Love It or Hate It, the Science of Reading Gains Traction in Schools

Decades of disagreement over reading instruction may be waning as states around the country make the science of reading mandated curriculum. 

In 2018, Anders Rasmussen arrived as principal of Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa, NY, in his words, a “reading neophyte.” A former high school English teacher and assistant principal, Rasmussen came to the new job with a basic background in elementary reading curriculum and a readiness to learn what was working at his new school and what needed revamping.

What he heard from teachers was that there was a need to rethink the way reading was taught.

“What that started for me was a real effort to understand reading and how we teach it,” Rasmussen says.

Until then, the district had used an amalgamation of several different reading programs to provide a balanced literacy approach to reading instruction.

The concept of balanced literacy appeared in the 1990s, a curriculum meant to appease two camps in the long-feuding reading wars—those favoring explicit phonics instruction on one side; on the other, whole language advocates who believed simply exposing kids to a lot of books would get them to learn to read naturally.

Critics of balanced literacy say the approach, which emphasizes student choice, independent reading, and small group work along with some phonics, fails to incorporate the science of reading and the wealth of research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have produced over the last few decades.

Rasmussen hadn’t been trained in any one program, so he immersed himself in everything recent studies said about how kids learn to read. He came away convinced there was a clear pathway to get students reading on grade level.

“Diving into research, and studying the brain, it became clear there is a pathway to get to reading and how to foster that in the most efficient manner,” he says.

Today, the reading curriculum at Wood Road Elementary is a highly structured, systematic approach. Students receive lessons in phonemic awareness—being able to identify and use individual sounds in spoken words—and phonics as well as writing and vocabulary, while building background knowledge so students can continuously learn to address more challenging texts.


No more guessing

“Our goal is to get every kid on grade level with appropriate texts,” says Rasmussen. “Looking at reading programs that say, ‘put a book in a kid’s hand and cue them with pictures,’ you’d never put an algebra problem in front of a student and say take a guess. Taking a guess is counterproductive to the skills we can teach to get kids to actually read the words.”

The new curriculum is the type of instruction that research shows can have positive results, especially for struggling readers.

Most American students still struggle to read, with only 33 percent of fourth graders proficient in reading in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Research shows that children who fail to read in elementary school are likely to struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

Decades of disagreement over reading instruction may be waning as states around the country have made the science of reading not just their preferred curriculum but the mandated instruction. Mississippi became the poster child of the movement after passing new reading laws in 2013 and becoming the most improved state for reading scores in the country. New York City will also implement the science of reading in its 32 school districts this fall.

As of May 2023, 31 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws or policies requiring instruction be aligned with evidence-based reading practices. More are sure to follow, with stricter measures. Ohio governor Mike DeWine has proposed a bill that would make the science of reading required in all schools by the 2024–25 school year and would ban all other approaches.

Caught in the middle of this policy shift are teachers and librarians. While many teachers recognize the benefits of instruction that results in better reading outcomes, some object to what they see as rushed implementation and the removal of teacher choice in selecting their curriculum and instruction. In Ohio, teachers’ unions have pushed back against a perceived heavy-handed approach by the state government. Meanwhile librarians, who don’t explicitly teach reading, will have to contend with these new policies.


The science of reading

What makes reading such a difficult skill to learn?

Reading doesn’t come naturally. While humans are born with an innate ability for spoken language, reading must be learned. That process is complicated, requiring human brains to build connections that attach meaning to letters, identify sounds that make up words, and eventually read fluently and with comprehension.

In 1986, researchers Philip Gough and William Tunmer proposed a now-classic model of reading comprehension called the Simple View of Reading. It was composed of two basic components: word recognition, or decoding, and language comprehension.

Science has shown that children learn to read when they can identify letters or letter combinations and connect them to sounds. But that science is often ignored during reading instruction, as radio journalist Emily Hanford of APM Reports revealed in 2018.

Instead, a “whole language” theory took hold. Rather than breaking words into parts, whole language instruction encouraged students to learn words based on simple sentences, often with helpful pictures. This model was epitomized by 1950s “Dick and Jane” readers.

In the 1990s, “balanced literacy” attempted to bridge phonics and whole language. Balanced literacy is built on the three-cueing system: Students guess if a word is correct based on whether it makes sense, if it sounds right, and if it looks right. But critics say students become too reliant on needing pictures or context clues, strategies that fail them as the texts become more advanced.

Today, some of the most popular school reading curriculums—including Fountas & Pinnell, Journeys, and Units of Study for Teaching Reading—are heavily based on this balanced literacy approach while lacking in evidence-based practices for teaching reading. They also vary widely in their teaching of phonics, according to a report from Education Week.

Some are beginning to acknowledge the disconnect. Influential literacy expert Lucy Calkins, a balanced literacy leader, recently announced that her Units of Study curriculum, used by nearly a quarter of the 67,000 U.S. elementary schools, will be changed to align with scientific research.

“I don’t think there’s much debate amongst researchers,” says Rebecca Treiman, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “Research shows that it’s critical for children to read the words before they make sense of what they are reading.”

Phonics instruction became a polarized issue over the years, often viewed as old-fashioned and conservative. But Treiman says it’s the opposite. “Phonics is especially important for students with parents who don’t have time or expertise to teach them at home,” she says. “If anything, phonics can help lower-achieving kids and equalize things.”

What is up for debate is how phonics is taught in schools, and there is much room for research to learn how to do it better. For example, a lot of time is spent in U.S. preschools and kindergartens teaching individual letter sounds without learning spelling or how to make words until students have mastered all 26 letters.

A better way might be what occurs in classrooms in England, Treiman says. There, students learn groups of three or four letters and start using that knowledge immediately, seeing what words they can make, then adding more letters.


An expanding body of knowledge

No researcher, Treiman includes, thinks phonics instruction is the only important thing for children to learn to read. While the science of reading often gets distilled to just phonics instruction, researchers hope that the entire body of knowledge of how children learn to read, including phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, is recognized.

Even the Simple View of Reading and its basic components of decoding and comprehension needs an update. University of Michigan School of Education professor Nell Duke is looking to expand the definition through what she calls an active view of reading.

“We think that it’s more useful to unpack those big, broad concepts and understand the things we need to teach within language comprehension and decoding,” Duke says.

Reading difficulties exist even when students display grade-appropriate decoding and comprehension skills, studies show. Duke says an expanded view beyond the Simple View of Reading would take into account other contributors to reading achievement, such as knowledge of vocabulary, texts that are culturally relevant to readers, and the overlap between decoding and comprehension.

For example, if a child is reading the sentence “I can get a dog,” they might easily make the mistake of pronouncing “get” as “jet.” That’s why word recognition and comprehension shouldn’t be treated as separate spheres.

“A child’s brain has to be monitoring comprehension to know what they read doesn’t make sense,” Duke says. “It’s an example of how you need decoding and comprehension monitoring in order for the word recognition to develop.”

Among other factors that can get lost in the Simple View of Reading are motivation and engagement, which research shows can contribute to reading achievement across grade levels. Duke says it’s important to design reading instruction that’s challenging but with attainable goals. “We want to make sure kids puzzle over words and apply cognitive energy as they are understanding how words work and how to decode, but also don’t want to make the task so challenging they are unsuccessful.”

Some critics say attention to reading skills like phonics can dampen a child’s interest in reading. But “if you don’t know these skills, you’re going to find reading hard,” says Treiman. “Kids aren’t going to love reading if they don’t know how.”

Image of falling kid with books and quote: Phonics instruction became a polarized issue over the years, often  viewed as old-fashioned  and conservative. But  Rebecca Treiman says it’s the  opposite. “Phonics is especially  important for students  with parents who don’t  have time or expertise  to teach them at home.”

Learning to love reading

If classrooms are where children learn to read, the library is often where they fall in love with it. Although librarians don’t explicitly teach reading instruction, they have not avoided the fray of the reading wars.

Melissa Jacobs, director of library services for the New York City Department of Education, has witnessed the pendulum swing of reading instruction firsthand.

Two decades ago, when she was a school-based librarian, balanced literacy was being rolled out in New York City, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg mandated it across city schools. Despite not being trained in balanced literacy or programs like leveled reading, Jacobs says that as a school librarian, she was just lumped into the new curriculum expectations without considering her unique role of teaching informational literacy.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Jacobs says. The school expected her to teach balanced literacy “without thinking about how a literacy program fit in the library,” she says. “Librarians teach the love of reading versus the learning of reading. Literacy cannot happen without a functioning school library program. My focus has been on teaching informational and digital literacy, but you can’t have that level of literacy without the ability to read and decode and comprehend text.”

“Two decades later, we have people not understanding what balanced literacy was and how it was supposed to be implemented, and we’re paying the price for it,” Jacobs says.

Before the pandemic, the NYC Department of Education was beginning to have conversations about how to better integrate phonics instruction into the curriculum. School chancellor David Banks admitted balanced literacy hasn’t worked, particularly for children of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Mayor Eric Adams announced the forthcoming move to balanced reading in May 2023.

Schools are still figuring out how librarians fit into the literacy puzzle, and Jacobs says she is still trying to convince administrators of the library’s key role in encouraging emerging readers.

Her efforts have focused on making the library a place where students feel empowered to determine what kind of reader they are. That means providing as wide a range of media as possible, from large-print titles to ebooks and audio books, many in multiple languages; it also means ensuring that the collection is reflective, relevant, and current for students.

Amy Seto Forrester, youth services supervisor at Eugene (OR) Public Library, echoes this sentiment. “If kids don’t see themselves reflected, it sends the message that reading isn’t for them,” she says.

Creating an equitable collection of books for a library is challenge enough, but it is particularly tough when it comes to books for developing readers, in Forrester’s experience.


No easy answers

At the end of the day, the science convinced Rasmussen of the best way for his students at Wood Road Elementary to learn how to read. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth journey, especially when it comes to convincing teachers.

“As a teacher, you never intend to do harm, and when you’re approached with the idea that something you did for the last 20 years might have created impediments to learning, and not only that, but that you could have done it differently and helped more? That can be personally unsettling,” Rasmussen says.

Teachers shouldn’t be scapegoated for the failure of students to learn to read, says Treiman. “A lot of the problem is a teaching problem, but you can’t blame the teachers” for lacking skills to teach science-backed reading instruction. “It needs to be part of their training even before they get into the classroom.”

But there are concerns. Some educators say that the research behind the science of reading ignores the success of comprehensive approaches to reading instruction. Teachers’ unions also worry that the rollout of these new laws are rushed, leaving too many details up to individual school districts, which could results in disparities in how teachers receive, and are paid for, professional development.

Still, changes have already gone into effect. Twenty states passed legislation ensuring teachers are prepared to teach based on the science of reading. In 2019, New Mexico mandated that all elementary school teachers be trained. North Carolina has gone further, requiring elementary teachers as well as students and faculty of teacher preparation programs be trained in the science of reading.

But some experts hope these changes don’t ignite another battle by excluding strategies that can work for young readers.

Franki Sibberson, an educator with more than three decades of literacy experience and a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, worries that new mandates could go beyond the research to dictate resources and instructional strategies.

“I feel like we need to make sure teachers and readers have access to every tool out there. My hope is that we’re responsive to what a child needs—don’t limit strategies that we use to support kids as they grow as readers.”

Duke is happy to see people and policies striving to use effective reading practices, but warns that their interpretation of the science of reading could be detrimental.

“We’re in a real danger of companies putting a science of reading label on books that aren’t connected to research, and a danger of people having a misguided understanding of the science of reading,” Duke says.

That’s why it will be key for teachers, librarians, parents, and policymakers to scrutinize resources claiming to be based on the science of reading as carefully as they might when researching an important health decision.

“I would recommend that people don’t just assume people who are talking about the science of reading actually know what the research has to say,” Duke says.

Andrew Bauld is a freelance writer covering education.

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