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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Where’s the “Evidence” in State-Mandated Science of Reading Programs?

Last I looked, thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have signed reading laws (Schwartz 2024). Parents, educators, school administrators, and state and local policymakers hear the Science of Reading is critical for children to read, and “evidence-based” and “research-based” are words tagged to make believers. But finding the evidence takes work.

Scholars are raising serious questions about the Science of Reading and its existence, including equity claims. This raises more concerns about the programs purchased by states and school districts promising the Science of Reading.

For example, Elena Aydarova of the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed the ambiguous and contested advocacy efforts promoting SoR in Tennessee through an anthropology approach.

In “Whatever You Want to Call It”: Science of Reading Mythologies in the Education Reform Movement, Aydarova states:

Responding to SOR agendas requires careful consideration of their role in the reproduction of social inequalities despite the movement’s claims to the opposite. No matter how neutral or innocent a sign might appear, myths that preclude the possibility of social critique and, ultimately, social transformation are dangerous tools in the hands of those who hold power in the society.

University of British Columbia professor Rob Tierney and U.C. Berkeley’s  P. David Pearson recently published a free online book, Fact-checking the Science of Reading, raising further questions.

So, it needs to be clarified why states purchase, often at great cost both in teacher training time and money, selected programs based on the Science of Reading when the term itself appears flimsy.

Some states have banned three cueing, one of many reading strategies. SoR advocates have ruled that Lucy Calkins Units of Study, Fountas and Pinnell’s, and Reading Recovery’s long-time reading curricula are poor programs.

However, while specific programs are villainized, the purchased approved SoR programs provide little of the promised evidence or peer-reviewed research to show effectiveness.

Some newly chosen programs have also been in classrooms for years, so why aren’t they critiqued like the others? Where’s the evidence that they work?

Michigan officials still seem to be considering reading mandates. Teachers currently rely on many reading programs there. Chalkbeat Detroit reported that the following are popular with SoR advocates:

Core Knowledge Language Arts (sometimes called CKLA), EL EducationWit and Wisdom, and Superkids Reading Program.

And they say:

But even for widely respected and popular programs that claim to use methods derived from the science of reading research, little peer-reviewed research is available on how effective specific curriculum materials are. Available efficacy studies have yielded mixed results.

Why is EL Education, for example, better than Calkins’s Units of Study? Maybe it’s different, but is it better? I don’t know. Who’s checking?

Core Knowledge CKLA has been in classrooms since 2006. Why isn’t anyone grumbling about it failing children? If there are peer-reviewed studies showing that children improve with this program instead of the denounced programs, please share them.

And then there are the standards.

The Science of Reading advocates are quiet about Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were initially highly controversial, and they have been a part of many online programs also in classrooms for years.

Where’s the review? If students aren’t doing well since the CCSS arrived in 2010, shouldn’t there be more questions about those standards?

For example, should kindergartners be doing first grade work? How has their development changed over the years, or has it? Are third grade standards developmentally appropriate? School districts retain third graders based on a test. What if that test is off developmentally? How much damage might such assessment be doing?

And then there’s Orton Gillingham. If you’ve studied learning disabilities, you know that the research on the effectiveness of OG, which has existed since the thirties, is weak. OG has also been in schools and seems to get away with little scrutiny.

Here’s one of the more recent studies from 2021, concluding:

In summary, the findings from this meta-analysis do not provide definitive evidence that OG interventions significantly improve the reading outcomes of students with or at risk for WLRD, such as dyslexia. However, the mean ES of 0.22 indicates OG interventions may hold promise for positively impacting the reading outcomes of this population of students.

More high-quality, rigorous research with larger samples of students with WLRD is needed to fully understand the effects of Orton-Gillingham interventions on the reading outcomes for this population.

I included the last part, to be fair, but the OG enthusiasts have been hoping to find something positive for many years. If your child has been helped with OG, that’s great, but there’s little documented research to show this program is ideal.

America has become like the Wild West in terms of reading and instructional curricula. Anything goes, except for what a selected group of influential individuals deem poor programs.

It seems like the Science of Reading advocates fail to study all programs and standards, especially the ones where teachers are put in the program’s background, often it’s Direct Instruction or online.

Let me know if you know about the research other than the companies that show these programs work. I’m not against decent programs with results. Most teachers need a basic reading program.

However, finding real evidence is tricky since even today’s research can be biased for or against a program. Casting some curricula aside while promoting others without proof seems more about market competition than helping children learn to read.

Here are some other programs states appear to fund. If I left off any also let me know. Ask about any program your school district purchases. Where’s the evidence? How many peer reviewed studies show the program works?

  • Amplify
  • Project Read
  • Phonics First
  • Take Flight
  • CORE Online Elementary Reading Academy
  • Heggerty Phonemic Awareness
  • UFLI
  • 95 Percent
  • Wilson Fundations
  • Lexia
  • American Reading Company
  • Benchmark Education
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Open Court Reading
  • Wonders
  • Savvas Learning Company

Some Assessment

  • Aimsweb+ (Pearson)
  • mCLASS (Amplify)


Schwartz, S. (2024, January 25). The ‘Science of Reading’ in 2024: 5 State Initiatives to Watch. Education Week, Retrieved from…

Aydarova, E. (2023). “Whatever You Want to Call It”: Science of Reading Mythologies in the Education Reform Movement. Harvard Educational Review93(4), 556–581.


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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...