The Science of Reading

From the very beginning of the public-school movement in the 1840’s, educators held heated debates about the most effective teaching method to help children learn how to read. Early in the history of our public schools, Horace Mann and his opponents argued over different reading philosophies, but these disagreements were all based on arm-chair psychology, as no legitimate reading science yet existed. Over time, this disagreement developed into the so-called “Reading Wars,” a vicious disagreement between educators and non-educators alike about the most effective way to teach young students how to read. Some teachers supported a phonics-first (or code-emphasis) approach, while others subscribed to a pedagogy known as whole language. Unfortunately, as the science on reading has improved dramatically since the 1840’s, the application of the science has not. Stuck in a centuries-old debate, many educators fail to understand and apply what the scientific research indicates about how students can best learn how to read, and teachers often remain in a philosophical debate devoid of any empirical evidence. 

In 2019, the lack of reading ability prevents far too many students from reaching grade level standards; research from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy finds that about one in seven American adults struggle to read a children’s picture book (White & Dillow, 2005). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development subsequently found that 50 percent of American adults cannot read a chapter book written for an eighth-grader (Strauss, 2016). This post will review the contemporary peer-reviewed literature on the science of reading and conduct virtual empathy interviews to look to uncover why many American educators do not implement the science of reading into their classrooms and pedagogy.L

Reading Science

First, let us define the difference between reading science and reading pedagogy. Reading science is a hard science, often executed by medical psychologists and research linguists that utilize brain imaging techniques and controlled experimental studies to discover the neuroscience behind how people learn to read. Over the past 80 years or so, hundreds of peer-reviewed articles printed in scientific journals have found that reading does not come naturally because the human brain is not hard-wired to read, and that students must be explicitly taught how to read by phonics, which means connecting sounds with letters (Hanford, 2018). From an evolutionary-biological perspective, humans roamed the earth for thousands of years before the first proof of written language was found in ancient Mesopotamia. Brain imaging has found that when children learn how to read, their brains physically re-wire themselves; as such, “reading isn’t a subject that can be studied all by itself. It’s a mental activity connected with one aspect of the English language” (Flesch, 1955). Over time, reading scientists have formed a “remarkable consensus about the basic theory of how reading works and the causes of reading success and failures” which has led to “the development of methods that can reliably help many children who struggle how to read” (Seidenberg, 2018). The research from the National Academy of Sciences indicates that there arefive main components of learning how to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension; these “five essential, scientifically-proven reading fundamentals that incontrovertibly underlie the ability to learn to read accurately, fluently, and with comprehension, an ability that eludes far too many school children today” (Strauss, 2013).

Other researchers have found that a heavier code emphasis is also effective for students coming from lower socio-economic households (Chall, 1967). Unfortunately, “Most school-children in the United States are taught to read by the meaning-emphasis method. Yet the research indicates that a code-emphasis method produces better results” (Chall, 1967). This is because students that are taught by the whole-language method “never catch on to the letter-sound relationships of the English Language” (Flesch, 1983). Although there are plenty of aspects of a whole-language approach that are important in developing student’s literacy abilities later in elementary school, there is “no debate at this point among scientists that reading is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught by showing children the ways that sounds and letters correspond” (Hanford, 2018). If this science is so clear on how students best learn how to read, why are educators not teaching it? 

Reading Pedagogy 

Although there is overwhelming consensus amongst reading scientists as to how students best learn how read, this research rarely finds its way into the classroom. It has been noted how there is a “profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice. Very little of what we’ve learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools” (Seidenberg, 2018).  In a landmark report from 2018:

“It was found that the prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again”

(Hanford, 2018).

By now, it is clear that there is a rather large disconnect between the reading science and the pedagogy teachers utilize in classrooms throughout the country. One of these disconnects can be attributed to the fact that the culture of science is different from the culture of education, where personal experience is often given more value than empirical research.

The culture of education

The culture of education is one of the main culprits for the disconnect described above. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers are not taught the science of reading; some argue that this is because “many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it… as a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail” (Hanford, 2018). 

To this point, a recent study performed by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that less than twenty percent of teacher licensure programs at graduate schools of education addressed the five fundamental components of reading and provided adequate instruction in the science of reading to pre-service teachers; even more disconcertingly, only five programs in the entire country were designated as a “strongly designed” program (Rickenbrode, R. & Walsh, 2013).  During one interview, a teacher noted that:

“To earn my [masters of education in teaching], I had to demonstrate my ‘passionate commitment to learning’ and show proof that I was a ‘reflective practitioner…. there’s no visible evidence, in my portfolio or in my memory, that suggests any attention to psychology, cognitive science, language development, or the rich body of research in those fields that might shape our views of teaching and learning”

(Will, 2018)

Indeed, although many leading experts on the science of reading work in the same universities that have robust graduate schools of education, reading researchers and education researchers rarely interact, and often attend different conferences and publish their findings in different journals (Hanford, 2018). Some have even put forward that professors of education have “largely ignored the scientific knowledge that informs reading acquisition… as a result, the pre-service teachers who are being educated at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training” (Hanford, 2018). 

This means that, in far too many programs throughout the country, pre-service teachers “who enter the field of education do not gain exposure to modern research in cognition, child development, and cognitive neuroscience” (Seidenberg, 2018). Graduate Schools of Education often do not explicitly teach the science of reading, and many principals and teachers alike have expressed great dissatisfaction with course syllabi and the lack of reading science given in colleges and universities (Will, 2018; Chall, 1967). In addition, many textbooks for pre-service teachers do not adequately cover the five fundamental components of the science of reading, and the related instructional procedures for teaching them (Joshi et. al., 2009). In addition to the paucity of information available about teaching these five main components, some education textbooks even present inaccurate information about the science of reading (Joshi et. al., 2009). 

All of these factors have contributed to a toxic vicious circle that leads to educators de-valuing empirical research published in peer-reviewed journals outside the field of education. To this point, “many teachers and administrators [have never been] influenced to make a change by an article that reported an experiment or that described a finding about the reading process. It seems that research findings, carefully selected for the purpose, serve primarily to back up decisions and commitments already made” (Chall, 1967).

Curriculum companies also have tremendous power in how students are being taught how to read (Chall, 1967). Many educators, and especially early career teachers, over-rely on these curriculum companies for guidance on how to best teach, some of which are highly effective, others of which are not (Flesch, 1983). By now, it is clear why many American educators do not implement the science of reading into their classrooms and pedagogy, but the question remains: how do we change this paradigm?

Looking Forward

In many ways, the “Reading Wars persist because of the continued dissemination of false information about the process of becoming an effective reader.” Put succinctly, this problem of practice needs to be addressed. We now offer a possible course of action to help connect the science of reading to help educators teach reading more effectively. We bucket organizational change efforts into three main categories – Graduate Schools of Education, teacher professional development, and education culture. 

Graduate Schools of Education

Author’s Note: Although this Review of Knowledge for Professional Practice has used the term Graduate Schools of Education throughout, we also include all pre-service teacher programs, including alternate route programs, that have the authority to offer teacher licenses; we will use the acronym GSE moving forward in this post. 

It seems as though GSE often confuse the philosophy of pedagogy with the science of reading; this paradigm needs to change. Every Dean at every GSE in the country should look to ensure that the syllabuses for classes that teaches pre-service teachers reaffirms learning science and ensures that their pre-service teachers are learning about the five fundamental aspects of reading. GSE’s should follow the NCTQ report and emulate the five most effective teacher preparation programs in the country.

Perhaps more boldly, GSE should look to diversify the instructors of their courses, and have professors with backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics teach the applied science of reading to their degree candidates. To this end, Deans must also ensure that their professors are “deeply familiar with the body of research-based knowledge about what will work to better educate children. The five early reading components are part of this knowledge. New teachers need to receive this expertise from the institutions charged with training them” (Rickenbrode & Walsh, 2013). 

Teacher Professional Development 

This critique was heavily focused on the disconnect between empirical research and practitioners through the lens of graduate schools of education. Though this post has found some legitimate problems of practice and offered possible solutions, a new line of inquiry has opened up: Teacher Professional Development. How are teachers developed, and why does the education field seem to trail the development in other professional fields such as medicine or law? A new question seems critical for the improvement process of literacy; a question that looks at the efficacy of teacher professional development and how we can develop practicing teachers more effectively. A future post will look consider teacher development to understand this separate yet related problem of practice. 

Conclusion: Changing the culture of education

The existing culture of education remains one of the biggest challenges that holds many teachers back from achieving the highest level of pedagogy possible. While we do not believe that following the recommendations of this Review of Knowledge for Professional Practice will solve all problems with reading and literacy, helping teachers understand how to apply the science of reading remains a tremendous opportunity that has yet to be realized. By implementing learning science, we can dramatically increase our country’s fluency and reading ability.

Works Cited

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College.

Flesch, R. (1955). Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It. New York: Harper & Row.

Flesch, R. (1983). Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A new look at the scandal of our schools. New York: Harper Colphon Books.

Hanford, E. (2018). Why aren’t kids being taught to read?APM Reports. Retrieved from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Joshi, R. M., Binks, E., Graham, L., Ocker-Dean, E., Smith, D. L., & Boulware-Gooden, R. (2009). Do Textbooks Used in University Reading Education Courses Conform to the Instructional Recommendations of the National Reading Panel? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(5), 458-463. doi:10.1177/0022219409338739

Rickenbrode, R. & Walsh, K. (2013). Lighting the way. The reading panel report ought to guide teacher preparation. American Educator. 36(3). pp. 30-35. 

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Strauss, V. (2013, September 17). Another blast in the reading wars. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/09/17/another-blast-in-the-reading-wars/

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