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.

Paul Thomas
10 min readApr 23, 2021
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 but 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 no scientific support — 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

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.

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

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.

Note the strong conclusion to this piece:

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.

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

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.


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)

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


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.

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)

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.

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



Paul Thomas

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