Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Science of Reading Should Make Room for Skepticism (Just Not for Ignorance)

COVID-19 reinforces a clear truth about science: the importance of acknowledging uncertainty
By Claude Goldenberg — September 23, 2021 5 min read
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The COVID-19 pandemic has provided front row seats to an underappreciated truth about science. I’m not referring to white coats and spinning test tubes. I’m referring to the part of science dealing with uncertainty.

Those who tout the science of teaching—particularly the science of reading—should take note.

In the beginning of the pandemic, uncertainty was all there was. What’s this new virus? How do we stay safe?

Since then, masking and social-distancing regulations have undergone continual changes as variants emerge and data are collected and analyzed. Data and understanding have increased. So have frustration, confusion, distrust, and cynicism.

But—as President Joe Biden might say—here’s the thing: Data offer no guarantee, don’t answer all questions, and are often contradictory.

There are now some well-established facts about the coronavirus. Most importantly, the vaccines are extremely effective in preventing serious disease and death. Masks and social distancing also contribute to slowing the spread of the virus. But there are no guarantees, as the rise of the Delta variant and waning of vaccine efficacy have shown.

Responsible medical professionals say two things: First, they emphasize what we know minimizes the disease’s spread. Second, they acknowledge what we still don’t know and don’t overpromise.

This is what gives science its credibility: the systematic search for answers coupled with a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty.

“All science has uncertainty,” scholars Baruch Fischhoff and Alex L. Davis wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences. “A healthy scientific community rewards members who raise problems before their critics and penalizes those who overstate results.”

Which brings me back to reading science. In contrast to what we’ve generally heard during the pandemic, the unknowns around the science of reading are rarely acknowledged adequately by reading-science advocates. This can give the “science” part of the “science of reading” a bad name.

In 2004—at a time when laboratory scientists were slowly chipping at the mRNA research that would lay the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccine—education researcher Joseph Torgesen laid out these reading-science knowns and unknowns. Unfortunately, his contribution has not had nearly the impact on the science of reading that mRNA has had in creating life-saving vaccines.

Torgesen and a network of researchers quantified the extent to which early reading failure could be prevented if beginning and early reading instruction focused on “foundational skills.” Most people know these, a bit simplistically, as “phonics” or “decoding.”

Here is what Torgesen said we know or can claim with reasonable certainty:

Early reading failure could be reduced if instruction focused on the foundations of word recognition—letters and sounds, phonemic awareness, and knowing how to use letters and sounds to read words. Children who begin school without good phonological skills and understanding of the alphabetic principle are at risk of developing reading difficulties.

But just how much foundational-skills instruction is needed, how intensely and explicitly, varies. All children benefit from at least some explicit instruction in foundational skills. Some will require very little; some will require a great deal.

Children who are poor readers at the end of 1st grade rarely become at least average-level readers by the time they finish elementary school. Early intervention focusing on foundational skills with children at risk for or experiencing reading difficulties in K-2 will increase the likelihood that they become at least low-average readers by the end of 2nd grade.

In six experimental studies that Torgesen reviewed, interventions with either the poorest readers or children at risk for reading failure brought most of the students (56 percent to 92 percent) to at least the 30th percentile (the beginning of the “low average” range) in word-reading skills. If the procedures and conditions used in these studies were implemented nationwide, the failure rate in early reading—the percentage of students who would not reach the 30th percentile on basic word-reading skills by the end of 2nd grade—could theoretically be reduced to between 2 percent and 6 percent.

Finally, much more than foundational skills (language, knowledge, experience) are required if we are to prevent reading failure after 2nd grade.

Phonics, decoding, and associated skills provide no immunizations against poor reading outcomes. But they do provide a foundation upon which we must build.

Here is what Torgesen said were the uncertainties:

  • How effective are early interventions in the absence of solid classroom instruction (i.e., Tier 1) that effectively taught foundational skills to most students in the studies?
  • What conditions need to be in place so that virtually every child can acquire adequate word-level reading skills in early-elementary school?
  • How effective are early interventions in preventing reading failure from 3rd grade on?

Torgesen acknowledged that the standard he used to judge success—the 30th percentile on basic word-reading skills—is very limited. The criterion for success at preventing early reading failure, he wrote, must include reading comprehension at the end of 3rd grade.

Torgesen noted that such studies did not exist. The significance of attaining near-average word-reading skills lies in the expectation that doing so will promote reading development and help prevent reading failure beyond 2nd grade. But there remains an urgent need for research looking into the role of language, comprehension, knowledge, and experience in preventing reading failure.
The science of reading is not as clear on fundamental facts as is the science of COVID-19 immunology. Phonics, decoding, and associated skills provide no immunizations against poor reading outcomes. But they do provide a foundation upon which we must build.

More so than vaccine skeptics, “phonics skeptics” have some reason to be skeptical. There is more to reading than recognizing words.

Most important, there’s still a great deal we don’t know about how to assure virtually all children become successful readers. As researchers Sharon Vaughn and Jack Fletcher point out, “There are some rather large holes in our collective knowledge.”

Skepticism is an important part of science. As the Delta variant began spreading, a once-skeptical Arkansan who had been avoiding the shots due to false reports that they cause infertility, learned through online research that vaccination was the way to go. She told The Washington Post, “Skepticism is a good thing. But to be ignorant is a different issue.”

Spoken like a true scientist.

A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as Science of Reading Advocates Need To Acknowledge Uncertainties


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