3 Common Misconceptions about the Science of Reading

With Insights from Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Dr. Jan Hasbrouck

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
4 min readAug 25, 2021


Literacy is a key foundation of learning across all disciplines. Perhaps that is why the debate over the most effective way to teach students to read has always been fueled with a great deal of information that can be difficult to navigate and that evolves with emerging research and new trends. In the current moment of our collective journey toward understanding reading and the brain, many educators are turning to the collective body of research on how we learn to read, known as the Science of Reading, to select curriculum materials and make instructional decisions.

However, due to the ever-evolving environment and vast amount of (sometimes conflicting) information available, there are inevitably a number of misconceptions surrounding the Science of Reading.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Dr. Jan Hasbrouck addressed a few of the most common below, along with some context to support deeper understanding:

Misconception #1: There are programs and materials approved by the Science of Reading .

(Or, there are programs that ARE the Science of Reading.)

The Science of Reading is not an instructional program or curriculum, nor is any program or material “approved” by the Science of Reading. There is no governing body or organization charged with the responsibility of evaluating the consistency or degree of alignment that instructional programs have with the Science of Reading. The body of research evidence known as the Science of Reading is comprised of more than 40 years of research into how we learn to read. Additionally, the body of research that provides the foundation for the Science of Reading consists of analyses of the instructional practices that have been repeated and validated consistently, over time, with proven results.

It’s important to note that the Science of Reading is extensive, complex, and ever-changing, and does not exist in any one program or book.

Specific instructional practices and approaches can be supported by research and compared to one another, in terms of their effectiveness at raising reading achievement. Pedagogical research tends to focus on instructional practices–not on specific curricula or literacy programs. A certain program may be better aligned to the Science of Reading based on the practices that it employs to teach the key areas of reading, but no program is “a Science of Reading program.”

🎥 Want to see more from Dr. Shanahan and Dr. Hasbrouck on the Science of Reading? Register for their Straight Talk on the Science of Reading Webinar:

Misconception #2: All literacy research is useful and applicable.

Not all literacy research should influence how students are taught, in or out of the classroom.

Many advocates seem to argue for the direct application of Science of Reading research findings drawn from the neurosciences and cognitive psychology to reading instruction. This approach has been found to be problematic (Shanahan, 2020), since instructional applications drawn from these sources have often proven to be ineffective. Basic scientific findings about how reading works and how it is learned must be translated into pedagogical approaches that then should be rigorously evaluated to ensure their effectiveness. A true “science of reading aligned instruction” needs to be consistent with the findings of such instructional studies.

It is important to evaluate research with a critical eye and ask questions to determine if the research has practical application in your classroom. These questions will help guide you as you evaluate educational research:

Misconception #3: The Science of Reading is the last word on literacy.

The Science of Reading is not a fixed body of research. In the words of a Nobel prize-winning scientist and engineer, John Bardeen, “science is a field which grows continuously with ever expanding frontiers.” The Science of Reading is no different. It continues to grow, expand, and change as more research is done.

As evidenced by Dr. Scarborough’s more recent work and by the more than three decades of research since the introduction of the Simple View of Reading, our understanding of how we learn to read continues to develop and deepen in light of new scientific findings.

There are now multiple models of reading that incorporate recent research, address additional domains, and expand our knowledge. Three such models are the Componential Model of Reading by Drs. Joshi and Aaron, the Active View of Reading by Drs. Duke and Cartwright, and the work of the RAND Reading Study Group around reading comprehension.

🎥 Want to see more from Dr. Shanahan and Dr. Hasbrouck on the Science of Reading? Register for their Straight Talk on the Science of Reading Webinar:

For more on these models, additional resources, and to continue to explore the role of learning science and research in literacy instruction, visit mheonline.com/SOR.



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