Category Archives: Science of Reading

Who Do I Work For?

On balance, I have been fortunate with engaging on social media, specifically Twitter and my blog. However, over the past few years, my work on the “science of reading” (SOR) has attracted more and more angry and confrontational responses.

As a result, I muted a large number of accounts in 2022, usually because the person either responded with attacks or misrepresentations and were unwilling to reconsider their antagonism or my clear refuting with evidence that they had in fact misrepresented me and my work.

None the less, I occasionally have other people alert me of even more and extreme misrepresentations from those muted accounts. One in particular seems popular among SOR zealots—the swipe that people should not listen to me because I work for Reading Recovery (I don’t and never have).

So let’s set the record straight about who I work for, and what that means.

I have a 39-year professional life as an educator across five decades. I have worked on payroll as a public school teacher in South Carolina (18 years), as an adjunct at several universities and colleges, and as a professor at Furman University since 2002 (now as a tenured full professor).

Simply stated, that is who I have and currently work for. The most important aspect of that disclosure is that as a university-based scholar, I am an independent scholar in that no one pays or directs me to do any particular scholarship or public work, and certainly, absolutely no one tells me what to express in that scholarship and public work.

My scholarly and activist agendas are entirely my choice and my responsibility (which I take very seriously).

Over my five decades in teaching, I have presented at dozens of conferences sponsored by dozens of organizations. Conservatively, I have done so for free or at costs to me in about 90% or more of those.

I have participated in dozens and dozens of interviews, podcasts, and webinars—virtually all of them for free.

My extensive publishing record has also been almost entirely either for free or at a cost to me—with a few projects done for a stipend or honorarium (although even then, my work is entirely my choice and my responsibility).

I have never and will never do work for hire to endorse or promote any organization or person. Period.

Since last November, I have presented (or will present) at 6 major conferences for different professional organizations. Presenting at a conference or for an organization is not working for or endorsing that organization. Again, I have never and will never present as a spokesperson for any organization or anyone (except myself).

When invited and/or paid, I accept based on interest in my work or my reputation as a thorough scholar on a topic, but I do not respond to requests for what I will present or for any sort of endorsement.

For about a year now, I have monetized my blog, but that is a very small amount of money that basically pays for having a website with WordPress; and I maintain a blog in order to make my work accessible to anyone without cost to them because I see my work primarily as activism.

I have a book on the “science of reading,” in a second edition. To date I have received $0 in royalties for that work (academic publishing is rarely profitable).

The purpose of my extended commitment to challenging the SOR movement is to correct a false story and to challenge misinformation, baseless blaming, and unfounded personal attacks.

And broadly, my SOR work is targeted at identifying misguided reading policy and practice driven by a false story.

I don’t endorse reading programs (I repeatedly have called for an end to purchasing and implementing reading programs), and although I belong to a few professional organizations, I very carefully do not endorse or associate my scholarship with ideological agendas or profiteering.

My experience is those who attack and misrepresent are either projecting (Sold a Story is selling a story, and education products), unable to engage with the evidence, or both.

The great irony of those attacking me to discredit me by association is that if they would simply read my blog or talk to people who actually know me, I have a really solid reputation as being my own person; I simply do not carry water for anyone or any organization.

That a faction of the SOR movement persists in attacks, misrepresentations, and outright lies says far more about them and their lack of credibility than it does about me.

Recognizing there are problems beneath the surface of his works and many of his aphorisms, I remain compelled by Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

In terms of my scholarship and public work, I work for me. Anyone posting otherwise is, frankly, lying and should not be considered credible.


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

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social justice and equity reckoning hasn’t quite taken hold yet with the “science of reading” [1], as it has with grit and growth mindset, and the “science of reading” movement has successfully deflected that the practices and policies actually are not supported by science (see HERE).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

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

[1] See

Burns, M. K., Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2023). Evaluating components of the active view of reading as intervention targets: Implications for social justice. School Psychology, 38(1), 30–41.

What Reading Program Should Schools Adopt?

The TL;DR answer is “none.”

The conventional wisdom answer of the day is “one that is proven effective by independent scientific research.”

The reason the first answer is correct is that this is the wrong question, and wrong approach that has plagued the teaching of reading for most of modern education.

Yes, the conventional wisdom answer sounds compelling, but it is fool’s gold because there can never be a program “proven effective” since teaching and learning to read are quite complex and dependent on individual student strengths and challenges (as well as a whole host of contexts in any student’s home or school).

The reading program adoption merry-go-round is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Every reading program replaced was promised effective in the same ways as the one replacing it. (See also the constant changing of standards.)

Schools should take at least one long step backward and start with having teachers identify what is working, what isn’t working, and how typical populations of students being taught in that school present identifiable needs that teachers must address.

The source of decisions about teaching reading materials must begin with populations of students being served and teacher expertise on both reading and that unique population.

Reading material needs in the rural South are never going to be the same as reading material needs in the urban Midwest.

Keeping reading programs central to teaching reading creates several key flaws that are insurmountable:

  • Adopting reading programs results in focusing teaching accountability on how well the program is being implemented and not on student progress and struggles.
  • Reading programs feed a silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all mentality.
  • Reading programs shift the locus of authority to the program and not the teacher.
  • Reading programs are driven by market propaganda that distorts the evidence about effectiveness.

While I remain committed to the “none” answer, that genuinely is not a practical answer at the moment.

Schools will in all likelihood continue to adopt reading programs (or continue using the currently adopted program); therefore, here are some practical guidelines that merges my ideal (“none”) and the reality of day-to-day teaching:

  • As noted above, schools must do an assessment of their current student population, their current status of programs/materials, and their practical goals for improving student progress as readers.
  • That assessment must then guide analysis of the current program (how well and poorly it is meeting needs) or provide the framework for selecting a new program.
  • Schools must critically and even skeptically address that adopting new programs often always incurs excessive costs that may not be effective use of funding since teachers with autonomy may be able to make almost any program or set of materials work.
  • Reading program adoption must not be seen as all-inclusive of the school’s reading program, but as part of the entire reading materials package and as resources for teacher implementation.
  • Schools must resist scripted programs, period.

Ultimately, schools must shift their focus away from programs-based reading instruction and toward student-need-based reading instruction.

That shift would create space to maintain the teaching/learning of reading as the goal of accountability and move reading program fidelity out of the equation since programs and materials serve the expertise of the teacher guided by student needs.

As I have noted before, historically and currently, reading programs put reading last.

If we are genuinely dedicated to teaching all students to read better, we have to (finally) do things differently.

A good start would be recognizing that “What reading program should schools adopt?” is the wrong question and then stepping back to ask bigger and better questions grounded in the students being taught and the teachers charged with a better reading program.

See Also

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

The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

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

Does Instruction Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out-of-School Policy

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

In-School Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s an old and failed story.

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

[1] Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

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

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics


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

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

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

[Aukerman three posts as PDF]

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

South Carolina’s Education Problem: Crisis, Faddism, and Boondoggles

One of my first scholarly publications, “A new honesty in education—Positivist measures in a postmodern world,” included the 1998 governor’s race in South Carolina between David Beasley (incumbent Republican) and Jim Hodges (Democrat) in a solidly Republican state.

While the governorship that election shifted to Hodges, mostly because of the wedge issue of gambling in SC, I noted that both candidates and political parties ran on a dishonest but effective platform—SC education was at the bottom in the U.S. In fact, both candidates had billboards lambasting the state’s education ranking that were virtually indistinguishable except for the candidate information.

In 2022, it is important to highlight that SC was popularly and politically identified in crisis and need of reform after two decades of crisis (A Nation at Risk under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s) and a series of standards and high-stakes testing reform.

I entered education in 1984, right after then-Governor Richard Riley had pushed SC as one of the first adopters into the accountability movement.

As a high school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I watched and listened as SC political leaders called for modeling SC education policy, standards, and testing on Florida and Virginia; despite its bombastic libertarian proclamations, SC is copy-cat state when it comes to education policy.

And therein lies the problem.

SC remains trapped in a cycle of education crisis, education faddism, and education boondoggles.

After those two decades following A Nation at Risk, SC once again doubled down on reform and accountability during the No Child Behind Era (NCLB) under George W. Bush, and then, stumbled into the Obama era reforms—value-added methods for teacher evaluation, charter schools, and (yes) Common Core.

That Obama/Common Core era is a perfect example of educational dysfunction in SC.

SC rushed to adopt Common Core and the related testing (fadism), purchased teaching and learning materials labeled as Common Core aligned (boondoggle), and then while teachers were being trained and the entire educational system was transitioning to the new standards, SC dropped Common Core (because conservatives falsely labeled the movement as Obama’s although the standards came form the National Governor’s Association and were strongly bipartisan).

This wasteful nonsense was almost entirely partisan politics and had little to do with teaching and learning.

So as we watch 2022 slip into 2023, SC remains trapped in the crisis > fadism > boondoggle cycle that has been demonstrated to fail education since the early 1980s.

The accountability movement phase 1 (mostly a state-level movement) after A Nation at Risk was declared a failure and lead to the accountability movement phase 2 that pivoted on NCLB (and included federal policy mandating “scientifically based” teaching and materials).

About another 20 years after phase 2, we are once again screaming crisis, including a(nother) reading crisis and the really ugly anti-CRT/book banning movements (see how all of these are related historically).

SC has been quick to pass copy-cat reading legislation (see HERE and HERE) for about a decade, and the current budget includes millions and millions of dollars for “science of reading” policy, training, and materials (sound familiar to those who watched the Common Core disaster?).

As one specific example, SC like many other states is simultaneously (again) calling for limiting everything in education to “scientific” while investing huge amounts of tax dollars to non-scientific boondoggles (see here about LETRS).

Education is an incredibly profitable market in the U.S., and the only people who have benefitted from 40 years of constant crisis > reform are those who repeatedly rebrand educational materials to match the fad-du-jour.

The current reading crisis and curriculum crisis in SC and across the U.S. are marketing and political scams—all faddism and boondoggles.

SC does not have a reading crisis, and does not have a CRT crisis.

The real educational problems in SC (and throughout the U.S.) are once again being ignored—poverty, racism, and inequity in both the lives of children and citizens as well as in our schools.

Affluent children continue to have the best access to learning while marginalized and vulnerable children are neglected, ignored, or pushed into the most limited and limiting educational contexts (such as test-prep).

SC is not experiencing a new or unique educational crisis, but we are suffering from a historical and current reality that is reflected in our educational system—a lack of political will.

Crisis, fadism, and boondoggles are the playground of political leaders and education marketers who reap the rewards of misinformation, misdirection, and finding ourselves in a hole while continuing to dig.

Blog Review: 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Access these posts as follows:

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

I also want to highlight two of my scholarly projects:

Why do I blog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was their problem with reading speed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

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

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

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

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Wars and Censorship Have a Long and Shared History

This is the story of a religiously and politically conservative couple who committed to changing how children are taught in the U.S. (see HERE or HERE):

The Gablers’ views are straight-forward and comprehensive. They believe that the purpose of education is “the imparting of factual knowledge, basic skills and cultural heritage” and that education is best accomplished in schools that emphasize a traditional curriculum of reading, math, and grammar, as well as patriotism, high moral standards, dress codes, and strict discipline, with respect and courtesy demanded from all students. They feel the kind of education they value has all but disappeared, and they lay the blame at the feet of that all-purpose New Right whipping boy, secular humanism, which they believe has infiltrated the school at every level but can be recognized most easily in textbooks.

Though they have gained most of their notoriety for protests that reflected ultra-conservative political and religious views, the Gablers have consistently — and rightly, in my view — stressed basic academic skills, with particular attention to the use of intensive phonics to teach reading. Their handbook on phonics is a helpful collection of articles and references that thoroughly documents the superiority of the phonetic over the “look-say” method of reading instruction, a method whose wide use in American schools seems to me not only to negate the chief advantage of an alphabet over pictographs but also to deserve much of the blame for the depressingly high rate of functional illiteracy in this country.

But the Gablers also feel that even those students who learn to read through intensive phonics, memorize their “times tables,” diagram sentences perfectly, and win spelling bees and math contests must still cope with an educational system that is geared to undermining their morals, their individuality, their pride in America, and their faith in God and the free enterprise system. Much of this corrosive work is accomplished through textbooks in history, social sciences, health, and homemaking.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

Three things are important to note here.

First, this is from 1982 and concerns the Gablers’ activism reaching back two decades before this news article:

Norma and Mel Gabler entered the field of textbook reform twenty years ago, after their son Jim came home from school disturbed at discrepancies between the 1954 American history text his eleventh-grade class was using and what his parents had taught him. The Gablers compared his text to history books printed in 1885 and 1921 and discovered differences. “Where can you go to get the truth?” Jim asked.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

Second, the religious and conservative crusade of the Gablers represents that reading wars emphasizing the lack of phonics and the need for systematic phonics as well as conservative censorship of what students can read and learn are historical patterns found over many decades in the U.S.

The “science of reading” movement and the anti-CRT/book banning movements of the 2020s are nothing new in 20th- or 21st-century America.

And third, most controversially, phonics-centric reading wars and censorship have deep overlaps as conservative movements—as I have noted about the current literacy movements.

Compare this graphic from the 1982 article to the reading war and censorship today:

The rhetoric used by the Gablers sounds disturbingly familiar. They justified their censorship by calling for textbooks that are “‘fair, objective and patriotic'” (although these terms are contradictory). And they were unapologetically “protective of Christianity.”

The Gablers also fought for traditional (unequal) gender roles, again based on their Christian beliefs: “When texts note that the desire of women to earn pay equal to that of men, the Gablers complain that such equality could come only if women ‘abandon their highest profession— as mothers molding young lives.'”

Eerily similar to the attitudes of journalists and parents in the “science of reading” movement, the Gablers were expert at erasing actual expertise:

Norma says she has read so many textbooks that “I figure I know enough to be a Ph.D.” It is clear, however, that they have little appreciation or understanding of the life of the mind as it is encouraged and practiced in many institutions of learning. They tend to cite the Reader’s Digest as if it were the New England Journal of Medicine and to regard a single conversation with a police chief or a former drug user as an incontrovertible refutation of some point they oppose.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

The Gablers were also early versions of conservatives who frame being privileged as an oppressed group: “‘When we try to get changes made,’ Norma said, ‘it’s called censorship. When minorities and feminists do the same thing, nobody complains.'”

As we reach the end of 2022, if we care about universal public education and academic freedom as essential for a free people, we need to recognize that the essentially conservative and ideological elements of the “science of reading” and anti-CRT/censorship movements are antithetical to those foundational principles.

Reading wars and culture wars fought over education are often driven by misinformation, melodramatic narratives, and the erasure of expertise and historical context; and ultimately, these movements are destined to do far more harm than good, regardless of anyone’s sincerity or intentions.