Science of Reading Report
A person without literacy is like a house with no windows or doors—shut off from the full scope of human experience. Literacy, being “a matter of dignity and human rights” (“International Literacy Day”, 2021, par. 1), should be taught to every child. What nation, community, policymaker, educator, or parent would disagree? The value of literacy is not denied, yet the keys to learning to read are held by schools who are expected to unlock that ability in every child. After all, teachers know how to teach reading, do they not?
Teachers are trusted with providing the right methods and instructional strategies to create readers, yet in truth, many children move through the school system as struggling readers. The reason, according to a host of educational researchers, is because teachers are using the wrong methods, and which method is the right one has been hotly debated for decades. In today’s educational climate, two methods have drawn lines in the sand, pitting researcher against researcher and leaving everyone from teachers all the way up through the educational ranks to the people at departments of education wringing their hands and wondering what to do. It seems that either you belong with those on the side of whole language, or you belong with the science of reading proponents.
To understand the debate, and to locate a middle ground if possible, this paper will highlight discussions of the science of reading method from those who support it and those who do not while exploring balanced literacy, impacts on instruction and students, and what is aptly called the reading wars. Additionally, it will review the implementation of the science of reading in the state of Tennessee where it is declared that the science of reading should be the state’s only approach to literacy instruction (“Urgency for Literacy Report”, 2020).
The Science of Reading Explainer
The broadest definition of the science of reading is that it is “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing” (“Science of Reading: A Defining Guide”, 2021, par. 5). More specifically, the science of reading stems from research about how the brain learns to read, which demonstrates that reading comprehension, the purpose of reading, is the product of decoding, also known as word recognition skills, and language comprehension, also called listening comprehension. This is referred to as the Simple View of Reading (SVR), also known as the systematic teaching of phonics. It says that a child who is weak in listening comprehension, for example, cannot lean on word recognition skills alone to comprehend what he reads (Burkins & Yates, 2021). Put another way, a child may have excellent word recognition skills but limited experience with rich language, and the result would be the ability to pronounce the words in a text but an inability to understand what he read. The formula goes both ways.
While the SVR was officially proposed by two researchers in 1986, the role of decoding in reading has been argued before, and the educational debate about its place in reading instruction began as early as the 1800s. It was then that Horace Mann proposed a whole language approach, also known as balanced literacy, because he believed that explicitly teaching the sounds of each letter would interfere with students learning how to read for comprehension (Strauss, 2021).
During World War II, soldiers being recruited were required to take a literacy test, and 25% were found to be illiterate (Thomas, 2020). In 1942, a journal of the National Council of Teachers of English published an essay about America’s alarmingly high illiteracy rate (Betts et al., 1942). Then in 1967, researcher Jeanne Chall, through extensive studies, determined that code-emphasis produced better outcomes for kindergarten through third-grade children learning to read than a whole language approach (Chall, 1967).
Despite a preponderance of pro-phonics declarations, voices supporting whole language also existed during the twentieth century. For example, 1960s researcher Kenneth Goodman called reading a “selective process” and sought to refute the notion that reading is a precise process involving “exact, detailed, sequential perception and identification of letters, words, spelling patterns and larger language units” (Goodman, 1967, p. 126). He did not believe words should be taken out of context and posited that context clues and background knowledge are key to learning to read.
The discussion continued when the 1983 federal document A Nation at Risk and another commissioned by the federal government called the National Reading Panel (NRP) report in 2000 both called the nation to arms in the war against illiteracy. President Reagan delivered a speech from A Nation at Risk that made America look bad in its ability to produce well-educated students when compared to those in other developed nations. The NRP report, which was a meta-analysis of reading research, identified phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension as the five pillars of literacy instruction and has been widely used as the basis for literacy instruction ever since. Ongoing federal policies, such as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), added to the debate, as did multiple state and local policies. In fact, under NCLB, schools were told to use scientifically based reading research, which birthed the government’s Reading First program for schools during the presidency of George W. Bush. The program provided states and school districts with access to funds so they could “implement comprehensive, science-based reading programs” for students in grades Kindergarten through second (“No Child Left Behind”, 2001, par. 43).
Importantly, the NRP report unintentionally lent its strength to explicit phonics instruction as the method to teach literacy when the science of reading advocates latched onto the statement from the report that “systematic phonics instruction makes a more significant contribution to children’s growth in reading than do alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 132). The alternative programs it referenced on page 108 of the report include whole word programs, whole language programs, and basal reader programs. This weakened support for whole language or balanced literacy approaches to teaching reading.
Over time, with researchers and the government weighing in on literacy, an age-old question became the basis for today’s reading wars.
The Reading Wars
The authority of a nationally convened panel such as the NRP was not ignored. In fact, the Thomas Fordham Foundation, a nonprofit educational think tank, stated that the NRP report “is the third most influential policy work in U.S. education history” (Bowers, 2020, p. 682). As a result of interpretation of this report, systematic phonics instruction came to the forefront of educational policy and opened new markets for phonics-related curriculum. Interestingly, the phonics-heavy Reading First program, which had been recommended by the federal government around the same time as the NRP released its report, did not end the wars despite its failure to improve literacy among the nation’s children (Strauss, 2021; Shanahan, 2020).
Currently, the reading wars are not settled, and the science of reading has become a market- and publicity- driven debate, evidenced by its prominence in not just educational or policy journals, but also in newspapers, blogs, and books. Some of the debate is less than pleasant. For example, in a blog post titled Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read? Emily Hanford (2018) accuses educators of not knowing the science that supports the SVR and even resisting it because of their beliefs about reading, “even though those beliefs have been proven wrong over and over again” (par. 8). She is referring to balanced literacy, of course, and yet despite the arguments, many still hold fast to it.
Those who adhere to a science of reading philosophy through supporting systematic phonics instruction in schools do have solid science behind their position. For example, what is not argued by anyone is the scientific finding that the brain is not naturally wired to read. It is wired for speech but reading must be taught. What is argued is the statement that the science of reading is settled science (Hanford, 2018). What is also argued is the premise behind balanced literacy, which if framed very simply, says that learning to read happens because children are immersed in a print-rich environment and can figure out what words say if they focus on the meaning of what they are reading.
Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist who researches the neural basis of reading, explains that when using specialized equipment for brain imaging, scientists can see the changes in the brain when the connection between letters and sounds happens. It is actually “an anatomical change” (“How the Brain Learns to Read – Prof. Stanislas Dehaene”, 2021). In his widely accepted view, learning to read happens as the brain connects spoken words and vision. In other words, the symbols on the page representing the spoken word become bridged in the parts of the brain that hold spoken language resulting in the ability to read. Thus, to arrive at reading comprehension, the complex skills of word recognition and language comprehension—the Simple View of Reading—must be mastered first.
The psychological research community takes a similar stance. According to Bowers (2020), their research claims that the reading wars are settled with systematic phonics coming on top as the winner because it has been shown to be more effective than a balanced literacy approach. However, one must proceed with caution considering findings that about fifty percent of the research from the psychological community reports false positives (Hruby, 2020).
Others argue that the SVR has little basis in research, and that to the contrary, research “has indicated that teaching can and should foster multiple literate roles for readers from the get-go” (Aukerman & Chambers Schuldt, 2021, p. 88). According to proponents of balanced literacy, SRV advocacy “is a misuse of ‘science’ and a misunderstanding of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic” (Thomas, 2020, par. 17). First off, claiming that the science is settled or that scientific certainty exists, is an oxymoron (Strauss, 2021). More truthful is the statement that “a science of reading is always a moving target since knowledge is always conditional and research is always ongoing” (Shanahan, 2021, p. 4). Nothing is settled in science, but one thing is clear to balanced literacy advocates. They firmly believe that humans naturally learn better when other dimensions of learning to read occur such as meaningful engagement in reading and writing alongside vocabulary and language development, and when the teaching focus is on meaning, comprehension, and fluency, as opposed to the SVR method of just drilling students with phonics-centered lessons. The best evidence about reading supports teaching approaches “that attend to multiple pathways for learning” (Straus, 2018, par. 26). In other words, all aspects of reading instruction are not considered when researchers and policymakers view the science of reading “as primarily about assessed reading proficiency” (Aukerman & Chambers Schuldt, 2021, p. 86). To take one side over the other is an unnecessary war.
Impacts on Students
As in any war, harm happens on both sides. First off, to put students in the middle of philosophical differences about teaching methodologies denies that students learn differently. Secondly, to ignore cultural diversity in teaching promotes inequity in schooling. Students come to school with different ways of learning and knowing because of their culture and experiences. Socioeconomic factors give some children a head start because they grow up in print-rich environments while other children have little access to books or to experiences that would increase their knowledge of the world. In other words, learning is dependent upon much more than just which program of instruction is chosen. Reducing reading to programs of instruction keeps everyone’s sights on failing students and poor teaching and directs attention away from “opportunities for people of color, poor people, and immigrants” (Hammond, 2015, p. 29).
This is based on science, too. Researchers have demonstrated that when a reader has no schema in his mind’s knowledge base for the content in a text, comprehension is challenged no matter how well that reader can decode the words on the page. Schemas are created through experiences, and experiences provide new knowledge and vocabulary. In turn, vocabulary enhances reading ability. Research also shows that children as young as three from middle-class or impoverished homes “display enormous differences in the size of their vocabulary, because they have had differing experiences with conversations from which they can learn new things” (“Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century”, 2012, p. 9). In essence, with less knowledge, frameworks for reading comprehension are weak. Similarly, with different knowledge, comprehension is challenged.
Put bluntly, the science of reading has a fatal flaw because it has “a rigid refusal to address first and fully the systemic inequity that is at the root of all educational measurements, including reading achievement” (Thomas, 2020, par. 12). Further, the neuroscience that supports the SVR takes a physical approach to learning to read while completely ignoring interaction, culture, history, and ideology (Razfar & Rumenapp, 2014). From that stance, what then of students who are learning English as a second language, or students whose parents are less responsive to their needs or provide few opportunities for cognitively stimulating activities? How will learning to decode through a systematic phonics instruction approach help them attain the goal of reading, which is comprehension? Education researcher Rachael Gabriel states that how literacy is taught “has everything to do with race, class, culture and identity, and any reporting or reform that ignores this is missing or misrepresenting reality” (Strauss, 2018, par. 47).
The impact of the reading wars on students is clear: it narrows reading to prescribed methods and fails to look at every child as an individual human being full of diverse experiences and understandings.
Implementation in Tennessee
An example of policy implemented at a state level that supports systematic phonics instruction based on findings of the NRP report can be found in the state of Tennessee. In its document on the Science of Reading (“The Science of Reading”, 2020), a subheading states: “Case closed: Phonics instruction matters—a lot” (p. 8). Under the subheading, it states: “When it comes to phonics instruction, the report of the National Reading Panel closed the case on any lingering questions about the benefits of phonics instruction” (p. 8). In two related publications from the State of Tennessee, the point is driven home that students’ literacy scores will improve when educators use instructional practices aligned with the SVR as delineated in the NRP report and supported by extensive cognitive research (“Renewing Our Pledge 2021 State of Education in Tennessee”, 2021; “Urgency for Literacy Report”, 2020).
Instructional practices that originate from an oversimplification of data or of considering scientific findings to be the final word will leave out other pillars of literacy learning. Perhaps oversimplification is not behind Tennessee’s position, but rather a hasty decision based on an incomplete reading of the NRP report. Gabriel states that anyone who claims the NRP report is a systematic-phonics-only approach “clearly didn’t read the report” (Strauss, 2018, par. 21).
In Tennessee’s Science of Reading report (2020), it asks questions aimed at administrators such as “Are your district’s materials rooted in the science of reading?” (“The Science of Reading”, 2020, p. 17). Its implementation guidebook lists materials being used at the time of publication, all of which are commercial programs such as Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) and EL Education (“LIFT Guidebook 2019”, 2019). The report also makes clear which practices of instruction should be eliminated because they are proven to be ineffective and inequitable, including whole language, balanced literacy, Readers’ Workshop, and guided reading (pp. 15-16).
One of Tennessee’s recommended programs that aligns with its science of reading position is the Best for All Sounds-First Curriculum, which is a complete early literacy foundational skills curriculum that “uses a systematic and explicit approach to instruction so that all students can gain the foundational skills necessary to become proficient readers” (“Foundational Skills”, 2021, par. 1).
The curriculum’s components include teachers guides, activity books, student workbooks with take-home materials such as short readings and spelling lists, decodable
readers, fluency packets, consonants code flip books, vowels code flip books, code charts, spelling cards, and assessments. On the curriculum website, building leaders and teachers can download implementation guides, and assessment and remediation guides, as well as link to videos that demonstrate many of the curriculum’s components. The curriculum also includes digital learning opportunities for instruction.
One element often overlooked yet important in a balanced literacy curriculum is writing, which is not to be found in a phonics curriculum. Writing instruction in the Sounds-First curriculum focuses on the process of word and sentence composition but does not provide instruction on genre writing (“Second Grade Unit 1 Teacher Guide”, 2020). Extension opportunities for writing are available throughout the units but are optional. Yet early writing is supported by theory and research and should be implemented in the classroom daily (Hall, 2019).
Tennessee’s approach to literacy echoes the 2001 federal government Reading First initiative, which failed (Shanahan, 2020), and this underscores the importance of closely monitoring the achievement of all young learners in the state, especially if all that teachers do in early grades is teach phonics. As Calkins (2020) said, “the foundation for a building is important, yes, but the foundation is not the entire building” (p. 6).
Finding a Middle Ground
When current conversations about the science of reading are “reduced to sound bites, Tweets, oppositional letters, and blogs” (Stukey et al., n.d., p. 6), ending the reading wars is difficult. Rather than selectively reading research or reports, choosing a side, and sticking to it, researchers and policy makers could choose to carefully examine what the other side is trying to accomplish. For example, how many advocates of the science of reading failed to consider that the NRP report’s purpose for instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency was “to ensure that [those] processes become so automatic” (Stukey et al., n.d., p. 2) that students will be able to spend less time on decoding and more time on comprehending or meaning making, which is inarguably the entire purpose of reading?
Further, the wrong emphasis on the NRP report gives the illusion that it favors systematic phonics instruction, when in fact its five pillars of literacy taken together could easily “replace the artificial dichotomy between phonics and whole language” and promote an integrated approach for students that includes instruction in all five (McCardle & Chhabra, 2005, as quoted by Moran, 2021). Johnston and Scanlon (2020) state that the report “did not argue for any particular phonics approach” but advocated for a flexible approach to teaching phonics given the individual differences in student knowledge and skills (p. 12).
Literacy experts Reinking, Risko, and Hruby see the debate as a continuum and ask “whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties, or whether, like many medical conditions…those difficulties have multiple etiologies” (Strauss, 2021, par. 13) such as schools with a lack of resources, students’ sociocultural and socioeconomic situations, and so on. In other words, reading difficulties have various causes, “not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view” (Duke & Cartwright, 2021, p. 525).
As in any debate, there is much to be learned. Perhaps one example is how the SVR “had the salutary effect of ensuring that educators recognize the need to include language as well as word reading in early reading instruction” (“Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century”, 2012, p. 9). Similarly, broadening the definition of the science of reading so that it comprises not just phonics but also “the woven strands of all the components of reading instruction [and] how those work together for students to learn” (Woulfin & Gabriel, 2020) could bring sides together in this debate. Perhaps the SVR should be viewed as a useful tool for demonstrating the importance of decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading (Duke & Cartwright, 2021). In other words, taking sides demonstrates an unwillingness to see the bigger picture.
In a popular podcast series by Susan Lambert called Science of Reading (Lambert, 2021), season three, episode four, Plain Talk: Making the Shift to the Science of Reading in Your District, guest Natalie Wexler frames the debate so that both sides could make peace with each other. She discusses shifts in literacy instruction that teachers should consider by pointing out that the science of reading is more than just the five pillars of early literacy promoted in the NRP report—the basis of many schools’ foundational literacy programs, including the Sounds-First curriculum used in Tennessee. Wexler states that a key factor in reading comprehension is knowledge, and a teacher’s job is to help students build that knowledge because without a knowledge base, foundational literacy skills are weak. Typically, she says, curriculums that embrace the five pillars leave this out, particularly by marginalizing social studies, the sciences, and the arts, when in fact, immersing kids in varied content boosts their vocabulary and thus their comprehension. Further, if classroom discussion has such a strong effect size (d=0.82), just exactly how do you get a conversation going with young children about foundational skills? Discussions about content, life, experiences, stories, and situations can be rich and offer opportunities to build literacy skills. A poignant example given by Wexler goes as follows: You could teach children how to make predictions using anchor charts and examples, or you could read the first few pages of a story, then ask students to make a prediction about what will happen next. Meaningful, life experience is the best teacher and not direct instruction of foundational literacy skills, she says.
In sum, the way to end the reading wars is to begin using the conjunction “and” in place of “or.” Consider that systematic phonics instruction and whole language approaches both advocate for literacy. Reimagine a science of reading philosophy that includes all students and visibly draws “on frameworks that, although not literacy specific, reposition linguistic and cultural diversity as assets” (Aukerman & Chambers Schuldt, 2021, p. 92). Trust in the profession of teaching and believe that they have their students’ best interests in mind as they teach, and then the windows and doors to literacy will be thrown wide open for every child.
As Shanahan says, “Basic research has an important role to play in reading science but can never be the final determinant of practice or policy; that should always depend on studies that directly evaluate the effectiveness of a practice or policy” (Shanahan, 2020, p. 244). I am especially concerned about Tennessee’s blatant promotion of only systematic phonics instruction in the primary grades. Studies that evaluated the effectiveness of the Reading First initiative were done and demonstrated that was a poor program in terms of improving the literacy scores of students in America. I hope that Tennessee will not wait for five years to change its mind on the programs it supports. The cost to our students’ futures far outweighs the cost the state will incur if it needs to throw out its current programs and adopt new, more balanced approaches as soon as state reading scores demonstrate no growth.
When talking about student impact, I had to bring in a culturally responsive teaching point of view. Surely many other impacts occur on student learning, but I felt that a science of reading approach directly ignores culturally diverse language speakers, not to mention all the other important circumstances that make students have unique experiences. It upsets me that any teaching would be so rigid in its approach.
I do agree that systematic phonics instruction is important, but it is the “and” that really hits home with me. This reminds me of when I was newly married and so young many years ago, and I took a position on a local board. I went to the first meeting, where the other adults were at least twice my age, and watched and listened—horrified—as they argued and argued. I have never forgotten that and still see it happening, but on large scales like these reading wars. I just want to say: “Come on you guys, grow up. We can work this out. There is a balance. Just open your minds.”
Currently, I am working on my M.Ed. with an endorsement in teaching emerging bilinguals. I am not certain how my future will pan out. If I return to the classroom, I will be a different kind of teacher. If I work in education in another capacity, so be it. But in either case, I have taken up the cause and will rabble-rouse at school board meetings, write legislators, and do everything I can to advocate for teachers, students, and families. We live in odd times, but the last place we should be having policy wars is over teaching children how to read. Instead, we should come together, calm and rationale, look at all the evidence, and work together to provide the most skilled and compassionate instruction we possibly can to all our children.
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