The Science of Reading Reporting: What’s in It for Parents of Young Children?

The past two or three years have witnessed extensive media coverage of the research on reading (see here, here, here and here for a few examples). This work has informed the public and sounded an alarm on the disconnect between what experts know about reading and the extent to which this knowledge informs instruction across America’s classrooms. Reactions to this in-depth reporting have been positive for the most part, but some critical voices have noted it has helped to reignite the so-called “reading wars” and contributed to a narrow view of the scientific research on reading (see here and here). Specifically, some of these critics have taken issue with what they view as a hyper focus on one of the two main aspects of reading, decoding or word recognition, at the expense of the second, language comprehension, which is just as crucial to becoming a skilled reader (see here). In addition, almost completely absent from the conversation has been any discussion of the system and organizational/school conditions that shape reading instruction and reform (see here). 

In this post I discuss my own perception of this journalism, what I find remarkable about it, but also what I wish had been more central to it and why. To be clear, I am not an expert on reading, but I am an education researcher (and a parent of a preschooler) who has spent some time reading and reflecting on this topic. Importantly, I am steeped in a context where literacy is central: the Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers have, for over two decades, been translating the science of reading (SoR) for educators (see herehere, herehere, and here) in a consistent, comprehensive, and balanced way. What I have learned from my colleagues over the years has deeply influenced how I’ve contextualized and made sense of the latest SoR reporting.

What is the Science of Reading?

The guide developed by a coalition spearheaded by The Reading League states that the SoR is not a fad or pendulum swing, a political agenda, a one size fits all, a program of instruction, or a single specific component such as phonics. Instead, the SoR is a “vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.” Yet, some experts have lamented that the interpretation of the SoR “has typically been much narrower” and “focused solely on word reading and the role of systematic phonics instruction in supporting reading achievement.” Literacy expert David Pearson has gone further arguing that “the new push for reading is ‘obsessed with decoding’ at the expense of other crucial skills, such as the development of children’s oral language and knowledge base.”

Unfortunately, there are also problems with how comprehension is understood and taught in American schools. And, as education writer Natalie Wexler has aptly noted, “it is a better hidden problem.” According to Wexler and others (see here, and here), language comprehension has been primarily viewed as a skill in the United States; yet there is evidence (see here for the landmark baseball study, and here for a recent review) that comprehension is subject-specific, not a skill that can be transferred across knowledge domains. 

In my view, these concerns are well justified. I am sympathetic to the idea that you can’t be all things to all people. That perhaps, one reason why this latest wave of SoR reporting (and the public debate it has fueled) has been so powerful is because it has focused on discreet parts of the problem with well-defined solutions. But part of me also views this emphasis as a missed opportunity that has likely led to unproductive stress among parents and has failed to capitalize on the role of the broader society in children’s reading success. Yes, children will need to learn how to sound out words, and schools should ensure that they teach that effectively, but there is so much more to reading. There is a lot that families, caregivers, and early childhood educators can do to support children’s literacy from a very early age. A more expansive focus on what it takes to nurture competent readers might have been more empowering and less anxiety inducing. 

Setting Young Children Up for Reading Success

I don’t think I am alone amongst parents in feeling ill-equipped to support my child in developing his decoding skills. In fact, come to think of it, it is questionable that preschool is the time to place a strong emphasis on decoding. Those early years, however, are a wonderful time to focus on oral language development, which plays a critical role in reading comprehension. 

Toddlers and preschoolers acquire knowledge about the world through conversations with adults, read alouds, and their everyday experiences and interactions with responsive caregivers. Despite the old saying, “learn to read so that you can read to learn,” young children can (and do) learn a great deal, well before they are formally exposed to the mechanics of reading. And this knowledge will be crucial for efficiently understanding and incorporating into their knowledge base what they will later learn to decode. 

Parents and caregivers play a crucial role supporting children’s oral language development and knowledge building. With encouragement, guidance and support from reading experts, they have the potential to become better at what most already are very good at. Yes, elementary schools should have a content rich, knowledge building curriculum from Kindergarten onwards but parents do not need to sit around and wait; they can be advocates as well as direct agents of change and partner with educators and schools in this important goal. 

In closing, I appreciate the latest SoR reporting and I am simultaneously in awe of and concerned with the policy shifts that this work has helped to set in motion. But I also feel privileged (and frankly relieved) that I have been able to balance all this information with what I already knew about reading. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t immediately help my son with (e.g., phonics), I focused on what I could do: selecting books on subjects he was interested in and discussing them with him in our home language, Spanish, with no set agenda, in a way that felt natural and fun to both of us. Some people think knowledge can be boring, dry, or too hard for young children. I will admit I have never held this belief; but to see those ideas disconfirmed with my own child has been extremely powerful. I wish all parents could feel this bit of relief and enjoyment as we continue to advocate for and support scientifically based reading instruction across the United States. 

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