BOULDER, CO (September 13, 2022) – How students learn to read and how reading is best taught are often the focus of media, public, and political criticism. In a new NEPC policy brief, The Science of Reading Movement: The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction, Paul Thomas of Furman University explores the controversial history of the reading reform movement.
Throughout the decades, a striking amount of attention has sporadically been focused on how teachers teach reading—typically with a specific concern for phonics instruction. This attention has then spread to standardized test scores (including international comparisons) and a changing list of hypothetical causes for disappointing test scores (including progressivism, whole language, and balanced literacy).
Disappointing reading achievement has been sometimes attributed to how reading is taught, sometimes to social influences on students (such as technology and media), and sometimes to both. Widespread and ongoing criticism over the last 80 years has targeted a wide array of culprits:
- State and federal reading policy;
- The quality of teacher education and teacher professional development;
- Theories of learning to read and reading instruction;
- The role of phonics and other reading skills in teaching reading; and
- The persistent gaps among classroom practices, reading policy, and the nature or application of science and research.
These discussions have not been evidence-free. In fact, scholars and literacy educators have over this time conducted extensive research into these and other issues. But the research has only limited impact on policy and practice.
Specifically, in contrast to much of the public debate and policymaking, these researchers have found reading instruction and learning to be complex, complicating the design of effective policy and classroom practice. Overall, this robust research base supports policies and approaches that acknowledge a range of individual student needs and that argue against “one-size-fits-all” prescriptions. Among literacy educators and scholars, then, important reading debates continue but do so without any identified silver-bullet solutions.
The current public debate is different. Since 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has been popularized as loosely defined shorthand for the broad and complex research base characterizing how children learn to read and how best to teach reading. Simplifying the issue for the public and for political readers, and failing to acknowledge the full complement of research findings, prominent members of the education media have used the term when framing the contemporary debate—often as pro-phonics versus no phonics. Various types of vendors have also found the shorthand term “science of reading” highly useful in branding and marketing specific phonics-oriented reading and literacy programs.
As the “science of reading” movement has grown, scholars have cautioned that advocates and commercial vendors often exaggerate and oversimplify both the problems and solutions around reading achievement and instruction. Yet these advocates have been extremely effective in lobbying for revised and new phonics-heavy reading legislation across most states in the U.S., producing rigid and ultimately harmful policy and practices. Still, in pursuing reform to address identified challenges, the movement does provide an opportunity for policymakers to investigate different approaches to reading instruction and to develop more nuanced policy.
Accordingly, Professor Thomas provides recommendations for state and local policymakers to provide teachers the flexibility and support necessary to adapt their teaching strategies to specific students’ needs.
Find The Science of Reading Movement: The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction, by Paul Thomas, at: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading