June 2, 2024

Thomas Ultican: A Conversation on the Science of Reading

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Thomas Ultican reviews a scholarly consideration of the “Science of Reading”. Reposted with permission.

Two eminent professors of instruction and literacy teamed up to write Fact-Checking the Science of Reading.” P David Pearson of UC Berkeley and Robert J. Tierney of University of British Columbia are Emeritus Professors with high reputation in their respective countries.

In the introduction, they inform us that Emily Hanford’s 2022 “Sold a Story” podcasts motivated them to write. In particular, they noted:

  1. “A consistent misinterpretation of the relevant research findings; and
  2. “A mean-spirited tone in her rhetoric, which bordered on personal attacks directed against the folks Hanford considered to be key players in what she called the Balanced Literacy approach to teaching early reading.” (Page XIV)

Their book presents 10 claims related to science of reading (SoR), each followed up with a three-step evaluation: “a) Unpacking the evidence presented for its validity; b) Offering our reading of the evidence; and c) Concluding with a revised version of the claim that we can support.”

An Example

The 5th claim cited states, “The Three-Cueing System (Orthography, Semantics and Syntax) has been soundly discredited.”

Orthography uses phonics type approaches to sound out unknown words. Does it look right? With the second cue, syntactic, a student tries to understand what is written. Does it sound right? What would make it conform to grammar rules? Semantics is the last of the three cues. Does it make sense?

The authors presented three pages of evidence about claim 5. For example they shared:

“Consequently poor readers fail to develop the decoding skills necessary for facile word identification, and their accuracy and fluency appear to flounder. Good readers, on the other hand, are able to successfully enlist phonemic awareness and the letter-sound correspondences to decode, and then understand, words. These differences between good and poor are taken as evidence that accurate and automatic word recognition is key to developing fluent reading for meaning. This view lends credence to the argument that phonics is the more expeditious approach to beginning reading expertise—and that approaches enlisting multiple cueing systems are flawed, misguided and perhaps even harmful to young readers (Hanford, 2018; 2019; Moats, 2000) (Page 57)

They, with years of experience studying reading education, noted:

“Criticisms of the three-cueing system are based on a combination of anecdotal evidence and opinion (Seidenberg, 2017; Moats, 2000), including extrapolations from static comparisons of the strategies of good and poor readers. They do not examine specific interventions involving the three-cueing system, such as the Interactive Strategies Approach (Vellutino & Scanlon, 2002; Scanlon et al., 2024), or the work of Marie Clay (1993: 1998) on Reading Recovery.” (Page 57)

The two quotes above came from the “unpacking the evidence presented for its validity” section of evaluation. Their next section, “offering our reading of the evidence”, stated:

“The only way we can make sense of the arguments marshaled against the three-cueing system is to infer that the opponents object to its use in pedagogy rather than in reading theory. Many of the most vocal critics of the three-cueing system either espouse or support models of the expert reading process that posit an important role for all three of these information sources.” (Page 58)

This part became fairly dense with descriptions and graphics for three reading models, David Rumelhart’s Interactive Model of Reading, PB Gough’s One Second of Reading Model and Rumelhart’s & McClelland’s Parallel Distributed Processing Model. Interestingly, these employed all three of the Three-Cueing domains: Semantics, Syntactic and Orthography. Today, the models are widely praised by many of those objecting to the Three-Cueing system.

They concluded “reading of the evidence” by stating, “Significant support for a more inclusive orientation has also emerged from several studies comparing multiple cueing approaches with singular emphasis on phonics,” citing examinations of the Interactive Strategies Approach (ISA) by Vellutino and Scanlon 2002, Scanlon and Anderson 2020 and Scanlon et al. 2024. It is a plan that intends to help readers develop word-solving strategies and uses orthographic, phonological, syntactic, semantic and lexical cues. (Page 63)

Pearson and Tierney asserted:

“Drawing from 25 years of research regarding the use of this approach with beginning and struggling readers as well as middle grade students, they found that the ISA, more so than other approaches, offers readers a form of self-teaching. This advantage supports readers’ successful, ongoing enlistment of phonics for word learning in the context of their engagement with ‘natural’ texts (i.e., texts that are not contrived to ensure a preset repetition of selected words or word families, or not specifically designed for research purposes).” (Page 64)

The final part of their analysis created a revised version of the claim they can support. The authors don’t disparage the claim. Rather they state:

“To rely on extrapolations from comparisons of good and poor readers while ignoring research on the efficacy of multiple cueing pedagogical approaches seems short-sighted. Prudently, in her discussions of cueing systems, Adams (1998) did not deny their possible role, but instead suggested the need for more research on their use with beginning readers. We believe that the work of Scanlon and her colleagues (2024) has answered Adams’ call by demonstrating that a ‘full tool box’ of word solving strategies, as reflected in their ISA interventions, enhances word solving, word reading, orthographic mapping, and understanding connected text.”

Pearson and Tierney do not agree that Three-Cueing has been soundly discredited; they provide evidence that cueing systems are successful teaching strategies. For example, when developing student comprehension, focusing primarily on phonics instruction does not measure up to cueing systems.

Settled Science is an Oxymoron

Science is a natural commitment to modesty “is always provisional; ever-ready to be tweaked, revised, or replaced by the next theoretical insight or empirical findings.” As Reinking, Hruby and Risko (2023) stated “settled science is an oxymoron.” In the case of SoR, not only is it not settled science, many literacy researchers believe it is a substandard approach. (Page 20)

SoR advocates say when teaching reading, the “settled science” of phonics “first and fast”, should be applied. They are working to make it against the law to disagree, claiming other forms of instruction cause child harm. SoR reading theory may have some holes but their political power is unquestioned and global. Laws mandating SoR have been enacted in 40 US states, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries. These rules limit teacher autonomy and attempt to make reading a scripted subject. (Page XII)

The Orwellian labeled science of reading (SoR) is not based on sound science. It more accurately should be called “How to Use Anecdotes to Sell Reading Products.” In 1997, congress passed legislation, calling for a reading study. From Jump Street, establishment of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a doomed effort. The panel was given limited time for the study (18 months) which was a massive undertaking, conducted by twenty-one unpaid volunteers. NRP fundamentally did a meta-analysis in five reading domains, ignoring 10 other important reading domains. In other words, they did not review everything and there was no new research. They simply searched for reading studies and averaged the results to give us “the science of reading.”

SoR’s real motivation is to sell products, not helping children struggling to read. Scholars like Pearson and Tierney are ignored and swept away by a podcaster with no credentials.

For the sake of the future, we must stop legally mandating SoR as a solution to a fraudulent “reading crisis” and put our trust in education professionals.

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