What it Really Means to “Teach” the Science of Reading

Science of reading.  It seems to be the only term we’re hearing lately in the literacy world.  It’s being thrown around everywhere.  One way we hear it a lot is in the phrase “science of reading curriculum.” A very quick Google search will yield exactly that.  Curriculum companies will pop right up, claiming to be science of reading.  Parents will ask if you’re teaching the science of reading.  And many, many comments on social media insist that everyone teach the science of reading.  But the thing is, the science of reading is not a curriculum.  It’s not something you teach.  

Then what IS the science of reading? 

The science of reading is by definition “the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction, organized around models that describe how and why.” (NWEA, 2022)  It’s what “experts from relevant disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, neurology, and more” have all learned about “the information we need to gain a deeper understanding of how we learn to read, what skills are involved, how they work together, and which parts of the brain are responsible for reading development.” (IMSE, 2021)

It’s not a curriculum.

It’s not a thing we do

It’s knowledge.  Understanding.  Direction.  

It’s information that helps to inform teachers about best practice.  It’s how you approach reading instruction.  It’s not something that can be bought.  In fact, “some reading researchers have raised concerns that education companies are putting “science of reading” labels on their materials without ensuring that their products follow research-backed approaches. (Education Week, 2023)

To be sure, curriculum companies stand to gain millions upon millions with new materials, and they’re most certainly going to take advantage of that.  It’s the nature of business.  

As a perfect example, back in 2014 The International Dyslexia Association coined the term “structured literacy” as a marketing ploy.  Hal Malchow, then IDA president, said this in a company memo:

“Today, our successful approach to reading instruction goes by many names: Orton Gillingham, Multi-Sensory, Explicit Phonics. In many schools and districts, our approach is referred to by the name of the organization training teachers. So in Houston, it may be known as “Neuhaus.” In New York or Los Angeles, it may be referred to as “Wilson.”  If we want school districts to adopt our approach, we need a name that brings together our successes. We need one name that refers to the many programs that teach reading in the same way. A name is the first and essential step to building a brand.  In our marketing, this term will help us simplify our message and connect our successes. “Structured Literacy” will help us sell what we do so well.”

I think it’s worth noting that Mr. Malchow is described as “a successful businessman and political consultant” in that company memo’s bio.   While he does have a son with dyslexia, this description really clarifies the intention behind that last line.  

Commercialism is rampant right now, both in large companies and with TPT sellers.  So we’ve got to be careful.  And we have to keep something very important in mind: the science that informs reading instruction is ever evolving.  That’s the nature of science.  

And it’s unfinished.  

Case in point:  the ubiquitous Simple View of Reading came out in 1986.  Then, as scientists were able to learn more, that overly-simplified view turned into the much more comprehensive Reading Rope just a few years later, in 2001.  Most recently, the Active View of Reading was developed, which, because the science has advanced tremendously in the last 20+ years since Scarborough’s Reading Rope, is by far the most comprehensive model yet.  

But there’s something that’s sorely missing from this whole discussion of teaching the science of reading

Writing instruction.  

Today, in 2024, there just aren’t many high-quality, sound studies on writing and its effect on reading.  And back in 2000, when the National Reading Panel conducted their work, there were even fewer.  So few, it wasn’t even part of the Panel’s work.  (Education Week, 2023, Hechinger Report, 2019)  It’s a very difficult thing to study in a scientific way because there are just far too many variables.  But we cannot ignore the importance of writing. It goes hand in hand with reading.  We must give it the attention it deserves.   

Teacher providing young student with writing feedback.
Writing instruction is crucial for reading success. Image via Depositphotos

So as we witness the constant back and forth so prevalent right now, and as we gain access to research that deepens our understanding of literacy, is there anything we can hold fast to with certainty?

Yes.  Yes there is.

There is research that has not changed in decades.  

It’s the research that tells us it’s teacher skill and knowledge that matters most.  

“Research findings suggest pupil success or failure is most directly related to the ‘teacher variable’ in the teaching of reading.”  

Jerome Harste, Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 1978

The date on that quote is 1978.  It’s as old as I am.  Since then that same conclusion has been revealed time and time again.  A Google Scholar search of the term “teacher effectiveness” brings up more than 6.6 million reports.  

My point?  Teacher skill and knowledge matters.  A lot. 

Absolutely, we must let the science inform us.  That’s our professional responsibility.  We all should gain as deep of an understanding of sound literacy instruction as we possibly can.  But you must also put it into practice your way, as a part of strong instructional components with your students in mind.  Integrate it with what you know to be best practice (like, for example, the fact that writing matters so much, or that read alouds are critical, or that small group instruction is important).  

Use the science of reading in the way it’s meant to be used. 

To guide your instructional decisions and help you make stronger ones. Let it equip you with understanding about helping your students in more effective ways that can be intertwined with what you know already to be great.  

Finding the best way to teach your kids, with their many differences and their many needs and in your particular context is not pulled from a box or found in a one size fits all script.  It’s found in you, and what you bring to the table.  Your level of understanding.  Your skill.   And that, my friend, is backed by science that has stood the test of time.   

I hope you found this post helpful.  I hope it gave you some clarity and perspective.  And I hope, more than anything, that it’s given you a sigh of relief.  

If you could use a thinking partner to streamline and strengthen your literacy instruction, I’m here for you!  I’ll help you cut through the noise to center on simple, strong, science-aligned instruction tailored to your students’ needs.   Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or send me an email!

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