Is there really a ‘science of reading’?

Thus began the fight over teaching phonics or “whole language” — and more recently what is known as “balanced literacy.” We’ve also been hearing declarations that a “science of reading” proves that employing phonics in a particular war is the best and right path to teach young children how to read.

The following post looks at this broad issue and whether there really is a “science of reading” that has finally settled how reading should be taught.

It was written by David Reinking, professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the Literacy Research Association; Victoria J. Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association; and George G. Hruby, an associate research professor of literacy and executive director of the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development at the University of Kentucky.

By David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby

Public debates about how to teach children to read have erupted periodically for decades. We are now in another cycle of those debates. Mainstream news sources are reporting, and in some cases fueling, the latest installment of the “reading wars.” More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.

Since last March, the pandemic, the struggling economy, the movement for racial justice, November’s presidential election and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol have all muted attention to these issues. But they are again gaining traction, and with a new twist.

Parents who have had to take on their children’s reading instruction at home are asking more questions and seeking informed advice. Marketers of some instructional materials have taken advantage of the situation offering ready-made, and sometimes overly promised, solutions. So, the debates about early reading instruction have a renewed immediacy.

This latest flare-up taps familiar themes. First, reasonable differences among qualified professionals are framed as a war between opposing factions. Second, phonics, as an approach to teaching reading, is a flash point. Finally, mainstream educators are portrayed as purveyors, or clueless victims, of conspiratorial resistance to scientific evidence. The latter theme is sometimes punctuated with anecdotes from distraught parents who have been led to believe that their children are being betrayed by an unenlightened educational establishment.

These themes make for a compelling journalistic narrative and they can benefit for-profit interests outside mainstream education, particularly during a pandemic when many parents are seeking help teaching reading at home. But, they also obscure established evidence that teaching reading is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Overlooked is the common ground shared by those who draw different conclusions on the finer points of available research.

Phonics is the prime example. Few legitimate experts on teaching reading oppose teaching children phonics. Despite a timeworn narrative, there is no sharply drawn battle line dividing experts who completely support or completely oppose phonics.

Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum. On one end are those who see phonics as the foundation of learning to read for all students. To them, phonics — lots of it — is the essential ingredient that insures success for all students learning to read, and it must be mastered before other dimensions of reading are taught.

On the other end are those who see phonics as only one among many dimensions of learning to read — one that gains potency when integrated with meaningfully engaged reading and writing, with vocabulary and language development, with instruction aimed at increasing comprehension and fluency, and so forth. (For an extended discussion, click on this.)

Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties, or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.

There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.

There are other notable points of agreement. One is that phonics is not real reading. It is aptly referred to as “decoding,” because it teaches beginning readers to decipher letters into speech sounds. As such, it is a consciously applied, temporarily useful, set of technical skills that are, at best, a gateway to real reading for meaning, understanding, learning, and enjoyment. Phonics is a means to an end and only useful to the extent that it leads to real reading.

It is relatively easy to find measurable increases in decoding ability after phonics instruction. However, establishing a causal relation between approaches to phonics instruction and gains in real reading has been more elusive. Prominent studies across decades have failed to do so convincingly. One example is a critical review of several meta-analyses (comprehensive statistical analyses of effects across hundreds of studies), which was published recently in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. It found no clear advantage for programs with a strong emphasis on phonics compared to those foregrounding other approaches (click on this).

It is tempting to misappropriate science in claiming a higher ground in an argument, especially one framed as a war. Unfortunately, some have naively suggested that science has unequivocally resolved how reading must be taught to every child and that those who disagree are science deniers.

Not only is that conclusion unwarranted, it is quintessentially unscientific. Among scientists, scientific certainty is an oxymoron and the bar for even approaching certainty is extremely high. The science of reading is more about reducing ignorance than finding ultimate, immutable truths applicable to every child. In the reading wars, scientific certainty is often used rhetorically to deny reasonable differences and cut off healthy debate, turning science into scientism.

There are also reasonable differences about what scientific findings are most relevant and useful to teaching reading, again along a continuum.

On one end are those who turn mainly to research in disciplines such as neurology, cognitive science, and linguistics; others turn mainly to research focusing on educational factors directly related to instructional outcomes.

In any event, educators need to know more than what works pedagogically across many students in general. They need to know why it works, and what contextual and individual factors may qualify general findings. Such research is analogous to medical trials that determine not just the overall effectiveness of a drug, but its side effects, including those that are dangerous for patients with certain conditions.

Brain researchers and psychologists have cautioned against building bridges too far between their work and educational practice. One, Daniel Willingham, has stated the issue succinctly, “As one gets more distant from the desired level of analysis (the child in the classroom), the probability of learning anything useful diminishes.”

Put another way, there is an underlying “science” of everything. For example, chemistry is at the root of cooking, and physics underlies driving a car, but they play a limited role in teaching a chef to prepare palate-pleasing food or a teenager to drive safely to the grocery store.

Likewise, many decisions about teaching reading are necessarily practical and informed only marginally by the science of underlying reading processes. Phonics, again, is a good example. English is among the most irregularly spelled languages. (For a satirical rendering, click on this). Further, the most frequently used words in English — words that appear often, even in simple texts, and thus that children cannot avoid — have a high percentage of ambiguous or irregular letter-to-sound spellings.

For example, why isn’t “to” pronounced like “so” and “go”? What about “have” compared to “save,” or comparing “one,” “done,” and “lone”? Or, “some” and “home”? Frequent words like these can quickly muddy the phonics waters.

Thus, many educators reasonably teach a small set of high-frequency, irregularly spelled words as special cases. Doing so is a practical, sensible pedagogical decision, not one that is anti-phonics, taking sides in a war, or, necessarily justified by scientific evidence about the brain’s role in reading.

Another issue is that in an irregularly spelled language like English, teaching phonics often means introducing children to specialized vocabulary, including terms and concepts such as the following: vowel, consonant, long and short sounds, split/consonant/vowel digraphs, blends, clusters, schwa sound, diphthongs, silent letters, open/closed syllables, hard and soft sounds, r-controlled vowels, etc. The need for these terms reflects the complexity English spelling, adding a conceptual burden to teaching and learning phonics and raising a question about when phonics instruction may have diminishing returns.

Another issue is dialect. In some areas of the southern United States, for example, there may be little, if any, difference between the pronunciation of the word “wheel” and “will.” There are also students who hear, and often may be taught to read, a language other than English at home.

These are only a few examples of the complex issues that popularized narratives about a “reading war” obscure. When the teaching of reading is framed as a war, nuance and common areas of agreement are casualties.

But worse, our children can become innocent victims caught in a no man’s land between those more interested in winning a conflict than in meeting individual needs.

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