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Let’s Follow the Science of Reading

All the science

We must be guided by science.

For two years now, American society has demanded that our decisions be guided by science. The economy and inflation. Vaccines. Masks. Even school operations. In each instance, we seek the evidence — the science — to ensure we are making the best decisions possible for the vast majority of individuals affected.

The same has long been true when it comes to literacy and teaching children to read. In 1999 (and updated in 2020), the American Federation of Teachers released Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, a report translating the wealth of reading research into usable information that classroom teachers can use to improve their own teaching and learning. It was followed in 2000 by the groundbreaking Teaching Children to Read report from the National Reading Panel, an effort that analyzed and documented more than 100,000 research studies on effective literacy instruction for young children.

These two reports still stand as the foundational building blocks for what many today refer to as the “science of reading.” The works were important for two reasons. One, they offered a clear blueprint for the skills and abilities needed to get virtually all young learners reading proficiently by the fourth grade. And second, they made clear there was no single silver bullet, no isolated magic elixir that would transform every child into a reader. It requires hard work, science-based foundations, and an integrated approach committed to lifelong literacy skills development.

As the pendulum has swung back and forth on literacy in the United States, from phonics to whole language to SBRR to balanced literacy, one thing has remained constant. After all of the arguments over philosophy and the attacks regarding instructional approaches, only 35 percent of fourth-graders — at least according to NAEP scores — are reading proficiently.

What that should teach us, and what science screams so loudly, is that we need an integrated approach, one that embraces all that the science, the longitudinal data, and the classroom experiences teach us.

Both the AFT and the National Reading Panel have provided a blueprint for the foundational elements needed to teach young children to read. After 21 years, the science is clear. Literacy requires the building blocks of phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Aspiring elementary teachers must be taught these fundamentals. Elementary school classrooms must embrace these five areas in their instruction. All learners must be equipped in these basics to both begin to develop as readers and to have the tools necessary to read to learn in the later grades.

Science teaches us that these five areas are non-negotiable when it comes to the teaching of reading. It also shows us, though, that they are but the first piece in an integrated approach to reading instruction that ensures literacy skill acquisition, development, and application throughout a learner’s K-12 career.

Yes, science teaches us to value the longitudinal data found on core approaches like Success for All and Open Court. AND it teaches the importance of rich children’s literature and nursery rhymes and songs for our youngest learners. AND it shows the value of individualized instruction and one-on-one tutoring with programs such as SIPPS. AND it spotlights the value of book choice aligned with both student reading levels and learner interests. AND it demonstrates the value of high-quality, intensive teacher development with programs such as Orton Gillingham. And it shows us how much cognitive science has taught us over the decades AND how much work remains to ensure that science is present in every K-12 classroom in the United States.

If we are to be guided by science, and truly embrace the science of reading, we must lay down the instructional arms we have brandished for years and respect all that the research teaches us. It requires an integrated approach to reading instruction that includes:

  • We all must commit to implementing a comprehensive reading program grounded in science. This means that all texts, reading materials, and tests should reflect the critical components of the teaching and learning of literacy.
  • Teachers should be provided with preparation in the application of the science of reading instruction, knowing how to successfully apply it in classrooms like theirs, with students like theirs.
  • Schools should, once again, make learning to read a priority, providing adequate and uninterrupted time each day for reading instruction and providing science-driving professional development for educators.
  • School systems should establish systems to regularly evaluate student progress throughout the school year. This system should use valid and reliable instructional assessments while empowering educators to use data from classroom assessments to determine where and what kind of help is needed at the student, classroom, school, and district levels.

By understanding and using all we know about the science of reading, we can boost student achievement AND develop generations of successful readers with a passion for lifelong learning.

In today’s uncertain world, the tendency is to either ignore the science altogether or to only follow the data which suits our philosophical needs. The time has come to stop the pendulum swings, the fighting, and the “wait and see” approach that too many students, particularly those in high-need schools or those with learning disabilities continue to endure.

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that strong literacy skills prepare children to meet the challenges of education and work and to become productive, participating citizens. The science of reading shows us how virtually all learners can receive the best preparation possible, permanently and without reservation. It now falls to us to embrace science in total, providing learners an integrated approach to literacy that not only empowers them to read to learn, but allows them to read to thrive, succeed, and lead.

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Patrick Riccards

Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator