Monday, May 3, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 1: Focus on the Child

Last week I wrote a post, Unsettling the Science of Reading Narrative that highlighted a new report from the Literacy Research Association, on dyslexia and the Science of Reading. The report titled An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications,  by Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon, posits that 1) "dyslexia" is not a useful term for guiding teachers in making literacy instructional decisions and  2) the "Science of Reading (SOR)" narrative, which states that a heavy phonics emphasis is the best and only way to teach reading to dyslexics and everyone else, is neither accurate nor scientific. Several readers of that post responded favorably, but asked, "Given that SOR has the support of the media, powerful parent lobbying groups, and state legislatures, what can we as teachers and literacy leaders do about it?" The question is a good one and the answer is complex. I will try to respond to that question over the next several posts. I think to turn this narrative around, which in various guises has been circulating since at least the 1950s, we need to start locally and then move our message more globally. The place to start is with a focus on the child. In later posts I will focus on the parent, the teacher, the school board, and beyond.

Child Focused Response

When we focus on the child the absurdity of SOR becomes clear. Early screening of children using such tools as Marie Clay's Observational Survey can help us identify children who are at risk. Research indicates that early intervention with at risk readers is effective for most. Research also suggests that focusing instruction on one aspect of reading, say decoding, to the exclusion of others doesn't necessarily translate into improved reading. What we do know is that at risk children benefit from rich and varied literacy instruction. This includes explicit instruction designed to develop the ability to analyze the sounds in spoken words (phonological awareness), an understanding of how print is related to the sounds in spoken words (alphabetic code), and the predictable patterns of letters in printed words (orthographic structure). This word focused instruction must be combined with instruction designed to develop reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. One final critical aspect is motivation. Teachers  need to guide children toward developing what Johnston and Scanlon call "a strong positive relationship to literacy."

When we identify a child as "at risk", we risk making the mistake of grouping that child into a category and applying instruction meant to address children in that category. Every child, and every at risk child, however, is an individual with individual strengths and weaknesses. The original screening should not be seen as a prescription for a certain kind of instruction, but rather as a guide to help the teacher begin to probe the individual needs of each learner. Perhaps for some children teachers need to focus on developing a rich oral language to underpin literacy learning. Perhaps for others teachers need to help them develop a positive attitude toward literacy through exposure to books and stories and talk that invite them in to the literacy world. Perhaps with others teachers need to help build the experiential knowledge that will help them comprehend what they read. And, of course, with most teachers will need to provide instruction in the way the sounds and symbols of our language works.  

Children who struggle in reading are as individual and unique as snowflakes. We know what instruction works generally, but we don't know what critical combinations of instruction will work with each individual child. While our early intervention attempts will work for many, some children will not progress. When the child fails to respond to instruction, Johnston and Scanlon suggest our best response is not to label the child dyslexic or to double down on the same instruction, but to try something different. The person in the best position to make these critical instructional judgments is the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher can only make those judgments through informed, systematic, and documented instructional moves over time. 

As the teacher works with individual students and provides instruction, they begin to deepen their original diagnosis of "at risk" to a richer and fuller understanding of the child's individual needs as a literacy learner. This knowledge is powerful. Not only does a deep knowledge of the child as a learner help the teacher design instruction that will help the child grow in reading, that knowledge also gives the teacher the information needed to talk to parents and other stakeholders about the needs of this individual child in a holistic sense, rather than through the label "dyslexic." It also helps teachers to argue against simple prescriptive reading program recommendations. Too often when children do not thrive in literacy learning, an Orton-Gillingham style, phonics-heavy program is prescribed when the individual child's needs are much more complex than a "more phonics" approach. The teacher's focus on the child provides the ammunition to combat this Science of Reading narrative, with a clear, more complex picture of the child as a learner.

In my next post, I will take us into a potential parent-teacher conference, where the parents are arguing for a dyslexia label for their child and for a SOR instructional approach from the teacher. We'll see how the teacher can use their knowledge of the child to combat the SOR narrative on the parent level.


  1. WHAT? This blog post makes no sense. What is wrong with Science of Reading? SOR is wanting teachers to give ALL students a strong foundation of phonics. How is that not accurate or scientific? You can give all students a rich and varied literacy instruction while giving them all a strong foundation in phonics. It is not one or the other. It's BOTH.
    Are you saying no one should have a strong foundation in phonics? That's absurd too. What is your true dislike of phonics? How does a strong phonics harm any child? Do you have accurate and scientific proof that a strong phonics foundation harms a child - dyslexic or not?

    1. I don’t think you read what I wrote.

      “What we do know is that at risk children benefit from rich and varied literacy instruction. This includes explicit instruction designed to develop the ability to analyze the sounds in spoken words (phonological awareness), an understanding of how print is related to the sounds in spoken words (alphabetic code), and the predictable patterns of letters in printed words (orthographic structure).”

    2. What part of your response is not SOR?

    3. None. That is my point. I was responding to the comment that I had ignored phonics. The SOR narrative I address in the piece is the narrow view that the “settled science” of reading instruction is a heavy phonics focus. This is wrong. The research on reading instruction is much more nuanced and complex.

    4. There is nothing "heavy phonics" about SOR. SOR says you teach PA and phonics and ensure each student gets as many repetitions of each PA/phonics lesson to achieve competency in that skill. For some students that may be once, for others that be many and include additional time in small group and/or intervention. There is also nothing in SOR that precludes "rich and varied” literacy instruction. Quality SOR programs include all 5 pillars as defined by the NRP. In addition to the "settled science" that quality literacy instruction must include PA and Phonics (which the non-SOR community has finally conceded and now bolt on to their MSV/3-cueing curriculum) is the "settled science" that teaching students to "guess" at words when reading via pictures or context is not "reading" instruction. Kids need to be taught to decode words when "reading." Pictures and context can support students in learning vocabulary and comprehension, but these cues should not be taught as strategies in "reading"/"pulling" words from the page. And that's what Scanlon gets wrong, in addition to her assertion that "dyslexia" is not a useful term for guiding teachers in making literacy instructional decisions. Teachers KNOWING their students academic and emotional needs is critical in driving all instruction. Every time she makes this statement it clearly demonstrates her lack of understanding and expertise of dyslexia. Dyslexia is, to borrow your words, nuanced and complex. Teachers need to be cued to watch for identification of other typical co-morbidities of dyslexics (depression, self-esteem, ADHD, etc.) that may interfere with literacy instruction, but can be addressed through medications, supports, and accommodations.

    5. One person’s guessing is another person’s problem solving, I suppose. Using problem solving strategies to decode a word is a useful strategy as Johnston and Scanlon point out. I think there is merit to the author’s contention that instruction would no the be different for students whether labeled dyslexic or not. Perhaps our differences here are a matter of emphasis. SOR has been linked to a heavy phonics emphasis with the other dimensions taking a lesser role in instruction despite, as Johnston and Scanlon point out, there is no evidence such an emphasis results in improved comprehension. I understand we will not come to agreement here. I will keep reading the research and stand ready to revise my thinking as more empirical evidence becomes available.