Within 10 days in May 2022, two articles about reading ran prominently in the New York Times (one on a new dyslexia program in NYC and one on Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study). Both mentioned the “science of reading” movement that since 2018 has been politically effective but also intensely polarizing. 

In 2020, Kindel Turner Nash and Leah Panther documented why they became “concerned by the direction that the debate about what methods teachers should use to help kids learn to read has taken.”

Despite concerns raised by scholars, a result of this selective characterization of the research base has been extremely effective in lobbying for revised and new phonics-first, one-size-fits-all reading legislation across 30-plus states in the U.S. 

While “science of reading” advocates claim reading science is both simple and settled, the full body of evidence around reading science proves to be complex and challenging to translate into policy and practice.

Who is the “Science of Reading”?

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.

An article titled “Hard Words” by Emily Hanford is ground zero of the current science of reading movement. Based on the example of a Pennsylvania school that implemented reading science and raised test scores, the article offered an extended analysis and criticism of reading instruction across the U.S. The analysis established several points of debate about the teaching of reading. 

Reading science, Hanford claimed, is limited to the simple view of reading and is characterized as settled science. Other claims in her coverage are that “science” is restricted to the field of cognitive psychology and experimental/quasi-experimental research. The sources of low student reading achievement are that teachers do not know or fail to implement reading science and that teacher educators either do not understand or “dismiss” reading science. The movement’s advocacy also blames low reading achievement on popular commercial reading programs, notably those by Lucy Calkins (Units of Study) and Fountas and Pinnell.

Advocates in this science of reading movement include journalists (including Hanford, Dana Goldstein and Natalie Wexler), cognitive scientists (including Mark Seidenberg and Daniel Willingham), and literacy scholars (including Louisa Moates). However, many literacy scholars and researchers have challenged the media-based movement for exaggerating and oversimplifying claims about reading, science, and research; for depending on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and for fostering a hostile social media climate around reading debates.

Why does it matter?

Throughout the late 2010s, the science of reading movement as presented in the media directly and indirectly influenced state-level reading policies and practices including grade retention based on 3rd-grade high-stakes tests, banning popular reading programs, new and expanded dyslexia legislation, mandated systematic phonics for all students, and new phonics-intensive training for pre-service and current teachers.

With the increased “science of reading”-inspired state policy, news concerns include:

  • Overstatements and oversimplifications within media and public advocacy.
  • Ignoring known influences on student reading achievement, such as socioeconomics of communities, schools, and homes; teacher expertise and autonomy; and teaching and learning conditions.
  • Replacing individualized practice with “one-size-fits-all” approaches.

In rethinking past efforts and undertaking new reforms, policymakers should do the following:

  •  End narrowly prescriptive non-research-based policies and programs such as:
  • Grade retention based on reading performance.
  • High-stakes reading testing at Grade 3.
  • Mandates and bans that require or prohibit specific instructional practices, such as systematic phonics and the three-cueing approach. 
  • A “one-size-fits-all” approach to dyslexia and struggling readers. 
  • Form state reading panels, consisting of classroom teachers, researchers, and other literacy experts. Panels would support teachers by serving in an advisory role for teacher education, teacher professional development, and classroom practice. They would develop and maintain resources in best practice and up-to-date reading and literacy research.

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

  • Develop teacher-informed reading programs based on the population of students served and the expertise of faculty serving those students, avoiding lockstep implementation of commercial reading programs and ensuring that instructional materials support—rather than dictate—teacher practice.
  • Provide students struggling to read and other at-risk students with certified, experienced teachers and low student-teacher ratios to support individualized and differentiated instruction.

Thomas is a professor of education at Furman University. Read his 36-page study here. Have a comment? Send to:

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