What is the "Science of Reading," and why does it matter?

A seemingly innocent term dividing researchers in the latest reading wars

Teacher holding book with kids around the book

What is the "Science of Reading," and why does it matter?

A seemingly innocent term dividing researchers in the latest reading wars

Teacher holding book with kids around the book
 "Ask the Professor: The answer may surprise you!" with science-related doodles in background
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The “Science of Reading” is a loaded phrase these days. It’s creating a lot of controversy, partly because people define it in different ways. To some people, the “Science of Reading” represents a large body of well-conducted research that investigates how children learn to read and what instructional approaches work best. To others, it represents an overly narrow view of teaching reading, one that is just focused on how children learn to read individual words. To specify, being able to read individual words involves decoding, or the ability to map sounds to the letters and groups of letters we see in print. More colloquially, this is called “sounding out words.”

What are the two sides to “Science of Reading?”

When people identify as “Science of Reading” advocates, they can be perceived as only caring about the science of word reading. Language, identity, culture and sociocultural contexts are incredibly important as children learn to read and the “Science of Reading” movement has been accused of ignoring these factors.

While most researchers would agree that learning how to read individual words is necessary for learning how to read, they would also agree that there is much more that goes into becoming a strong reader. However, because the phrase “Science of Reading” has taken on such loaded meanings for different people, it has become increasingly difficult to have conversations about what children need.

What are the “Reading Wars?”

Unfortunately, none of these conflicts are new. There's a long history spanning across decades on the debate about the best way to help kids learn how to read. You might remember flare-ups between the phonics and whole language camps. Right now, one side of the debate, generally aligned with phonics advocates in the past, have started to use the phrase “Science of Reading.”

The other side of the debate, generally aligned with prior whole language advocates, emphasizes that reading is so much more than learning how to read words. Here’s a simple explanation of the debate: People who are concerned about the “Science of Reading” movement worry that we’re creating children who can read words proficiently, but who have little in the way of critical thinking or comprehension skills. People who advocate for the “Science of Reading” often say that no other reading skills matter if children can’t read the words on the page, so we need to make sure we are teaching decoding, systematically, to all children.

Most researchers agree that all children benefit from phonics instruction and that some kids may need more intensive support with phonics, so we need to have that type of intervention in place. At the same time, most researchers agree that we also need to help kids learn how to comprehend and analyze what they read. However, depending on who you ask, you may hear that one set of skills is substantially more important than the other.

What do the “Reading Wars” mean for teachers in the classroom?

It can be really confusing. They’ve been given reading and writing programs that are widely used around the country and they are now being told that there’s no research behind these programs, that they don’t work. These same teachers have been told by researchers that these programs were effective when they were first trained. And, they’ve been using these programs for years and have seen these programs be effective for some children.

At the same time, new teachers are coming out of college with an undergraduate degree and very little time to hone and understand their craft compared to a lot of other professions. Most available reading programs have at least some useful components and can be effective in the hands of a knowledgeable teacher. However, it can be difficult to engage with the curriculum on a deeper level as a teacher while being thrown into a classroom for the first time. It’s even harder when the research surrounding these programs can become so controversial and hotly debated.

Can we do it all?

Yes, and we have a responsibility to do so! As a literacy researcher, I want my work with students and teachers to be informed by rigorously-conducted research on how children learn how to read, both individual words and all kinds of texts. I do believe that we are doing a huge disservice to children if we aren’t using the most evidenced-based approaches on helping them learn how to read words. However, there are many classroom-based studies that explore things like identity, motivation and cultural responsiveness during the teaching and learning of reading. It would also do a huge disservice to children to disregard this important research. We can teach children to read words and make meaning from texts in systematic ways that honor children’s identity, agency and culture.

Teachers are the key and so many are out there making a profound difference with children every single day. If we really care about teaching kids how to read, we need to focus on creating space and time for teachers to enhance their professional knowledge around reading development and instruction. No one is going to “win” the reading wars and children will always be the losers.


About Dianna Townsend, Ed.D.

Dianna Townsend's research centers on the academic language development of adolescent students, with specific attention to vocabulary, comprehension, and disciplinary literacy. She examines both the unique academic language demands of the disciplines and effective instructional strategies to help students understand and use academic language in and across academic disciplines.

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