Of ‘Hard Words’ and Straw Men: Let’s Understand What Reading Science is Really About
Emily Hanford of American Public Media has written several award-winning reports about dyslexia and reading instruction (“At a Loss for Words: What’s Wrong with How Schools Teach Reading?”). Each one has prompted nationwide discussion. I applaud the depth and insightfulness of these remarkable blogs and podcasts. You can listen to an interview with Hanford on this subject on October 22, 2019 here.
The time has come to call the public’s attention to reading science and to dispel the misconceived beliefs and practices that are so widespread in our classrooms. Not all readers and listeners, however, are persuaded by Hanford’s reporting. Various critics’ blogs and opinion papers have challenged her analyses. In doing so, unfortunately, these skeptics have resurrected some worn-out straw men that once again, require rebuttal. They include the idea that reading science is just about phonics and scripted programs; that it does not address all the important aspects of teaching; and that it does not address reading comprehension.
First, the body of work referred to as “the science of reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don’t learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students. Mark Seidenberg’s (2017) book, Language at the Speed of Sight, summarizes that science as well as any.
Second, with regard to the importance of teaching phonics systematically, explicitly, and cumulatively, the scientific consensus (see Foorman et al., 2016) is very strong. Most of the studies that show positive effects in comparison to “business as usual” have provided phonics instruction about 30–45 minutes per day, using different instructional materials. Good phonics instruction, moreover, is hands-on and moves from presentation of a concept to practice exercises and then to its direct application in reading and spelling. If phonics instruction is boring, rote, or meaningless, as critics tend to claim, the fault is with the practitioner and/or program designer. As we provide LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) professional development around the country, we find that many teachers simply don’t know how to make phonics lessons fun and engaging. That is mainly because they have not been taught how spoken and written words work, and they are uncomfortable teaching students how to decode and spell. We can change that with good courses, better materials, and professional development like LETRS.
Third, the body of scientific evidence about reading is not limited to the importance of phonics instruction. Perhaps the most critical and least-practiced component of effective early instruction is phoneme awareness. Awareness of the sounds that make up spoken words, facility at manipulating those sounds, and the links between speech and print must be mastered for students to be fluent readers and accurate spellers of an alphabetic writing system like ours. Phonics and spelling instruction may not make sense to students unless they are developing a fairly high level of proficiency with phoneme awareness (see Kilpatrick, 2015). Yet we still have many classrooms where little to no deliberate development of phonological skills takes place, and many kids fall behind as a result. The best antidote for this problem is instruction for teachers in the speech sound system and its correspondence with print, supported by good instructional materials.
Fourth, reading science has not neglected the importance of language comprehension and the challenges of reading comprehension. While this aspect of reading is more difficult to research than foundational reading skills, we can hang our hat on certain robust findings. They include the critical importance of building vocabulary and background knowledge for text reading, and the value of a content-rich curriculum that is more focused on what the students are learning about than it is on teaching specific comprehension skills (e.g., see Wexler, 2019). Comprehension skills, such as how to find the main idea or how to write a summary, generalize better if they are practiced in the context of learning about a worthwhile topic.
As the Hard Words reports have documented, much classroom instruction is driven by ideas advanced by “balanced literacy” programs. “Balance” is an appealing term but in reality, it has meant little to no systematic instruction in foundational reading skills, including phoneme awareness, phonics, and fluent word recognition. Children are taught to rely on context and pictures to identify printed words, a practice that reinforces what poor readers naturally do. In all respects, from word reading skills to language comprehension development, these approaches are not consistent with best evidence.
A well-designed early-reading program would teach these foundational skills explicitly and systematically, with adequate time devoted to each:
- Awareness of speech sounds, segmentation, manipulation of sounds
- Letter formation and writing by hand
- Phoneme-grapheme correspondences
- Spelling patterns
- Meaningful word parts (morphemes)
Then, each skill or concept would be applied to phrase, sentence, and passage reading—we hope in the context of learning about something of importance. Then, language comprehension can be nurtured through rich content learning, reading aloud, classroom discussion, and deliberate study of language at the level of sentences, paragraphs, and longer texts. Good instruction is never “regurgitation without comprehension.”
We are, of course, facing many difficult challenges in education. But how to teach reading so most students learn early and well—THAT should be on the list of things we can do something about. We just have to bury a few more of those straw men.
Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: http://whatworks.ed.gov
Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Wexler, N. (2019). The knowledge gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education system--and how to fix it. Random House, Avery Publishing Group.