The ‘science of reading’
Notes on phonics instruction and humility on the education beat
In May 2019 I attended the Education Writers Association conference in Baltimore and found myself seated at a banquet table with a public radio reporter who wanted to talk about literacy.
I was there on a scholarship to learn from veteran journalists, so I listened as the reporter, Emily Hanford, launched into a summary of her work. The reason why so many kids weren’t reading on grade level, she asserted, was that colleges of education, school districts, and individual teachers were stubbornly ignoring the science of reading, which indicated that kids needed explicit phonics instruction first and foremost.
This was my introduction to the “science of reading” movement, a media-driven push for more “scientific” approaches to reading instruction in schools — by which the proponents generally mean more phonics instruction. The problem is that the science is not as clear-cut as they say it is.
Here are a few headlines from the last 3 years, to give you an idea of where this is going:
“At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers” (American Public Media)
“States Should Recommend Better ‘Science of Reading’ Content, Report Says” (Education Week)
“Why Akron's K-1 teachers are spending 60 hours learning about the science of reading” (Akron Beacon Journal)
“In Kentucky's struggle against illiteracy, Oldham County moms fight for Science of Reading” (Louisville Courier-Journal)
In response to this wave of activism, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado published a paper in September this year titled “The Science of Reading Movement: The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction.” The paper makes specific critiques of Hanford’s reporting, the wave of similar reports it inspired, and the small but vocal cadre of researchers who back her up. It seeks to unsettle public perception of what Hanford assured us was settled science.
Here’s a representative passage from the executive summary by Dr. Paul Thomas:
Educators and scholars have used the term “science of reading” as shorthand for the broad and nuanced body of research on how children learn to read and how best to teach reading. Since 2018, however, the phrase has been used in the media-based movement emphasizing phonics and in marketing phonics-oriented reading and literacy programs and services. Such media attention and associated advocacy have been extremely effective in lobbying for phonics-oriented legislation across most states in the U.S, with commercial vendors also contributing momentum.
The science-of-reading crowd is partly rehashing the “reading wars,” a pseudo-academic debate that engulfed the education press in the 1980s. At least in the public imagination, the debate at that time was between advocates of “whole language” and advocates of “phonics.” The whole-language camp emphasized a holistic approach to reading and comprehension, while the phonics camp pushed for students to learn the mechanics of language first.
But that was a false dichotomy, even in the ‘80s. The “whole language” crowd never said we should discard phonics instruction entirely; rather, they contended that students could learn phonics in part by reading texts. “Phonics” was never really a school of thought unto itself, but it was (and still is) a tool in teachers’ toolbelt. The balanced literacy approach taught in colleges of education nowadays acknowledges the need for a multiplicity of approaches including phonics, tailored to an individual student’s needs.
I was in no position to judge harshly. I had made the same mistake as Hanford just a few months earlier, in February 2019, in a middling article I had written for the Charleston Post and Courier about the proliferation of approaches to reading instruction in South Carolina public schools. The subject was fresh in my mind because several teachers and professors had reached out after the article was published and gently explained why I was either oversimplifying the research or, in some cases, flat-out wrong.
One of the people who reached out was Dr. Paul Thomas, a Furman University education professor who was one of my closest readers and sharpest critics at the time. He was right, and he’d sent me a stack of research papers to prove it (this turned out to be a small sample of the massive bibliography he would later assemble for the NEPC paper against the science-of-reading movement). I’d been reading the papers at night when I couldn’t sleep, and the more studies and meta-analyses I read, the less convinced I was that “phonics first” was a sound teaching practice.
At the EWA conference, after a friendly back-and-forth across the banquet table, Hanford assured me she’d been researching the subject in depth and I told her I looked forward to hearing her work. I was hardly an expert, and I figured that maybe she had read some definitive evidence that I hadn’t.
But when I got back to my hotel room and looked up her work, I found that Hanford had committed some of the same errors as I had, cherrypicking research papers and making policy prescriptions based on a 40-year-old pop-academic framework. Education journalism, like science journalism, has a bias for oversimplification.
One of Hanford’s best-known pieces for American Public Media is a September 2018 article and radio segment called “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” It’s a well-told story focusing on the public school system in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and it’s proven to be widely influential in education news media and public policymaking. It’s an odd piece of reporting.
The segment leans heavily on anecdotal evidence, findings from a 2000 National Reading Panel that got us the ill-fated No Child Left Behind policy era, and commercial curricula like LETRS that are not backed up by peer-reviewed research. It makes some bold philosophical claims and mocks people with doctorate degrees in education for disagreeing. Here’s a passage to give you a flavor:
In a session of LETRS training for faculty in Jackson, Mississippi, in March 2018, the trainer, Antonio Fierro, passed out a quiz. The first question was: "True or false? Speaking is natural, reading and writing are not." The answer is "true," but the question was being asked because it's not a given that the 37 people in this training, a mix of mostly tenured faculty and adjuncts, would know that.
But is the answer “true”? What is meant by “natural” here? Hanford never says.
The “science of reading” movement is already having effects in the classroom, as detailed in the NEPC report. Some states and school districts have enacted policies requiring teachers to use specific instructional practices such as systematic phonics, while other practices have been banned, such as the “three-cueing” approach from whole language. High-stakes testing in grade 3, coupled with third-grade retention policies, are boosting test scores in the short term while likely damaging students’ academic careers in the long run.
I would add that “science of reading” discourse is a convenient way to elide the labor realities of education. One of the policy proposals from Dr. Thomas’ paper is: “Provide students struggling to read and other at-risk students with certified, experienced teachers and low student-teacher ratios to support individualized and differentiated instruction” (emphasis mine).
As you’ve probably heard, certified, experienced teachers are quitting the profession in droves, citing low pay, untenable workloads, and a lack of autonomy among their reasons. Creating low student-teacher ratios would require the teacher workforce to grow faster than the student population. In a state like mine, where the legislature hasn’t even enforced classroom size caps since the self-imposed budget freefall of 2010, that seems like a fantasy.
Education reporters, like most journalists, are interlopers. During my time in the profession, I tried to exercise a little humility in the presence of teachers and researchers who had made education their life’s work. Fundamentally, it’s a labor beat.
Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. I have a hard time imagining how more micromanagement to enforce “science of reading” policies will improve conditions for anyone.
Editing note: After publishing, I had a little heartburn about the headline and changed it to remove the phrase “and other nonsense.” There is a science to reading, and the work of our best teachers and literacy interventionists is informed by it. But I think the way the phrase “science of reading” gets thrown around in the press can be reductive and misleading. I might have been a little reductive myself there, and I apologize.
I'd also like to add that I’m still trying to understand literacy research and policy, which have certainly shifted in the 3 years since I lost my news reporting job. One of our kids' teachers recently went through certification for the Orton-Gillingham Approach, a multisensory method of small-group pull-out reading instruction that has a strong track record especially (but not exclusively) for kids with dyslexia. I've seen O-G methods in practice and I'm a big believer in including them as a tool for teaching literacy. What makes me wary is when policymakers try to mandate one approach to the exclusion of other valid approaches.
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