August 21, 2023

Rachel Cohen: The new “science of reading” movement, explained

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Writing for Vox, Rachel Cohen writes an well-sourced and nuanced explainer for the “Science of Reading” movement–what it is, and what it can and canot promise.

This is not the first or even second time our country has quickly moved to revamp literacy instruction, and some worry that history is about to repeat itself with failed or misguided policy changes.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years and I’ve been through three of these,” said Tim Shanahan, who once served as president of the International Literacy Association and on a federal study into the scientific evidence behind reading instruction.

Reading Wars veterans like Shanahan say this wave of reform has some new elementsStill, some problems that have undermined past waves threaten these new laws too, like a lack of funding and the challenge of maintaining political support if (and likely when) some standardized test scores go down.

Indeed, not all teachers and school administrators are on board. Many have resented the pendulum that has swung back and forth over decades, with competing rules and ideas and sometimes teacher-bashing to boot. Some educators reject the idea that they’ve been teaching reading incorrectly and note that the new materials they’re being told to use now lack a strong track record, too.

Cohen talks to several actual reading experts for the piece.

Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Language at the Speed of Sighthas emerged as a critic of some of the new materials being promoted under the banner of the “science of reading.” He’s blasted “influencers” leading the movement whose own background in cognitive science is limited. (Seidenberg’s book on reading research heavily shaped Hanford’s reporting.)

In an interview with Vox, Seidenberg expounded on his criticism“It’s a difficult situation because people want to adopt better practices, they understand the idea that what was done before was not really based on solid ideas … but now you have a huge demand for science-based practices pursued by advocacy groups and people who don’t have a great understanding of the science.”

Seidenberg believes that moving away from strategies like three-cueing is important. But he warned that a simplistic reliance on some of the foundational reading science research can lead to some misinformed instructional conclusions, like the idea that children should learn units of sound (or “phonemes” ) before letters, and letters before syllables and words.

“That’s a basic misunderstanding,” said Seidenberg. “Phonemes are abstract units that are results of being exposed to an alphabet, they’re not a precursor.” He also lamented that some leaders have incorrectly cited his research to suggest there’s no downside to teaching kids phonics in the early grades for too long. “There are big opportunity costs and the clock to fourth grade is ticking,” he said. “You only want to do a lot of instruction on these components enough to get off the ground.”

The UK offers a cautionary tale. Last year reading researchers published a major study that concluded England’s present emphasis on phonics instruction came at the expense of other needed literacy skills. They attributed the country’s heavy prioritization in part to a national phonics screening test introduced by the government in 2012, which incentivized in some cases up to three years of daily hour-long phonics lessons.

“There’s no question that phonics instruction is important,” Dominic Wyse, the study’s lead author and an education professor at the University of College London, told Vox. “But let’s be clear, there are risks to overdoing it. You’re wasting their time and damaging their time to develop reading comprehension.”

There’s a lot to take in in this piece, but it’s worth your while. Read the full article here. 

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