Reading Science: Staying the Course Amidst the Noise

Critical perspectives on the Science of Reading (SoR) have always been present and are justifiably part of the ongoing discourse. At the Shanker Institute, we have been constructively critical, maintaining that reading reforms are not a silver bullet and that aspects of SoR, such as the role of knowledge-building and of infrastructure in reading improvement, need to be better understood and integrated into our discourse, policies, and practices. These contributions can strengthen the movement, bringing us closer to better teaching and learning. However, I worry that other forms of criticism may ultimately divert us from these goals and lead us astray.

At the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the largest research conference in the field of education, I witnessed the spread of serious misinformation about reading research and related reforms. In this post, I aim to address four particularly troubling ideas I encountered. For each, I will not only provide factual corrections but also contextual clarifications, highlighting any bits of truth or valid criticisms that may exist within these misconceptions.


Myth and Fact

Myth # 1

The reading crisis is manufactured; the Science of Reading rehashes old research to serve a corporate agenda. Policies and instructional changes will not make a difference.


There is a well-documented, longstanding need to improve reading levels across the U.S. The SoR movement has raised public awareness of this need, prompting related legislative efforts to improve reading instruction. Education vendors and providers are responding with products and services to support school districts in this shift. Policy matters but implementation and learning from the past is crucial.

  • It is true that reading proficiency levels have been rather stable over the past two decades. It is also the case that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results need to be interpreted with caution (i.e., NAEP proficiency is a high bar). And still, there is an undeniable and troubling reality: about one-third of U.S. students exhibit poor reading skills (i.e., score below basic on NAEP).

  • Factors such as poverty and the chronic underfunding of public education undoubtedly influence student outcomes. However, these should not detract from the task of improving reading instruction by aligning it more closely with the consensus on reading research. Plus, it is not a zero sum, it is possible to fund public schools adequately and improve reading instruction. SoR aligned instruction should be viewed as the new standard of care – fundamental yet not a panacea; a new baseline for all literacy instruction.

  • There is no question that economic interests play a role in education. This means that there should be guardrails, transparency, and accountability in financial decisions. However, the presence of these interests does not automatically imply that all providers of educational services and materials are driven solely by financial gain. Moreover, there is a need for these services and products as most school districts do not have the capacity to develop them on their own. Finally, it is entirely possible for a product or service to be both high quality and  profitable.

Myth and Fact

Myth #2

Each student approaches learning to read differently. Teachers should individualize instruction using many tools. 


The fundamental steps of learning to read are consistent across individuals, including those with reading difficulties. Teachers should tailor instruction in terms of intensity and timing, not the fundamental approach. Not all tools are created equal; only those grounded in research should be part of a teacher’s repertoire.

  • The evidence shows that learning to read involves certain steps that are the same for everyone; some individuals, however, may require more explicit instruction to master these steps - see here and here. Teachers decide when each student needs what and how much of it; teachers can also consider student’s preferences for certain topics to make reading more motivating for beginners. Reading is not just a technical process, school/classroom culture and social dynamics can impact reading. Given all of this, teachers have ample scope to tailor instruction and the pedagogical environment to meet each student’s needs while also maintaining one core teaching approach that is grounded in evidence.

  • Not all strategies and methods for teaching reading merit inclusion in a teacher's toolbox. Although outright bans are not advisable, teacher educators should clearly label approaches that are not evidence-based such as three-cueing. Advising against the use of three-cueing does not imply the elimination of illustrations in the classroom; rather, it emphasizes teaching sound-symbol relationships as the primary method for learning to decode.

  • The existence of multiple models to describe how reading works does not imply the uncertainty critics sometimes suggest. Both the Simple View of Reading (SVR) and Scarborough’s Reading Rope (SRR), two well-regarded models, recognize that reading involves decoding and language comprehension. Using the complexity and richness in the field to imply a lack of consensus is misleading. Reading science (indeed, any science!) is not settled; science is dynamic and evolving. This does not mean we know nothing. Rather, it means that some pieces of the puzzle are known with more certainty than others.

Myth and Fact

Myth #3

SoR-aligned curricula undermine teacher agency and professional judgement. 


Shared curricula (whether it is SoR aligned or not) are intended to coordinate what students learn within and across grades. Even the best curriculum cannot replace a teacher or be effective without teacher knowledge. Curricula and teacher expertise are not in conflict but rather, are interdependent.

  • Knowledgeable teachers can be effective despite less-than-ideal curricula. However, even the best curricula will fall short if teachers lack the necessary content knowledge and expertise. Curriculum and ongoing professional learning are equally necessary to produce high quality instruction; moreover, the two should be aligned. In addition, new adoptions of curriculum and/or professional development must be feasible and given sufficient time to be implemented so that changes in practice are deep and lasting. In short, reforms happen in a context and require a robust, coherent infrastructure to take root.

  • Maintaining fidelity to established curricula matters, but it is also important to allow teachers some flexibility to modify materials to suit students' needs. This doesn't mean teachers should have carte blanche to alter anything. Encouraging creativity and adaptation (within guidelines) can lead to more effective teaching and better materials. In addition, teachers and principals must be involved in these professional decisions – collaboration and incentives are preferable to mandates.

  • Programs, products, curricula can be more or less aligned with the evidence and evidence-based principles. In other words, what is known about reading from the scientific research can help assess and select programs and products even if those specific programs or products have not yet been tested out at scale or via randomized control trials (RCTs). It is difficult to isolate the effect of a curriculum on student outcomes, and even RCTs have limitations that make it hard to answer the coveted ‘what works’ question. For these reasons, it might be preferable to ask more contextual questions (e.g., what works for who, where, under what conditions) and a focus on continuous improvement.

Myth and Fact

Myth #4

The Science of Reading harms English learners.


Good instruction for multilingual learners is good instruction for monolingual English speakers and vice-versa.

  • English learners learn to read similarly to their monolingual peers and benefit from the same evidence-based core reading instruction that works for all students. Students for whom English is a second language  benefit from additional support in oral language to build their vocabulary and accelerate their English language proficiency.

  • Instead of viewing dual language learners as a sub-population within the classroom, we should focus on supporting these students’ home language alongside English, recognizing and nurturing their potential for bilingualism.

  • It's important that assessments can accurately distinguish between true reading difficulties and developing English proficiency. Over or under-identifying these students as experiencing reading difficulties is problematic and a good reason for caution. 


I am concerned that these myths are becoming entangled with legitimate calls for caution, creating an anti-SoR vortex that undermines the credibility of reading science and related policy reforms, sending us back to square one.

It would be unfortunate if defenders of public education get swayed by the narrative that the SoR is linked to privatization efforts. I am sure that low reading levels (and SoR as the solution) are being appropriated by some actors and used to fuel the public schools are failing rethoric. However, many (most, dare I say) of us share a genuine concern about improving reading instruction. I like to think that policy, including legislation with all its imperfections and limitations, can and should be used to help achieve these goals. At the same time, legislation is only the beginning; the real work is putting those ideas into action and implementation tends to be messy and fraught with obstacles. Therefore, cultivating the conditions for successful reform – including involving/collaborating with and respecting those on the front lines – learning from past efforts, and anticipating problems seems essential for success.

Both the AFT and the Shanker Institute have supported evidence-based reading for decades. The foundational ideas and key findings from 25 years ago align closely with those we recognize today due to the robust nature of the evidence. While we prefer to use other expressions, the phrase Science of Reading has become incorporated in our discourse. This inclusion is not about rebranding or marketing; it evidences our dedication to disseminating this important knowledge to the widest possible audience.

As advocates for reading science, I suggest we reflect on three questions:

  • How can we articulate our messages more precisely? While our urgency and forcefulness may have engaged and fired up part of the community, it may have alienated others.

  • How can we effectively manage the rifts within the reading science community that risk obscuring the broader goals?

  • How can we ensure that we value everyone's expertise while remaining curious and open to learning, as advocated by Maryanne Wolf?

Previously, I might have dismissed baseless tweets as marginal opinions. However, after witnessing discussions at AERA, I've realized that these views might not be as peripheral as I thought, and simply rolling our eyes is not an adequate response. We all need to actively correct misconceptions and, simultaneously, improve how we understand and describe both the problem we are trying to solve and its solution(s).