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Academic Freedom Isn't Free: The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Published in 1942 in The Elementary English Review, a flagship journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that later became Language Arts“Research in Language” is one of the most cited pieces by Lou LaBrant in my scholarship and public writing about education and literacy.

LaBrant served as president of NCTE in the 1950s, and along with being an active and influential literacy scholar, LaBrant was a practitioner over a staggering 65 years of teaching.

LaBrant made two incisive claims in this article:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. (pp. 88-89)

LABRANT, L. (1947, JANUARY). RESEARCH IN LANGUAGE. ELEMENTARY ENGLISH, 24(1), 86-94. HTTP://WWW.JSTOR.ORG/STABLE/41383425

Having written an educational biography of LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, I am vividly aware that LaBrant taught and wrote as a complex progressive who used the term “research” in broad Deweyan terms that included everything from gold-standard experimental research to the daily observations made by classroom teachers.

I cite her because as a practitioner and scholar I also embrace a very complicated understanding of “research,” “evidence,” and the word of the moment, “science.” I am also deeply skeptical of textbooks and programs.

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S.

Almost for as long—I discovered the movement a few months after it began—I have been waving a red flag, advocating for skepticism and extreme caution about that discourse, the media, public/parental, and political rhetoric. For that reason, I persist in placing the phrase in quote marks since I am specifically criticizing the discourse.

If anything, my criticism is having far too little impact on the consequences of the “science of reading” discourse that is driving many states to adopt new reading legislation. And on social media, I am routinely attacked, often quite aggressively, as a science denier and someone intent on hurting children (although I have been a life-long educator across five decades as both a K-12 classroom teacher and a college professor).

I am also often discredited and told that journalists, parents, and politicians understand my own field better than I do.

Part of the problem with debating the “science of reading” movement is the term itself, one that has at least three different meanings, a multiverse if you will (although absent, darn it, Doctor Strange or Wanda).

Doctor Strange (v.4) issue 2

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, here, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018.

“Science of Reading” as Media, Public/Parental, and Political Discourse. Beginning with Emily Hanford and then perpetuated by mainstream media (Education Week and the New York Times, notably), the “science of reading” is a narrative that claims teachers are not teaching students to read using the “science of reading” because teacher educators have failed to teach the “science of reading” in teacher prep programs. Concurrently, this discourse also blames low student reading achievement on the dominance of balanced literacy reading programs (often erroneously) since, as advocates claim, balance literacy is not grounded in the “science of reading.” This version of the “science of reading” maintains that primarily (or even only) cognitive science research is the “science” that counts and that the “simple view” of reading is the one valid theory of reading supported by the “science of reading.” [Note: This is the version of the “science of reading” that most of my scholarly and public writing challenges as misguided and harmful; see herehere, and here.]

“Science of Reading” as Marketing and Branding. Since the “science of reading” advocacy identified above has been extremely effective, states are adopting new reading legislation, some of which directly bans popular reading programs and then narrowly mandates the use of materials and programs that meet the narrow characterization above. This means education companies, especially ones focusing on literacy, have begun to brand and rebrand their materials as programs with the “science of reading.” For example:

As a market response to legislation, as well, some popular reading programs have responded to this version of the phrase. This marketing dynamic is very common in education. Many years ago, I attended a state-level literacy conference where Smokey Daniels spoke. Daniels is one of the top literacy scholars associated with the term “best practice”; however, he warned then that the term had been quickly co-opted by textbook publishers and that there was no mechanism for insuring that something labeled “best practice” was, in fact, demonstrating those concepts (the same problem exists for “whole language” and “balanced literacy”).

“Science of Reading” as Shorthand for the Research Base for Teaching Reading. This is what LaBrant referred to as the “research currently available” in 1942. The irony in this use of the phrase is that many people have been using some form of this phrase for a century—”research,” “science,” “evidence.” And of course, scholars and practitioners are often aware of and practicing many aspects of that “science”—even though science, research, and evidence are all necessarily in a state of flux (and thus, LaBrant’s nod to “currently available”). To be blunt, no reasonable or informed person would reject this use of the “science of reading.” However, I must note that this use is almost entirely absent in public discourse; it remains used almost exclusively among researchers and some practitioners. Another irony, in fact, is that the first use of the phrase above is itself a gross mischaracterization of this complex and broad use.

Because of these different and often conflicting uses of the “science of reading,” we are experiencing incredibly jumbled and even nonsensical outcomes such as teachers being required to attend training in programs that are not supported by research (LETRS) and states adopting reading legislation that implement practices that are not supported by research (grade retention).

So, if you return to LaBrant’s claims above, you may notice an eerie similarity between her valid assertions and the current “science of reading” discourse that is not credible even as it is highly effective.

The problem is that teaching, learning, and literacy are extremely complex human behaviors that resist simple labels or explanations—and also defy efforts to prescribe templates that will magically fulfill the urge for “all students must.”

Alas, in this multiverse there is no magic.


Recommended

Paul Thomas How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher educati...