The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction* - National Council of Teachers of English
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The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction*

This post is by NCTE member Paul Thomas.

Within ten days in May 2022, two articles about reading ran prominently in the New York Times (one on a new dyslexia program in NYC and one on Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study). Both mentioned the science of reading movement that since 2018 has been politically effective but also intensely polarizing.

The contemporary reading reform movement is the latest chapter of a long history of similar controversies, dating from at least the early twentieth century. Since the 1940s, criticism has focused on how teachers teach reading (specifically phonics instruction), standardized test scores (including international comparisons), and a changing list of hypothetical causes for low test scores (progressivism, whole language, balanced literacy).

Struggling readers have been blamed on many influences—from how reading is taught to social influences on students (such as technology and media). Criticism over the last 80 years has targeted state and federal reading policy, the quality of teacher education/teacher professional development, theories of learning to read and reading instruction, the role of phonics and other reading skills in teaching reading, and the persistent gaps among science/research, classroom practices, and reading policy.

This concern about those “gaps” reaches back to Lou LaBrant, former president of NCTE (1954-1955), who wrote in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

Scholars and literacy educators have over a century conducted extensive research into these and other issues and found them to be complex, complicating the design of effective policy and classroom practice. Overall, this robust research base supports policies and approaches that acknowledge a range of individual student needs and not “one-size-fits-all” mandates.

Since 2018, the phrase science of reading has been popularized as loosely defined shorthand for the broad and complex research base characterizing how children learn to read and how best to teach reading.

Failing to acknowledge the full complement of research findings to simplify the issue for the public and for political readers, the media has used the term when framing the contemporary debate as pro-phonics versus no phonics. Various commercial vendors have also found the shorthand term science of reading highly useful in branding and marketing specific phonics-intensive reading and literacy programs.

As a result of this selective characterization of the research base, advocates in the current movement have been extremely effective in lobbying for revised and new phonics-first reading legislation across 30+ states in the US.

The science of reading movement as presented in the media directly and indirectly influenced state-level reading policies and practices:

  • States revised or passed new legislation focusing on reading proficiency by third grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing (see here and here). While research on the effectiveness of grade retention shows short-term test score gains, they fade over time and have long-term negative consequences for students.
  • Specific commercial reading programs have been banned at the state level and reevaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices addressing dyslexia among students now include universal screening and prescribed systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics has been added to teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.

As the movement has grown, scholars have been concurrently cautioning that advocacy and political responses based on this partial characterization of research have produced rigid and ultimately harmful policy and practices.

More specifically, the current science of reading reform movement has not served reading policy and practice decisions well because advocates and commercial vendors often exaggerate and oversimplify both the problems and solutions around reading achievement and instruction.

From parents and the public to policymakers, administrators, and teachers, then, we all should heed a few cautions:

  • Be wary of overstatements and oversimplifications within media and public advocacy, acknowledging concerns raised but remaining skeptical of simplistic claims about causes and solutions.
  • Attend to known influences on measurable student reading achievement, including the socioeconomics of communities, schools, and homes; teacher expertise and autonomy; and teaching and learning conditions.
  • Recognize student-centered as an important research-supported guiding principle, but also acknowledge the reality that translating such research-based principles into classroom practice is always challenging.
  • Shift new reading policies away from prescription and mandates (“one-size-fits-all” approaches) and toward support for individual student needs and ongoing teacher-informed reform.

Yes, of course, reading matters, but we are well past blaming the historical and current reality of struggling readers on simplistic causes and then prescribing silver-bullet solutions.

Reading and teaching reading are complex, and the barriers to reading for students are also complicated. We need a different way of seeing those barriers, and we need a different approach to reading instruction, starting with reimagining state-level and district-level policy.

Additional Resources

Statement on Independent Reading

The Act of Reading: Instructional Foundations and Policy Guidelines

The Students’ Right to Read

* Adapted from Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. National Education Policy Center.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

P. L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a former column editor for English Journal, the current series editor for the Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres, and author of Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means  and How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care. NCTE named Thomas the 2013 George Orwell Award winner. He recently coedited (with Christian Z. Goering) Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America. Follow his work on Twitter at @plthomasEdD and Radical Eyes for Equity.