Category Archives: Science of Reading

Greenville News (SC): SC should not “jump on bandwagon” of “science of reading” movement

SC should not “jump on bandwagon” of “science of reading” movement (original with hyperlinks below)

South Carolina is poised with Bill 3613 to continue the historical failures of addressing reading in South Carolina through micromanaging legislation that has not resulted in improving home, community, individual equity or learning outcomes for students living in poverty, Black students, Emergent Bilinguals, or students with special needs.

Currently, I am in year 37 of teaching in SC, serving as a high school English teacher at Woodruff High for 18 years before moving to teacher education at Furman University for the past 19 years. I entered education in SC in 1984, the first days of the accountability movement in our state.

Despite political leaders changing standards and high-stakes testing multiple times over the past four decades, political and public perception remains convinced our schools are failing, and that our students are, specifically, failing to learn to read.

Read To Succeed, which Bill 3613 seeks to amend, was a serious mistake at its inception since it misreads both how students learn to read and how best to teach reading. Reading growth is not simple, and test scores are a stronger measure of poverty and social inequities than the state of student learning or the quality of teaching.

Bill 3613 is making the same mistake political leaders have been making since the 1980s, tinkering with prescriptive legislation aimed at our students and teachers while ignoring the overwhelming negative impact of inequity in our students’ homes and communities as well as the harmful negative learning and teaching conditions that persist in our schools.

This proposed legislation is yet another example of SC jumping on a flawed educational bandwagon (this time copying Mississippi), the “science of reading” movement that has resulted in harmful educational policy such as increased grade retention, over-screening for dyslexia, and prescribing “one-size-fits all” instruction for students.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the largest professional organization for English teachers in the U.S., has issued a strong policy statement rejecting third-grade retention supported by decades of research showing grade retention remains harmful for students. Dorothy C. Suskink also recently posted at NCTE that the “science of reading” movement is deeply misleading in its use of the term “science,” misrepresentation of the National Reading Panel, dependence on discredited reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality, and claims of crisis from NAEP scores.

Prominent literacy scholars David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby have also challenged the many flaws in the “science of reading” movement that are now included in Bill 3613. “When the teaching of reading is framed as a war, nuance and common areas of agreement are casualties,” they conclude, adding: “But worse, our children can become innocent victims caught in a no man’s land between those more interested in winning a conflict than in meeting individual needs.”

As has been proven by Read to Succeed so far, the most vulnerable students in our state will be harmed by the policies in this bill the most while political leaders in the state continue to lack the political will and courage to address the root causes of educational challenges across SC—poverty and racial inequity.

I urge political leaders in SC to think differently about our students, our teachers, and our schools; notably, I strongly recommend that we seek ways to create homes, communities, and schools that allow our students to grow and excel in the literacy development. Continuing to tinker with prescriptive and punitive reading legislation is a dereliction of political and ethical duty; we can and must do better, by doing differently.


On Reading and Comic Books: A Journey from 1975 to 2021 (and Beyond)

She was born in November 1963/The day Aldous Huxley died/And her mama believed/That everyone could be free

“Run, Baby, Run,” Sheryl Crow

The summer of 1975, I was diagnosed with scoliosis and fitted with a form-fitting plastic body brace anchored with aluminum rods and spanning from my pelvic bone to my chin. This was a hell of a way to start my ninth grade at Woodruff Junior High.

I would wear that brace 23 hours a day, gradually weaning myself off the support as my vertebrae both (mostly) repaired their disfigurement and eventually stopped growing; this meant I wore the brace for much of my high school experience as well.

My childhood and teen years were a contradiction of Southern racism, ignorance, and bigotry warmly wrapped in the blanket of my loving and doting working-class parents. My scoliosis was a significant financial burden on my parents (who never flinched at the medical care it required), but it also in some ways broke their hearts.

I was a skinny and very anxious human, deeply self-conscious and introverted before the years of the brace came upon me in the roiling shit-storm of adolescence.

It was at this juncture of my life that I discovered comic books, what now seems like a logical extension of the fascination I inherited from my mom for science fiction (she loved classic black-and-white B-movies, always claiming The Day the Earth Stood Still as her favorite film).

Once again, my parents never wavered when I began collecting and drawing from Marvel comics in the mid-1970s. They drove me to the local pharmacies to buy new comics and even bought a pretty large and important collection from a guy selling hundreds of comics in the local newspaper.

By high school graduation, I had amassed essentially every comic book Marvel published in the 1970s.

It would take me many years to recognize that my comic book collecting and science fiction reading were the foundation upon which I eventually chose to be a high school English teacher and came to recognize that I am a writer (although I initially clung to being a comic book artist since I spent hours and hours standing at our kitchen bar drawing from the comics I collected). (See my original artwork from the mid-/late 1970s below.)

Just thirteen days away from turning 60, I am baffled at not being able to specifically identify when I stopped collecting comics some time around graduating high school and attending college. I assume it seemed childish at some point even though I kept my 7000-book collection well into marriage.

I do know that when we bought our first townhouse, I sold that collection for way less than it was worth in both dollars and for my soul. I held onto the full run of Howard the Duck, but let everything else fund my misguided pursuit of the corrupted American Dream—home ownership.

At some point in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I briefly returned to collecting, prompted by several of my high school students and the Frank Miller rebooting of Batman as well as the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton films. This coincided with the 1990s boom/bust of mainstream comics by Marvel and DC, and once again, adult life kept me from really fully engaging in something I love.

When I moved to higher education in 2002 after 18 years teaching high school English, I found a way to merge my adolescent love for comic books and my adult life—comic book scholarship and blogging. I also published one book on comic books, which allowed me a justification for buying comics and graphic novels once again (and a way to move beyond super hero comics). I learned a great deal (and made several embarrassing mistakes) when I merged my fandom with my scholarship, but that work about a decade ago, once again, didn’t really stick—although it certainly didn’t fade away either.

Recently, I allowed myself to re-commit to collecting, focusing on Daredevil and then adding the newest Wolverine run. I am back engaged with a local comic book store just minutes from where I live, and I also collected the recent X of Swords run from Marvel. (See part of my Xmas haul below.)

And yesterday, something very interesting happened for me, again just two weeks from turning 60.

Concurrent with my reconnecting with comic book collecting, I have been embroiled in the newest reading war around the “science of reading” and also making a very feeble attempt at learning to play video games (initially Minecraft).

I never became a gamer because I always have struggled with the controls, and in my advancing age, that has been a real hurdle even more pronounced. But I also experienced a significant amount of disorientation as well as feeling extremely (for lack of a better word) dumb.

Starting a game left me paralyzed, repeatedly asking what I was supposed to do. I often was coached with this advice: Just explore and watch for what the game shows you to do.

That meant nothing to me, even less than nothing. In fact, I soon realized that I was simply unable to read the video games while experienced gamers have internalized hundreds of signals and cues to the point that “what you are supposed to do” seems obvious (see this on gaming, for example).

One of my foundational complaints about the “science of reading” movement has been its embracing a simple view of reading, and here I was, at 60, experiencing how incredibly complex reading is—that reading is far more than decoding print (and is even often apart from print).

Gaming like reading comic books is a holistic experience with text as well as images all guided by prior knowledge and experiences, and the blending of many different kinds of codes that are both unique to a single environment as well as common across the medium/genre/form.

The subgenres of gaming have commonalities like the subgenre of comic books, super hero comics.

Although I have recognized myself as a writer for forty years now—and never lift a pencil to draw any more—I was pulled back into comic book collecting because of the artwork, first Daredevil (a series that has always had distinct and powerful artists working on the character, in my opinion), then the rebooted Wolverine series, and now the incredible artists working on X-Men.

X-Men vol. 5, issues 5 and 6 (cover art: Leinil Francis Yu and Sunny Gho)

In several of my college courses, I have integrated comic books and graphic novels, often to students who have never read comics. They almost always admit that reading comics is much harder and takes much longer than they expected. It wasn’t, they discovered, like reading a text-only essay or book.

As I have been diving back into the X of Swords series and the rebooted X-Men series spearheaded by Jonathan Hickman, I have noticed my haphazard reading style of comics, very art-based and not very sequential (I glance around the entire spread and often dart back and forth among the text and panels).

And so here is the very interesting thing from yesterday.

In issue 4 of X-Men (vol. 5), Magneto quotes Aldous Huxley:

A sucker for literary references, I paused to search the quote, and then returned to reread the pages leading up to and after the use of the quote. Then, I realized something unusual that I had not noticed when first reading:

X-Men vol. 5, issue 4 (Hickman/Yu)

The omission of “care.”

Every time I read this, I still insert “care” automatically and have to force myself to see that it isn’t there (as if Professor X is doing it for me each time).

There are dozens of cues in those three panels, some of them text (and one of them the absence of assumed text).

As I count down the days until I turn 60, I am living some of the fantastical elements we associate with children’s stories, comic books, and science fiction—a pandemic, a Capitol siege, and the many eras of my own life overlapping with each other as if I am both living my current life and going back in time.

Life is no comic book or video game, but I am tasked with making sure as I explore the things around me that I pay attention to all the cues of what I am supposed to do—and it remains a very complicated task in 2021 as it was in 1975.

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

In the pre-pandemic world that seems much further in the past than it is, I traveled from South Carolina to Milwaukee in February of 2020 to speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA) annual convention.

My public work had been dominated by refuting the “science of reading” movement for more than a year at that point—including having a book in press on the “science of reading” as another version of the Reading War—so I arrived in Milwaukee a bit apprehensive about how I would be received.

My session was well attended by an energetic crowd of teachers who seemed eager to engage in why the “science of reading” movement was misguided, but I also encountered another distinct frustration among teachers I had not anticipated.

A significant part of the “science of reading” agenda has been to attack popular reading reading programs, notably programs associated with Lucy Calkins and Teachers College (see here and here, for example).

As I interrogated and discounted many aspects of the “science of reading” agendas, the attendees were supportive of my analysis, but teachers often expressed very negative experiences with Calkins’s programs, the third most popular reading program in the U.S.

What I was witnessing surprised me, but I soon realized that Calkins represented for very different reasons multiple problems with how reading is taught in formal schooling throughout the U.S.

When I asked teachers attending that session why they were so frustrated and even angry about Calkins’s programs, I heard what I have long argued about the essential problem with any reading program: Administrators spend a great deal of time and effort making sure teachers implement adopted program, and not acknowledging teacher expertise or student needs and learning.

To be fair, teachers frustrated with Calkins’s reading programs were credibly concerned about how it was being mandated and implemented (no real fault of Calkins or the publishers).

Despite my efforts and the efforts of my scholars and teachers of literacy, the “science of reading” momentum has only increased. The most recent development is likely one of the worst.

Across the U.S. media advocacy and parental zeal have directly resulted in state reading legislation, the worst of which has implemented third-grade retention policies. But the next shoe to drop has been how those policies directly impact teaching and learning—repeating the Open Court, Reading First, and National Reading Panel scandal not even fifteen years in the past.

And once again during the “science of reading” frenzy, Lucy Calkins is in the middle—as reported by the most prominent “science of reading” media propagandist, Emily Hanford:

The Arkansas Division of Secondary and Elementary Education announced in October 2019 that any curriculum that utilizes cueing strategies won’t be approved for use in the state, meaning that Calkins’ materials and another popular program, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, are effectively banned [emphasis added]. Colorado released a list of approved core reading curriculum, and Calkins’ programs weren’t on the list. A group outside St. Louis sent a letter signed by 216 parents, students and taxpayers to the school board asking that Calkins, and Fountas and Pinnell be dropped. The Oakland Unified School District, whose use of Calkins’ products was highlighted in the 2019 APM Reports story, announced it was forming a committee to consider adopting new curriculum. And Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit consulting group, published a review that concluded Calkins’ curriculum materials are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.” 

So we are now confronted with a very disturbing but common formula related to reading instruction:

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

Let me return to the teachers attending my session at WSRA.

If anyone were genuinely interested in understanding the complexities of teaching reading in formal schooling, almost everything needed was available in those teachers’ comments.

For the most part, these teachers recognized the misrepresentations and problems with the “science of reading” agenda, notably that journalists and parents were driving the conversations on how to teach children to read; they also knew from lived experiences as teachers that reading programs—all reading programs—are the problem, and not the solution.

At the core of the flaws in the “science of reading” movement is the belief that there is a clearly and easily defined “right way” to teach reading, that most teachers (for some odd reason) refuse to acknowledge that one “right way” (and/or were never taught that “right way” by teacher educators who, again for some odd reason, refuse to acknowledge that one “right way”), and that all we need to do is to adopt that “right way” to (finally?) teach all children to read.

Yet, this is both magical and overly simplistic thinking.

There is no one “right way” to teach reading and there is no silver-bullet reading program.

Teaching students to read well is negatively impacted by dozens of factors that lie well outside the confines of what any reading program can address—socio-economic inequity, racial inequity, school funding, an oppressive accountability/standards/testing culture, human nature, etc.

“Science of reading” advocates have spent a great deal of time demonizing Calkins and her workshop-based, holistic programs, but now they also seem almost gleeful to claim that she has come over to their side.

All of this rather petty “gotcha” approaches to the cult of celebrity as that impacts education (Calkins as a literacy guru or Hanford as the “science of reading” prophet) has perpetuated one of the worst dynamics surrounding how we run our schools—market forces.

The changes being made to Calkins’s programs are responding to the market being closed; it genuinely doesn’t matter in that context if the original programs were or weren’t “scientific” and it doesn’t matter if the changes are or aren’t “scientific.”

Publishers respond to market forces, and for public education, that means that democratically elected officials are responding to constituents and creating legislation that governs what reading materials states can and cannot purchase to teach children to read.

This is capitalism, not science; this is the free market, not education for equity and democracy.

The NCLB, NRP, Reading First, and Open Court scandal of the 2000s laid out clearly that the exact same process happening because of the “science of reading” movement is destined to fail, guaranteed to corrupt how we teach reading.

Teaching children to read is about individual children and their teachers. At best reading programs can provide some of the tools needed to help children read, but reading programs generally are used at their worst—as ends unto themselves.

Whether or not Calkins has gone over to the “science of reading” movement is nothing to celebrate or condemn.

That we remain mired in “all students must” and myopically committed to adopting the “right” reading program are the real problems—once again.


Calkins has offered a clarification that challenges how Hanford and EdWeek have characterized the changes to her program; key comments include:

Many of you are asking questions in response to the latest Ed Week blog. While I am glad that Ed Week and Emily Hanford are studying the work we are doing at Teachers College, their articles can spawn misunderstandings and misconceptions, so let me clarify….

While the journalists will try to persuade you otherwise (controversy gets more eyes on the page than consensus), this is actually a small shift in our thinking, one that applies to the way that a teacher coaches a child who is in the early stages of reading development—which, if using Guided Reading Levels, aligns with approximately levels C through H. Some kids progress though the levels at pace, and for them this shift doesn’t really matter. However, it is an important shift to make for those readers who’ve not picked up the phonics knowledge they need and for working with kids who have dyslexia.

What stays the same in our work with K-1 readers? 98% of it. We still support the rich comprehension work that has always been a part of workshop teaching. We still support kids reading with agency. We still support choice and rereading and reading to learn and talking about books. We still support the reciprocity between writing and reading. We still support kids learning letters, onsets and rimes, spelling patterns, and high frequency words as we have taught them. We still support using the learning progressions and assessment-based teaching. We still support kids reading with phonics, fluency, and comprehension. We still support kids seeing themselves in books and learning about others through reading. We still support kids learning to lead richly literate lives.

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means in the Lives and Education of Children

17 September 2020 turned out to be a day of disinformation about education in the U.S. The White House launched another assault on education (not a surprise), and the International Literacy Association offered (for a fee) “Making Sense of the Science of Reading.”

The latter is disappointing from a powerful and influential professional organization because the “sense” made appears to be quite different than the intent.

Ultimately, as this event revealed, the “science of reading” (SoR) advocacy fails for several key reasons:

  1. The movement is driven by parent advocacy (specifically around dyslexia) and media advocacy. That grounding lacks historical context and expertise in reading, literacy, and special needs.
  2. SoR promotes a simple view of reading and seeks to mandate systematic intensive phonics for all students (regardless of student need).
  3. SoR embraces a simplistic and distorted view of “science” as “settled.”
  4. SoR links reading to policies and practices that lack scientific support and cross ethical lines of allowing the ends to justify the means (for example, nonsense literacy and grade retention linked to high-stakes testing).

Here, I want to focus on how SoR crosses ethical lines in order to justify and misrepresent the very “science” those advocates embrace.

Writing about corporal punishment, Rutherford quotes from Gertrude Williams: “[s]ince the dawn of humanity, children have been treated with incredible cruelty and have little recourse to the law which regarded them as things, not persons” (p. 356).

In my scholarship and public work, corporal punishment and grade retention share something, ironically, with SoR advocacy; I contend that the scientific research base (both decade’s long) on corporal punishment and grade retention , while not “settled,” is overwhelmingly compelling against the use of either with children and students.

And thus, I am deeply alarmed at ILA justifying the use of grade retention as a component of the SoR movement. A speaker at the ILA event and a follow-up email from ILA highlighted a disturbing report from the conservative Manhattan Institute: Do Retention Policies Affect Student Success?

In 1974, talking on education at UC Berkley, James Baldwin confronted the same sort of inequity toward children highlighted by Rutherford on corporal punishment: “And education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of that industry is the child.”

With that in mind, the report on grade retention from Perrault and Winters must be interrogated for its lack of peer review (How does one reach for the unscientific to support the scientific?) and its distorted view of teaching and learning along with its antagonism toward children (and teachers).

Perrault and Winters make several key mistakes in how they focus this report and what they fail to identify and consider important.

Decades of high-quality research on grade retention as well as more recent examinations of high-stakes retention similar to what Perrault and Winters address have found the following: grade retention’s impact on raising test scores is mixed, but even when test scores increase, those gains dissipate over time (those gains, then, are a mirage); grade retention is strongly correlated with negative consequences for students, including being separated from their peers and increasing the likelihood of dropping out of school; and grade retention tends to disproportionately impact students of color, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students (contributing, then, to perpetuating inequity).

Perrault and Winters choose to ignore the overwhelming negative consequences, preferring to argue for the ends justifying the means, and instead focus again on a simplistic look at whether or not the “threat” of grade retention increases test scores for students not retained (a circular argument for decreasing grade retention).

Those choices lead to a very disturbing and flawed argument that grade retention, according to Perrault and Winters, improved student learning and teaching (a reductive claim based solely on test scores as an adequate proxy for learning and teaching); their concluding rhetoric is very telling:

Our results, however, suggest that earlier studies, which focus entirely on retained students, substantially understate the benefits of test-based promotion policies on student achievement. The test-score improvements that we find within the third grade for students in Arizona and Florida apply to a much larger group of students than those who were eventually retained by the policies. Indeed, our results show that the threat of retention [emphasis added] improves student academic achievement, thus reducing the need for retention.

SoR advocacy and ILA have made a fatal flaw in citing this report in order to argue that the ends justify the means.

Grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, it does not improve learning and teaching, and it disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our schools.

Instead of the report from Perrault and Winters, we should paid heed to Huddleston’s Achievement at Whose Expense? A Literature Review of Test-Based Grade Retention Policies in U.S. Schools:

Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. The author concludes by providing alternatives for ending social promotion that do not include grade retention as well as suggestions for further researching the role such policies play in perpetuating class inequities. [from abstract]

The SoR movement has lost its way, depending on reports and anecdotes in order to promote a simplistic view of reading and teaching reading.

As Baldwin noted in the 1970s, education is an industry, and we must be suspicious why so many are compelled to make claims that seem more likely to serve the interests of those who produce and sell reading (phonics) programs and reading tests than the very children we claim to serve.

Critical Literacy, Not Nonsense Literacy

At 59 with almost 40 years experience as an educator (focusing on literacy) and writer, I remain someone who struggles with spelling.

And when I come across an unfamiliar word, I ask around until I find someone who can pronounce it aloud for me; I have never really tried to “sound it out”—even though I have intuited a huge amount of letter/sound patterns in the English language.

Also, as a Southerner, my common pronunciation of many words doesn’t quite align with the so-called “proper” pronunciation of many words; I can make one-syllable words two syllables, and choke two-syllable words into one.

“Hell” is one of my better versions of the former.

More like “hey-uhl.”

None the less, I am a highly literate person with a reading and writing background that outpaces most people in sheer volume significantly. I also love language and the history of the English language.

After fumbling my way earnestly through a decade or more of teaching high school English and honing my craft as a writer, I discovered critical pedagogy and critical literacy in my 30s during my doctoral program. That “discovery” was simply a recognition of an ideology and practice I had already been attempting to grasp daily as a teacher, but finding this philosophy already existed was deeply liberating—and crucial for my own practice as an educator of literacy.

I have a very firm appreciation for and understanding of the holistic nature of literacy, but I also am an ardent advocate for critical literacy as the ultimate goal of reading and writing instruction.

My commitments to holistic and critical literacy have resulted in a career-long battle with advocates of isolated and intensive grammar and phonics instruction (what I frame as grammar/phonics as the goal of instruction, not as authentic components of broader literacy goals such as critical literacy).

For a couple years now, I have been confronting the most recent Reading War, often labeled as the “science of reading,” which is another veneer for advocates of systematic intensive phonics for all students.

The general public, likely, isn’t aware that “phonics” isn’t a monolithic instructional practice or concept; within the field of phonics, there is debate (such as synthetic approach versus analytic phonics).

The systematic intensive phonics being advocated for all students by proponents of the “science of reading” includes a focus on teaching students to decode nonsense words (such as the assessment DIBELS).

The embracing of teaching and assessing nonsense words is a central concern for me as a holistic and critical literacy teacher.

Consider this from Nicola Yelland:

Advocates of the phonics screening tests claim that they are fun. In fact, for fluent readers, it can destroy their recognition as competent readers. In one school example, a boy who came to school reading, and who continued to flourish as a fluent reader, scored 2/40! Since the test includes nonsense words in the quest to focus on decoding (he read “elt” as “let,” “sarps” as “rasp,” and “chab” as “cab,” to foreground a few). What he seemed to be doing was re-arranging the letters or sounds and reconstructing them into recognizable words that he knew made sense. Meanwhile, another child whom the teacher regarded as not being a fluent reader was able to sound out the nonsense words as well as regular words and achieve a score of 16/40, all without knowing their meaning. Thus, the raw scores from the test of each child give us no information about them as readers and how they can make meaning from text; they simply show how they decode words out of context.

Adoniou (2018) has pointed out that while the phonics screening test scores are increasing in the United Kingdom where it was introduced in 2011, with children improving in their ability to read words like “kigh” and “queep,” reading comprehension scores have not improved. So, the claims of success of teaching with the phonics approach would seem to be premature. She also notes that the assertion that the test has given teachers more data with which to support children struggling with reading is false. There is no evidence that test results data was any better than the teachers’ professional judgements. Some of the synthetic phonics “kits” include 80 hours of lessons for 20 weeks in small groups of no more than four children. This requires high-level resourcing for systems, and while research revealed improved skills in phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge, as that is what the 80 hours was designed for, there were “no better outcomes on reading whole passages of text” (Quach et al., 2019, p. 8).

Here is the crux of the ultimate failure of the “science of reading” movement; it embraces nonsense literacy, claiming it is a necessary step on the journey toward comprehension for all students.

That is, at best, a tenuous claim, but it does expose the anaemic view of literacy and incomplete goals of the “science of reading” movement, which fails to reach for (or even acknowledge) critical literacy for all students and seeks to justify spending precious time on nonsense with children—time that could and should be better spent in rich and authentic literacy experiences.

As Yelland’s example above shows, nonsense is a distraction from sense-making in reading; however, nonsense makes for very manageable (and profitable) “phonics instruction.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated, but let me be clear, for children learning to read, we must choose critical literacy over nonsense literacy.

The Problems with “Show Me the Research” in Teaching Reading

I was born in 1961 and entered first grade in 1967, already able to read independently and play sophisticated card and board games.

My mother had taped index cards with words identifying objects all around our house. She had attended one year of junior college, but had no training in how to teach.

None the less, from the first day of school, I excelled in literacy, scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests. My learning to read has two important elements; I was of the generation taught by the Dick and Jane basal readers (whole-word focus over discrete phonics), and my learning to read overlapped with one of the most aggressive reading crisis moments in the U.S., spurred by Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, first published in 1955.

To whom and what should we attribute my high-achieving literacy skills? How could research tease out any causal inferences about my reading achievement? I was certainly not a Johnny who couldn’t read even as I had almost no direct phonics instruction, and I am sure the basal readers and my teachers’ instructional methods had only minimal impact on my literacy development (other than that I loved Ms. Landford, my first grade teacher, and wanted desperately to please her).

Many years later, I was a high school English teacher in the rural high school I had attended. One year, a wonderful student whose mother was also an English teacher in the school scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SAT.

People throughout the school and town often congratulated me and praised my role in her perfect score. For many, that student’s success was proof I was an outstanding teacher of English.

Frankly, I had almost nothing to do with that score; but her excellent literacy development—like my own—had hundreds if not thousands of causal elements leading to her scoring that 800.

Both of these examples, I think, help highlight the problem of proximity and time in making causal claims about who and what contribute to student learning and growth.

Real world teaching and learning are incredibly messy and always cumulative; any student’s measurable achievement has a mind-numbingly complex history behind that achievement that is not fairly attributed to any singular cause.

Now let me offer another complication.

Many years ago, I began confronting the poverty workbook and claims of Ruby Payne. When scholars on poverty and race began to challenge Payne (much of that in Teachers College Record), those challenges often exposed that Payne’s claims about poverty were almost entirely stereotypes and not supported by the research base on social class and race.

In other words, scholars were essentially saying that Payne needed to “show the research.” So she did—and exposed her own misunderstanding about that request.

Payne’s workshops and program became popular when No Child Left Behind injected federal money into schools in order to close the achievement gap. Payne, then, was being hired not necessarily to provide schools with credible expertise on social class and race (which Payne lacks in her training), but to raise test scores.

Payne’s rebuttal to the criticism was providing data suggesting that her workshops did raise test scores for the vulnerable populations associated with the achievement gap (although I am not suggesting that the data she provided did prove such).

This wrinkle to “show me the research” is incredibly important since it draws attention to exactly what we are looking for in that research; Payne’s critics were raising one issue about evidence, and Payne countered with evidence of a completely different kind.

More than six decades after the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis (which is indistinguishable from the reading crisis in the 1940s before and the whole language “plummet” in the 1990s after), the U.S. is mired in another round of the Reading War, driven by advocacy for the “science of reading.”

The “science of reading” movement rehashes the stale Flesch argument that student reading is in crisis because of a failure to teach systematic intensive phonics to all students.

This round, however, emphasizes “science” and has embraced both a simple view of reading and a narrow view of “science” (evidence).

Advocates for the “science of reading” beat the “science” drum and often demand that anyone challenging their advocacy “show me the research”—while disregarding the problems I have detailed above.

“Show me the research” in this case is limited to the so-called gold standard of research, quantitative empirical research with controls and findings that are generalizable.

In virtually all fields, especially medicine, that gold standard is sacred for good reason.

However, this view of “science” and research is deeply flawed in education, for the problems I outline above.

Direct phonics instruction is easy to isolate and research in order to fulfill the mandate that only some research counts in reading research; this is also the way the National Reading Panel greatly skewed the work of the panel, excluding decades of research that did not meet the threshold of “gold standard.”

“Show me the research” seems on the surface to be a reasonable and even essential starting point when debating how to teach students to read. Yet, it isn’t.

First, demanding research on whole language or balanced literacy effectiveness misunderstands what these two terms represent. Whole language (WL) and balanced literacy (BL) are philosophies of literacy; they are not programs or even instructional practices.

To suggest we can separate in some blunt and clear way phonics from WL or BL is as misguided as Payne’s response to her critics. WL and BL as guides for instructional practices would include a wide variety of phonics instruction (including direct phonics instruction).

When researchers do try to make that distinction, we find that there is often little or no differences in outcomes (see Bowers, 2020), or as with Payne, the “better” approach isn’t proving what we really are seeking or any difference dissipates over time (See Krashen, 2006; Krashen, 2004).

Ultimately, the “show me the research” demand about the teaching of reading is a problem because the “science of reading” movement has embraced not just simple views of reading and research, but simplistic views.

Reading comprehension and critical literacy are not a simple formula, and learning to read is a complex and even haphazard process that occurs over many years (if not our entire lives) and depends on a wide assortment of interworking elements such as decoding, content and life knowledge, comprehension, and critical awareness.

While gold standard research seeks to isolate instructional methods, that sort of data has limited use in the real-world, where students are not static beings (and may be outliers) and are not able to control for poverty, racism, and sexism in their lives (all factors that likely have far more influence on their achievement than reading instruction, reading programs, or reading philosophies).

The work of Lou LaBrant reveals that we have had for a century a wealth of research and evidence on what can work to teach students to read.

The problem with “show me the research” about teaching reading is not a lack of research, but a fundamental failure to understand human behavior, especially how one comes to be an eager and independent reader.

Reading is not simple; just because you can reduce it to an algebra equation doesn’t mean you should.

The balanced literacy movement sought to give some philosophical structure to the recognition that learning to read is complex and haphazard. Additionally, balanced literacy was an effort to forefront the professional autonomy of the teacher.

To be blunt, balance literacy (like whole language) has never been implemented with those goals intact. The accountability movement has dominated the teaching of reading with a formula that is somehow absent in the current debate: standards + high-stakes testing = reading programs – teacher autonomy.

To be blunt again, more teachers are being compelled to teach reading in ways that seek to raise test scores (recall the Payne problem from above) and not to foster eager and independent critical readers.

The “science of reading” movement is making and perpetuating the Payne mistake in education.

“Show me the research” in this case is a misdirection and further evidence that many people are not willing to acknowledge the complexity of reading, the complexity of human behavior, or the professional autonomy of teachers.

I became a highly literate person with no direct phonics instruction. That’s a neat little story about my life, but it doesn’t prove a damn thing about anyone else.

This round of the Reading War is weaponizing the term “science” in ways that are guaranteed to distract us yet again from the complicated and politically unpopular work of addressing inequity in the lives and schooling of children.

That evidence is clear and disappointing.


Phoney Phonics: How Decoding Came to Rule and Reading Lost Meaning

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

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

Download a PDF here

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

Recent Research Refuting “Science of Reading” Claims


Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107–128.


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.

Balanced Literacy and Whole Language

Semingson, P., & Kerns, W. (2021). Where is the evidence? Looking back to Jeanne Chall and enduring debates about the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S157– S169.

 “Simple” View of Reading

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

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

State-Level Reading Policy

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.

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).

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Intensive Systematic Phonics

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, e3314.

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.

“Science of Reading” Advocacy Stumbles, Falls

First, the stumble.

Yet another education journalist (also identified as a novelist and historian), Natalie Wexler, has weighed in on the “science of reading” (SoR). Wexler isn’t an educator, and she seems to suffer from the Columbus Syndrome far too common among journalists covering education.

I am not linking to the article, but it has already been updated since Wexler has received strong challenges to her tactics in this over-stated and misleading article

Accompanying the standard misrepresentations about teaching reading in the U.S., Wexler attempts to cast an accusatory shadow—invoking racism—over teaching reading by joining the “science of reading” propaganda movement.

However, Zaretta Hammond set the record straight on Twitter. In brief, Hammond challenges Wexler’s jumbled attempts at calling out racism and misguided references to recent racist police violence as well as implicating Hammond’s work in Wexler’s claims.

As Hammond notes, Wexler’s failure exposes the problems with fanning a Reading War that, once again, keeps our gaze on so-called failed students and failing teachers instead of systemic inequity and racism.

Wexler is wrong about reading and racism, but the criticism her article prompted has only nudged her to retract the racism stumbles, whitewashing her mistakes by apologizing on Twitter and revising her article.

Now, the fall.

One of the most damaging aspects of the “science of reading” movement has been how swiftly advocates of SoR and dyslexia have translated their movement into state-level reading legislation.

While I have been helping literacy educators and activists resist these efforts to change state education laws, some of us saw at least a pause in the SoR momentum with the Covid-19 pandemic, an unfortunate consequence that now seems to have had unintended positive outcomes for education (flawed reading legislation not passing for financial stress prompted by the pandemic).

For example, “A bid to improve Louisiana’s dismal reading skills for its youngest students died near the legislative finish line, leaving backers baffled on just what happened,” writes Will Sentell.

The surprise at this defeat comes, as Sentell explains, because “[t]he proposal, House Bill 559, had led something of a charmed life until it wilted at the end.”

However, as with other state-level reading legislation agendas across the U.S., this bill was grounded in misinformation about reading achievement as well as claims about the “science” they claim is missing in reading instruction.

Advocacy for the SoR has a fatal flaw found in both Wexler’s article and the “charmed” but failed bill in Louisiana—a “rigid refusal” to address first and fully the systemic inequity that is at the root of all educational measurements, including reading achievement.

SoR advocacy is grounded in a deficit lens that sees only individuals (students, teachers) and measures them against very reduced and narrow ideas of what counts as “normal.”

This advocacy also falls victim to silver-bullet solutions, reducing teaching to “all students must” and suggesting that this program is better than that program (without recognizing that the problem is reducing reading instruction to any program).

SoR advocacy is a misuse of “science” and a misunderstanding of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic.

There is a powerful relationship among measurable reading achievement by students, reading instruction provided students in formal schooling, and the corrosive persistence of racism and systemic inequity in U.S. society and schools—systemic racism and inequity.

Since the SoR playbook is wrong on all of that, as Hammond ends her Twitter thread, “Know the difference.”

See Also

NEW: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”


NEW: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)


Barnes and Noble


[excerpt from Introduction]

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: An Overview

The chapters that follow are not intended to document how we should or can teach reading. In fact, there is abundant work that has existed since the early twentieth century to document the many and varied ways we know we should help foster students as readers from the first days of school to the last. As well, this entire book is working well outside being a how-to on teaching reading or a storehouse of research—even as I am advocating that test-driven reading policy and instruction are asking way too little of students and their teachers.

Instead, this is an informative work, focusing on the historical and current Reading War, that builds to a framework for moving beyond that war, and as the subtitle states, serving the literacy needs of all students.

Chapter 1 (A Historical Perspective of the Reading War: 1940s and 1990s Editions) offers a historical overview of crisis responses to reading, focusing on the 1940s (WWII literacy rates of soldiers) and a 1990s report spurred by NAEP. This historical perspective is often missing from media coverage of reading and reading policy debates and decisions made at the federal and state levels.

In Chapter 2 (The Twenty-First Century Reading War: “The Science of Reading,” Dyslexia, and Misguided Reading Policy), I examine the current “science of reading” phenomenon in mainstream media driven by mainstream media, Emily Hanford and Education Week as key examples, but also fueled by dyslexia advocacy, all of which has manifested themselves in education policy such as adopting grade retention based on 3rd-grade test scores and training teachers in the “science of reading.”

Chapter 3 (Misreading Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) addresses key concepts and topics that are misunderstood but central to the media coverage of the recent Reading War, such as the following: The National Reading Panel (NRP), reading programs, balanced literacy (BL), whole language (WL), phonics, scientific research, grade retention, teacher education, and teacher autonomy.

Finally, in 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), the following reforms needed to end the Reading war will be explored:

  • Social policy must be implemented to address inequity and the homes, communities, and lives of children; these socioeconomic reforms must be viewed as central to reading policy.
  • The mainstream media must abandon Christopher Columbus and both-sides journalism that addresses education/reading.
  • Reading policy must abandon ineffective and hurtful commitments that include standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, etc.
  • Classroom and school practices must abandon reading programs and silver-bullet approaches to literacy; and teaching must be far more individualized and patient.
  • Evidence-based teaching of reading must expand the meaning of “scientific” and evidence.

In the Conclusion (The Science of Literacy: A 36-Year Journey and Counting), I challenge a narrow view of “science,” especially in terms of education and literacy.

As you read the following chapters, I want you to keep some big-picture concerns in mind: What do we ultimately mean when we talk about teaching children to read? And what does it mean for a student to be able to read?

I want you to consider this story from a high school ELA class discussion on capital punishment. As the teacher led a discussion on the death penalty, a student interjected that Texas currently uses decapitation for the death penalty. The teacher paused, and then suggested that this wasn’t true. The student hurriedly explained it was true, and that he had proof.

The student took out his smartphone, pulling up an article to show the teacher. The article was from The Onion.

Patiently, the teacher informed the student that The Onion is satire, to which the student replied, “No, it isn’t.” Keep in mind that this high school student can pronounce the words in the article; he had read the entire piece.

Are our reading standards, sacred high-stakes tests, and reading programs fostering the sort of students who are critical readers, capable of navigating a complex world better than the student above? Is this Reading War in any way addressing that problem?


Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”