Science of Reading Myths

It is a new year and I hope you will join me in learning more about the science of reading.  Our journey should not be one of confirming what we already know about reading or validating our experiences.  Instead, consider what it would mean to change your approach to reading instruction based on scientific facts. 

“The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.”

Adam Grant, Think Again

Many of us have heard of the term “science of reading” in the last several years.  Emily Hanford eloquently highlighted this research in several of her podcasts including Hard Words and Sold a Story. If you have not listened to them, I highly recommend them.  But as with many topics in our society, the science of reading has often been misconstrued.  Is that because of ignorance, willful denial, apathy, assumptions, or some combination?  The answer to that lies in the individual.  But I would like to address three myths about the science of reading that will hopefully help start a productive dialogue to help our nation’s students. 

Myth #1: The science of reading is just another pendulum swing

Five decades of scientific studies contribute to the body of knowledge referred to as the science of reading. The science is cross-disciplinary including neuroscience, psychology, language, and education. It is not new, and it is NOT part of a pendulum swing in education. 

Pendulum swings in education have been based on well-meaning opinions and theories.  For example, past educational theories assumed that the end goal of comprehension should guide the instruction.  But the 50+ years of research is clear: The most direct route to reading comprehension is automatic word reading.  When this occurs, the student can focus all his mental energy on comprehending text instead of decoding. 

And thanks to thousands of brain studies and peer-reviewed scientific studies, we now know how ALL brains learn to read.  The science is clear and steadfast in this.  The science is not an approach, skill, or curriculum.  This research provides us with the information on how best to teach reading, the parts of the brain required for reading, and the skills needed for ALL readers.  The science consistently finds that explicit teaching in foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, spelling) is what is needed to produce proficient readers.

Myth #2: The science of reading is only about phonics

I have often heard educators say, “We move from learning to read to reading to learn.”  But that is not what the science says.  The science looks at all parts of reading and the role of language acquisition before reading.  Children learn skills that are crucial for reading and learning starting from birth.  Their oral language/vocabulary development in ages 0-5 plays a key role in their acquisition of language and comprehension.  As young children learn to read, the science stresses that we must assess and explicitly teach both word recognition and language comprehension.  Effective teachers of reading instruct with every layer of language. These include phonemes, syllables, morphemes, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and various genres of text. Their teaching strategies are explicit, systematic, and engaging.

While attending to both language skills and word-reading, the science is definitive on the fact that most children require direct instruction of code-based skills (phonics) beyond first grade. We should move away from balanced literacy that focuses on reading whole words, little reliance on phonemic awareness, sprinkling in phonics, leveled readers at an early age, and little to no instruction in the logic of English. 

Instead, we should shift to a Structured Literacy approach. This approach balances all parts of reading at the appropriate age and intensity.  We should teach younger students direct, systematic phonics and phonemic awareness and give them ample opportunities to practice the skills in decodable texts.  We can support their oral language skills through engaging read-alouds, and class discussions. As the students master more foundational skills, we can shift our explicit instruction to higher level phonemic awareness, morphology, a broader array of texts, comprehension strategies, and deeper vocabulary development.

So, why do people focus so much on phonics?

Perhaps people have placed so much focus on “phonics” in the science of reading conversations because of the copious amounts of research on the topic. Also, explicit, systematic phonics instruction is one of the more concrete parts of the science to implement in any classroom. When teachers are well trained in a Structured Literacy approach that is based in explicit teaching of the foundational skills, from there they can appropriately teach all reading, language, and comprehension skills.

Myth #3: Sprinkling in phonics is enough

Sprinkling in phonics to a balanced literacy approach is like doing a few extra pushups a day to lose weight.  Yes, pushups are excellent. But until you address your foundational “diet” of reading, no number of pushups will help you lose weight.  Instead, we need to create a reading “diet” for our students that is rich in explicit, systematic phonics and supported with authentic instruction in language comprehension and linguistic skills.

Most curricula today include some portion of phonics to be able to “check that box.”  But as I stated above, it is the explicit, systematic instruction of phonics that science says makes the difference.  Curricula that incorporate incidental phonics and encourage students to use pictures, context clues, and guessing as tools to decode are not supported by the science of reading.  Brain studies have confirmed how the brain learns to read. Proficient readers do not rely on pictures or context clues. So, why would we spend precious time teaching reading strategies like this that hinder a child’s reading progress?

Most reading failure is unnecessary. The science tells us that teachers can prevent 95% of reading difficulties. This can be accomplished with a Structured Literacy approach of phonemic awareness, explicit phonics, morphology, oral language, comprehension, and etymology. So, I hope that you will continue to keep an open mind as we all learn more about the science of reading and how best to teach our students.

“It takes curiosity to learn.  It takes courage to unlearn. Learning requires the humility to admit what you don’t know today. Unlearning requires the integrity to admit that you were wrong yesterday.”

Adam Grant

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