Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Science of Reading Advocates Have a Messaging Problem

The reading wars are back. Opaque language isn’t helping
By Claude Goldenberg — May 03, 2021 5 min read
Tiny boy and girl stand on wide road in front keyhole entrance in book to narrower way

In case you haven’t noticed—and given a pandemic, political mayhem, and general weariness, you would be forgiven if you haven’t—a new front in the decadeslong reading wars has opened up called “the science of reading.”

To many, the lines of demarcation separating the sides are ambiguous, even puzzling. Herein lies a problem for those wanting to put reading pedagogy on a more secure—or “scientific”—footing. As so often happens, the term has taken on a life of its own, signaling different things to different people.

There are substantive issues at stake in the debate over reading, but we are hampered by how we talk about, or more precisely, how we don’t talk about, the issues.

Certain education terms become lightning rods for controversy, usually to no good purpose. Think of “progressive education” or “back to basics” or “choice” or … shudder … “No Child Left Behind.” Simply stating them evokes a visceral reaction, pro or con. The “science of reading” is in danger of falling into this category, if it hasn’t already.

To some, the science of reading means findings based on principles of scientific research. To others, the term invokes a narrow and reductionist view of the world or at least the world of reading.

There is large effort currently underway by those championing the science of reading to have it become the principal catchword in local, state, and even national reading policies. For example, in the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021,” the North Carolina General Assembly declared that the Department of Public Instruction “shall use the Early Literacy Program to build strong foundational early literacy skills utilizing the Science of Reading.” As its definition of “science of reading,” the act says this:

“Science of Reading” means evidence-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.

This definition is nearly useless. For starters, what constitutes evidence? For years, we’ve tried using “evidenced-based” as a way to get reliable and valid research into the hands, hearts, and heads of teachers and teacher educators. It hasn’t worked very well. Perhaps even more important, what does “address” mean? Talk about? Teach occasionally? Teach mixed in with other things as the spirit moves the teacher or the students? And so on.

If state legislatures are to put “the science of reading” into legislation, the definitions should at the very least be clear, meaningful, and useful.

What is happening in this new stage of the reading wars is there for all to see in North Carolina’s and others’ use of the phrase. Instead of spelling out what they mean, “science of reading” advocates wrap themselves in the protective mantel of science, as if invoking science is all that anyone needs to be credible and persuade others to join them. Anyone disagreeing is anti-science, i.e., ignorant.

Since the fog of war engulfs this conflict, I would like to offer my understanding of what the science of reading has actually found.

This is not a great persuasion strategy. Not surprisingly, those from a different vantage point argue that no one has a right to define science in a way that conveniently fits their perspective.

Since the fog of war engulfs this conflict, I would like to offer my understanding of what the science of reading has actually found. These findings should be uncontroversial, but I admit that hope may prove naïve.

First, unlike learning to speak and understand spoken language, learning to read (and write) is not a naturally acquired skill or set of skills. But it is entirely possible for the vast majority of individuals to learn to read. However, much depends on what we actually mean by “reading.” If we mean being able to read—decode or recognize—words and text on the page or screen, well over 90 percent of students can learn to read at an early-elementary level, provided they receive the right kind of instruction. The primary limitation on continued progress is language proficiency, including vocabulary.

We don’t have comparable estimates for English learners, but with the right instruction, they could also attain much higher levels of reading proficiency than they currently do.

The right kind of instruction, for both speakers of English and English-language learners, includes explicitly and systematically teaching students (or anyone learning to read) the letters that represent sounds, how letters are used to sound out words, and how to fluently read words, sentences, and paragraphs so that reading development can proceed. These so-called foundational skills, often grouped together under the not entirely precise label “phonics,” constitute what most people would consider common sense. Here, I am happy to report, common sense and educational research converge.

Moving past reading words on the page or screen to being able to comprehend at appropriate levels of sophistication—the whole point of reading—requires the foundational skills and much more. Successful reading programs must also include language development (vocabulary, syntax, discourse), strategies that help students comprehend what they read, making sure students acquire specific and general knowledge, and providing students with motivating reading material and instruction that is engaging, organized, purposeful, and effective.

There are two final points the science of reading supports:

• As is true of all complex human behaviors, some students will require a great deal of foundational skills, i.e., “phonics,” instruction; others will require much less; almost all will require some.

• We don’t know all there is to know about promoting optimal reading development for every learner. There is more to learn and there will probably always be more to learn.

Personally, I don’t see how anyone could object to these findings. The supporting data are compelling and should help determine what programs of instruction to use. But first, we must fix the messaging problem.

Once we get past the logjams, wars, ad hoc recriminations, and so forth, we can make sure anyone teaching our kids to read has, understands, and can use the best knowledge and tools available. For that to happen, we must stop getting distracted and mystifying others with opaque language. It’s just not helpful.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Science of Reading Advocates Have a Messaging Problem

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