Reading Wars and “The Science of Reading”

Adrienne Gear
Aug 24, 2021 · 13 min read

Reading Instruction through the decades

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader” — Margaret Fuller

Teaching children to read is undoubtedly the most important and challenging responsibility an early primary teacher will face. But just how do children learn to read and what is the best method to teach them? While the debate in methodology and pedagogy will likely continue, what we can all agree on is that teaching reading is not a “one size fits all” approach and not one method works for every child.

I’ve been in the field of elementary education for over 25 years. In that time, I have witnessed, first hand, what is known in the education world as “The Reading Wars” — the back and forth debate over which method is “the best” one to teach our students how to read. Since the 1980s, there has been much debate between supporters of explicit phonics instruction and those who favor a whole-language approach. In my years of teaching, I have seen the reading instruction pendulum swing back and forth between these two approaches numerous times, sometimes swinging completely to one side or the other, other times landing somewhere in between. With each dramatic swing, there is a buzz followed quickly by a new curriculum, a new glossy box of shiny objects, and a complete shift in the landscape of reading instruction. After a period of consistent calm over the past 10 years, there is a new buzz in the air… (drum roll, please!)… The Science of Reading!

Just what is the Science of Reading and why all the buzz? Well, before I reveal what I’ve learned about “SoR” (now you know something is “hot” if there is an acronym for it!), I thought it might be helpful to look back on some of the most well-known methods of reading instruction over the past 50 years to give you some context about where we have come from and where we are heading.

This is Janet.

This is John.

See Janet run.

See John run.

Go, Janet! Run, run, run!

Go John! Run, run, run!

If you recognize this, you likely went to elementary school when I did in the late 60’s or early 70’s (yes, I’m that old!) and learned to read with Dick and Jane and Janet and John. These beginning readers were very repetitive and were compiled of an intentional sequence of simple sight words. This method of reading whole words became known as the “Look/Say” method, whose main purpose was to learn and drill sight words. (I can still remember “flash card” drills in grade 1!) Once children learned (memorized) 30–50 sight words, they were given repetitive readers, commonly referred to as “basal readers”, consisting largely of these words. Unknown words are often accompanied by a picture to help in identification. Dick and Jane illustrated basal readers were the most famous books of this period. The series was a great success and by the late 1960’s both the Dick and Jane and Janet and John books were being used in 70% of North American and British schools to teach reading. According to the times, memorizing sight words and reading them in context was “the best” way for students to learn to read.

By the mid 1970’s the Janet and John books were outdated and some questions were being raised about a lack of diversity in the stories and the fact that they represented a rather “nuclear” white, middle-class family. New research and theories were also being developed on how children learn to read better when engaged with “real” stories rather than the artificial, contrived stories found in basal readers. Enter — “Whole Language”, developed by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith in the late 1970’s, a “top down” approach to reading where readers construct meaning of a text based on personal connections and experiences. The advantage of the whole language approach is that it exposed children to “real” literature and made reading more meaningful. Stories were read to the children, allowing them to engage and experience authentic literature and focus on comprehension and meaning-making. Writing was also emphasized in the early stages of reading and children were encouraged to write from their experiences and use invented spelling.

The issues surrounding the Whole Language approach was that phonics and the systematic teaching of code and sound-symbol correspondence was suddenly rejected. Although phonics, decoding, and spelling were addressed in word study and within the context of emergent writing, they were not explicitly or systematically taught. Unfamiliar words were identified, not by sounding it out, but by “asking somebody what the word is” — or by guessing what the word might be using the context. Whole language was based on the idea that learning to read should be as easy and natural as learning to speak. Children would “discover” the necessary letter/sound relationships as they read books and expressed themselves in writing, using their invented spellings. Despite the lack of scientifically based research into the effectiveness of Whole Language, however, it spread throughout North America at an unprecedented pace.

Not surprising, after over 10 years of NOT teaching students how to read words, many couldn’t! Reading is not as natural a process as speaking and immersing students in print and literature alone will not teach them how to read. So the reading pendulum swung back and landed somewhere in the middle with what was referred to as “Balanced Literacy”. Engaging students in authentic literature, focusing on meaningful reading experience was still at the forefront, but incorporating explicit, targeted instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness was back on the table.

Most significantly, Balanced Literacy introduced a “levelled text” system into reading instruction, allowing children to progress from simple to more complex texts as they developed more skills. Reading assessments tools were introduced (DRA, Benchmarks) to determine what level a child was reading at. Teachers would then match students to levelled books that were challenging enough for them to make progress. These texts focus on ‘meaning’ and repeatedly use ‘high frequency’ words (said, where, out) and syntactic patterns.

Balanced Literacy focused on providing a variety of reading opportunities for students: shared, guided, partner, and independent reading. Reading groups, small-group instruction or guided reading were introduced, high frequency words memorized, book rooms were filled with bags of levelled texts and reading assessments and running records were essential components of a balanced reading program.

In this balanced approach, students were taught what is known as a “cueing system”, known as “MSV”, which promotes attempting to read unfamiliar words by drawing from semantics (context clues, pictures, background knowledge), syntax (use of language patterns), or graphophonic cues (sounding out words). The claim was that, since reading is more or less a guessing game, the purpose of reading instruction is to teach students effect strategies to deduce unfamiliar words by drawing from meaning, knowledge of the alphabet, and knowledge of how English works.

When encountering an unknown word, students were taught to guess, while asking themselves:

Does it make sense? (Meaning)

Does it sound right? (Structure)

Does it look right? (Visual)

“Balanced Literacy” has been the foundation of the majority of Primary classrooms for the past ten years but just recently, the winds have shifted and it appears a change is on the horizon.

It is hard to hear that something you’ve believed in and used successfully for years is not the best teaching method for your students. I am among thousands of educators who successfully used a “Balanced Reading” approach for the past 10–15 years. Word on the street now, however, is that it may not be doing the job. The argument is that reading is not a guessing game and teaching young children to look at pictures, skip over words, or guess at words based on context may not develop appropriate strategies necessary for reading proficiency.

So now what? The pendulum is about to swing again… watch your head…

Make way for “The Science of Reading”!

Like for many of you, The Science of Reading is a relatively new concept for me. In fact, it is only this past year that I have caught the buzz. Let me be clear — I am not an expert in SoR. But after a lot of reading, I have a clearer understanding of what it is and isn’t.

First and foremost, the Science of Reading (SoR) is not a program, a shiny object, or a “one size fits all” approach to reading instruction. The term “science of reading” refers to the wide body of research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have conducted over the past 20 years on how we learn to read. SoR helps us understand the specific cognitive processes essential for reading proficiency: which skills are involved and what parts of the brain are at work in the process. (Now, I’m all about metacognition and brain function so this is VERY appealing to me!)

When practice is called into question in education and begins to shift, it is due primarily to research. And so what does the research tell us? Leading the way in this research is Stanislas Dehaene, whose 2009 breakthrough book “Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read” is among the most referenced books I encountered. Dehaene, a major advocate of systematic phonics instruction, says:

“The goal of reading instruction is clear. It must aim to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy, so that the child can recognize letters and graphemes and easily turn them into speech sounds.” (Dehaene 118)

The SoR research strongly believes that the most basic first steps to becoming a reader are phonemic awareness (understanding sounds in spoken words) and understanding phonics (knowing that letters in print correspond to sounds). Research shows that students learn to read when they are able to identify letters or combinations of letters and connect those letters to sounds. (Of course, comprehension and attaching meaning to those words is equally important.) If a child doesn’t master phonics, they are more likely to struggle to read. That’s why researchers are saying that explicit, step-by-step, systematic instruction in phonics is essential. Once they learn how to decode words, they can then apply that skill to more challenging words and ultimately read with fluency and proficiency.

What surprised me, as I learned more about the Science of Reading, is that it is not JUST about teaching phonics. It identifies and emphasizes explicit instruction in these essential reading skills:

  • Phonological awareness — spoken language, identifying words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, syllables, segmenting a sentence into words
  • Phonics — intense, and systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondence
  • Fluency — read aloud strategies — pace, phrasing, punctuation, intonation.
  • Vocabulary — word knowledge — understanding of words and their meanings
  • Comprehension — comprehension strategies — predicting, summarizing, connecting, inferring, etc.

If you are thinking that this sounds very much like your current “Balanced Reading” program, you would be correct. So how is SoR different? Again, it comes back to the phonics instruction. The Science of Reading approach believes that a prevention-oriented approach is more effective than intervention and that systematic, explicit instruction for all learners is the key: ​“Performance is best when children are, from the very beginning, directly taught the mapping of letters onto speech sounds. Regardless of their social background, children who do not learn this suffer from reading delays.” (Dehaene 209)

Finally, the SoR believes that, along with a systematic phonics program, emergent readers need practice applying their phonics skills with decodable texts — highly predictable, decodable texts with patterns and repetitions of controlled vocabulary.

Tap it, tip it! by Suzannah Ditchburn, © HarperCollinsPublishers Limited 2020. Read this decodable story on Simbi!

These “decodables” often sound nothing like natural everyday speech and, like the Dick and Jane books, provide little opportunity for deep thinking. They do, however, provide readers with opportunities to decode the words and apply the phonic skills they have learned. In contrast, many levelled texts are often predictable, repetitive, and highly dependent on context and illustrations so readers often don’t rely on the print or decode the words because they simply don’t have to.

Now just in case that was a bit wordy for your liking, below is a summary of the different reading instruction methods explained above in a chart (I love charts!)

A comparative chart of reading instruction methods from the 1960’s to 2021.
A Brief History of Reading Instruction Through the Years

As mentioned, I am no expert in the Science of Reading, nor am I a scientist or a researcher. But I am a teacher and ultimately, we all have the same goal: that students walk out of our classrooms better readers than when they walked in. Achieving this goal means being informed, taking risks, asking questions, and being responsive to how our students learn to make sense of print. And they won’t all make sense of print in the same way: some may succeed more with leveled texts while others may learn best with decodables; some may be natural meaning makers, while others require more explicit comprehension instruction.

Has the pendulum started to swing? I would say yes. But change is good. And if we can “bring with the swing” some new knowledge of all that has come before the SoR movement, we are better equipped to make informed decisions about what we can do to support our beginning readers. Above all, the key is “balance”. We know that there will always be a wide range of readers in our classrooms and that there is no one approach that works for all of them. The best reading teachers are informed, responsive, and take the time to reflect and refine what they know works best for each student. As we have learned, SoR isn’t completely new and if you have been following a Balanced Literacy approach, it may take only a few small, manageable, intentional shifts in your practice to make a big impact on your students’ reading success.

SoR at Home (feel free to use this in your next letter home to families!)

“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.” — Marilyn Jager Adam

For parents of beginning and early readers who may wish to support their child at home, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read aloud to your child every day. Interacting with your child and a book is likely the most important thing you can do to help them become a reader.
  2. Read your child’s favourite book over and over again. Use your finger to model tracking the words as you read. For books that children know well, invite them to use their finger to follow along as you read each word.
  3. Take advantage of Simbi’s Read Along feature that highlights the words for children as they listen to a narrator read the story.
Stella and the Seagull by Georgina Stevens, © Georgina Stevens 2020 Illustrations © Issy Burton 2020. Read along to this book on Simbi!

4. Interact with the story as you read. Pause, point to a picture or a page and say, “That reminds me of ….” or “I’m wondering why…..”

5. Stretch out one word in a sentence. Ask your child to “drink their milk” but say the individual sounds in the word “M-I-L-K” instead of the word itself.

6. Ask your child to figure out what every family member’s name would be if it started with a “B” sound, ‘S” sound, etc (ie Andrew — Bandrew, Candrew, Sandrew)

7. Read nursery rhymes. Once your child learns a few, start them and have your child say either the last word or the rhyming word.

8. Sing “I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas” song — using the different vowel sounds. (here is a video link to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5WLXZspD1M )

9. Play rhyming games in the car — “What rhymes with dig?” (wig, jig, fig, big)

10. Play letter versions of “I Spy” -

  • I hear with my little ear something that begins with B
  • I hear with my little ear something that rhymes with _______”

11. Label things around the house with small word cards to introduce your child to print — “door” “table” “chair”

Systematic Phonics Programs:

Recommended resources for exploring the Science of Reading:

References:

https://hechingerreport.org/four-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-reading-wars/

https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/what-science-reading

https://www.readinghorizons.com/reading-strategies/teaching/phonics-instruction/reading-wars-phonics-vs-whole-language-reading-instruction

https://www.parkerphonics.com/post/a-brief-history-of-reading-instruction

https://www.breakingthecode.com/10-reasons-three-cueing-ineffective/

https://journal.imse.com/what-is-the-science-of-reading/

https://hechingerreport.org/what-parents-need-to-know-about-the-research-on-how-kids-learn-to-read/

https://www.speechsoundpics.com/science-of-reading-cheat-sheet

https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading

Burkins, Jan & Yates, Kari. 2021. Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Portsmouth, NH, Stenhouse

Adrienne Gear is B.C. teacher, literacy specialist, workshop presenter, and the author of seven books on reading and writing instruction for elementary educators. She works for Simbi: Read for Good (simbi.io) as a content and curriculum advisor.

For more information about Adrienne or to purchase her books, visit her website at www.readingpowergear.com

Simbi

Read for Good