Our journey through the history of literacy instruction in the United States has brought us to the very place we started: the current science of reading movement that has taken the education field by storm. In this concluding episode of A Novel Idea, we discuss the future of the science of reading movement and hear input from a variety of experts, including:
Science or snake oil: How to tell the difference, Holly Lane, University of Florida Literacy Institute
Read it, say it, hear it, write it: Instructional routines that engage the four language skill areas, Meg Mechelke, Iowa Reading Research Center
Scope and sequence: What is it, and how do educators use it to guide instruction?, Meg Mechelke, Iowa Reading Research Center
Episode transcript and sources
A Novel Idea website:
Voice (reads): Why does a school decide to abandon one method of teaching children to read and adopt a different one? Why does another school, despite the existence of some convincing evidence that a new method is more effective than the one currently in use, persist in retaining its present method? As I traveled from school to school, observing and interviewing in an attempt to gather information on results with various methods, I also sought answers to these questions.
This is a selection from Dr. Jeanne Chall’s 1967 book, The Great Debate.
Voice (reads): It soon became clear that the findings of research in beginning reading, which we have discussed here in such detail, are not an important factor in practical decisions about beginning reading instruction. Of the many teachers and administrators I talked with, not one ever said that he or she had been influenced to make a change by an article that reported an experiment or described a finding about the reading process. It seems that research findings, carefully selected for the purpose, serve primarily to back up decisions and commitments already made. (Chall, 1967).
Though this book is over half a century old, I think this passage does an excellent job of highlighting one of the key reasons why the science of reading is met with resistance, even today. It’s not that the cumulation of evidence that makes up the science of reading doesn’t exist. It’s that it’s a lot easier to go with the flow or accept what’s popular than it is to wade through pages of often inaccessible academic research. That’s the trend we’ve seen time and time again, from Dick and Jane and the look-say method to modern balanced literacy programs distributed by leading publishing companies.
Because the science of reading is not a curriculum. It is not something you can purchase from a publisher or content creator. And while science-of-reading-aligned instruction is what students ultimately need to make gains in literacy proficiency, it is not a silver bullet solution that will immediately solve the country’s literacy crisis in one quick, easy step.
From the Iowa Reading Research Center, I’m Meg Mechelke, and this is A Novel Idea. In the previous seven episodes, we have explored the current state of the science of reading movement and its historical roots, leaving us with one question left to answer: where do we go from here?
Before we get too far, a brief disclaimer. We’ve talked a lot about phonics in this podcast. You’ll see the importance of sufficient phonics instruction brought up in almost every science-of-reading-related article or presentation that you see. That’s because explicit phonics instruction tends to be an aspect of literacy instruction that is left out of flawed instructional methods like whole language and balanced literacy. However, teaching phonics alone is not representative of what the science of reading is all about. Instead, science of reading advocates suggest that all elements of proficient reading, including decoding skills, vocabulary, background knowledge, language structures, and more, all must be taught in an explicit, systematic, and evidence-based manner in order to promote reading proficiency in all students.
Additionally, as we said before, the science of reading is not one specific curriculum. Rather, it is a body of research that forms the basis of many different instructional programs. The idea of reducing the science of reading to a single product is tempting. It would be nice if there were one pre-written, pre-packaged science of reading curriculum that was guaranteed to work for every student in every classroom. However, leaders of the movement emphasize the fact that quick fixes are not always the best solution.
Reid Lyon: Here's where I see the same human foibles possibly derail what could be a very strong addition to teacher preparation and to implementation of effective instruction.
That’s Dr. Reid Lyon, the former director of the NICHD and a renowned expert in the reading research field, who we’ve heard from in several previous episodes. He says that he frequently gets calls from school administrators asking him to tell them what the science of reading is and how they can successfully implement it in their districts.
Reid Lyon: I see that the science of reading, as it's defined in some quarters, is conflated with the program being used. So some administrators may be told that “this program is science of reading” or something like that. Most of these programs, despite all of the years in between Reading First and now, have not been submitted to trials with the appropriate designs and methods.
When considering what the science of reading really means and what its impacts might look like moving forward, I was reminded of something Melissa Loftus and Lori Sappington, co-hosts of the popular Melissa and Lori Love Literacy podcast, said to me during our interview for the very first episode of this series.
Melissa Loftus: Honestly, I think the biggest thing that Lori and I want to get across is that there's always more to learn, and even the science of reading is continuing to evolve. We want to continue learning. We definitely don't know everything there is to know about reading. And I think that, to me, is bigger than learning any one thing, right, like learning about phonemic awareness or learning about phonics, but to know that, you know, there is so much to learn, there's so much research that's already out there that we need to learn about, but there's also new research coming out all the time, and so just, I think, like, being okay with not knowing everything and wanting to be a continuous learner and finding more information. And if that means that a research study comes out tomorrow that is saying that what you're doing is not what we should be doing, it's okay to make some shifts in your practice, too, and not feel like you are a terrible teacher. It just means that, you know, tomorrow you're going to try something new and see if that works for your students in a way that what you were doing may not have been working.Lori Sappington: Yeah, I think, what you said struck me a lot, Melissa. I think the science of reading movement has really created a space in education that makes it okay and safe to ask questions that we didn't ask before, to question things that we had done before, and to feel like wherever I am in this journey, whether I'm a parent and I think my child might be having some reading difficulties, or I'm a teacher and I see more than like one child in my class struggling to read, you can then reflect on that and and ask questions. And I hope that the discussions in our podcast just inspire lots of questions and lots of thoughts and lots of, like Melissa said, continued learning.
These thoughts are echoed by educator and activist Kareem Weaver, who is the co-founder of FULCRUM and the second vice president of the Oakland NAACP.
Kareem Weaver: I encourage educators to be curious. I encourage parents to be curious. I’m hoping that we can be curious enough to just examine what works.
At the end of the day, supporting the science of reading means making a commitment to curiosity and continuous learning. It means asking critical questions, analyzing teaching materials skeptically, and basing instruction in reputable, scientific evidence at all times. This requires a lot of time and effort, as well as a willingness to make mistakes and grow from them. It’s not easy. But if we don’t do it, we run the risk of falling into the exact same trap that whole-word advocates, look-say supporters, and whole language acolytes have fallen into decade after decade. And if that happens, it will be the students who suffer the consequences.
Emily Hanford: Looking back on past efforts at this, I think you can see a theme.
This is Emily Hanford, senior producer and correspondent for American Public Media. She is the creator of the groundbreaking series Sold a Story, a chart-topping investigative podcast that has instigated a flurry of interest in the science of reading amongst educators, caregivers, and policymakers across the country.
Emily Hanford: When teachers are sort of given something else and told to do something and told to fix something… handed a curriculum or whatever. When they don’t understand why, it’s really a problem.
To Hanford, one of the most important pieces of the science of reading movement is that it has helped countless educators gain the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about reading instruction.
Emily Hanford: I think there's an awakening. People are learning more. I think one mistake we're possibly making is sort of over-teaching the so-called “science of reading” to teachers without giving them enough of the what to do. At the same time, I actually really do think that that knowledge part is the most important piece. If we're going to err on the side of something, I would say it's giving the knowledge because that is what helps the teachers understand why.
The good thing is, in addition to providing a vital understanding of how learning to read works, the years of reading research that make up the science of reading also equip educators with a whole host of practical tools they can use to help their students become proficient readers.
Reid Lyon: I think the best way to explain it is that there are no surprises.
Again, this is Reid Lyon.
Reid Lyon: When we think about scientifically-based reading research, what we're looking at is the principles of instruction that have been validated and the components of reading that must be taught. And that is the science of reading. What you need to teach and how you teach it.
Today, reading research and evidence-based instructional tools are more accessible and available than ever, thanks in large part to the viral spread of the science of reading movement. No longer do educators and caregivers have to visit their local library and comb through pages of journal articles to determine what the evidence says about reading and writing instruction. Instead, quality literacy research is available in a variety of easy-to-find formats, including podcasts, blog posts, and more.
Even so, the transition to evidenced-based instruction can be a challenging task, especially for educators who were once encouraged to use an entirely different teaching method.
Hannah Bain: I was getting really frustrated with our curriculum. We were using Fountas and Pinnell stuff. I was reading their books. I was doing the leveled small groups, and all of that.
A few years ago, elementary teacher Hannah Bain began to notice that something was not working in the way she was teaching her students to read.
Hannah Bain: Some of my kids were fine. And some of them I was like, Why aren't they progressing? Why do they keep guessing? Why do they know this one word but not another word? And why can they read this word and then on the very next line, not recognize it? And I was getting really frustrated cause I couldn't figure it out.
Bain is a teacher in the Colo-Nesco Community School District, which is located in central Iowa. She also has a master’s degree in literacy. In the spring of 2020, she took it upon herself to figure out what exactly was causing her students so many problems with reading.
Hannah Bain: When COVID happened, I kind of went through like, Okay, what do I do now? I can't really be with my kids, so I actually started my National Boards journey, and I decided to start researching to get ready for the test, and that's when I stumbled across this concept called the “science of reading.” And I started reading these articles, I think first by Natalie Wexler, and that really piqued my interest, and so I started watching webinars, I joined the Facebook group, and I started reading people's posts and going to their links and looking at different curriculum suggestions, and I kind of taught myself and I started ordering textbooks and reading them and really just putting myself back through a masters course almost. And I just ate it up because I was like, This is what I was trying to find out. This is what I was missing. And I was like, Oh my God. It started to make sense.
This epiphany was transformative to the way Bain thought about children’s literacy learning.
Hannah Bain: I really kind of changed my perspective about how children learn to read. And what really turned my mind was the new research around the brain science of it and the brain images, and talking about kids with dyslexia and their brain scans, and early readers and their brain scans, and fluent readers and, like, the process of how you get there, and then the mountains of research around phonics and phonemic awareness and the five pillars, and what it actually was doing. That definitely honed my thinking there, and so I definitely became a lot more phonics-based. And I focused a lot more on the letter sounds and the letter representations and the one-to-one correspondence and reading it and writing it and going back and forth between those and being a lot more systematic about it instead of like, “Oh, here's something that pops up here, and then here's something that pops up here,” and then letting the kids actually practice those in connected text and not just giving them, like, a book and having things they haven't been exposed to and “let’s guess at it.” I took away a lot of guessing and tried to be really explicit. I changed my cueing, if you will. I moved away from those three semantic cues or the little animal cues.
Here, Bain is referring to a contemporary method of teaching reading that is sometimes called the “Beanie Baby cues.” In this approach, students are taught catchy strategies for guessing unknown words. Each strategy is associated with a cute animal graphic or toy. Popular beanie baby strategies include “Skippy Frog,” “Eagle Eye,” and “Lips the Fish,” which instruct students to skip unknown words, look at accompanying pictures, and say the first sound of the word respectively. As Bain notes, many of these strategies align with outdated approaches to reading, like the three-cueing system and balanced literacy’s SMV, or structural, meaning, and visual cues.
Over the next year, Bain took what she had learned about the science of reading and put it into practice in her own classroom.
Hannah Bain: I started implementing it the next year, slowly. I started with phonemic awareness, and we started implementing that, and we started to see success. The first thing that I noticed was in their writing. It became a lot less guessed spelling and more clearly able to read. And even if they weren't using the correct phonics pattern in a word, the pattern made sense, and you could really figure out what they were spelling in first grade a lot more easily than before. The other thing I noticed was the kids became a lot more confident. I heard a lot less “I hate to read,” “I don’t like reading.” I barely heard that at all, and a lot more parents came to me, early on, and said, “Wow, my kid is reading way earlier than they had before.” And by the end of the year, we had amazing growth that I had never seen before. And there were kids where they weren't growing, but I knew why. And I knew what they had to work on, whereas before I was like, I have no idea what's going on. I could specifically tell other teachers and parents like, “This is the skill they're missing, and this is what you should do to work on it,” and so I think that was really helpful.
The change Bain saw in her students is remarkable. But it wasn’t an easy journey to get there.
Hannah Bain: It can be really overwhelming. So if you don't get it at first, that's normal. And don't beat yourself up, because I definitely did that at first. I was like, Oh my God, I ruined all the children, and I didn't, I didn’t. I just didn't know.
Bain’s advice to teachers just starting out on their science of reading journey? Don’t be afraid to take baby steps. That was the path towards success for Bain and her students.
Hannah Bain: I would say learn what you can and start with something small that you can change and then build on it. So like for us, it was adding in a phonemic awareness routine. Then, we added on dictation and then we added on blending and then we added on this and that and the other thing. Don't feel like you have to do everything at once. But find something that you're comfortable with switching and give it a try and keep reading about everything.
Bain was able to use the resources she had available to learn a better approach to teaching her students how to read. The kinds of resources she mentioned, including webinars, books, and social media, are often great sources of information for those who want to learn more about the science of reading.
However, not all of the resources you find online or in so-called “science of reading” books are truly evidence-based.
Lori Sappington: I think it's a little scary, too.
This again from Lori Sappington of Melissa and Lori Love Literacy.
Lori Sappington: Like social media can be a place where you're like... I mean, I'm constantly seeing reels of like how to teach this, how to teach that, and usually it's some sort of phonics skill. And I always have to, like, check myself, so. I don’t always trust that it’s the right way. I mean, if you looked at every science of reading hashtag you're like, Is it?
Again, just because something says it is “science of reading,” doesn’t mean it actually is. Catchy, pop culture simplifications of reading research, like the #SOR movement on Twitter and other social media platforms can be helpful. Social media is a great resource for teachers who are looking for an affordable and accessible place to begin their journey into the world of evidence-based instruction. However, this can become a slippery slope when we forget to stay tuned to the actual body of research that the “#science of reading” is based on.
Emily Hanford: When we get a tagline, it becomes a movement, “SOR,” you can become so committed to the thing that you think you believe in. Number one, we have the problem [that] not everyone necessarily believes in the same thing, right? You’ve got some tagline, but it means different things to different people.
This again from Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: And number two, don't get so committed to a particular way of doing a thing or a particular person who's articulated it, or whatever, to not be willing to change your mind, to be like, “Oh wait, this might be working better than what we have, but maybe there's an even more effective, more efficient way to do it.”
For educators, administrators, and policymakers, determining which instructional practices and materials are really aligned with the science of reading can be a difficult task. However, according to Nina Lorimor-Easley, the assistant director for education and outreach at the Iowa Reading Research Center, there are a few key things that all evidence-based programs should include.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: The first thing I ask for when looking into a curriculum is the scope and sequence. When we have a scope and sequence of a curriculum in hand, we can see how it is approaching and introducing content. We can determine if we agree with the logic of the sequence, if the curriculum is teaching at the detailed level we are looking for, and if the scope is going to allow us to gauge mastery. If you ask for a scope and sequence from a salesperson and they’re hesitant, or they don't want to give it to you, then I would suggest you proceed with caution.
A scope and sequence is a document that outlines what material is going to be covered in a curriculum and when it is going to be covered. A good scope and sequence ensures that instruction follows a logical order, allowing students to use previously mastered material to support future learning. It can also support the implementation of explicit instruction, by ensuring that students are never assessed on skills they have not been directly taught.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: Within your curriculum, students should be held accountable for learning that’s been taught. We should be asking them to spell concepts that we have explicitly taught them to spell. We should be asking them to produce syllable types that we’ve taught. They should know the rules that they’ve practiced. They should recognize patterns that we have explicitly taught them. They should be able to accurately apply those skills to the content we are providing for them. If we just throw material at them based on what looks interesting, we aren’t requiring them to demonstrate mastery of specific skills, and we can’t use those activities to then inform our instruction.
In addition, Lorimor-Easley expressed that a science-of-reading-aligned curriculum should include instruction and practice in all four language skill areas: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: A strong curriculum will integrate encoding and decoding throughout instruction. Students need to say it, see it, write it, and read it. All those things. Evidence-based instruction is going to continually weave back and forth between reading and writing, speaking and listening. Then we need foundational skills tied into higher-level knowledge concepts.
According to Lorimor-Easley, exposure to all four language areas helps students develop vital literacy skills. However, she also states that instruction that chunks the four language areas into very separate skill blocks can actually be detrimental to student learning, especially when the things being taught in these blocks are not all aligned to the same scope and sequence. Instead, Lorimor-Easley suggests that classroom instruction should include activities that intentionally require students to engage with more than one language skill at a time. For example, students might be encouraged to give an oral presentation on a text they have read, or to draft a written response to a story they have listened to out loud.
Lorimor-Easley also cautions educators about adopting curricula that contain remnants of outdated teaching practices, like the three-cueing system and balanced literacy.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: We need to be very wary of [any] curriculum that’s asking students to guess at words based on content, first letter, word shapes, things like that. We don't want students guessing at words. We want them to be actually attacking, encoding, decoding, utilizing strategies to attack words, especially when they’re first exposed to a word.
Of course, one of the best ways to determine whether or not a curriculum is science-of-reading-aligned is to go straight to the source: the actual evidence that the curriculum is based on. However, even though a lot of this research has become easier to find in the last decade or two, thanks largely to the Internet, accessing this evidence can still be difficult. First of all, many journal articles are behind a paywall, which can prevent individuals outside of academia from easily accessing them. Secondly, research reports are often densely technical pieces of writing. If you’re like me, a quick perusal of these single-spaced, many-paged documents and their abundance of mathematical formulas can make you wonder: Where do I even begin?
In the creation of this podcast, I’ve had to work through a number of research reports, and in doing so, I’ve found that this is an approach that works well for me. First, I read the abstract, which gives a brief summary of the experiment that is typically written in simpler language. For me, reading the abstract is a good way to get a sense of what the paper is about, and whether or not it will contain the information I am looking for. Next, I typically check out the report’s introduction to get an overview of what the experiment looked like and what the researchers were attempting to find. Then, I skip all the way to the paper’s discussion and conclusion sections. These parts outline the study’s findings and what they mean and are typically written in relatively accessible language. If I still have questions after reading the conclusion, I will backtrack to the methodologies and results sections of the paper. While these are usually the most dense and complex sections of a report, they also include valuable information about the way the study was conducted and the validity of its methods.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: It's tough. Most of the educators I know aren't researchers. And there's a lot of research out there to weed through, and it can be really complicated.
This again from Nina Lorimor-Easley, who gave me some additional pointers on how to understand the results and methodologies presented in a research paper. According to her, a good first step is to determine what kind of study you’re looking at. Two common types of educational studies include experimental and case studies.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: An experiment is a study that requires introducing an independent variable to a group and controlling that variable. That then allows us to monitor and record outcomes based on the introduction of that variable.
For example, imagine that I want to know whether fertilizing my plants will help them grow. In order to conduct an experiment, I would need to have two groups with substantial amounts of identical plants. The plants that I fertilized would be the intervention group. The plants that did not receive any fertilizer would be the control group. All of the other conditions affecting the plants, including sunlight, watering, etc, would need to remain consistent throughout the study. I would use the control group plants to gauge how much the fertilizer really affected the other plants’ growth. According to Lorimor-Easley, the presence of a control group is one of the first things to look for when evaluating the quality of a research study.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: In order for it to be research, there has to be a comparison to a control. At the most basic level, we create a hypothesis, we keep a control group, and we introduce the variable to a second group. Then we compare the outcomes between the two groups.
You’ll also often see case studies in education, which are different from experiments. Rather than comparing the results of an intervention group and a control group, educational case studies document what happens to one person or small group of people in a specific context. Case studies lack control groups and are often open to the influence of many uncontrolled variables. For example, if I added fertilizer to one plant, and then documented what happened, that would be an example of a case study. While I might gain some valuable insight about my plant’s development from this process, I would not be able to draw a firm conclusion as to whether or not the fertilizer impacted its growth.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: With a case study, you’re not getting necessarily a specific cause and effect that you can correlate. A case study is simply saying “we did this and here's what happened.” There could be many variables involved that aren’t recorded or that we don’t know about. There could be many unmonitored things happening that play out and play into the outcomes reported in a case study. This is why we ideally want research; evidence; we want a control group; we want a variable that's introduced, controlled, and monitored for comparison.
Once you understand what type of research you are looking at, you can start to examine it in more detail.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: Some of the first things that I always tell people to look for is who paid for the research? If you are looking at a curriculum, and the only research they give you is the research they've done themselves, then proceed with caution. We would rather know what others think about a curriculum. Since the curriculum company is trying to sell their curriculum, there is a good chance that their documentation is going to be very supportive of their curriculum. It is most likely not an unbiased opinion.
Next, Lorimor-Easley encourages readers to look for the study’s effect size, which should be included with its data.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: Effect size can be considered one of the most user-friendly numbers in research. The effect size is going to help quantify the degree of change in behavior based on the variable that was introduced. If I have a control group and I have an experimental group, and I'm giving my “prescribed treatments” to my experimental group, then the effect size is going to help quantify the magnitude of the difference that occurs.
In other words, effect size is a number that tells you how much of an impact an intervention had. For example, if I added fertilizer to half of my plants, and the plants with fertilizer only grew to be a fraction of an inch taller than the plants without, that would be a small effect size. If the plants with the fertilizer grew six inches taller than the others, that would be a large effect size and a good indicator that the fertilizer was working.
Generally, an intervention is considered effective if it has an effect size of over 0.40. So if you encounter a study with an effect size below that, it means that the results observed were not substantial enough to concretely prove that the intervention had an impact. If you see an effect size that is below zero, that means the intervention produced the opposite of its intended effects.
In addition to effect size, you may want to check a study’s sample size, or the number of participants involved in the study.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: We also need to look at how big the sample sizes are. If a curriculum is published and says, you know, “this is a great curriculum; look, we had a group of 22 students, and they all made great progress.” Well, that’s good for those 22 students, but 22 students is not something that we're going to hang our hat on for a long period of time or make a huge financial investment in. We want to see bigger group sizes. We want to see long-term research, and we want to see results duplicated in multiple studies. Did 22 students have the outcome expected one time? Or did 22 students have outcome expected consistently for five consecutive years?
Another benefit of well-designed experimental studies is that they can be repeated.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: One of the keys to solid evidence is that we can replicate the outcomes. So, did you get your outcomes first with 22 students, and then you did the experiment again and got the outcomes with 60 students, and then replicated it once again with 122 students, getting similar outcomes each time? That would be research that we could really start to dive into.
However, even once an evidence-based curriculum has been chosen, there is still a long way to go to ensure that classroom reading instruction is being done effectively.
Emily Hanford: A lot is known about reading and how it works, but less is known about how to teach reading. Like, this translation into practice is hard.
This again from journalist Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: Just because the school has bought something doesn't mean it's being used. Doesn't mean it's being used in every class, doesn't mean it's being used well, doesn't mean anyone's gotten any training in it.
According to Lorimor-Easley, this is where the concept of “fidelity” comes into play.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: Anytime you're talking about a curriculum, you want to implement with fidelity. This means that you're holding to the intentions of how the curriculum should be delivered. When we talk about fidelity, we're talking about adhering to all the elements of instruction outlined by the curriculum, and we're talking about making sure that all of those elements are included in our instruction as intended. We want to make sure that we're not arbitrarily skipping or eliminating aspects of the intended instruction.
At first, this may sound obvious. However, even for the most well-intentioned educators, the issue of fidelity often becomes a lot more complicated in practice.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: If you think about a teacher who's got 25 little people in a room, and that teacher has to get through specific routines… We've got to make sure that things get done right. With those 25 little variables doing their own thing while teachers work to deliver with fidelity—it is not an easy task.
No real-life implementation of a curriculum is going to be perfect, and every teacher is going to bring their own unique flair and experience to the classroom. However, educators and administrators must attempt to adhere to the general, evidence-based principles outlined by a given program if they hope to achieve the greatest results.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: What we don't want to do is take a curriculum that's based in evidence and dismantle it thinking that we don’t need pieces or parts of it, or that this might not be important or that might not be important. The routines are relevant, and we’ve got to make sure that they stay in play and aren’t skipped.
For example, a district that adopts a science-of-reading-aligned curriculum, but then decides to skip some of the foundational skills outlined in the scope and sequence is unlikely to see the same growth and success as a district that adheres more closely to the program. Thus, fidelity is an incredibly important piece of implementing the science of reading in the classroom. Researchers can monitor fidelity in many ways, including in-person classroom observation and reviewing recordings of classroom educators.
Despite the ever-growing body of research we have compiled surrounding the science of reading, not everyone is interested in pivoting to an SOR-aligned approach. To some, the return to a systematic, phonics-based approach to literacy instruction seems like a regression to the times we chronicled in our early episodes. After all, is it really a good idea to revert to a style of teaching reading that parallels approaches used before the invention of the lightbulb?
Emily Hanford: A lot of people like this pendulum swing thing… like, We don’t want to “swing too far over on the other side of the pendulum.” I don’t particularly like that metaphor because I feel like it has defined the things that we’re swinging between kind of inaccurately, right? So I don't think we're like “swinging back”… First of all, I don't think there was a good old days with all this, okay, that's one thing. I don't think we've really ever gotten this really right.
As we can see from previous episodes of our podcast, Hanford has a point. Literacy instruction in the United States has undergone repeated reforms throughout the ages, but none of them have seemed to have had a lastingly positive impact on reading performance.
Additionally, though the re-emphasis on structured and explicit instruction does borrow some ideas from the heyday of old timers like Noah Webster, the kind of teaching supported by advocates of the current science of reading movement is light years more advanced, effective, and equitable than literacy instruction in the Enlightenment era. Rather than swinging arbitrarily between ideological educational principles as we have in the past, today’s science of reading advocates are calling for educators, caregivers, and administrators to approach literacy instruction from an objective, evidence-based stance.
This empirically-minded, scientific way of thinking about reading could be just the thing to put an end to this so-called “pendulum swing” once and for all. However, it also requires that we challenge ourselves to avoid thinking of the science of reading as a silver bullet solution to our literacy problems.
Emily Hanford: The stakes are high. There's urgency. Oh man, there’s urgency in my emails… “What do I do now, right now?” And you know, for a lot of people, it's like, “It's my kid right now. It's my students right now, it's my school system right now. It's my state right now. And I'm responsible. I'm in charge. I'm the mother. I'm the teacher. I'm the superintendent. I'm the governor.”
And things are happening. Laws are being passed, regulations are being put on the books. And that makes it kind of a fragile moment.
Advocates on both sides of the science of reading debate have worried that the rush to “fix” the country’s literacy issues could result in more of the uniformed and ultimately unhelpful types of solutions we have seen in the past.
Emily Hanford: Some people know a lot about this, including the researchers and some of the really invested parents and teachers, right? And now more and more people are starting to know a little about this.
People are asking for answers, and people are saying we need help here. We need laws, we need policies, we need money. But as soon as you get laws, policies, and money… All actions have reactions. All laws have intended consequences and unintended consequences, so it's just a big, messy time.
However, Hanford is cautiously optimistic that if we remember to stick to the science, we will be able to enact impactful, lasting changes.
Emily Hanford: Education is messy and difficult, and it all happens in the little teeny details. And you know, the thing that makes me hopeful? Children… human beings are resilient. And I think we can deal with a certain amount of mess on all of this, as long as we don’t like, you know… proclaim things too heavily in one way or another as we go.
And Hanford is not alone. Many of the researchers, caregivers, journalists, educators, podcasters, and activists I have spoken with over the last few months echoed her optimism about the future of the science of reading movement.
Timothy Shanahan: It certainly does appear that there’s a lot of change going on.
Kim Taylor: I’ve been in this fight for ten years, and I am... I’m glad that you are doing this to me today because it’s starting to reignite my fire a little bit.
Natalie Wexler: I am encouraged, you know, I try to be optimistic about this.
Lori Sappington: And I’m, like, so hopeful, I feel like this is such a different place than we’ve been before…
Kareem Weaver: You done got me fired up, Meg.
Here at the Iowa Reading Research Center, we’re hopeful too.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: I, personally, am really excited about what we're seeing in the state.
This again from IRRC Assistant Director Nina Lorimor-Easley.
Nina Lorimor-Easley: I'm excited about the shifts we're making and seeing. I'm excited about the direction that things are going right now. Myself and others have been advocating for these changes for a long time, so it’s really starting to feel like we're gaining some momentum, and that is big.
Today, it’s up to educators, administrators, caregivers, policymakers, teacher preparation programs, and researchers to keep this momentum going. Together, we can use the science of reading to provide all students with equitable, effective, and evidence-based literacy instruction and build a brighter future for the next generation of readers and writers.
Once again, I’m Meg Mechelke, and that’s a wrap on A Novel Idea. Thank you so much for listening. And remember: stay curious and keep learning.
A Novel Idea is a podcast from The Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. It’s written, produced, and mixed by me, Meg Mechelke. Editing by Sean Thompson, and expert review by Nina-Lorimor Easley and Lindsay Seydel, with additional review and fact checking provided by Olivia Tonelli. Additional voiceover work from Kathleen Guerrero.
For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes.
Visit us online at irrc.education.uiowa.edu to find more episodes and additional literacy resources for educators and families. Again, that’s irrc.education.uiowa.edu. You can also follow us on Twitter at @IAReading.
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