The Science of Reading: It's personal. It’s political. It matters. - Imagine Learning

June 12, 2023 3:38 pm

The Science of Reading: It’s personal. It’s political. It matters.

From living room couches and teachers’ lounges to the front pages of major newspapers, everyone is talking about the Science of Reading. What is it? And why does it matter?

“Your child is at risk of not reading on grade level by the end of kindergarten.”

My family and I were devastated after our very first parent-teacher conference back in early 2020. Two years in a high-quality preschool in a well-to-do suburb, reading aloud every night, alphabet games and puzzles — all this and our kid still struggled to remember every letter and sound, let alone smush them together to make words.

Then came the tears. Books sent home in his backpack that he couldn’t read. Words like “fall” with an L-controlled vowel and “birthday” with two syllables and a digraph. He hadn’t been taught those patterns yet. One day he came home telling me he had a special “picture power” and began guessing words based on illustrations in his books. That’s when I started asking questions.

A decade earlier, I became a first-grade teacher at a Title I school in a different town, in a different state, during the Reading First era. I graduated from my credential program in 2008, when George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act provided funding for reading academic coaches to model best practices and in-service training based on the National Reading Panel’s meta-study findings.

I was taught about the big five: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. I learned that word walls should be replaced with sound walls and that we prompt students to look at all the letters from left to right and sound it out every time. No exceptions. I regularly administered a phonics and decoding screener that identified discrete skills the students had mastered — and which patterns, such as ‘oo’ or ‘a_e’ that they didn’t know yet. My students had weekly fluency passages to practice with, and I listened to them read it every Friday afternoon. We built oral language and vocabulary with read-alouds. We applied our weekly phonics skills to spelling words.

All this in 2008, before the “science of reading” was even a thing.

Back to 2020. Frustrated and confused, I decided one night to attend my district’s board meeting where there was to be a presentation on the reading curriculum. That’s the first time in my life that I heard the term: balanced literacy.

I googled on my phone as the presenter carried on. I was horrified. Three-cuing — asking kids to guess the words based on pictures and context clues — was a keystone of the curriculum they were using. My son wasn’t receiving the systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics that he needed — that most children need — to connect speech to print. Students in 3rd–5th grade were being denied access to complex, grade-level texts because teachers were told to match students with ‘just right’ texts instead. None of these practices were based in research. And they were harmful.

But that night at the board meeting I also learned that I wasn’t alone. There were other parents, just as outraged as I, sitting next to me. There were parents of students with dyslexia who were forced to bus their children to private, specialized, schools just so they could learn to read. There were parents, like me, who took it upon themselves to order “Bob Books” and teach their kids to read on their own.

This was in January of 2020 and we all know what happened just a few short months later.

“There were parents of students with dyslexia who were forced to bus their children to private, specialized, schools just so they could learn to read.

Zoom school was the new normal, and parents across the country gained insight into how their children were being taught: guess the covered word, look at the first letter and guess, look at the picture and guess… guess until you get it right! Does it look right? Does it sound right? They took to YouTube and Twitter to share what they saw, wondering if anyone else was as concerned as they were?

It turns out over 68% of teachers were using this flawed approach. Despite the National Reading Panel’s findings two decades prior, several publishers and most credentialing programs clung to an outdated theory about how our brains best learn to read.

Parent and child practice sounding out words

Pandemic parents started Googling how to teach their kids to read. They began reading books like Overcoming Dyslexia and the National Reading Panel’s report. The term ‘science of reading’ took over the internet — a colloquial term for a wide body of neurological and empirical research showing us how brains learn to read.

Then came a podcast series that really put the literacy world on its head: Sold a Story. A journalist named Emily Hanford did a deep dive into the history of this flawed belief system about the way students learn to read, and how those beliefs took hold across America. She also discussed how much damage those beliefs, and curriculum that adheres to those beliefs, is still doing today.

Teachers listened to the podcast, texted their colleagues, and discussions were sparked in teachers’ lounges everywhere. Justifiably angry parents took to the podiums at board of education meetings. They ran for open seats. They petitioned their representatives in state legislators.

31 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation related to the science of reading. Some require teachers to receive special training in the science of reading, some ban methods such as three cuing, and others require the adoption of new teaching materials aligned to the science of reading.

The science of reading is now a national movement.

My child, now in 3rd grade, is reading on grade level. It took a lot of expensive tutoring and extra support at home to get him there. But most of these stories don’t have a happy ending. Students in privileged neighborhoods get private tutoring while the majority of bright, intelligent students continue to struggle.

Research shows 95% of students can be taught to read by the end of first grade. Yet, recent NAEP scores show only 33% of 4th graders can read on grade level. And it has devastating effects on their future. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in incarcerated or on welfare.

Some folks are still resisting change. They find the ‘science of reading’ movement to be adversarial. To that I say, why yes — yes it is. It’s an emotionally charged issue because students deserve the right to read. There are many factors that play into a student’s ability to read and it’s a monumental challenge to address them all, but research-based materials and professional development in the science of reading for our teachers is a good place to start.

Students across the country are counting on us to do better.

About the Author – Carolyn Snell

Carolyn Snell started her career in education teaching first grade in San Bernardino, California. A passion for the way technology and stellar curricula can transform classrooms led her to various jobs in edtech, including at the Orange County Department of Education. Her knack for quippy copy landed her a dream job marketing StudySync—an industry leading ELA digital curriculum. Now, as the Senior Content Marketing Manager for Imagine Learning, Carolyn revels in the opportunity to promote innovative products and ideas that are transforming the educational space for teachers and students.

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