An interview of Dr. George Hruby about the Sciences of Reading PART ONE: Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito
Some may remember when Dr. George Hruby first posted his video entitled What the Phonics is the Science of Reading. The video was an instant hit on YouTube, garnering over 12,000 views. Here it is if you want to have a look at it. In it, Dr. Hruby pushed back on the notion that the science around literacy instruction is settled. Instead, he makes a strong case for the existence of the Sciences of Reading (Sciences with an s). That way of looking at things counters much of the misinformation and misdirection being made by proponents of the so-called Science of Reading. As P.D. Pearson has said, the term settled science is an oxymoron. The claims by some SOR advocates that it’s all settled science are problematic at best.
The video was a warm-up piece for The Literacy Research Association Conference. Normally such introductions are done in person. However, in that particular year, 2020, we were in the midst of the Covid crisis, and most conferences had gone to a remote format.
Let’s fast forward to today. Dr. Hruby had so much great information to share that I decided to split our interview in half. This week I am posting the first half. Let’s find out a little about Dr. Hruby and then find out what he shared in the first half of the interview.
Here is some information about George Hruby and his background:
Here is a link to the YouTube interview:
Here are the Talking Points and Questions from the interview:
Dr. Hruby’s slides from the presentation, with remarks:
Dr. Hruby’s Explanation of the slide:
Kentucky has been significantly above the national average in reading every year 1998-2017. This is a literacy-specific result (math scores still significantly below the national average) and is also true of 8th-grade reading scores.
This is notable because socioeconomic status is a very strong correlate to reading achievement. Kentucky is the 5th poorest (and for the first half of this chart, 4th poorest) state in the US. Yet it has remained significantly above the national mean in reading. What can we say from this? There has been no reading crisis in KY, and the investments in reading instruction that the Kentucky General Assembly has made over the past 25 years have been well-targeted. Yet scores begin to drop from 2015 forward. Why?
Dr. Hruby’s Explanation of the slide:
1 in 6 public school students in Kentucky attend school in Louisville (JCPS–Jefferson Co Public Schools). From 2015-2019, JCPS drew up an exclusive contract for PD with a local private university to provide phonics-focused early literacy training district-wide instead. Up to 3 graduate courses in phonics instruction were offered. Cost to JCPS: $1 million a year. The impact is clear. Again, this is not only a literacy-specific result, it is 4th-grade reading-specific. No similar slump in other subjects or 8th-grade reading. Those who attended the Research to Practice post-con at LRA in Tampa in 2106 may remember the associate superintendent of Hillsborough Co. Schools bragging on the great phonics training they were instituting in their schools… Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago were also all in on phonics first as well. By contrast, San Diego and Fresno Unified had switched from that to a more comprehensive and language-rich approach. They did not abandon phonics, but they extended their reading curriculum to include a heavy emphasis on language development and reading for meaning. Notably, these are majority-minority, majority-lower-income, and majority-second-language speaker districts. And they succeeded. Just saying…
My thoughts about Part One:
The preceding two slides tell a disturbing story. The good news is that for 19 years, Kentucky schools performed very well in reading, well above the national average. For those seeking evidence that the research-based professional development being carried out by the Collaborative Center was working very well, the graph says it all. Remember, the graph is based on the NAEP scores for the years in question. This information is reminiscent of the information Dr. Tom Loveless provided in his recent interview with me LINK. In that interview, Dr Loveless pointed out that the claims of a reading crisis generated by “bad teaching”, simply aren’t borne out by the NAEP data. He cited the 2022 research piece entitled A Half Century of Student Progress Nationwide: First Comprehensive Analysis Finds Broad Gains in Test Scores, with Larger Gains for Students of Color than White Students LINK. The story being sold by some social media pundits about the failure of balanced literacy is simply not supported by the NAEP data.
Now let’s get to the bad news. Kentucky’s scores went down in the years from 2015-9. Dr. Hruby attributes that in part to several large districts dropping the PD from the Collaborative Study and instead being in-serviced in and using a phonics-first approach. The details about that appeared in the previous section. The upshot is this: Those districts that switched to a more comprehensive and language-rich approach that includes phonics (I’ll dub those phonics plus) continued to show gains. Those that used the phonics first approach showed losses. You would think that what would happen is the legislature would buy into the phonics plus approach. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they shut down the Collaborative Center’s PD program.
I’m seeing a disturbing national trend developing. It doesn’t matter whether a program works. It only matters that a program can pass the litmus test created by the phonics first branch of the SOR movement. There is a growing movement to counter that development. See Jan Richardson’s story about Pioneer Valley Book’s program. LINK. That guest blog by Jan has garnered over 7,000 views, and people are still viewing it. That is a sign that many folks sense something is rotten in Denmark. It’s time to use some common sense. We need to judge programs by whether or not they work, rather than whether or not they pass the litmus test of the Phonics First branch of SOR. We need to look at ALL the research and ALL the sciences of reading. More about that in future blogs
The second half of this interview will be posted. Dr. Hruby will discuss the issues raised in his video. He will also discuss the article he recently co-authored. That article is Reinking, D., Hruby, G. G., & Risko, V. J. (2023). Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? LINK. I think you will find there is a lot to unpack in Part Two of this interview. See you next week!
Happy Reading and Writing.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)
Copyright 2023 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely this author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.