Science Supports Balance, Not Intensive Phonics, for Teaching Reading

Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

For about three years, states across the U.S., including South Carolina, have been adopting new reading legislation. This recent movement has been driven by a media fascination with the “science of reading.”

Proponents of the “science of reading” have made some dramatic claims: teachers are not teaching reading based on the current research base because teacher educators have failed to prepare those teachers, and students are struggling to read because of those failures.

The “science of reading” movement has also taken aim at popular reading programs — notably those by Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell — arguing that they lack the support of research.

As a result, we are now in the midst of yet another Reading War, pitting systematic intensive phonics (supported by the “science of reading” advocates) against balanced literacy (which has its roots in the whole language movement).

While public education certainly has an obligation to focus on literacy for all students, especially students living in poverty as well as those struggling to read, the “science of reading” movement is causing far more harm than good.

Reading Wars and debates over the proper place of systematic intensive phonics happen in English-speaking countries all over the world, including England where a shift to systematic intensive phonics occurred almost two decades ago. Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury detail the transition:

Prior to 2006 the teaching of reading in most classrooms in England is best described as balanced instruction, in which some phonics teaching has always been part of the teaching of reading typically for children in the infant years (aged five to seven) although not necessarily ‘systematic phonics’ instruction…. However in 2006 the Rose Report recommended that there should be even more emphasis on phonics teaching….

This was followed by the increased emphasis on discrete teaching of phonics recommended by the Rose Report and the PNS from 2006 onwards. Further intensification of synthetic phonics teaching was seen in England’s national curriculum of 2014, along with a range of other measures to ensure teacher compliance with the prescribed method of teaching reading, including the use of the PSC; the vetting of phonics teaching schemes; and the use of the inspectorate to focus on outcomes in statutory reading assessments as a prime focus in school inspections.


In other words, England shifted away from balanced literacy and toward systematic intensive phonics — the goal of the “science of reading” movement — about 16 years ago.

Therefore, Wyse and Bradbury’s analysis of this shift is a powerful message for the current call to drop balanced literacy for systematic intensive phonics (what advocates call the “science of reading”).

Wyse and Bradbury use a meta-synthesis of experimental research (the “science of reading”) and a survey of 2205 teachers to draw the following conclusions: “Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.”

The “science of reading,” in fact, supports balanced literacy and not prioritizing systematic intensive phonics.

Further, Wyse and Bradbury offer important recommendations:

In addition to the importance of contextualised reading teaching as an evidence-based orientation to the teaching of reading we hypothesise the following pedagogical features that are likely to be effective. Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics teaching with children younger than this is not likely to be effective. A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy. Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective. Insistence on particular schemes/ basals, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal. Well- trained classroom assistants, working in collaboration with their class teachers, could be a very important contribution to children’s reading development.


Another key problem with the “science of reading” movement is state’s adopting prescriptive phonics programs (such as LETRS), a move doomed to failure as this study confirms.

Although too many states have jumped on the “science of reading” bandwagon already, this important research from England is an opportunity to pause, readjust, and not waste another decade or two making the same mistake England made in 2006.




P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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