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

After emailing me about new reading legislation being proposed in North Carolina — next door to my home state of South Carolina that also has jumped on the “science of reading” bandwagon — Ann Doss Helms of WFAE (NPR, Charlotte, NC) interviewed me by phone.

I have given dozens of interviews about education over the last 15 to 20 years, and they all have a similar pattern; the journalist tosses out predictable questions and then becomes somewhat disoriented by my answers. Typically, the journalist at some point notes they didn’t know or had never heard the information I offered, the context and complications I raised about the topic.

My conversation with Helms was no different as we gradually peeled back the layers of the onion that is the “science of reading” as well as the very harmful reading policies that are being proposed and adopted in its wake.

Over the past couple years, I have blogged almost nonstop and written a book on the “science of reading” media narrative and how it is oversimplified and misleading very compelling and harmful since state after state is adopting deeply flawed reading legislation (often, as Helms noted, to mimic Mississippi).

As I explained, the “science of reading” movement is grounded in the media and parent advocacy (specifically focusing on dyslexia) — advocates who have no expertise or background in literacy — but is essentially a thinly veiled resurrection of the tired intensive phonics versus holistic approaches to teaching reading.

Part of our conversation also confronted the contradiction in the “science of reading” movement that forefronts the debunked claim of “settled science” around how to teach reading and then supports actions and policies that have — notably grade retention and using Mississippi as a justification for polices absent any research behind the claimed NAEP improvements by that state.

Further, the “science of reading” movement and those using the “science of reading” to promote state-level reading policy also rely on discredited (read “bad science”) sources such as NCTQ or misrepresent contested sources such as the National Reading Panel (see here).

The “science of reading” movement is deja vu all over again since the movement looks essentially like many other education reform patterns that have all failed (as many of us said they would) because they misunderstand the problem and grasp for silver-bullet solutions — all wrapped in a media and political frenzy that is almost impossible to stop. The trash heap of failure includes Teach for America, charter schools, accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing, the NRP and Reading First, value-added methods of teacher evaluation and merit pay, and many others.

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.

While it may be too little, too late since states are racing to pass essentially the same reading legislation across the U.S., many scholars are carefully dismantling the “science of reading” movement in ways that support my claims over the past two years.

Here, then, are three I recommend for anyone needing further proof that the “science of reading” is yet another bandwagon we should avoid:

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Johnston and Scanlon answer 12 questions and then offer these important policy implications (quoted below):

  1. There is no consistent and widely accepted basis — biological, cognitive, behavioral, or academic — for determining whether an individual experiencing difficulty with developing word reading skill should be classified as dyslexic. (Questions 1 and 10).
  2. Although there are likely heritable and biological dimensions to reading and language difficulties, there is no way to translate them into implications for instructional practice. (Questions 2 and 11).
  3. Good first instruction and early intervention for children with a slow start in the word reading aspect of literacy, reduces the likelihood they will encounter serious difficulty. Thus, early screening with assessments that can inform instruction, is important. Screening for dyslexia, particularly with instructionally irrelevant assessments offers no additional advantage. (Questions 5 and 6).
  4. Research supports instruction that purposely develops children’s ability to analyze speech sounds (phonological/phonemic awareness), and to relate those sounds to patterns of print (phonics and orthographics), in combination with instruction to develop comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and a strong positive and agentive relationship with literacy. (Questions 7 and 12).
  5. Evidence does not justify the use of a heavy and near-exclusive focus on phonics instruction, either in regular classrooms, or for children experiencing difficulty learning to read (including those classified as dyslexic). (Questions 7, 8 and 12).
  6. Legislation (and district policies) aligned with the SOR perspectives on dyslexia will necessarily require tradeoffs in the allocation of resources for teacher development and among children having literacy learning difficulties. These tradeoffs have the potential to privilege students experiencing some types of literacy learning difficulties while limiting instructional resources for and attention available to students whose literacy difficulties are not due (exclusively) to word reading difficulties. (Question 12).

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Note the strong conclusion to this piece:

Where Is the Evidence? Looking Back to Jeanne Chall and Enduring Debates About the Science of Reading, Peggy Semingson and William Kerns


From the very beginning of the “science of reading” movement, media coverage, parental advocacy, and political policy have been misleading and grounded in misunderstanding. As the examples above show, there continues to be a steady dismantling of all that even as policy has been adopted and is being considered, policy that is fundamentally not “scientific” and will prove to be ineffective and even harmful.

Below are some additional examples of the dismantling that I highly recommend:

Some NC Leaders Say Mississippi’s Model Charts The Way To Helping Kids Read, Ann Doss Helms (WFAE)

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Nell Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright

NOTE: The short version of the Duke and Cartwright essay should be: The “science of reading” is not so simple and not so settled.

Science of Reading Advocates Have a Messaging Problem, Claude Goldenberg (Education Week)

The Politics of Phonics: How a skill becomes a law, David Waters

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

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