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In an article published in ET Magazine, Roger Stark and Betsy Hill write …

The pressure to revamp reading instruction has been mounting. According to data sourced from Education Week, 33 states now have laws in place that establish the “science of reading” as the standard for reading instruction and intervention. Some of the laws have teeth that can reach down to bite individual students, allowing for or even requiring retention for students who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

Indiana is a prime example. The state department of education now provides state-approved lists of curriculum and materials that have been determined to incorporate the science of reading. And students who don’t pass an assessment called I-READ3 generally can’t move on to fourth grade.

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the science of reading has emerged as a darling, albeit somewhat debated, topic. This approach to teaching literacy is rooted in empirical research, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Proponents argue that it offers a solid foundation for effective reading instruction, while critics highlight potential drawbacks and challenges largely related to the implementation and how the science translates to actual classroom practice.

Foundational Benefits of the Science of Reading

  1. Evidence-Based Instruction

One of the primary benefits of the science of reading is its strong reliance on empirical evidence. Numerous studies have examined how the brain processes written language, leading to a better understanding of reading development. This evidence-based approach enables educators to make informed decisions about instructional strategies, ensuring that they are grounded in scientific principles.

2. Early Intervention

The science of reading emphasizes the importance of early intervention in literacy development. It recognizes that identifying and addressing reading difficulties in the early stages can significantly improve outcomes for struggling readers. By using diagnostic assessments and evidence-based interventions, educators can provide targeted support to students, often preventing long-term reading difficulties.

3. Phonics Emphasis

Explicit instruction in phonics and the development of phonemic awareness are cornerstones of the science of reading. This approach teaches students the relationship between letters and sounds, enabling them to decode unfamiliar words. Research consistently shows that explicit and systematic phonics instruction can lead to improved reading outcomes, especially for students with dyslexia and other reading challenges.

4. Structured Literacy

Structured literacy, a key component of the science of reading, provides a systematic framework for teaching reading and spelling. It breaks down language into its constituent parts, such as phonology, morphology, and syntax, and teaches these components explicitly and sequentially. This structured approach can benefit all students and can be especially helpful for those who struggle with reading.

The Foundational Challenge: The knowledge lies with the teacher.

The science of reading, for all its strengths, relies on the knowledge of highly skilled and trained teachers – teachers who have hours of professional development in the nuances of the science of reading. Specialists, with knowledge honed to a razor’s edge. So, what happens if that teacher retires, or transfers, or leaves the profession all together? Reading specialists are now being trained in the science of reading for the first time in their careers. And if that teacher leaves, so may your science of reading program. Critics also argue that many teachers may not have received adequate training in this approach, leading to challenges in its widespread adoption. Addressing this issue necessitates substantial and ongoing investments in professional development.

Other Challenges

  1. Balancing Phonics and Meaning

While phonics is essential, some critics argue that an overemphasis on phonics can lead to a narrow focus on decoding at the expense of comprehension. Striking the right balance between phonics and comprehension instruction is crucial to fostering well-rounded readers.

2. Adaptability to Diverse Learners

Not all students learn in the same way, and the science of reading may not address the unique needs of every individual. Educators must be able to tailor instruction to accommodate students who learn differently, which can be challenging within the confines of a strictly structured approach.

3. Cultural Relevance

Critics contend that the science of reading may not adequately address issues of cultural relevance and diversity in reading materials. To engage and motivate all students, educators must ensure that the content they use reflects the backgrounds and experiences of their students.

4. High-Stakes Testing

The science of reading’s focus on explicit instruction and phonics has led to concerns about its alignment with high-stakes standardized tests. Critics argue that this may lead to teaching to the test rather than fostering a love of reading.

The Science of Reading Meets the Science of Learning

The passage of legislation on reading instruction in more than half of the states surely is evidence that a crisis is being recognized and that our society, our communities and our leaders are not content to let the status quo persist. For decades, only a third of fourth grade students have been reading proficiently at grade level. Change is long overdue. And yet there are two fundamental questions that are not being asked.

The first is based on the observation that math achievement levels have suffered just as reading levels have. Is the next stage after teaching teachers the science of reading to teach them the science of math? And the science of each other discrete subject in the curriculum?

And the second is based on the observation that students can learn the skills targeted by the science of reading and somehow, still struggle with reading. What else is missing and is there a common thread in learning that holds the key to improving educational outcomes?

The Common Thread

What the science of reading does not address is that there are mental processes that are even more basic than phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These mental processes are what enable our brains to take in, give meaning to, organize, store and retrieve information. These mental processes are called cognitive skills.

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