If You’re Going to Write About Science of Reading, Get Your Reading Right

A couple of important points lie beneath the unfortunate consequence of the topic of teaching reading continuing to be a fruitless debate.

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The release of the joint statement (National Education Policy Center and Education Deans for Justice and Equity) on the “science of reading” version of the current Reading War held, I hoped, great promise for at least slowing a very harmful process. I also briefly crossed my fingers that the statement could ease some of the discord and help key figures in the debate find that there is more common ground than disagreement.

However, social media has provided evidence that neither of these outcomes is likely. The advocates of the “science of reading” doubled down on their condescension and general nastiness (a feature of Twitter), and there is this blog post from Daniel Willingham: If You’re Going to Write About Science of Reading, Get Your Science Right.

I commented several times on the post and even offered a discussion by email. Willingham did respond to my comments and the exchange was civil, but alas, fruitless.

The crux of Willingham’s concerns about the statement seems to be:

I think the statement is pretty confused, as it conflates issues that ought to be considered separately. This statement is meant to be about the science of reading, so much of the confusion arises from a failure to understand or appreciate the nature of science, how basic science applies to applied science, and the scientific literature on reading.

This is a misreading of the policy; I think that misreading is in part prompted by Diane Ravitch’s framing of the statement with “There is no Science of Reading,” which Willingham references in his first paragraph.

To clarify, Ravitch’s framing is misleading, and Willingham has failed to grasp the purpose of the statement, directly identified by NEPC:

All students deserve equitable access to high-quality literacy and reading instruction and opportunities in their schools. This will only be accomplished when policymakers pay heed to an overall body of high-quality research evidence and then make available the resources necessary for schools to provide our children with the needed supports and opportunities to learn. This joint statement from NEPC and the Education Deans for Justice and Equity provides guiding principles for what any federal or state legislation directly or indirectly impacting reading should and should not do.

This statement is a policy statement that raises a long-overdue red flag about a complicated process: Mainstream media have created a narrative that teachers have failed to use the “science of reading” because teacher education has failed to teach that, preferring balanced literacy instead. This narrative also claims the “science of reading” is settled and that the research base justifies systematic intensive phonics instruction for all students, a claim being used to endorse and implement misguided reading legislation across the U.S.

Willingham has missed that nuanced and complex focus of the statement and spends the blog post mostly challenging issues that simply do not exist in the statement itself, primarily complaining that the statement has a fundamental misunderstanding of “science” (“The distinction between basic and applied science ought to be fundamental to any discussion of the science of reading”).

Since a key element of the statement raises that exact issue, this extended complaint is itself, to use Willingham’s language, “confused.”

A couple of important points lie beneath the unfortunate consequence of the topic of teaching reading continuing to be a fruitless debate (what the statement is explicitly seeking to end).

First, the teaching of reading as a subset of the field of education has historically and now currently been over-run with epistemic trespassing; psychology, economics, and political science routinely encroach on education as if the discipline itself has no scholarship or scholars.

Some of this trespassing has to do with disciplinary hierarchies linked to distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research (often veneers for academic sexism), but some of the trespassing is simply disciplinary bullying.

While I completely agree with Willingham that anyone making claims about the “science of reading” should understand “science,” he has failed to acknowledge an equally important requirement — understanding reading and literacy.

As Nathan Ballantyne examines carefully, having robust and critical skills in one field, psychology, does not necessarily equip a scholar for transferring those skills to another field, especially (as Willingham notes himself) into a field grounded in real-world practice such as education, teaching children to read.

Willingham and Mark Seidenberg, both psychologists, are two of the main scientists cited in the “science of reading” narrative in mainstream media, and two of its defenders (although as scholars, they both tend to offer far more caveats and nuance than advocates who are journalists).

They, however, lack a background in teaching literacy, and while their research is quite valuable, as the statement notes, narrow types of “scientific” are ultimately incomplete evidence for day-to-day teaching.

No one is arguing there is no “science of reading,” but the ham-fisted claims about “settled” science and the misuse of “science” to support flawed reading policy are inexcusable.

But here is a much more problematic part of this continued debate. Willingham represents not only epistemic trespassing, but also has explicitly discredited all educational researchers, suggesting journalists as more credible:

Believing something because someone else believes it rather than demanding and evaluating evidence makes you sound either lazy or gullible. But we yield to the authority of others all the time. When I see my doctor I don’t ask for evidence that the treatments he prescribes are effective, and when an architect designed a new deck for my house I didn’t ask for proof that it could support the weight of my grill and outdoor furniture. I believed what they told me because of their authority.

I think education researchers don’t speak with that kind of authority and (apparently unlike Sanden) I don’t think we deserve it. I can point to two key differences between a doctor (or architect, or accountant, or electrician, etc) and education researchers.

He adds later, “Anyone can take the title ‘education researcher.’”

As someone with an EdD and who straddles two different fields, education and English, I can assure you that this sort of disciplinary bullying is still common in the academy. Education is routinely dismissed as mere occupational preparation, and English is framed as one of the impractical fields in the impractical humanities.

This sort of disrespectful finger pointing, I think, must be unmasked since any time someone points a finger, several are pointing back as well.

“The replication of findings is one of the defining hallmarks of science,” note Diener and Biswas-Diener, adding:

In modern times, the science of psychology is facing a crisis. It turns out that many studies in psychology — including many highly cited studies — do not replicate. In an era where news is instantaneous, the failure to replicate research raises important questions about the scientific process in general and psychology specifically. People have the right to know if they can trust research evidence. For our part, psychologists also have a vested interest in ensuring that our methods and findings are as trustworthy as possible.

Psychology, then, like economics feels justified trespassing on other fields, possibly to deflect from the needed critical inspection of their own field. It seems one reason psychology has a crisis in the quality of their science is a pattern of defensiveness:

When findings do not replicate, the original scientists sometimes become indignant and defensive, offering reasons or excuses for non-replication of their findings — including, at times, attacking those attempting the replication. They sometimes claim that the scientists attempting the replication are unskilled or unsophisticated, or do not have sufficient experience to replicate the findings. This, of course, might be true, and it is one possible reason for non-replication.

I have been in the field of literacy for 36 years, and in academia for 18 years. I am quite certain there are no pure fields and no fields that can be discounted as cavalierly as Willingham does about “education scholars” and education research (I recommend Bracey on the problems with educational research and how it is interpreted, by the way).

I also have directly admitted that epistemic trespassing is always problematic, but many topics may in fact necessitate such trespassing. Understanding and teaching reading does in fact benefit from a wide range of disciplinary evidence (as the statement asserts).

But no topic benefits from academia’s most petty traditions, including disciplinary hierarchies and bullying.

If expertise in science deserves respect (and it certainly does), then expertise in literacy and teaching reading also deserve respect — and neither should be handed over to journalism as the arbiter of those fields or to politicians who have the power of policy.

Those of us in the academy who often are discounted for being in an Ivory Tower should have higher standards for our own behavior, but there is much work yet to be done to eradicate hierarchies and pettiness even among the so-called well educated.

Let’s keep in mind that although getting the science right is certainly important, we are in this to get the reading right, and that is the focus of the statement that some are misreading.

Written by

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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