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Radical Eyes for Equity: SOR Endgame: The Reading Program Boondoggle

Within a year or so of the initial “science of reading” (SOR) media campaign launch in 2018, states such as Arkansas banned reading instruction (three-cueing) that effectively banned some of the most popular and demonized reading programs in the US.

This was the canary in the coal mine for one of the most powerful (but ignored) elements of the SOR movement—reading program marketing.

In order for a new reading program market place to open, the existing programs had to be vilified and then, ultimately, banned and replaced (see here and here).

The uncritical endorsement of the SOR story remains a central feature of media coverage even as the inherent problems and flaws with that story and it consequences are beginning to be acknowledged:

And the next shoe has dropped, fulfilling the logical consequences of the entire SOR movement [1] built on false and oversimplified cries of crisis and demonizing of literacy frameworks (balanced literacy) and popular programs (Fountas and Pinnell, and Calkins’s Units of Study):

Principals historically have enjoyed enormous leeway to select curriculums. Proponents argue this allows schools to stay nimble and select materials appropriate to their specific student populations. But some experts, and even the city’s own schools chancellors, have argued that the approach can lead to a tangle of instructional practices that can vary widely in quality from classroom to classroom. 

Now, officials are taking steps to rein in the city’s free-wheeling approach to curriculum. Beginning next school year, elementary schools in about half of the city’s 32 districts will be required to use one of three reading programs: Wit & Wisdom, from a company called Great Minds; Into Reading from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; or Expeditionary Learning, from EL Education.

By September 2024, city officials are expected to require all elementary schools to use one of those three options, according to an education department official familiar with the city’s plans.

NYC schools could soon be forced to adopt a mandated reading curriculum, sources say

NYC has been a disturbing and important example of the very worst aspects of the media-driven political responses to a false story (see here and here). The city is proof that a false story has more influence than actual evidence or science.

Blaming balanced literacy and popular reading programs for a reading crisis that doesn’t exist lacks scientific research:

I am, like you, struck by the degree to which people are willing to invoke a literacy crisis, when the data do not support anything like a literacy crisis. NAEP scores, aside from the pandemic then– but NAEP scores, over the last 10, 15 years have grown– slowly, but they have gotten better in literacy. 

And it’s deeply puzzling to me why we have all of this public discourse about a literacy crisis. If I were deeply cynical, I would say it’s probably a useful technique for companies that are trying to sell their programs to get people to buy those programs, if parents and some school districts are very agitated about the so-called literacy crisis. 

Now that isn’t to say that all American children are doing wonderfully in literacy. Obviously, they aren’t. But it is to say that there’s not a new or a sudden decline in literacy performance, other than that associated with the dip that had to do with the pandemic. 

Harvard EdCast: To Weather the “Literacy Crisis,” Do What Works

As Snow notes, claiming crisis is not supported by the most common evidence cited, NAEP trends:

And many scholars have raised concerns about structured literacy (the proposed alternative to balanced literacy in the SOR movement):

We recognize that some teachers using structured literacy approaches will find ways to respond to the interests, experiences, and literacy abilities of individual students; however, we are concerned about the indiscriminate and unwarranted implementation of the following practices:

• Directive and/or scripted lessons that tell teachers what to say and do and the implementation of lesson sequences, often at a predetermined pace (Hanford, 2018)

• Privileging of phonemic awareness and phonics as primary decoding skills (Hanford, 2018, 2019; IDA,2019; Paige, 2020; Pierson, n.d.; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Use of decodable texts that do not engage multiple dimensions of reading (Hanford, 2018; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Specialized forms of reading instruction designed for particular groups of students as core literacy instruction for all students and teacher educators (Hanford, 2018; Hurford et al., 2016; IDA, 2019; Pierson, n.d.)

• Mandating structured literacy programs despite the lack of clear empirical evidence to support these programs

• Privileging the interest of publishers and private education providers over students

Particular concerns relate to the assertion that there is a consensus across the research community about the primacy of systematic phonics approaches. This supposedly undisputed consensus was severely challenged by the findings of a review of meta-analyses (Bowers, 2020).

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195.

Further, at least one of the mandated reading programs (Into Reading from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) for NYC, where a high percentage of diverse students are being served, has been identified as not meeting social justice and diversity goals:

1. All three curricula were Culturally Destructive or Culturally Insufficient.

2. All three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.

3. All three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling that provided a single, ahistorical narrative. 

4. All three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color, while encouraging empathy and connection with White characters.

5. All three curricula provided little to no guidance for teachers on engaging students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds and cultures; or reflecting on their own bias, beliefs and experiences.

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The education market churns is the actual endgame of the SOR movement. The only people likely to benefit from the SOR story are journalists, politicians, and the corporations willing to jump on the reading program branding bandwagon.

The reading problems today are little different than overt the last 80 years, and most of the causes of those problems remain outside of schools—home and community poverty and inequity—and linked to in-school issues of equity, not reading programs or reading philosophies and practices.

Yet, on the horizon, it seems, schools, teachers, and students are going to be bombarded by “structured literacy”—at least until the next unwarranted reading crisis is declared so another round of blame, ban, and adopt can start all over again.


See the plan here in this proposed bill in Ohio:

[1] Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.


What Reading Program Should Schools Adopt?

Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145-S155. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics


The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?, Maren Aukerman, The University of Calgary

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida


Harvard EdCast: To Weather the “Literacy Crisis,” Do What Works

Disrupting the Disruptors: Reimagining Policy Advocacy in a Post-Truth Era, Helen Aydarova

Caught In a Web of Privatizers: Science of Reading Reforms in the State of Tennessee, Helen Aydarova

“Whatever You Want to Call It”: Science of Reading Mythologies in the Educational Reform Movement, Helen Aydarova

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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 education. He...