Dismantling the “Science of Reading” and the Harmful Reading Policies in its Wake

States adopting truly awful reading policy driven by the “science of reading” slogan will not change reading in the U.S., and in time, very soon, in fact, the media and political leaders will be, once again, lamenting a reading crisis.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Currently, there is a well-organized and active contingent of concerned parents and educators (and others) who argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties, affecting approximately 20 percent of the population, and that there is a widely-accepted treatment for such difficulties: an instructional approach relying almost exclusively on intensive phonics instruction. Proponents argue that it is based on “settled science” which they refer to as “the science of reading” (SOR). The approach is based on a narrow view of science, and a restricted range of research, focused on word learning and, more recently, neurobiology, but paying little attention to aspects of literacy like comprehension and writing, or dimensions of classroom learning and teacher preparation. Because the dyslexia and instructional arguments are inextricably linked, in this report, we explore both while adopting a more comprehensive perspective on relevant theory and research.

In this article, we critique the science of reading when it is positioned within the reading wars as settling disagreements about reading and how it should be taught. We frame our argument in terms of troublesome binaries, specifically between nature and nurture. We interpret that binary in relation to Overton’s distinction between split and relational metatheories, with the latter suggesting a more integrative view of nature and nurture. Focusing on the nature side of the binary, which predominates when the science of reading is promoted in the reading wars, we argue that its singular focus limits the range of scientific inquiry, interpretation, and application to practice. Specifically, we address limitations of the science of reading as characterized by a narrow theoretical lens, an abstracted empiricism, and uncritical inductive generalizations derived from brain‐imaging and eye movement data sources. Finally, we call for a relational metatheoretical stance and offer emulative examples of that stance in the field.

Unfortunately, we believe that in many cases, the cloak of science has been employed to elevate the stature of SOR work and to promote the certainty and force of its advocates’ preferred explanations for what reading is and how it should be taught (e.g., Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Schwartz & Sparks, 2019). What we suggested in this article is that the SOR, when so used in the reading wars, is not science at all in its fullest sense. It neglects an entire domain that influences and shapes human experience. It does so with an unmitigated confidence that evidence from one side of a binary can establish a final truth and that such a truth creates a single prescription for all instruction. Taking that stance, however, is outside the pale of science and dismisses work that has both merit on its own terms and a critical role in advancing the aims motivating reading research and instruction.

In this historical analysis, we examine the context of debates over the role of phonics in literacy and current debates about the science of reading, with a focus on the work and impact of the late literacy scholar Jeanne Chall. We open by briefly tracing the roots of the enduring debates from the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on beginning reading, decoding, and phonics. Next, we explore insights drawn from the whole language movement as understood by Kenneth Goodman and Yetta Goodman, as well as a synthesis of key ideas from Chall’s critique of the whole language approach. We then analyze the shifts across the three editions of Chall’s Learning to Read: The Great Debate and summarize major ideas from her body of work, such as the stage model of reading development. We suggest that reading instruction should be informed by a broader historical lens in looking at the “science of reading” debates and should draw on a developmental stage model to teaching reading, such as the six‐stage model provided by Chall. We describe implications for educators, textbook publishers, researchers, and policymakers that address the current reading debates and provide considerations of what Chall might say about learning to read in a digital era given the pressures on teacher educators and teachers to align their practice with what is deemed to be the science of reading.

When it comes to reading instruction, an “all or nothing” approach is actually unscientific.

Every January, my social media feeds fill with ads, free trials, and coupons from the diet and wellness industry, promising to help me with my (presumed) resolutions to be better, faster, leaner, and healthier. Every diet program claims some type of relationship to science.

The same is true with reading instruction. Most programs or approaches claim to be based on “science.” But consider the many possible meanings of this claim. Some approaches to reading instruction are developed as part of rigorous, peer-reviewed research and are continuously evaluated and refined. Others are designed by practitioners who draw on experience, and whose insights are validated by inquiry after development. Many are based on well-known principles from research or assumptions about learning in general, but haven’t themselves been tested. Some “research-based” instructional tools and practices have been shared, explained, interpreted, misinterpreted, and re-shared so many times that they bear little resemblance to the research on which they were based (Gabriel, 2020). Others rack up positive evidence no matter how many times they’re studied. Then there are practices that have no evidence behind them but are thought to be scientific — because they’ve always been assumed to be true.



The simple view of reading is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance — in fact, the necessity — of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading. In this article, we synthesize research documenting three of these advances: (1) Reading difficulties have a number of causes, not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view; (2) rather than influencing reading solely independently, as conceived in the simple view, decoding and listening comprehension (or in terms more commonly used in reference to the simple view today, word recognition and language comprehension) overlap in important ways; and (3) there are many contributors to reading not named in the simple view, such as active, self- regulatory processes, that play a substantial role in reading. We point to research showing that instruction aligned with these advances can improve students’ reading. We present a theory, which we call the active view of reading, that is an expansion of the simple view and can be used to convey these important advances to current and future educators. We discuss the need to lift up updated theories and models to guide practitioners’ work in supporting students’ reading development in classrooms and interventions.

What is happening in this new stage of the reading wars is there for all to see in North Carolina’s and others’ use of the phrase. Instead of spelling out what they mean, “science of reading” advocates wrap themselves in the protective mantel of science, as if invoking science is all that anyone needs to be credible and persuade others to join them. Anyone disagreeing is anti-science, i.e., ignorant.

This is not a great persuasion strategy. Not surprisingly, those from a different vantage point argue that no one has a right to define science in a way that conveniently fits their perspective.



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Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/