The Science of Reading

Introduction: Since the beginning of educational pedagogy—the theories, methods, and practices of teaching and learning—reading has always been placed first in importance. As the oral tradition of passing along learning through speech was enhanced by writing down the eternal verities of learning, reading those words of wisdom represented an improvement in education because reading was more accurate and more accessible to a wider audience. The key was to teach more students to read!

Teaching Everyone to Read has Failed

Today in America, we always say that we want to teach every student to read, but sadly that doesn’t happen. The current National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are down due to the pandemic, but they have been flat for 30 years!

Trend in NAEP reading average scores, by grade

The average score of 220 in 2019 at grade 4 was 1 point lower than the average score of 222 in
  2017. The 2017 score is significantly different from the score in 2019. The average score of 220
  in 2019 at grade 4 was 4 points higher than the average score of 217 in 1992, the first year of the
  reading assessment. The average score in 1992 is significantly different from the score in 2019.

  The average score of 263 in 2019 at grade 8 was 3 points lower than the average score of 267 in 2017.
  The 2017 score is significantly different from the score in 2019. The average score of 263 in 2019 at
  grade 8 was 3 points higher than the average score of 260 in 1992, the first year of the reading
  assessment. The average score in 1992 is significantly different from the score in 2019.

The reading wars of the 1990s are back! These competing pedagogical strategies can be described more simply as whole language vs. phonics. In the last 30 years whole language won out in teaching and learning methodology, but sadly not in an increase in student proficiency.

What is the Science of Reading?

Today, the Science of Reading represents the reading wars pendulum swinging back from whole language to phonics with an additional research need to see evidence of success in any reading strategy. “The science of reading is the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction, organized around models that describe how and why” (Cindy Jiban, NWEA, January 25, 2022). So what does no longer recommended is guided reading (Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinell, Heinemann Publishing) and what is recommended are reading programs like Orton-Gillingham which places an important emphasis on multisensory approaches to learning. Core Knowledge has a simple write-up on the Science of Reading Approach:

  • Phonics is the relationship between the letters (or letter combinations) in written language and the individual sounds in spoken language.
    • Phonetic awareness. Phonemes are the smallest units making up spoken language, combined to form syllables and words. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate these individual units of sound.
    • Vocabulary development is closely connected to comprehension and refers to words we need to know to communicate with others.
    • Fluency is the ability to read as well as we speak and to make sense of the text without having to stop and decode each word.
    • Comprehension involves constructing meaning that is reasonable and accurate by connecting what has been read to what the reader already knows and thinking about all of this information until it is understood.
  • 1. Reading is not natural; it can and must be taught.
  • 2. Background knowledge is as critical to comprehension as decoding skills.
  • 3. Foundational skills instruction must be systematic and explicit, beginning with sounds.
  • 4. Instruction must be engaging, through multiple modes and senses.
  • 5. Science-based reading instruction reduces the need for intervention, and allows children to move forward as capable, confident learners.
  • 6. Science-based reading instruction is a matter of equity.
  • 7. Science-based reading instruction is urgent, and the most crucial work of the elementary teacher.

Who is Doing This?

The NWEA explains: “States including Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Colorado have passed laws requiring science of reading practices to be used in elementary literacy instruction and also have their own rubrics for which programs are more aligned with the research. Lots of good materials have been produced to get this research into practice, much of it paid for by our tax dollars.”

Los Angeles School District

“Los Angeles Unified schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho said that the district is working to “expand our implementation of the science of teaching reading,” emphasizing the need for early elementary teachers to be trained in evidence-based practices and for struggling students to have access to extra support. “I believe that if we are going to follow science, and we should, then we should really embrace all science, including the science of reading,” Carvalho said. He called on school districts to take action and on educator preparation programs to instruct teachers in evidence-based approaches.
“It is not so easy,” he said. “But it’s not so hard that it cannot be done. Because it works. Because it is, in fact, working.”

EdWeek, November 2, 2022

Take Away

There is a pendulum swing going on from whole language to phonics in reading strategies for American Students in K-12 schools. Phonics teaching is very important to the process, but not all of whole language needs to be discarded. Additionally, research is beginning to help as many studies are bringing strong evidence of success. The key for policy makers is to gain a solid understanding of new research in reading and apply it to all schools for the benefit of all students.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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