What the Science of Reading Misses

Time just published the latest high profile story on the Science of Reading – adding to the list of major news outlets (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist) that have covered this topic in the years following Emily Hanford’s seminal reporting.

Many of these stories go like this: U.S. students underperform in reading; a literacy crisis plagues the country. Why? Despite the consensus among experts and researchers, reading continues to be taught in ways that are inconsistent with the science because teachers don’t know (or weren’t taught) this body of knowledge during their training.

This narrative has (understandably) created alarm and put literacy front and center, spurring a public conversation and related wave of legislation to address the state of reading instruction and achievement across the nation. However, this narrative is not one hundred percent accurate; rather, it neglects a few key elements that I worry need to be understood and addressed to achieve and sustain real progress.

First, let’s begin with what it gets right. Clearly, reading levels are concerning, a lot is known about how reading works and how it is learned, most students benefit from explicit reading instruction, decoding is a necessary condition for reading, and phonics instruction is important to decode efficiently. 

So, what is missing from this discussion? It is, put simply, that knowledge matters for reading. As Daniel Willingham put it, teaching content is teaching reading. Yet these important, research-supported ideas are often outside or, at a minimum, neglected in the mainstream literacy conversation and by literacy policy/legislation. Journalists (and here), and scholars (e.g., Sonia Cabell, Marilyn Jagger-Adams, Susan Neuman, Daniel Willingham) have tried to put this issue on the map with some success. Yet, the topic continues to be poorly understood and communication efforts have not mobilized the public to the same extent that Hanford’s (and subsequent) reporting did.

I went to school in Spain, where I was born. When I started working in education policy some facts came as quite the shock. I remember not fully understanding the notion that young children should be taught (though conversation, texts, etc.) about “the real world” and “how stuff works.” I remember thinking: “what else would they learn about in school?” The answer, unfortunately, is what goes on in many (most?) American classrooms: young children encounter texts and materials, the main purpose of which is not to teach anything but simply to practice skills in what Natalie Wexler has called “a content vacuum.” The Time piece contains an example; the first image shows a student working on a text entitled “Joe’s Scratchy Throat,” which seems to be about a character who has a sore throat because—according to the passage—they “ate a cockroach.” Joe’s “coach” suggested a “jog around the block” to cure it; but it was drinking “coffee’s foam nice and slow” that fixed it.

I suspect my five-year-old would be confused by this text and a slightly older student would, at a minimum, be distracted by the information presented. What would a content-rich text look like? Below is an example from the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum (Domain 2: The Human Body, Read-Aloud Anthology, Grade 1, p.82.) 

Germs are all around us. These tiny living things are so small that you can see them only by looking through a special type of instrument called a microscope. But even though you cannot see them, germs are everywhere – in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, and on our skin. Most of the time germs don’t hurt us. Some germs even help us, like the ones in our intestines that kill off harmful germs and help us digest our food. But other germs can make us sick. They get into our bodies in different ways. Some creep in thought insect bites or cuts in our skin. Others float in when someone sneezes nearby. Still others come from food that is poorly cleaned or undercooked. We have natural immunities in our bodies. That means our bodies have ways to kill germs on their own. But sometimes, this is not enough.

Texts like this are embedded in carefully designed curriculum sequences; students gain knowledge of a domain over time, in a systematic, gradual way. While we are having a national conversation about learning loss, missed learning, unfinished learning, I can’t help but reflect on the (by design) lost opportunities to engage with meaningful, sequential, content in elementary classrooms across the nation. My guess is that parents and the general public are not sufficiently aware of this problem and/or its importance. Or perhaps it’s all they know, based on their own school experience.

Whatever the reason, a new website by the Knowledge Matters Campaign is an excellent place to learn about the role of knowledge-building in reading. The website features a review of curricula that are systematic about building knowledge across grades as well as case studies of districts that use these curricula. Importantly, a statement by the campaign calls on the education community (including K-12 journalists) “to bring the role of knowledge to the forefront of Science of Reading conversations.” 

What else does the Science of Reading underplay?

The way commentators and the public have described what’s wrong with how reading is taught in the U.S. suggests (directly or indirectly) that educators are at fault. If only teachers taught reading “the right way.” Nobody denies that teacher knowledge matters a great deal and that teacher education programs have an important role to play. But, teachers do not teach in a vacuum; instructional decisions about reading are not usually and not all up to individual teachers. Thus, teacher knowledge of the SoR is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for improvement. Drawing on organizational, implementation, and improvement science, scholars Sarah Woulfin and Rachel Gabriel have made the case (and here) that we need to understand and improve the structures, conditions, and leadership that surround and shape reading instruction and the roll-out of literacy reforms. This infrastructure for reading is made up of three pillars: curriculum, professional learning, and leadership. The notion that these pillars need to be aligned and work simultaneously is rarely considered in literacy policy and discussions. We need, as Woulfin and Gabriel argue, to be “building systems for reading reform, rather than tinkering with individual pillars.”

I fully acknowledge that most people don’t know all the details about how schools and school systems work. But, if we are serious about improving reading instruction, we need to connect these dots.

Some Education Week stories, for instance, have done a good job illustrating the challenges of implementing SoR reforms when aspects of the surrounding infrastructure are not ready. The story linked above features a Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) trainer who describes having conducted training in virtual rooms where all attendees had their cameras and microphones off. They did not join break out rooms, nor did they interact in any way. On paper, the training was delivered but the details suggest much was amiss.

As Woulfin and Gabriel caution: “investments in developing the capacity of teachers or in curricular programs may not matter if they are misaligned, murky, or unwieldy for educators. Thus, we urge administrators to devote greater attention towards simplifying—and making transparent—a robust infrastructure for reading to promote adult learning and change in their contexts.”

In short, the SoR movement and policy based upon it gets a lot right but it also underplays some key aspects of literacy improvement, such as the role of knowledge building in reading comprehension and the need for a systems’ approach to literacy reform. We in this field need to continue to put these two ideas out there. They do not contradict or undermine anything that the SoR emphasizes. If anything, they complement those ideas and make them more potent. If they are ignored, I worry that improvement will be minimal and reform efforts will be abandoned prematurely.

Issues Areas