Monday, April 26, 2021

Unsettling the Science of Reading Narrative

Call me crazy, but when I learned I had cancer a few years ago, I did not immediately consult a journalist. Instead I chose to see an oncologist. When COVID broke out, I threw in my lot with Dr. Fauci and other infectious disease scientists, instead of a former reality TV star who suggested I inject bleach. And so, when I want advice on reading instruction, I avoid the journalists, the parent lobbying groups, the reading program sales reps, and the agenda driven pseudo-education organizations, and I look to the experts.

Two such experts, Peter Johnston and Deborah Scanlon of the University at Albany, have recently laid waste to the so called Science of Reading (SOR) in a thoughtful report written for the Literacy Research Association, An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications. I strongly recommend reading the entire report, but I would like to share a few takeaways that I think illuminate the current SOR debate. As the title of the report suggests, SOR cannot really be discussed outside of the context of the research related to dyslexia and the current push by well-organized parent and educator groups that argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties. Currently 42 states and the United States government  have invoked laws enshrining dyslexia. These laws are for the most part aligned with the SOR instructional perspective. The media has famously picked up on this and has helped fuel the narrative that dyslexia is the chief cause of reading difficulty and that SOR is the best instruction not just for those identified as dyslexic, but for all students.

Here are the key takeaways from the report:

  • There is no practical nor definitive way to decide who is and who is not dyslexic. They cite literacy researcher, Keith Stanovich who said in 2014, "The retiring of the word [dyslexia] is long overdue."
  • From an instructional standpoint there is no practical distinction between those classified as dyslexic and others at the low end of word reading ability. There is no evidence that our instructional response should be different for those identified as dyslexic.
  • There is strong evidence that most children identified in initial assessments as being at risk of having difficulty developing reading skills respond well to good first instruction and early intervention.
  • A small percentage of children, 2-6%, make slow progress despite our best efforts. We have little research on how to address these students persistent difficulties. This may be due to the belief that dyslexia is a permanent condition and to the assumption that we already know how to approach instruction for these children.
  • Reading is a complex process and comprehension is the central goal.
  • The idea that there is a "settled science" that has determined that systematic phonics approaches are the only way to approach reading instruction is simply wrong. Orton-Gillingham and derivative approaches like Wilson and Structured Literacy, the favored approach of groups like the International Dyslexia Association and the National Council on Teacher Quality,  has been found to be no more effective in improving reading comprehension than other types of intervention. 
  • There is agreement among researchers that children identified as potentially having difficulty learning to read benefit from explicit instruction designed to develop phonological sensitivity (the ability to analyze sounds in words).
  • Students should be encouraged to use context to direct and check decoding attempts. SOR advocates who say that use of context and pictures is a "disproven" theory are wrong.
  • There is no one right way to teach reading. Student's difficulties are unique to the individual students. Better to assume that the instruction we are providing is not meeting the student's needs and adjust accordingly, than to focus on one instructional approach.
  • Phonics instruction should be flexible and integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced program.
  • "Research suggests that teachers are the most important in-school factor in a child's learning. It is what teachers know and do, particularly in meeting the needs of individual students, rather than any programs or approaches they use, that are most influential in literacy outcomes."
To sum up: 
  1. Dyslexia is not a useful label.
  2. The Science of Reading is not settled, nor is it science.
  3. Evidence does not support the use of a heavy focus on phonics.
  4. Reading instruction should be balanced.
  5. Teachers are in the best position to make instructional decisions for individual students.
The work to overturn the Science of Reading narrative will be difficult. Parents and legislators like simple solutions to complex problems and terms like dyslexia and "settled science" are seductive. The stakes are high. The goal is clear. All professionals must work to foster a more nuanced view consistent with the research. Our children's access to informed instruction and a full, rich literacy depends on it.


  1. Please can you clarify the term settled science?

  2. I have just read the Johnston/Scanlon report where the term is clarified.

    1. Yvonne, As you no doubt read, the term “settled science” has been used by SOR advocates to give the impression that SOR is scientific fact. It is not.

    2. Thank you so much for this! I work in a district that is pushing "The Science of Reading" due to the fact that they don't know how/want to give ownership of teaching and learning to their teachers. As a reading specialist, I am very discouraged by this pseudo-science.

    3. I am sorry to hear this. We need to fight back with information and clear alternatives. It is reading specialists and classroom teachers who must lead the fight by modeling good instruction.

  3. This is excellent. Thank you for writing. But how do we push back? How do we get rid of these laws?
    What kinds of laws replace them? Getting rid of read by 3rd grade laws as they push standardized testing on kindies and label way too early. They also promote developmentally inappropriate practice.
    What do we want instead?

    1. Stef, As classroom teachers we have the advantage of being in the classroom and can use that advantage to meet individual needs. As professionals it may seem that we don’t have a voice, but we do if we choose to use it. Supporting professional organizations is one way. Being a persistent voice at Board meetings and parent gatherings is another. I will explore some of what we can do in future posts.

  4. You give me hope! Thank you.

  5. Russ, I love your analogy at the beginning. This is a great summary of Peter Johnston's and DONNA Scanlon's work. I am fortunate to have been educated by them and to have worked with them for many years. They are both brilliant researchers and educators!

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I have always loved their work.