The Science of Reading and the Perils of State Literacy Policies: Virginia’s Cautionary Tale - National Council of Teachers of English
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The Science of Reading and the Perils of State Literacy Policies: Virginia’s Cautionary Tale

This post was written by NCTE member Dorothy S. Suskind.

Seven lines of cramped desks contain the sorrows of children
A boy is relegated to a row of one – bewildered by his extradition
Morning Read aloud has been canceled
And the beautiful books are gone
Yelling penetrates the hallways
The teacher perches up front, hollowed, reading today’s script
An impenetrable gulf separates her from the children
Connections are formally severed
By a recently adopted, unabashedly expensive, reading program
Dictating how educators talk and teach
Six teachers called in sick today
Seven vacancies reannounce the growing void
The skeleton crew attempts to plug the leak
Proclamations of “I hate reading,” trickle from the mouths of captive children
Teachers contemplate their options
Internal wails of
“There has to be something better than this”
Coat the walls like cigarette smoke
All scan the halls
In search of the Emergency Exit

The above vignette is a poetic compilation of my repeat experiences and those of my colleagues. It is not an isolated tale but a centric telling of the people who reside inside schools, representative of the frenetic fallout from the Virginia Literacy Act—shaped by political agendas set atop young children and teachers, both who have everything to lose.

I would like to think we are on the same team, but that loyalty to the mission is difficult to maintain when those calling the shots reformulate the rules and switch games.

Below, I ask three questions, each meriting an editorial in its own right, that speak to the specific events unfolding in Virginia surrounding the passage of the Virginia Literacy Act, an attempt to dictate how reading is taught in schools, offering both a cautionary tale and a forecasting of a nationwide wave gaining force and speed, as the directors of the waters say a prayer we stopped listening.

But, it’s time we turn up the volume, speak back, and engage the whispered conversations simmering just beneath the swell.

As a former fifth-grade teacher, three questions, written in bold print, commanded our classroom wall. Today, as a professor and narrative inquiry researcher, I still call upon these three questions to guide my explorations and sense-making:

  1. Who is telling the story?
  2. Who is not telling the story?
  3. Why does it matter?

Who is Telling the Story?

As storytellers, we begin by world-building: painting the landscape and defining the terms. But what happens when terms are touted as scientific yet lack an extensive education research base, creating a conundrum for parents, administrators, and policy-makers who aren’t trained as teachers and often lack access to peer-review journal databases? Yaden’s, Reinking’s, and Smagorinsky’s article, The Trouble with Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, reflects on the quandary, highlighting the fallout when groups determine one position solely on the nature side of the argument, disregarding cultural and environmental influences and cling to experimental research methods that often have limited applicability to classroom practice.

In this space, where the Reading Wars have claimed to be won, and the science settled, where narrow reading instruction is purported to support a wide range of readers, policy-makers have gone what Bruer describes as a “bridge too far.” They claim victory when in reality, their battles have only served to limit resources, diminish joy, and cancel opportunities for a child-centered curriculum.

Bruer warns us, “We can be encouraged that educational neuroscience is connected to other research communities within the learning sciences, but we still must be concerned about its apparent distance from education research and educational practice.” Even Seidenberg, who is often favorably quoted by Science of Reading supporters, and his co-authors Borkenhagen and Kearns, contend in a recent RRQ article, “In the absence of sufficient translational research, almost every reading curriculum can claim an equally loose connection to the ‘science of reading.’ The risk of course, is that such programs will prove ineffective, not because the basic science is wrong but because the transla­tion was poor.”

Who is Not Telling the Story?

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, who is not telling the story, is most evident by the Virginia Department of Education’s Virginia Literacy Act’s Phase I Initial Review of Core Instructional Program’s Rubric, a precursor for curriculums to make it to subsequent rounds of reviews, and a predeterminant of a selection of narrowly defined programs. Right out of the gate, the first criteria states:

The program does not require or encourage three-cueing (students gaining meaning from print through Semantic, Syntactic or Grapho-phonic cues); meaning, structure, and visual (MSV) cues, or visual memory for word  recognition. (Non-negotiable. If the program receives a score of ‘does not meet expectations’ on this indicator, the rest of the program will be scored, but the program will receive an overall rating of ‘does not meet expectations’).

This is followed by eight additional headings that include criteria, such as explicit instruction, systematic instruction, and references to preferences for scripted lessons. For example, 4.4 reads, “Location of examples for directions for how to implement lessons (e.g. target skill, a script for wording, step-by-step sequence of instruction, materials needed).”

However, even more alarming than the rubric is Appendix A: Comparison of Reading Approaches, adopted from a non-peer-reviewed article by Moats, who developed LETRS, a professional development program supported and highlighted by the Virginia Department of Education, despite the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearing House finding that though LETRS “increased their (referring to teachers) knowledge of reading instruction techniques and their use of explicit instruction … it did not increase the reading test scores of their students.” Again, a bridge too far.  The Comparison of Reading Approaches table is divided into two columns: Scientifically Based Practices by Component of Instruction and Not Scientifically Based Practices by Component of Instruction. Under the “Scientifically Based” column, in regard to vocabulary, we find another call for scripted programs, “Teacher-student dialogue ‘scripted’ in the teacher’s manual.” Under the “Not Scientifically Based” column, we find literacy structures that are richly supported by research and classroom practice including:

(all language below is directly quoted from the table):

  1. Teacher made mini-lessons to address student errors
  2. Leveled books
  3. Miscue analysis
  4. Believes student learn to read by reading
  5. Trade books
  6. Reading aloud by the teacher
  7. Nondirective discussion
  8. Big books
  9. Teacher modeling (thinking aloud)
  10. Reading workshop
  11. Student book choice

As a former classroom teacher, reading specialist, coach, and principal, these falsely labeled “unscientific practices” are some of the essential elements I am looking for in exemplary, child-focused instruction, and it is certainly ironic that a rubric calling out “unscientific practices” is derived from a non-peer-reviewed source. Not to mention, as the co-director of my university’s writing project, part of the National Writing Project, it is not lost on me that writing doesn’t even earn a seat at the critic’s table. This leads us to our last and perhaps most important question, “Why does it matter?”

Why Does It Matter?

It matters because our children matter.

Such rhetoric, policies, and practices directly impact school curriculums and consequently hobble teachers’ ability to individualize instruction, negate academic freedom, which deprofessionalizes educators and perpetuate histories with a record of failure.

First, the rubric shared above is not a representation of best practices in diverse classrooms but instead was created and utilized as a gatekeeper to enforce an instructional approach, that though may have merit for particular children, is not appropriate for school-wide adoption and full classroom implementation.

Second, there is a concerted move in Virginia and across other states to control and dictate the curriculum of university education programs. Such a shift was hauntingly on display at last month’s Hunt Institute’s Virginia Education Summit (2:48), when a professor, who is deeply influential in the implementation of the Virginia Literacy Act, responded to a question regarding how the VLA differs from Reading First: “Reading First did not push on the lever of higher education at all. There was no attempt to go into education preparation programs and make sure those teachers were really prepared in the best way possible to begin to teach reading on day one.” Her comments clearly indicate an attempt to proclaim a settled science and a definitive truth in the ever-widening and evolving field of literacy research.

Such overreach is a direct violation of the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic  Freedom and Tenure, whose value lives inside the protection of the ongoing search for truth, as eloquently stated, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

Third, we are replaying failed histories both here in the United States, potentially duplicating the Reading First disaster as detailed in the official IES report, and across the pond in the UK, where, in 2006, a push for synthetic phonics began and was intensified and formalized in England’s 2014 national curriculum. In a recent report detailing its failure, Wyse and Bradbury share, “Overall, the correlations between the PISA scores and changes to reading curriculum policy data favour the less systematic phonics that was part of England’s first national curriculum rather than the subsequent increased emphases on synthetic phonics.”

In closing, I want to leave you with the despondence many educators and I feel, as we witness schools transition from a literacy-rich environment to a scripted curriculum that deprofessionalizes educators, hampers teachers’ ability to individualize instruction, and wrings the joy right out of reading and writing, as children’s books, trade books, and big books are removed from the classroom in exchange for expensive worksheets. In this altered reality punctuated by policy, funds are diverted from students and gifted to boxed curriculums, as copy machines and publishers claim their prize in the winner’s circle, offering up Virginia as a cautionary tale to other states that are shortly slated to fall.



Dorothy Suskind is an assistant professor of Elementary and Secondary Education at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. She has been a member of NCTE since 1999. Twitter: 





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