February 7, 2023
Literacy is the foundation of learning, which is why the most effective way to teach students how to read has been the topic of debate for many years. The sheer volume of information, research, and evolving trends has caused inevitable misconceptions surrounding the various approaches to reading—including the Science of Reading.
4 Science of Reading myths and misconceptions: Insights from literacy experts
The Science of Reading is a wide-ranging body of research on how children learn to read successfully. As the journalist Emily Hanford and others have shown, it’s also a term that is subject to significant misunderstanding.
We recently had the chance to discuss some common misconceptions about the Science of Reading with three of our Renaissance colleagues. We also posed the question of whether it’s possible to measure the Science of Reading—and, if so, what this process involves.
Our thanks to these experts for sharing their insights with us:
- Dr. Rachel Brown, Senior Research Consultant
- Dr. Scott McConnell, Director of Assessment Innovation
- Dr. Michelle Hosp, Director of Foundational Literacy
Science of Reading myth #1: The Science of Reading is a new phenomenon—and it’s just another “fad” in education.
Rachel Brown: The Science of Reading is not new. There are over a hundred years of research on how to teach reading effectively, in both the English language and many others.
These studies demonstrate that when evidence-based instructional practices are used, children learn to read more accurately and acquire reading at a faster rate than children receiving other forms of instruction. So, the research has been there for years—we just haven’t listened to it and haven’t implemented it.
I’ve always felt a personal connection to effective reading instruction. I began my career as a middle school social studies teacher, and I had students who couldn’t read the assigned texts. No one had prepared me for this, and I was at a loss as to how to help these students.
I went back to school to get my SPED endorsement, thinking that special education would be the solution. In fact, it isn’t. I realized that many districts have curriculum deficiencies that are standing in the way of reading acquisition for many students.
I remain very passionate about getting the word out—not just about the research, but about the practice of effective reading instruction.
Scott McConnell: To echo Rachel’s point, I’m reminded of Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, published in 1955. In this book, Flesch stresses the importance of explicit and systematic phonics instruction for students’ reading development. Clearly, this idea was slow to catch on, leading him to write a sequel in the 1980s called Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.
Like any science, the Science of Reading is vast and dynamic, with new studies published every year. I think our education system struggles with taking all of this research and knowledge and turning it into practical applications teachers can use in the classroom. This is a point that Emily Hanford is making, which isn’t so different from Flesch’s.
Michelle Hosp: On the whole, the field of general education has been slow to embrace Science of Reading research, which is why it hasn’t made its way into many teacher preparation programs.
I find this very frustrating. As I’ve shared before, I began my career as a school psychologist, and I spent a lot of my time assessing struggling readers. The tests confirmed what the teachers already knew—that the students were struggling to decode words—but I had little to offer in terms of instructional next steps.
I pursued my graduate degree because I recognized that I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to help these students. Like Rachel, I focused on special education, because that field was at the forefront of reviewing and implementing the research.
Scott McConnell: What the three of us have in common is a moral imperative to give students access to good instruction. The key question for us—as for most educators—is whether the Science of Reading will help us to address this imperative, and the answer is clearly “Yes.”
Science of Reading myth #2: States and districts cannot implement the Science of Reading on their own.
Rachel Brown: Actually, states have put some remarkable legislation in place, although they’re finding that their teachers are not necessarily prepared to teach reading. This is where it’s so important to get administrators on board, especially building principals.
When you have principals who know what effective reading instruction is, so they can recognize it, support it, and provide help to teachers who are not using it, I’ve seen amazing things happen. These principals set up a culture where effective instruction is valued and the instructional staff are all on the same page, so kids can’t fall through the cracks.
Scott McConnell: I’m reminded of the No Child Left Behind Act, which had very good intentions. The Act recognized that we have major disparities in K–12 education, so let’s acknowledge them and address them.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work, because we didn’t give teachers the tools to do this at the local level. This is why we need to turn the Science of Reading into easy-to-use tools that teachers can implement in the classroom, and that show the progress their students are making each week.
Michelle Hosp: One aspect of No Child Left Behind that was successful in some states was the Reading First initiative, because it was very clear on what was required. Schools had to:
- Universally screen students.
- Use an evidence-based curriculum that was systematic and explicit.
- Have reading coaches.
- Provide educators with professional development.
My state used the LETRS training created by Louisa Moats, which I attended with a group of reading coaches. I remember that Dr. Moats began with a short pre-test, and the results were surprising. These coaches had a poor understanding of phonemic awareness—and they were supposed to be helping the most at-risk kids!
I’ll echo Rachel’s point that support has to come from the top—from school boards, administrators, and parents. The federal government could also help by establishing national standards for teacher preparation programs. All teachers should be trained to teach reading in the same way, following the research and using evidence-based practices.
Supporting foundational literacy
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Science of Reading myth #3: The Science of Reading requires a lot of standardized testing.
Rachel Brown: There’s a famous quote from Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” The same principle applies to teaching: If you don’t start by establishing what your students need, how will you get them there?
That’s why it’s important to start with a reading screener to see how everyone is doing. At Renaissance, we also recommend administering a phonics screener to take a deep dive into critical phonics skills.
We know that phonics is an important building block of learning to read. If you’re not teaching phonics, then students aren’t getting something essential to becoming a reader and a writer.
Michelle Hosp: There are a lot of reading skills we need to assess, but we don’t need to assess all of them at once—and certainly not every day. I’m a believer in the “screen to intervene” approach, meaning: Test the skills that matter and that you can actually address. For example, I can assess letter sounds, and I can then teach the specific letter sounds students are struggling with.
The same applies to digraphs and blends. We know that the majority of students who struggle with reading are struggling due to poor phonics skills. If we don’t identify the specific phonics skills they need help with, then how can we help them?
Scott McConnell: We should also be clear on the definition of “standardized testing,” which simply means that the same assessment is administered to a group of students using the same protocol.
In the case of universal screening, we do want a standardized assessment that shows how students are doing in relation to grade-level benchmarks. For students receiving intervention, we want regular progress monitoring that’s quick and efficient, that shows how much progress students are making, and that’s administered in a standard way.
As assessment creators, it’s our job to provide teachers with tools that zero in on high-impact reading skills—including phonics skills—that students need to move forward. This is what we mean when we talk about measuring the Science of Reading.
Michelle Hosp: Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots organization largely led by parents, has played a major role in demanding more effective assessment and instruction aligned with the Science of Reading.
They told educators, “I want you to screen and tell me if my child is struggling with foundational literacy skills because we know that’s a sign of trouble.” They insisted that schools provide evidence-based instruction and that educators receive professional development on dyslexia, so they understand how reading develops and what signs indicate that students are off track.
They then demanded that schools prove that what they’re doing is working—they asked to see the progress monitoring data for themselves. I think these are all good things. As an assessment creator, I want to get really good data into teachers’ hands so they can change students’ trajectories.
Science of Reading Myth #4: The Science of reading takes the joy out of learning—and offers no place for creativity.
Michelle Hosp: I’m reminded of my mentor in graduate school, who ran an amazing reading program with great outcomes for students. One day, the teachers complained to her that the students didn’t love it. Her response: “I don’t care if they love it. I only care if they can read!”
She certainly had a point—it’s not about making kids happy, but about doing the right thing. And this is, of course, where the teacher comes in.
Whether we’re talking about a phonics lesson in the early grades or an algebra lesson in high school, what matters the most is what the teacher brings to the lesson. This is the art of teaching. We need to help teachers realize that they can use all their art and skill to make phonics lessons fun and engaging—because this is what the students need.
Rachel Brown: It’s also a matter of dosage. Not every student will need multiple lessons on silent “e,” for example, but others will. It’s a matter of helping teachers to realize that all humans learn in fundamentally the same way.
First, they need to understand what the target skill is, and then they need to practice that skill to develop mastery. Some students will be able to complete the “stock” phonics lesson and will be OK. Others will need to complete the lesson and then do a lot of practice as well.
Michelle Hosp: The Science of Reading also encompasses more than phonics lessons. For example, read-alouds and book shares are part of every elementary classroom. These can be really engaging for students while helping them to build vocabulary and background knowledge and develop oral language.
When reading aloud, teachers can certainly pause to call attention to individual letters and sounds. But this isn’t sufficient by itself. Letters and sounds need to be taught to students explicitly and systematically, not just “in the moment.” It’s not an either/or choice where teachers can either teach phonics or they can read aloud to students. They need to do both.
Scott McConnell: I’m reminded of a story about an astrophysicist who used to take his young son outside to watch the sunset. Now, the astrophysicist was pretty sure that the sun wasn’t really “setting,” but there’s a role for science and a role for beauty, and, as educators, we clearly need to embrace both.
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Moats, L. (2019). Of “Hard Words” and Straw Men: Let’s Understand What Reading Science Is Really About. EDVIEW360 Blog.
Seidenberg, M. (n.d.) Connecting the Science of Reading and Educational Practices. Reading Matters. Retrieved from: https://seidenbergreading.net/science-of-reading/
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