Demystifying the Science of Reading

Over the past year, the Albert Shanker Institute has been examining four years worth of literacy legislation — stay tuned for our report, which will be released soon. In discussing our findings with colleagues and friends, we often find ourselves starting from scratch, filling gaps, and debunking misconceptions. This post aims to address one question we frequently encounter.

What is the science of reading?

While organizations such as the Reading League have put out useful materials about what the science of reading is, we aim to keep it simple here. Essentially, the science of reading is synonymous with academic research on reading. It refers to the vast body of knowledge that scholars have accumulated over decades about how people learn to read. Thus, the phrase is a shorthand for work of hundreds of scholars in countless studies. This body of knowledge includes things that are known with certainty, those that we are just beginning to understand, and everything in between. Like any scientific field, reading science is dynamic and evolving. It is not settled.

The science of reading is not something you can 'do' or be 'trained in.' Rather, it's a set of principles and practices, and a body of evidence, that can guide the development of instructional materials and strategies. For example, instruction that is direct, sequential, and systematic aligns more closely with this evidence than incidental instruction. This distinction is critical because, unlike speaking, research shows that reading is not a skill that we naturally acquire through exposure and immersion (see here and here). Thus, all students benefit when reading is explicitly taught.

While I support the idea that teachers should have a variety of tools in their toolbox and the ability to make informed choices, I also believe in providing them with adequate support rather than leaving them to navigate the challenges alone. This support involves ensuring that teachers are aware of the most effective tools and understand their efficacy, and trusting them to collectively make the final decisions. The term 'collectively' is significant here — these professional decisions should be made by educators working together, not by outsiders or isolated teachers.

My goal here isn't to demonize certain practices but to place them on an evidence continuum. If some approaches are superior to others based on the available evidence, we should focus on using the most effective tools and on discontinuing the use of less effective ones. The science on how people learn to read can guide these decision-making processes. Understanding reading research should empower educators, not limit them.

In my view, it is not terribly productive to spend too much time talking about what the science of reading is not. After all, we don’t go around saying that the science of medicine is not just about pharmacology. We don’t dwell on whether there’s an overlap between those endorsing medicine as a scientific field and affiliating with a particular political view. These kinds of assertions lack any real substance.

A more pertinent question might be: which findings within reading research are garnering attention, and which equally important findings are being overlooked? When journalists, the public, or individuals like me discuss the science of reading, what are we likely missing and what are we amplifying? This question is crucial and distinct because it's not about reading research itself, but about how this body of knowledge is popularized and translated into policy.

I've written about how the role of knowledge often gets overlooked in discussions of reading research and policy. Natalie Wexler's reporting as well as the Knowledge Matters campaign have been relentless about drawing attention to this important aspect of reading. I’ve also argued that organizational and improvement science intersect with reading science. To be specific, improving teachers' knowledge about reading isn't sufficient. We must also consider the conditions of teachers' work: Do school principals understand the shift to scientifically based reading practices? Do teachers have high quality instructional materials aligned with their professional learning? Is high-quality professional development that responds to teachers' individual needs accessible within regular work hours?

I advocate for a broader representation of reading science in all its complexity and breadth, and for better situating research on reading within the larger field of educational research.

Reading is a scientific field within the learning and educational sciences. It has existed for decades. It is a prolific field and those who contribute to it agree on a lot of things. Let’s take those strong ideas based on decades of rigorous research and use them to not only improve instruction but also to enhance the systems that shape children's literacy development: what teachers and administrators do, what families do, what librarians and pediatricians do, what society does. We have so much knowledge and so many good ideas and innovations, let’s join forces and get more kids to be joyful and confident readers.