about the major study out of England that found the country’s systematic phonics-first policy to be flawed, suggesting a balanced approach instead.

And not a peep about schools having success with one of Hanford’s favorite reading programs to demonize.

At the root of this problem, also, is that Hanford has a habit of switching back and forth between claiming “science” and “research” while depending on anecdote:

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.

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

And thus:

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

The fundamental concern I have is not that Hanford and the SOR movement is elevating the concerns of parents and teachers, but that far too many SOR advocates are misrepresenting and oversimplifying reading science and then using that bully pulpit to mandate “all students must” policy and practice

Simply stated, reading science is not settled, brain research on reading isn’t fully formed in ways that can or should inform practice, and mandating universal policies erases the need to hear all voices and serve the individual needs of students.

For example, many SOR advocates call for systematic phonics for all students (regardless of need), universal dyslexia screening (which isn’t supported by research), and specific practices that also are not supported by research—Orton-Gillingham (see here and here), LETRS (see here), grade retention (see here), and both structured literacy (see here) and the “simple view” of reading (SVR) (see here and here).

It is entirely different to call for the needs of your child or the needs of yourself as an educator than to demand that all students and teachers need what you are demanding from your singular although shared experiences. [1]

Teachers across the US are being bullied and silenced through LETRS training and by administrators for simply asking questions about SOR or correctly pointing out that SOR is being misunderstood and misused (see how Gov. Youngkin (R – VA) frames SOR as phonics).

Where is the podcast for those educators?

Where is the podcast for parents thrilled by the education their children have received through Reading Recovery, Units of Study, or Fountas and Pinnell?

There isn’t one because the SOR movement has committed to a bullying agenda, demanding universal and one-size fits-all policy, often reinforced by the market interests of companies branding with “science of reading.”

Missionary zeal and righteous anger are useful for clicks on media platforms that are struggling with the shifting ways we all access news and information (interesting that APM is chasing money by accusing other people of chasing money).

Missionary zeal and righteous anger are cancers for productive discourse and effective systemic reform (such as addressing reading policy needs).

Not all beginning readers are the same.

Not all struggling readers are the same.

Not all children labeled with dyslexia are the same (although dyslexia may be most strongly associated with out-of-school factors, which SOR advocates fail to acknowledge).

Therefore, policy must not demand that teachers conform to scripted approaches as if individual students are not being served.

Let’s then add the parallel dynamic occurring with anti-CRT movements, curriculum bans, and book censorship.

Republicans are (like Hanford) only reaching out and elevating a narrow type of parental voices, those righteously angry about what teachers teach, what students learn, and what anyone can read.

Censorship and bans that are universal erase the rights of those parents who want those lessons and those books for their children.

It is one thing to request that a child not be assigned a book or not have access to materials, but it is quite another thing to demand that no child can be assigned a book or have access to materials because a loud parent or parental group is offended.

Not a single recent bill (just as there is no podcast) protects the rights of parents and students to have access through the publicly funded school system curriculum and books that someone else may find offensive.

The SOR movement and the anti-CRT/curriculum and book ban movement are ultimately not about parental rights, student needs, or reading and literature as well as academic freedom.

They are ideological bullying that forefronts a narrow set of mandates at the expense of what likely is the silenced majority of parents and teachers who want children taught as individuals and teaching and learning to honor the sacred foundation of academic freedom.

Parental rights is not being honored when some parents have rights and a voice that deny other parents their rights and voices.


[1] A trap and flaw of the SOR movement is shouting “Science!” and then using anecdote. I want to be clear that (1) anecdotes are not science, and (2) I actually think we should drop the “science” tyranny and spend more time on anecdotes because qualitative data are quite valuable in education.

Recommended: Socioeconomic dissociations in the neural and cognitive bases of reading disorders

Socioeconomic dissociations in the neural and cognitive bases of reading disorders

Rachel R. Romeo, Tyler K. Perrachione, Halie A. Olson, Kelly K. Halverson, John D. E. Gabrieli, and Joanna A. Christodoulou

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Volume 58, December 2022

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2022.101175

Highlights

  • Socioeconomic status (SES) moderates which deficits explain reading disorders (RDs).
  • RD in higher-SES children is best explained by reduced phonological skills.
  • These children exhibit reduced activation in phonological processing brain regions.
  • Instead, RD in lower-SES children is best explained by reduced rapid naming skills.
  • These children exhibit reduced activation in orthographic processing brain regions.

Abstract

Childhood socioeconomic status (SES) strongly predicts disparities in reading development, yet it is unknown whether early environments also moderate the cognitive and neurobiological bases of reading disorders (RD) such as dyslexia, the most prevalent learning disability. SES-diverse 6–9-year-old children (n = 155, half with RD) completed behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tasks engaging phonological and orthographic processing, which revealed corresponding double-dissociations in neurocognitive deficits. At the higher end of the SES spectrum, RD was most strongly explained by differences in phonological skill and corresponding activation in left inferior frontal and temporoparietal regions during phonological processing—widely considered the “core deficit” of RD. However, at the lower end of the SES spectrum, RD was most strongly explained by differences in rapid naming skills and corresponding activation in left temporoparietal and fusiform regions during orthographic processing. Findings indicate that children’s early environments systematically moderate the neurocognitive systems underlying RD, which has implications for assessment and treatment approaches to reduce SES disparities in RD outcomes. Further, results suggest that reliance on high-SES convenience samples may mask critical heterogeneity in the foundations of both typical and disordered reading development.

The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Since I am a man of a certain advancing age—creeping north of 60—I am bombarded on social media with push-ads for a variety of supplements claiming to address the various and common challenges of growing older.

These supplements are often advertised by first discrediting other supplements or earlier versions of the supplements being sold. Next, of course, comes the sales pick: But our supplement works the way no other supplement does or ever has!

Regretfully, this dynamic in the supplement world (where virtually no products have ever “worked” or will ever “work”) is replicated in the on-going reading programs war that is a subset of the incessant reading war that has plagued public and political debate since at least the 1940s (see an overview of the reading wars included here).

In fact, one of the least credible and most harmful aspects of the current “science of reading” (SOR) movement is blaming dominant reading programs for failing to teach students to read, and then, uncritically offering a new program/approach as a silver bullet for “fixing” low student achievement in reading (see an important challenge to that blame here).

So let’s start with a problem of logic in the SOR onslaught against the dominant reading programs in the US.

Since the panic around low literacy rates among draftees in WWII, the US has experienced a recurring cycle of reading wars that are grounded in overstatements about the lack of phonics instruction, the persistent and “normal” but unsatisfying level of reading achievement among US children (notably even more dire among children living in poverty, minoritized students, second-language learners, and special needs students), and impassioned blame focused on simplistic agents of that failure.

SOR advocates, especially in the media and among parents, are today placing blame on balanced literacy (BL) and a few dominant reading programs. One problem is that these programs didn’t even exist during most of the decades before that had the exact same low and unsatisfying reading achievement (read literacy scholar Jeanne Chall’s work addressing the lack of scientific research, absence of systematic phonics, and failure to address dyslexia starting in the 1960s, examined well here).

Even more frustrating is that many of the demonized reading programs today are not even identified as BL and that most critics of BL—nearly universally in the media—mischaracterize BL (similar to the attack on whole language in the 1990s).

SOR advocates, then, turn immediately to championing a new approach!—usually structured literacy (SL to replace BL) or Orton-Gillingham approaches.

Like the supplement wars, the reading programs wars are entirely trapped in a futile paradigm grounded in misidentifying the problem, shouting misguided blame, and offering nearly the exact same solution as the blame-agent being attacked.

In a recent keynote, I made a point that always makes educators and stakeholders in education angry: Measurable student learning is overwhelmingly linked to out-of-school causal factors (about 60% – 80%), and teacher quality (including instructional strategies) is only about 10% of those measurable outcomes.

Reading programs, regardless of the program, are likely very small factors in how well students learn to read in terms of the quality of the program itself (teaching/learning conditions and living conditions of students far outweigh program quality).

And if we are being honest about teacher practice, over the last 80 years and every single day, there is a tremendous variety in how teachers teach students anything—even when teachers are in rooms side-by-side and teaching the same required reading program.

Since I have a long record of opposing all reading programs, I want to emphasize that the problem is not any specific reading program, but how and why the program is implemented.

Let’s go back then to the 1940s when Lou LaBrant accurately identified the reading program problem:

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

Regardless of the reading program, if and when that program becomes the instructional authority, instead of the teacher and despite the demonstrated needs of the students, we have failed students and we have failed teachers and we have failed the promise of learning to read.

At best, a reading program is one dynamic resource for the professional autonomy and expertise of the teacher to serve the individual needs of all of their students.

At worst (which is historically and currently common), reading programs are scripts for teachers to follow and ways to hold teachers accountable for implementing the program (regardless of the needs of the students, regardless of the professional authority of the teacher).

SOR advocates are no different than supplement hucksters. In their righteous anger about Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell, they are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by waving the structured literacy! flag and claiming SL will save children, save reading.

Let me take a commercial break and throw a very chilly and unwelcome blanket on the SL party: SL will not work, and in a decade or so, we will start the panic, blame game, and new! reading program/approach all over again.

Why?

Because many are too damn stubborn, and too filled with missionary zeal, to step back and admit we have been going about this all wrong.

Reading achievement by students is a metric strongly linked to poverty and inequity; if we had the political will to address poverty and inequity, reading achievement would increase (but since human behaviors are mostly idiosyncratic, we will never have universal success among humans for anything because there is some truth to human behaviors falling on a range something like the bell-shaped curve).

Next, we are focusing on the reading programs themselves instead of how they are implemented.

The real problem with all the currently adopted reading programs in the US is that they are implemented badly, often in lock-step ways that put implementing the program with fidelity over student learning and teacher autonomy.

So the great and sad irony of the SOR assault on reading programs is that SOR advocates are calling for SL, which is often scripted curriculum that defaults to treating students monolithically (see a powerful critique here):

The collateral damage, then, of the reading programs wars will always be students, teachers, and the promise of reading—because the real concern isn’t the reading programs themselves (although reading programs as resources can and should be better).

It is easy and effective to whip up emotional responses with anecdotes in order to manufacture a problem and put a face on all-that-is-evil (makes for clickable podcasts).

But in the end, the real story being sold is no different than the supplement sales pitch that points an accusatory finger at those other failed supplements before holding up the new! and improved! product (uh, program) that in all honesty is the same useless shit in a different package and under a different name.

‘Sold a Story’ Continues “Science of Reading” Misinformation Campaign: A Reader

The debate about teaching students to read has a long history of misinformation.

In early and mid-twentieth century, pro-phonics advocates misrepresented and attacked John Dewey and progressivism (neither of which had much real influence in public education).

By the late twentieth century, whole language became the target of misinformation and attacks (although NAEP data in the 1990s showed a strong correlation between whole language approaches and higher student scores on reading [1]).

During the NCLB/NRP era of the turn of the century, attacks and misinformation focused on balanced literacy.

The current reading war driven by the “science of reading” movement is also mired in emotional anecdotes, personal attacks, and a steady diet of mainstream media misinformation.

As Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors have documented [2], Emily Hanford at APM and mainstream media such as Education Week are following the same “big lie” approach to covering reading and education repeated throughout the last 80 years:

Hanford critiqued approaches named balance literacy and whole language without citing any evidence around those 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. … Stirring public opinion further, Education Week has taken up critiques on literacy teacher preparation with numerous articles and blogs related to the SOR, with implications for reform in teacher preparation. The bulk of these articles and reports have been negative toward current practices and have drawn on the work of Moates and the NCTQ.

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

I have documented the same careless journalism—calling for the “science of reading” and then switching to anecdotes, misinformation, and unsupported claims—as Hanford recycles her original articles into an overreaction to Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores.

The newest recycling of Hanford’s misinformation is a podcast, Sold a Story, which itself is selling a false story, a “big lie.”

Boosted by overzealous and often angry and hateful advocates of SOR and dyslexia, the misinformation is mostly allowed and excused in an “ends justify the means” environment around the SOR movement.

That many SOR advocates continue to use anecdote while calling for “science,” that many SOR advocates are comfortable misrepresenting practices, scholars, and programs—this erodes their credibility even as many if not most people in the literacy community agree that students should be better served in their literacy education and that teachers should be better prepared and better supported as professionals.

Simply put, the ends do not justify the means, especially when SOR advocates means are creating ends that are in fact harmful.

To be clear, identifying misinformation is not endorsing the people and programs being attacked and misrepresented. I am a strong critic of both reading programs [3] and teacher education [4].

But that someone or something deserves criticism does not justify emotional attacks, hateful rhetoric, or easily refuted misinformation.

Here, then, I am collecting evidence to correct the misinformation:

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

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

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

Marie Clay: A Personal Reflection on an Unparalleled Professional Career

Joint International Statement in Response to Hanford’s Sold a Story

Fact Check: Three Things Hanford Got Wrong about Dr. Marie Clay

Responding to Misinformation about Fountas and Pinnell Literacy

P. David Pearson speaks out about Hanford’s portrayal of Marie Clay: My take- Hanford has gotten things wrong (again). A blog entry by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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

UPDATE: OPINION: A call for rejecting the newest reading wars


[1] See the chart on page 12: Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, Linda Darling Hammond (1997)

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

[3] See Reading Programs Put Reading Last and Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

[4] See The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” and If Teacher Education Is Failing Reading, Where Is the Blame?

The “Big Lie,” American as Apple Pie

As one of my sabbatical projects I have been completing my online annotated bibliography of English educator Lou LaBrant.

My doctoral dissertation was an educational biography of LaBrant, but since the late 1990s, I have returned often to her work in my teaching, my scholarship, and my public advocacy and writing.

This fall, I was struck by her “English at the Mid-Century” published in 1951, specifically this:

LaBrant’s recognition of the power and dangers of the “big lie” in the wake of WWII reads incredibly prescient in 2022 in the wake of Trump and the garbled rise of “fake news” in post-truth America.

However, LaBrant’s idealism about America now feels inexcusably naive—for her America and ours.

The “big lie” is not just a feature of politics; in fact, the “big lie” has become mainstream media’s primary approach to a wide range of topics. And the “big lie” is a recurring way the media, the public, and politicians batter universal public education—one of the essential elements of a free people committed to democracy.

Those without historical context may think “fake news” and the “big lie” concerning education either doesn’t exist or is a very recent phenomenon.

In the nineteenth century, in fact, the Catholic church established an assault on public education that sounds eerily similar to today:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, (pp. 257-258)

This initial assault on public education was grounded in the “big lie,” and to be blunt, it was about market share: the Catholic Church feared the allure of universal public education drawing students from their schools.

Here is a fact of history few people acknowledge: There hasn’t been a day since then that anyone has been satisfied with student achievement in the U.S.

The media, the public, and political leaders love few things more than lamenting students’ scores on our sacred standardized tests—the SAT/ACT since early twentieth century, ITBS, and then the onslaught of state accountability tests and NAEP since the 1980s and 1990s.

And here is another fact: Throughout a century-plus of characterizing public education as failing, classroom instruction, student demographics, teacher demographics, school compositions, state standards and assessments, etc., have all changed dozens and dozens of times.

However, at any point of education crisis, there is ample room to blame singular causes for failure, and that, of course, is the “big lie.”

The “big lie” approach to criticizing education is currently driving two powerful and harmful movements—the anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement.

Are teachers (well over 75% white women) indoctrinating students with anti-whiteness by hiding CRT in the curriculum? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers and librarians grooming students to become LGBTQ+ by assigning books that portray alternatives to so-called traditional families and sexuality? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers failing to implement reading science in their reading instruction (because teacher educators either willfully ignore or don’t know reading science) and therefore allowing students to fail to acquire reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are major reading programs dependent on three-cueing and lacking systematic phonics cheating students out of acquiring reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

However, all of these are examples of not only the “big lie,” but also how effective the “big lie” can be.

Let’s consider reading proficiency for a moment to unpack the “big lie” behind the “science of reading” movement.

Here are NAEP reading scores for grade 4 since 1992:

Notice that national data hover within a few points of 220 for thirty years—what in many ways can fairly be called a flat longitudinal data line.

Most people associate the “science of reading” movement starting at the earliest around 2013 and specifically around 2018.

Yet, those recent scores are little different than the two decades before (and we must acknowledge that the “science of reading” is not resistant to powerful social forces such as the pandemic).

Also, across thirty years, students and teachers have been held accountable for several different sets of standards, many different reading programs have been adopted and implemented, and the demographics of students have shifted in significant ways (public schools are increasingly populated by higher poverty students, and minoritized students constitute over 50% of students).

Nothing is consistent except student achievement.

It is nonsensical to ascribe blame (or credit) to any one instructional approach, any one adopted program, any one set of standards, etc.

So if we address one of the elements of the “big lie” in the “science of reading” movement—that Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study is a primary way we fail students learning to read—this seems preposterous in the grand scheme of educational crisis rhetoric, but also, that program is only the third most used.

But further, since I taught in public schools for 18 years, I can attest that students in two different classes taught by different teachers are not receiving the same instruction regardless of the official curriculum or programs.

The “big lie,” then, is always grounded in oversimplification and relies on crisis rhetoric to stir emotional responses.

Once we add context such as acknowledging that Jeanne Chall made the same exact arguments about the failures of reading instruction and achievement from the late 1960s into the 1990s and then the National Reading Panel made the same exact claims and offered the same exact solution (scientifically based instruction) just twenty years ago, the “big lie” is exposed as a house of cards.

Why, then, does the “big lie” repeat itself so often in education discussions and why is it so effective?

First, educational effectiveness is mostly driven by out-of-school factors (60%-80% of measurable student achievement) and not teacher instruction, curriculum, standards, or adopted programs. However, Americans resist systemic explanations and ideologically are attracted to blaming individual behavior.

Therefore, blaming Lucy Calkins is more compelling to American ideology than acknowledging poverty and inequity as the causal reasons behind student learning.

Second, we as a society have a dysfunctional relationship with statistics.

On one hand, Americans trust or believe in the bell-shaped curve, which predicts that human behaviors (including learning) will fall on a continuum that includes a few failing, many achieving “normally,” and a few excelling.

And then on the other hand, Americans expect all student to be above average (which is what proficiency is on NAEP).

A perfect example of that dysfunction is that George W. Bush’s crowning legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), included the self-defeating requirement that all student be proficient by 2014.

One reason that NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that politicians eventually realized such a requirement cannot be mandated by caveat, legislation, and such an expectation defies human behavior.

Wanting and trying to foster proficient readers so that all students achieve the literacy they deserve (what we absolutely must do) is far different than requiring and expecting that all students meet that lofty goal—especially since we do not have the political will to address the out-of-school factors that would have the greatest impact on that achievement.

As LaBrant noted, the “big lie” is an ugly reality in politics, but it also is an ugly and effective way to make sure our schools continue to fail to meet the needs of all students.

The anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement are selling the “big lie” and, ironically, lots of people are cashing in (the really nasty hypocrisy coloring all of this).

We can and should do better for our students, especially those who need us the most (those trapped in the lower end of that bell-shaped curve).

But the “big lie” serves the political and financial interests of those dedicated to those lies.

Keep in mind when people point an accusatory finger, three more are pointing back.

Those screaming that someone else is selling a story, well, are selling a different story, the “big lie.”