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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Is the ‘Science of Reading’ Becoming Too Much of a Good Thing?

Overteaching basic skills can cut into time needed for expanding spoken language
By Mark Seidenberg — December 14, 2023 5 min read
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Across the country, teachers are navigating the impact of the “science of reading” laws, which mandate using curricula and methods deemed consistent with scientific findings about reading and professional development stemming from them.

As a scientist who advocates using research to improve literacy outcomes, I view this legislation as a necessary evil. It was necessary because of the intransigence of the educational establishment in the face of concerns about low literacy levels and the prevalence of dyslexia.

The laws ensure greater emphasis on basic-skills instruction, which had been neglected. They also proscribe the use of some popular curricula based on mistaken assumptions about reading and learning. These are important steps.

At the same time, the new laws reflect what happens when legislators create educational policies. They check a few boxes, such as requiring instruction about print and phonics, without connecting to modern research that speaks to how it can be done effectively. The laws barely touch concerns about what to teach, when, for how long, in varied cultural and socioeconomic contexts.

In the meantime, another school year is happening, and there are students to teach. Here are some important issues that merit closer attention:

1. Reading difficulties aren’t necessarily about reading.

As codified in these laws and by advocacy groups such as the Reading League, the science of reading approach focuses on providing explicit instruction about basic skills, which beginning readers definitely require. However, their progress is mainly affected by knowledge of spoken language. Children’s knowledge of general English—the version of English used in books and in most classrooms—varies for many reasons. These include the language or the dialect of English spoken at home, the amount of speech the child hears, opportunities to talk, and topics the child has learned about.

Language background affects every aspect of learning to read, including print and phonics. When a child struggles to read a word or sentence, I would first ask if they understand the material when spoken. The popular Simple View of Reading developed by Philip Gough and colleagues in the 1980s says that children need to learn how print connects language. However, print instruction isn’t sufficient if the child’s knowledge of spoken language is limited. The same applies to starting reading instruction in pre-K: The advantage of starting earlier will be lost on children whose spoken language is the limiting factor. Pre-K is a great time to ensure that children know their letters but an even better time to provide opportunities to hear, learn, and use the kinds of language that will be needed in school.

Little of the information that supports reading is learned via explicit instruction.

2. You can’t teach it all and don’t have to.

Gough also described learning to read as an “unnatural act” because, unlike learning a first language, reading requires explicit instruction. This has led to intensive focus on explicit instruction in the science of reading approach.

Teachers are trying out new methods for teaching everything from print, phonics, and vocabulary to components of words such as phonemes and morphemes that they have been taught in science of reading professional development. There is so much teaching of so many components of reading and language one wonders how anyone learned to read before science told us that all this instruction is necessary.

Of course, it isn’t necessary. The research literature says that children need explicit instruction to learn that spelling patterns represent the sounds of words and learn enough of these mappings to be able to read many common words and start sounding out others. Researchers have called this “cracking the code,” and it would ideally happen by the end of 1st grade. Learning continues beyond this point, of course, but with less and less reliance on explicit guidance and feedback.

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Little of the information that supports reading is learned via explicit instruction. Think of vocabulary: Of the thousands of words a person knows, only a small fraction were explicitly taught. Most are learned implicitly—without instruction or conscious awareness—while using written and spoken language. This “statistical learning” relies on the brain’s ability to pick up patterns in the use of words in sentences. We also know far more about print and print-sound correspondences than we are taught. Developmentally, a relatively small amount of explicit instruction scaffolds the vast amount of implicit learning on which reading and language depend.

Instead of cracking the code, the science of reading approach has embraced teaching the code. We’ve gone from recognizing that more instruction is needed than before to thinking that everything has to be taught or it won’t be learned because, well, reading is unnatural. But everything does not have to be taught because people have powerful other ways to learn.

3. Too much of a good thing is a waste of time.

Science of reading proponents sometimes recognize that all this explicit instruction isn’t necessary for every child but advocate doing it anyway. In programs based on the whole-language and balanced-literacy approaches that science of reading seeks to displace, some children managed to acquire basic skills without extensive explicit instruction; the problem was that far too many did not. Science of reading advocates don’t want this left to chance. As before, some children will not need all this instruction, but—it’s thought—there is no harm in providing it. At worst, those children will gain additional practice with important skills.

Actress Mae West famously said that too much of a good thing is wonderful, but that’s not true in teaching. Beginning readers have a lot to learn in a short amount of time. The clock is ticking toward the grade 4 deadline for gaining basic skills. The science of reading approach has lost the sense of urgency about getting readers off the ground quickly. Explicit instruction is time-consuming. Only a limited amount is necessary, and the “harm” of overteaching is the opportunity costs: It eats up precious classroom time that could have focused on other goals.

The goal of reading instruction is teaching children to read. Instruction about components of reading is justified only to the extent that it advances this goal. Cracking the code is the important breakthrough, which instruction facilitates. Teachers who recognize that explicit instruction is meant to enable children to learn through other experiences can use their limited classroom time more effectively, to their students’ benefit.

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