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

This is a repost of my most read blog of this year. There were over 5000 views of this post and over 10,000 of the three-part series. I’m using this repost to set up my next series of blogs.  These will provide a summation of the case for taking a centrist approach to the issues surrounding the teaching of reading.

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?  In its current iteration, SOR 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 support the literacy needs of all children fully.”

Another push back came from a December 2020 YouTube 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 several 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 is not scientific at all. I have, on several 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 UTube 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 exploring the issues of fluency and prosody fully. 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 decoding tests).  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)

Links to the other two blogs about the Sciences of Reading:

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

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