A Straw Man Argument about the Science of Reading

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Reading Wars

With decades of research, experience, and intelligent conversations, how are we still “at war” when it comes to reading? First I will say that I operate under the assumption that ALL teachers go into education to help students learn. Educators go to school to learn pedagogy, instructional practices, and the current research to support our students. But somewhere along the way teachers have become divided on the issue of how we should teach reading.

In the realm of education, especially in the elementary school setting, there has been an ongoing debate often referred to as the “reading wars.” Some erroneously explain that the reading wars are between balanced literacy and the science of reading. But balanced literacy is an approach to teaching reading and the science of reading is a compilation of multidisciplinary evidence about the how and why of literacy instruction. So before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re accurately comparing apples to apples.

The Straw Man Argument

Continuing with the “reading wars” metaphor, we have advocates of the balanced literacy approach on one side, and on the other, supporters of a Structured Literacy approach. As more people learn about the science of reading, they realize a balanced literacy approach is not best for most students. Many advocates for balanced literacy (like the infamous Lucy Calkins) try and dismantle the results of the science of reading as they witness their preferred reading approach falling under attack. Amidst this debate, one particular argument stands out: the straw man argument made by proponents of balanced literacy, suggesting that the science of reading is all about phonics.

Let’s break this down for those who are caught in the crossfire, unsure of which side to believe in. It’s crucial to recognize that this straw man argument is just that – a misrepresentation of the science of reading.

The Science of Reading

The science of reading encompasses a comprehensive approach to literacy, far beyond the narrow confines of phonics. It recognizes that proficient reading and comprehension are multifaceted, requiring explicit instruction in various key areas. These include (but are not limited to):

  1. Phonics: Yes, phonics is an essential component, but it’s not the whole story. The science of reading acknowledges the importance of teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters. This helps them decode words effectively.
  2. Phonemic Awareness: An awareness of the individual speech sounds in words is a crucial piece of learning to read. Instruction in this can start as early as preschool and continue for many years.
  3. Vocabulary: A rich vocabulary is like a treasure trove for young readers. Understanding the meaning of words and their contextual usage is fundamental to comprehension.
  4. Background Knowledge: Reading comprehension often hinges on a student’s background knowledge. The more they know about a topic, the easier it is to understand related texts.
  5. Syntax: Understanding sentence structure, grammar, and syntax helps students make sense of complex sentences and passages.
  6. Comprehension: Ultimately, the goal of reading is comprehension. Students need strategies to understand, analyze, and synthesize information from texts.

So, when proponents of balanced literacy suggest that the science of reading is only about phonics, they are setting up a straw man argument. They are attacking a simplified, distorted version of the real science of reading in an attempt to preserve their faulty approach to teaching reading.

So, What Do We Do Now?

My message to elementary school teachers and administrators is clear: do not be swayed by this straw man’s argument. Instead, embrace the real science of reading. The results of 50+ years of research advocates for a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction that expertly weaves together all aspects of literacy. Many skills are required of proficient readers. All students will benefit from having us teach them these skills explicitly and systematically. By doing so, we empower our students to become confident, proficient readers who can tackle any text with ease. It’s not about choosing sides; it’s about equipping ourselves with the best tools to support all our students.

Let’s move past the false dichotomy of the reading wars. Instead, let us focus our energy on the students who need our help.

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