The Sciences of Reading (and yes I mean Sciences, not Science) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The Sciences of Reading (and yes I mean Sciences, not Science) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

There has been a lot of push back lately about the Science of Reading folks and the claims that they are making about the best ways to teach reading. I have long taken a centrist position on the “Great Debate”, maintaining that no one “side” has all the answers and that the sensible approach is for all sides to listen to one another and learn from one another. LINK I call this approach the “Reading Evolution”. LINK

Who are these Science of Reading folks and why the current backlash to the ideas they promote?  SOR in its current iteration is the product of a group of educators influenced by the ideas of Louisa Moats. Moats claims that our current problems in the teaching of reading are caused by the failure to adopt practices like the ones described in the PDF, Reading Is a Rocket Science LINK or in this description of the Science of Reading by Holly Lane, University of Florida. LINK As we will see, critics of Moat’s approach charge that she and her supporters are a small minority of educators trying to force their views on everyone. Paul Thomas is among those critics, saying that this action of forbidding all practices except those advocated by the “Science of Reading” group  is both  hurtful and counterproductive LINK.  More about that in a minute.

Readers are invited to consider three of the major push back pieces that have emerged in the past year.

The first is the National Education Policy Center’s statement as described in Diane Ravitch’s March 2020 blog.   LINK  The upshot is that there is no “science of reading.” NEPC states that “It’s time for the media and political distortions to end, and for the literacy community and policymakers to fully support the literacy needs of all children.”

Another push back came from a December 2020 You Tube video created by George Hruby from the Collaborative Center of Literacy Development- University of Kentucky

Some key points made in his video:

  • Hruby maintains SOR advocates are wrong in saying the science is settled. Science is never settled.
  • He thinks it is more accurate to talk about the Sciences of Reading.
  • He views the Science of Reading as a branding designed to sell curriculum.
  • He described a number of programs in the past that used similar methods to the ones found in the SOR and maintained that in the end these programs were no more effective than what a good teacher could accomplish using methods that are far less costly than SOR methods.
  • He outlined the limits and limitations of other SOR claims


The most recent push back came in the form of a piece written by Valerie Strauss, a reporter for the Washington Post. In it she details the views of David Reinking, professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the Literacy Research Association; Victoria J. Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association; and George G. Hruby, an associate research professor of literacy and executive director of the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development at the University of Kentucky. The link to the full article requires a subscription to the Washington Post. LINK.  

The article is entitled Is there really a ‘science of reading’ that tells us exactly how to teach kids to read? The short answer to the question raised by the article is no, there is not. Here are some highlights from that article:

  • More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.
  • These themes make for a compelling journalistic narrative and they can benefit for-profit interests outside mainstream education, particularly during a pandemic when many parents are seeking help teaching reading at home. But, they also obscure established evidence that teaching reading is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor (bolding is mine). Overlooked is the common ground shared by those who draw different conclusions on the finer points of available research.
  • Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum. On one end are those who see phonics as the foundation of learning to read for all students. To them, phonics — lots of it — is the essential ingredient that ensures success for all students learning to read, and it must be mastered before other dimensions of reading are taught.
  • On the other end are those who see phonics as only one among many dimensions of learning to read — one that gains potency when integrated with meaningfully engaged reading and writing, with vocabulary and language development, with instruction aimed at increasing comprehension and fluency, and so forth.
  • One example is a critical review of several meta-analyses (comprehensive statistical analyses of effects across hundreds of studies), which was published recently in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. It found no clear advantage for programs with a strong emphasis on phonics compared to those foregrounding other approaches (click on this).

Taken together I think these recent developments strongly support a centrist position. The limited and limiting point of view of the so-called Science of Reading advocates are not scientific at all. I have on a number of occasions called for using all the evidence from all the forms of research. Some important figures in the research world seem to have drawn similar conclusions. In a September 2020  U Tube interview called Unpacking the Science of Reading: A Conversation with Editors of Reading Research Quarterly, Amanda P. Goodwin, Co-Editor of the Reading Research Quarterly has this to say about research (1:18 on the video) :  

“In terms of the broad piece there is no one science that matters, it’s not just experimental research, not just qualitative research, it’s not just quantitative research we are using all and every methodology to figure out this multifaceted thing called reading….” LINK

So, I’m in favor of exploring the Sciences of Reading. I favor tweaking programs and finding common ground. LINK.  I favor finding out all we can from successful practitioners using the science of reading. LINK. I favor looking at the teaching of reading as both art and science and to fully explore the issues of of fluency and prosody. LINK. I favor exploring all the research around brain research LINK. I think it is time to empower teachers by providing in-service in all the ways to teach decoding LINK . I also think it is time to provide them the in-service needed to learn the skills and strategies measured by state tests of reading instruction (as opposed to tests of decoding).  These skills and strategies include those like the ones presented by Nell Duke and others at the 2019 ILA convention. LINK.  I think the time is long overdue for folks to start listening to the teachers of reading so that we can have a Reading Evolution. Maybe a Reading Evolution will finally bring that famous (infamous) swinging pendulum to a stop in the middle so we can learn from each other the teaching skills needed to become effective teachers of reading.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2021 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization

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4 thoughts on “The Sciences of Reading (and yes I mean Sciences, not Science) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. williamkerns

    Agreed. Part of the consideration in the term “sciences” of reading becomes “what counts as science”? As has been argued by so many (Lucy Calkins; Tim Shanahan) there is no group that should have a lock on the term nor can the term be confined in such a narrow way. I’m in favor of preservice teachers in a teacher education program learning important lessons that can be gained from Structured Literacy and other aspects favored by proponents of the Science of Reading as seen in trainings in The Reading League and mandated trainings in many states. However, I’m also in favor of still learning important lessons that can be gained from approaches associated with whole language and social constructivism, and these latter approaches are my personal “home base”. Teachers in the profession would do well to have an extensive tool belt, with the knowledge and skills to use tools that appropriately meet the needs and interests of the student. In other words – teach the student not the program.

    Reply
    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks, Bill! This remark is exactly on target. As I’ve indicated- we have to look at all the research. Both qualitative and quantitative and teachers need to get a solid foundation in orthography and how words work and a strong foundation in how to scaffold students into using the comp strategies they need.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: The Sciences of Reading Part Two: Looking Further into the Conundrum of How to Best Provide Reading Instruction to Our Students by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

  3. Anya

    I didn’t read all the research you referenced, but I am curious as to whether the SOR and phonics advocates thought about the students’ who are learning not only to read in English, but to speak, listen and write in English. And what about any students whose first language is one not based on an alphabet and the ability for words to be decoded? I think of my Mandarin and Cantonese students all the time when people push for a phonics only foundation. Their written language is based on characters, not an alphabet. Wow, they may be able to decode and memorize but if there isn’t a common understanding among teachers on how different languages work, this can lead to misdirecting students and their true reading needs. I agree with you 100%. Let’s listen to teachers about their struggles and successes in teaching reading and avoid favoring some voices over others.

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