Category Archives: Science of Reading

The Lazy Phonics Debate: On Coyotes and Whose Pronunciation Matters

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

Born in 1961, I entered public school as a first grader in 1967. This was during an era before kindergarten was common for all, and I also had the great fortune or being raised by a working-class stay-at-home mother who doted on my sister and me.

I can’t recall not being able to read, but I do know that my mother taught my sister and me to read well before entering formal schooling. She taped index cards on objects around the house with words identifying those objects, and we read all the time. Lots of Dr. Seuss and such.

My education included the Dick and Jane approach of whole-word instruction; however, I don’t really recall much about learning to read once I entered school except maybe boredom (concerning the lessons, I mean, because I adored my first-grade teacher, Ms. Lanford).

I also can’t really ever think of “sound it out” as a strategy for me when I encountered words I didn’t know. Asking other people is my go-to strategy even today, as I wander into my 60s.

None the less, I do value the role of phonics—the relationship among letters, letter clusters, words, and meaning in a systematic way—although I also recognize the limitations of phonics and rules in the grand scheme of reading for meaning.

The lazy phonics debate tends to work at the extremes—a nonsensical argument that all students need systematic phonics instruction before they can comprehend (phonics-first) couched in the false argument that some literacy scholars and teachers embrace zero phonics instruction (a mischaracterization of whole language and balanced literacy).

The reasonable and practical middle—basic phonics (see here and here)—is often ignored as a result of this laziness.

Systematic intensive phonics for all students is as harmful (and misleading) as providing beginning readers with no phonics strategies for their developing journey to comprehension and critical reading.

One aspect of the phonics-first argument that is rarely confronted is that systematic instruction in phonics rules must establish standard pronunciation, necessarily then alienating young children who are raised in so-called non-standard dialects (such as myself, a Southerner).

We in the South play havoc with “pen,” “pin,” and “pan.”

That lack of interrogating standard pronunciation sits inside the already complicated relationship we encounter in the English language. Consider these words:

some

home

comb

bomb

tomb

womb

woman

women

The pronunciation of “o” is all over the place, and of course, there are so-called rules for why, but that calls into question how valuable phonics rules are versus developing word recognition (and phonics awareness) by reading and thinking about words and meaning versus through drills and rules-based isolated instruction.

Instead of teaching students a rules-based approach to decoding, we should be inviting students into the complexity of letter/sound/word relationships. Basic phonics is a gateway to understanding and comprehension.

How words are pronounced, however, is much more than phonics rules. Pronunciation often is influenced by regional dialects, word etymology, and context of usage.

A fascinating way to explore that is the word “coyote.” Mignon Fogarty explains:

People pronounce “coyote” at least five different ways. It differs by region, age, and even social factors. Some people even pronounce it different ways when they mean different things by it.

How to Pronounce ‘Coyote’

While we are perpetually arguing about why students are not reading as well (or as quickly) as we’d like as a society, we persist in failing those students by having lazy arguments and settling for oversimplified charges of failure followed by simplistic solutions.

Again, we are mired in the lazy phonics debate:

“This is a huge wake-up call for America. We answered it in Virginia last year,” [Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R – VA)] said. “We passed the Virginia Literacy Act to bring the science of reading, otherwise known as phonics [emphasis added], back into our school system for K-3. We invested a record amount in education. We, in fact, have been working with higher education and K-12 to raise standards and expectations.”

WATCH:  Youngkin says education will drive midterm elections amid poor student performance

Well, no, student reading isn’t floundering due to a lack of phonics, and no, the solution is not phonics.

Like the pronunciation of “coyote,” it is far more complicated than that.


Recommended

Coyóte, Chloe Garcia Roberts

No Silver Bullet for Dyslexia (Including Orton-Gillingham)

One element of the “science of reading” movement that has received a great deal of media coverage and policy updates across the U.S. is the perennial concern for dyslexia.

While dyslexia debates have often been included in reading crises and reading wars over the past century (see the overview in this policy brief), the current advocacy around dyslexia often exaggerates the impact of dyslexia and oversimplifies how students identified with dyslexia can best be served in classrooms.

As Jill Barshay reports,

In 2019, a grassroots campaign led by parents succeeded in passing a wave of dyslexia legislation. Many states mandated hallmarks of the Orton-Gillingham method, specifically calling for “multisensory” instruction, to help students with dyslexia read and write better.*  In New York, where I live, the city spends upwards of $300 million a year in taxpayer funds on private school tuition for children with disabilities. Much of it goes to pay for private schools that specialize in Orton-Gillingham instruction and similar approaches, which families insist are necessary to teach their children with dyslexia to read.

PROOF POINTS: Leading dyslexia treatment isn’t a magic bullet, studies find, while other options show promise

While O-G is extremely popular with parents and is now a dominant approach in practice and policy, “[t]he researchers in both the 2021 and 2022 studies all cautioned that the jury is still out on Orton-Gillingham,” Barshay explains because research (the “science”) simply does not show multi-sensory approaches such as O-G are more effective, including:

The larger 2022 analysis of 53 reading interventions had a higher bar for study quality and only one Orton-Gillingham study made the cut. Several of the reading interventions that marketed themselves as “multisensory” also made the cut, but the researchers didn’t detect any extra benefits from them. 

“They weren’t more effective than the ones that didn’t market themselves as multisensory,” said Hall. 

PROOF POINTS: Leading dyslexia treatment isn’t a magic bullet, studies find, while other options show promise

As with all reading science and research on how students learn to read and how best to teach reading, the science on dyslexia is not simple and certainly is not settled.


Recommended on Dyslexia

Allington, R.L. (2019, Fall). The hidden push for phonics legislation. Tennessee Literacy Journal, 1(1), 7-20.

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

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

[UPDATE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

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

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

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


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

SOR October Update: Phonics Fail in UK, Documentary Fail in US

Phonics Fail in UK

Since 2006, England has been implementing mandatory systematic phonics for all students—a policy approach very similar to the “science of reading” (SOR) movement in the U.S.

Recent research on that policy called for balance and found the focus on intensive phonics has not produced promised results.

Now, a study released in October 2022—Testing the impact of a systematic and rigorous phonics programme on early readers and also those that have fallen behind at the end of Key Stage 2—offers two important conclusions that are highly relevant to being skeptical about the SOR movement and related reading policy in the U.S.:

  • Reading programs are not one-size-fits-all solutions to challenges related to reading achievement.
  • Intensive phonics instruction for beginning readers can raise phonics assessment scores in the short run, but greater care should be taken to not call phonics tests “reading improvement” and (once again) those early increases disappear as young readers develop (see the reading science on phonics in the policy brief linked below).

Here is the key chart:

Documentary Fail in US

A documentary on the “science of reading” movement is imminent, The Truth about Reading.

I was deeply skeptical when I first heard about the documentary (see Nancy Bailey’s concerns HERE).

However, I agreed in good faith to be interviewed this past summer, but now that I have seen the promotional trailer, I feel as if my initial skepticism was warranted.

The trailer is melodramatic (think Corridor of Shame, a documentary with good intentions but deeply problematic delivery), and continues to forefront journalists while misrepresenting teacher practice and reading science.

In short, beware.

Recommended

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

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

Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

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

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

Structured Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

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

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

August 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]

[See Press Release for more information]

‘Bottom line, it’s a policy that doesn’t work,’ OEA wants lawmakers to drop reading test requirement (yahoo.com) – WHIO via Yahoo

Teachers call for end to mandatory retention policy | News, Sports, Jobs – Tribune Chronicle (tribtoday.com)

Calls Intensify to End Ohios High Stakes 3rd Grade Reading Standard – Public News Service

Educators asking state to rescind holding 3rd graders back | WKBN.com

Ohio’s third grade reading retention law faces opposition from broad coalition | The Statehouse News Bureau (statenews.org) – Statehouse News Bureau

Calls getting louder for end to retention due to 3rd grade reading struggles – Sunny 95

Debate Heats Up Over Effectiveness of Reading Guarantee Retention – Gongwer

OEA calls for end of mandatory retention under Third Grade Reading Guarantee – The Highland County Press

Ohio house bill would eliminate third-grade reading test mandate  Springfield News-Sun


State Reading Policy: An Overview

In the 2000s, the National Reading Panel (NPR) report and the reports from its subgroups[1] were adopted into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, mandating scientifically based instruction[2] and establishing a framework for how reading should be taught in the U.S.—what is often identified as the Five Pillars of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.[3]

However, only two decades later, the U.S. is facing another reading “crisis” along with an increase in state-level reading legislation and policy being revised or introduced.[4] The current movement is often the result of advocacy by parents concerned about dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia[5]) and media coverage of the “science of reading.”[6] That advocacy and media messaging have been incredibly effective in terms of driving legislation and policy; however, many literacy scholars and researchers have noted the media-based movement exaggerates and oversimplifies claims about reading, science, and research; depends on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and creates a hostile social media climate around reading debates.[7]

A summer 2022 analysis by Education Week shows that at least 30 states have passed revised or new reading legislation in the past decade and 2/3rd of those states includes grade retention policies.[8] Over that decade, state-level reading policies and practices include the following:

  • Legislation focusing on reading proficiency by 3rd grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing.[9]
  • Commercial reading programs being banned at the state level and re-evaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices targeting dyslexia, including universal screening and mandates for systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham[10]).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics in teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.[11]

Two aspects of this reading “crisis” and subsequent legislation and policy are important for all policy makers in states across the U.S.: (1) Continuing to follow the same in-school only policy approaches to education and reading[12] are destined to fail again,[13] and (2) several elements of the “science of reading” movement are contradictory and even harmful for students.[14]

Below, this examination focuses on grade retention as reading policy, highlighting the complicated impact of grade retention on reading achievement (specifically standardized test scores) as well as the disproportionate negative impact of retention on vulnerable populations of students (racial minorities, multilingual learners, students identified as at-risk, high poverty, below reading proficiency, etc.)

Grade Retention as Reading Policy

As noted earlier, grade retention as reading policy is relatively common and expanding across the U.S.:

The “science of reading” movement has increased state policies mandating grade retention based on high stakes testing, copycat versions of the post-NCLB “Florida model,” despite evidence suggesting that retention remains harmful.[15] Media have presented increased standardized test scores in Mississippi (see an examination of Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores below) as proof of the effectiveness of reading science reforms,[16] although it is likely, as Todd Collins for Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains, that Mississippi’s high retention rate[17] and not classroom instruction reform is the primary source of the score increases. Evidence since the mid-2000s confirms grade retention can increase test scores short-term, but the long-term impact is negative, since grade retention remains associated with students dropping out of high school.[18]

Because of short-term reading score increases, grade retention policy remains politically compelling for policy makers because high-profile research is covered in the media and used by advocates to impact policy change based on standardized reading scores.[19] Yet, policy makers must be cautious because research has not yet clarified if those increases are caused by retention or other policies impacting retained students: “This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services”; reviews of short-term gains continue to show that they fade over time and that negative consequences of grade retention (like eventually dropping out of school) remain.[20]

Ultimately, grade retention increasing 3rd and 4th grade standardized test scores is likely a statistical mirage (notably since evidence shows those gain disappear by middle school). That mirage is likely the result of how grade retention changes the population of students being tested by

(1) removing students likely to score low from the testing pool (students retained in 3rd grade would not be in their peer testing pool in 4th grade) and

(2) creating a population of students to be tested when at least one year biologically older than the pool being testing (once those retained in 3rd grade are promoted to 4th grade).

Since grade retention as reading policy is unlikely to produce valid increases in reading proficiency among students and since grade retention remains strongly associated with negative outcomes for students (dropping out of high school, for example), policy makers are strongly encouraged to eliminate grade retention mandates based on standardized test scores in grade 3 as identified by a Resolution from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.[21]

What about Mississippi?

While a high-profile article in the New York Times suggested a Mississippi reading “miracle” based on 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores,[22] that conclusion was greatly misleading and incomplete. However, a closer and more nuanced look at Mississippi provides a valuable understanding for current policy makers concerned about reading legislation and policy.

First, as noted above by Collins, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores are significantly impacted by grade retention, and policy makers must acknowledge that grade retention disproportionately impacts vulnerable student populations (see NCTE Resolution), for example:

[SOURCE: Civil Rights Data Collection, USDOE]

Table 1 shows that, specifically for example, Black students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention. Numbers of students retained and that disproportion are strong indicators of the harm and punitive impact of grade retention.

Further, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for grade 4 were outliers compared to the rest of the U.S, that outlier status suggests that Mississippi may not be a valid source of scaling up reform for other states. Nonetheless, Mississippi’s longitudinal data, since 1998,[23] suggests improved test data over time and well before many of the recent policies:

Although Mississippi’s policies, standards, and assessments have varied since 1998, the state has shown gradual but persistent improvement in grade 4 reading scores on NAEP. The 2019 large increase used by the “science of reading” movement to claim “miracle,” however, is not unique; see the significant increase from 2002 to 2009, occurring well before any use of the term “science of reading.”

Important to understand is that improvement in education is likely complicated to cause and difficult to link to any single practice; therefore, policy makers must be diligent about “first, do no harm” by avoiding policies that may have politically expedient outcomes at the expense of the best interest of students and teachers. The relative increase and success by Mississippi in 2019 when compared to the rest of the U.S. is strongly tempered by a fuller analysis also:

[Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here]

Many policy makers have been seeking ways to close these gaps for decades, and Mississippi shows us that even when there is gradual and persistent improvement, problems of inequity remain.[24] Therefore, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP data are not a “miracle,” but they are an important red flag about the insufficiency of school-only policy and of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.[25]

Grade retention distorts test data, disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students, and creates a distraction from reading reform’s ultimate goal of increased student reading proficiency.

Third-Grade Proficiency and the “Word Gap”

Along with grade retention, policy makers must reconsider two other aspects of reading that often influences policy and practice—third grade reading proficiency and the “word gap.”

Policy makers and educators tend to focus on third grade reading proficiency because it (like grade retention) is correlated with negative outcomes for students, such as dropping out and prison.[26] However, while these concerns are valid, grade-level reading must be recognized as a measurement primarily created and used by the textbook industry; identifying “third grade reading level” is not as accurate or useful as many people think. More importantly, research suggests a correlation between third grade proficiency and negative outcomes, which does not warrant creating high-stakes policy around a single grade or a single measurement.[27]

Based on a popularize and often cited study by Hart and Risley from 1995,[28] it has become “common knowledge” to associate literacy with social class, specifically that high-poverty students have low literacy (fewer words) and that middle-class and affluent students have high literacy (more words). A number of scholars, however, have discredited the study as well as called into question associating literacy with simple word counts.[29] Curt Dudley-Marling notes that the Hart and Risley study is marred by poor methodology (should not be used to generalize about all students) and is grounded in class and race stereotypes; in short, the “word gap” is little more than a misguided assumption about students, reading, and literacy.[30]

Alternative Policy: A Recommendation

States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.

While a broad range of new approaches are needed for state policy and classroom practice,[31] immediately states must repeal retention policy linked to high stakes testing in 3rd grade. Grade retention creates a test-score increase that is a mirage, harms students in the long run, and distracts from more effective and supportive reading policy.

Instead of punitive policies such as grade retention, state policy makers should consider the following:

  • Eliminate high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd – 5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input, etc.).
  • Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.

See Also

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


Notes

[1] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[2] Wilde, J. (2004, January). Definitions for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Scientifically-based research. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/rcd/BE021264/Definitions_of_the_NCLB_Act.pdf

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[4] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

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

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[5] See https://www.decodingdyslexia.net/

[6] Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APM Reports. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[7] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/ 

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

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

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. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log]. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://radicalscholarship.com/2019/12/06/mississippi-miracle-or-mirage-2019-naep-reading-scores-prompt-questions-not-answers/

[8] Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[9] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

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

[10] International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

See https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

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

[12] Duran, L., & Hikida, M. (2022, May 2). Making sense of reading’s forever war. Kappan, 103(8), 14 – 19. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://kappanonline.org/readings-forever-wars-duran-hikida/

[13] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

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

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

[14] Thomas, P.L. (2022). How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students:

A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (2nd ed.). Information Age Publishing.

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

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

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

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

[16] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[17] Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

[18] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

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

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

Access grade retention data from the USDOE/Office of Civil Rights here https://ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2017-2018

[19] Perrault, P., & Winters, M.A. (2020, July 28). Test-based promotion and student performance in Florida and Arizona. Manhattan Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.manhattan-institute.org/student-retention-policies-impact-student-success

[20] Robinson-Cimpian, J.P. (2015, December). Review of The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-NBER-retention

[21] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[22] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[23] Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading?grade=4

[24] Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

[25] National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

[26] Hernandez, D.J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school Ggraduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf

[27] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[28] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Brookes.

[29] See an overview of that research here: https://radicalscholarship.com/2015/02/17/the-word-gap-a-reader/

[30] Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1), Article 5. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction (NEPC Policy Brief)

Please access this policy brief on the “science of reading” movement from NEPC:

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

Find Documents:

Publication Announcement: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication- announcement/2022/09/science-of-reading

NEPC Publication: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


The policy brief emphasizes the need to avoid one-size-fits-all reading policy and practice. For context, please see:

We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools. Right now, what matters most is finding ways to address and improve students’ mental health so they can get back on track with learning. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate.

Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators with busywork and preventing authentic improvement.

Why one-size-fits-all metrics for evaluating schools must go

See Also

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

The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction (NCTE)

Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice in the Science of Reading (Reading Recovery Community)

A warning on political strategies to boost reading (WFAE)

The Pendulums Of Education And The Science Of Reading (Forbes)

MY TURN: Different direction needed on state reading policy (Statehouse Report, Charleston, SC)

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

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

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

Beware The Reading League

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

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

American Public Media Group announced in June “that APM Reports has been targeted for an unspecified reorganization.” Those of us in literacy, specifically the field of reading, have been highlighting since 2018 that APM Reports (specifically the work of Emily Hanford) has been misrepresenting both the problems around reading achievement and how to teach reading.

Hanford and APM Reports are ground zero for the deeply flawed “science of reading” (SoR) movement that now pervades mainstream media.

Ironically, the SoR mantra has been very valuable for mainstream media and several journalists, like Hanford, who have beat the same drum for four years, regardless of ample evidence that their messages are oversimplified, misleading, cherry picked, and lacking the very scientific evidence they demand from teachers.

Yet, it appears APM Reports is shifting its SoR propaganda cashcow to podcasts, and the next one, Sold a Story, will launch even more attacks, focusing on reading programs.

Here is the short version: Don’t buy it.

While not only APM Reports (the SoR messaging has been uniformly misleading across mainstream media), a tremendous amount of the misinformation can be attributed to the messaging there and then journalists such as Hanford getting platforms at the New York Times, for example, which is a key representation of the misinformation.

See the jumbled coverage of NAEP scores from 2019, falsely announcing a Mississippi “miracle”: Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 15 February 2022].

The media coverage at APM Reports (and Education Week) has been so deeply flawed, scholars have detailed the problems; I recommend this:

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

The passage addressing media is here:

I also recommend this book:

Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

The passage addressing media is here:

While the podcasts do not drop until October, I predict they will be more of the same misinformation, a good bit of projecting (is profit really a disclaimer in the U.S.?), and another example of a key criticism offered by Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors (2020) in Reading Research Quarterly: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.”

And thus, again, don’t buy it.


Recommended

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

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

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

Media and Parental Advocacy Not Credible Sources for Reading Policy

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

NYT Blasts Calkins with “Science of Reading” propaganda

Posts on the “science of reading”

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

Beware The Reading League

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

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s circle back to the bicycling analogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Beware The Reading League

In 2019, Richard Allington [1] confronted the outsized influence of state chapters of Decoding Dyslexia on state legislation and classroom practices related to not only dyslexia but also teaching beginning readers.

Ultimately, despite the good intentions of this advocacy and despite the need to address any and all students struggling to read (disproportionately among marginalized and vulnerable populations), Decoding Dyslexia advocacy has caused more harm than good, Allington and others assert.

This dynamic should give all of us pause because the same pattern is now occurring with The Reading League, a national advocacy organization promoting the “science of reading” through an expanding number of state-level affiliates.

The Reading League implores people to “join the movement” and has issued a Defining Guide on the “science of reading,” available as a book or a downloadable PDF (if you fill out a form and share a good deal of your information):

The cover page of the ebook (formatted throughout like a PowerPoint presentation) sets the stage for what proves to be more advocacy that “science” despite the emphasis on “defining” and “science.”

This 40-page ebook is a disturbing but perfect illustration of the core problems among “science of reading” advocates. As other literacy scholars have noted, all across the different factions of “science of reading” advocates, the arguments and claims are riddled with contradictions, oversimplifications, cherry-picking, and casual lapses into anecdote [2].

Similar to many other advocacy organizations masquerading as a (We Don’t) Think Tank (for example, NCTQ), The Reading League uses slick PDF creation and the veneer of scholarly citation (as well as an inordinate number of brain images) to mask the many ways this ebook fails to meet the standard they themselves set for the teaching of reading.

All must beware of The Reading League and its growing influence because this “movement” fails in the exact ways confronted by Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors (2020) in Reading Research Quarterly: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques” (S259). [3]

Here I will detail a few of the essential failures of The Reading League’s “movement” in their “Defining Guide.”

The organization advocates for a “common” definition of the “science of reading” and offers one on page 6 with a note to see further justifications for the limited (and limiting) parameters of that definition on page 11. In short, The Reading League is recycling the “scientifically-based” mantra of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and limiting the “science of reading” to experimental/quasi-experimental research.

While this is a popular and politically enticing approach, that limitation has been refuted for a couple decades now. Let me share just a couple reasons (see endnotes for sources) for why excluding evidence outside that parameter is wrong for education and wrong for guiding reading instruction:

  • Problems with the reports issued by the NRP and the difficulty of implementing that evidence have been widely documented by a number of literacy scholars. [4] Repeating the errors of the NRP is bad policy, bad advocacy, and bad thinking.
  • Educational practice requires a wide range of evidence, not a limited view of what counts as science. Many scholars has addressed the tyranny of using “science” as a weapon, a distortion of both the essence of “science” and the on-going nature of inquiry (hint: the science of any field, including reading science, is not settled). [5]

Another element of the limited and limiting parameters for what counts as reading “science” is an over-reliance on brain research. The defining guide implies a diversity of disciplinary sources for defining reading “science,” but their little list suggests otherwise:

The limited parameters are grounded in psychology, and brain research.

If you dont get the focus on “brain research,” the guide is there to make it clear:

Oddly, this image has no text, no citation, leaving me to wonder what the hell this is for (except this is how my brain feels when I have to engage with “science of reading” nonsense).

Here is an extremely important point: Scholars have challenged the conclusions being drawn from brain research:

Within the neurosciences, however, serious critiques of brain-imaging methods have emerged. Many researchers in neurobiology (e.g., Elliott et al., 2020; Hickok, 2014; Lyon, 2017) have voiced alarming concerns about the validity and preciseness of brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect reliable biomarkers in processes such as reading and in the diagnosis of other mental activity….

However, Elliott et al.’s (2020) statement “that commonly used task-fMRI measures lack the minimal reliability standards” (p. 801) for identifying abnormal brain activity should raise serious caveats in interpreting any imaging study as applicable to classroom applications. [6]

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

And Mark Seidenberg, a key neuroscientist cited by the “science of reading” movement, offers a serious caution about the value of brain research: “Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how, and for whom at a level that is useful for teachers [emphasis added].” [7]

Finally, the ultimate failure of the guide and the “science of reading” movement promoted by The Reading League is the reliance of the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and peppering the guide itself with surprisingly old sources (scroll through for cutting edge scholarship from the 1980s, for example).

About SVR, well, there are a number of problems addressed by leading scholars in the field of literacy. [8]

Notably, Duke and Cartwright explains that the filed of literacy has moved beyond SVR:

The simple view of reading is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance—in fact, the necessity—of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading. In this article, we synthesize research documenting three of these advances: (1) Reading difficulties have a number of causes, not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view; (2) rather than influencing reading solely independently, as conceived in the simple view, decoding and listening comprehension (or in terms more commonly used in reference to the simple view today, word recognition and language comprehension) overlap in important ways; and (3) there are many contributors to reading not named in the simple view, such as active, self-regulatory processes, that play a substantial role in reading. We point to research showing that instruction aligned with these advances can improve students’ reading. We present a theory, which we call the active view of reading, that is an expansion of the simple view and can be used to convey these important advances to current and future educators. We discuss the need to lift up updated theories and models to guide practitioners’ work in supporting students’ reading development in classrooms and interventions.

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

And, possibly more significantly, Filderman, et al., conclude:

Theoretical models, such as the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), the direct and inferential mediation (DIME) model (Cromley et al., 2010; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and the cognitive model (McKenna & Stahl, 2009) inform the constructs and skills that contribute to reading comprehension. The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) describes reading comprehension as the product of decoding and language comprehension. The simple view of reading is often used to underscore the critical importance of decoding on reading comprehension; however, evidence suggests that the relative importance of decoding and language comprehension changes based on students’ level of reading development and text complexity (Lonigan et al., 2018). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies demonstrate that decoding has the largest influence on reading comprehension for novice readers, whereas language comprehension becomes increasingly important as students’ decoding skills develop and text becomes more complex (e.g., Catts et al., 2005; Gough et al., 1996; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Proctor et al., 2005; Tilstra et al., 2009). However, the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires. [emphasis added]

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

The Reading League “movement” is not a comprehensive view of reading and how to teach reading; it certainly isn’t settled (or even compelling) science.

Beware The Reading League because it is an advocacy movement that is too often little more than cherry-picking, oversimplification, and a thin veneer for commercial interests in the teaching of reading.


[1] Allington, R.L. (2019, Fall). The hidden push for phonics legislation. Tennessee Literacy Journal, 1(1), 7–20.

See also:

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

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

[2] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/  

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

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

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. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log].

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

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

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

Garan, E. M. (2001, March). Beyond smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 500–506. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170108200705

Stephens, D. (2008). The federal government wants me to teach what? A teacher’s guide to the National Reading Panel report. National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/resources/newsletter/magazine/nrp_report.pdf

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

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report: Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489535.pdf Shanahan, T. (2003, April). Research-based reading instruction: Myths about the National Reading Panel report. The Reading Teacher, 56(7), 646–655.

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

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

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

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

Wormeli, R. (n.d.). The problem with, “show me the research thinking.” AMLE. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.amle.org/the-problem-with-show-me-the-research-thinking/

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[6] 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[7] Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S121. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

See also:

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

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

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

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