What Newspapers are Getting Wrong About the Science of Reading?

Is There Such a Thing as the Science of Reading?

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed several major newspapers publish editorials criticizing the science of reading. However, there were several misleading/incorrect claims in these articles. Rather than criticize these authors, I thought I would address the claims of the articles more generally. 


First off, they make the claim that the science of reading movement is not based in science. I find this the most absurd claim of all, because they are attacking the academic integrity of a multitude of scholars, without citing any evidence. Instead, they cite pro-balanced literacy professors, who are opposed to the science of reading movement. Indeed, two of these articles cited a scholar who serves on the Reading Recovery Council as their main evidence that the science of the reading movement isn’t based on science. This seems like a huge conflict of interest to me. Of course someone who works for Reading Recovery would not be in favor of a movement that seeks to end the use of programs like Reading Recovery. 


Moreover, citing a balanced literacy scholar, outside of any other evidence, represents a common fallacy: “the appeal to authority”. Citing an academic expert in itself is not actually evidence of anything. You can find PhDs who believe in almost any argument, including the theory that the pyramids were made by aliens. Just finding a scholar to give a quote saying other scholars are wrong, is not evidence of anything. Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine in general. I am a big believer that any arguments made about what the science of any subject is should be followed up with actual scientific evidence, regardless of what side of the debate you are on. 


Is the Science of Reading an Approach?

Another problem with these articles is that they seem to be based on the idea that the science of reading movement is defined by an approach. However, if you ask most scholars within the science of reading movement, what the science of reading is, they will tell you, “the science of reading is not an approach, but a body of research.” Of course, there is a distinction to be made between the science of reading and the science of reading movement. The science of any subject, is by definition going to be a body of research. As science the noun is based on a methodological approach to researching answers. The science of reading movement is based on the work of scholars, parents, teachers, and advocates who want schools to switch to a more science-based approach. 


These newspaper articles often seem to assert that the science of reading is a phonics approach. This is a misleading interpretation for multiple reasons. Firstly, go talk to any science of reading scholar, and they will have an abundance of recommendations that relate to a variety of literacy topics, including phonics, phonemic awareness, morphology, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. For example, The National Reading Panel Report, which is often cited as the foundational piece of research for the SOR movement, actually examined 4 issues: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension. Similarly, in my own book on the science of Reading:“The Scientific Principles of Reading Instruction'' the majority of chapters have nothing to do with phonics. If you join a social media group for the science of reading (and there are many) you will find a multitude of questions and answers about topics not related to phonics. Moreover, within the science of reading movement there are competing interpretations of the research and thus a multitude of approaches, for which you find people advocating. 


To give some examples, within the variety of online social media groups related to the science of reading you will find advocacy for phonics approaches that focus on vocabulary, comprehension, and content knowledge; approaches that focus more on phonemic awareness and multi-sensory instruction; approaches that on linguistic accuracy; and approaches that focus on the use of embedded mnemonics to teach reading. This is all to say that the Science of Reading movement is not a monolith or an approach, but a collection of engaged individuals who want to promote evidence-based instruction.

I posted about this seeming disparity of understanding on twitter, and I got back the response from many pro-balanced literacy advocates, asking why the SOR movement  is so focused on making phonics instructional approaches part of public policy, if the movement is not only about phonics. And admittedly, while the SOR community often pushes for better instruction on a variety of reading strands, when it comes to public policy, the real focus has been on phonics and phonemic awareness. However, there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon. While balanced literacy advocates claim to be in favor of balance, the reading instructional policies implemented by pro-balanced literacy scholars and advocates have not been balanced. Phonics and phonemic awareness instruction has been severely limited. For example, in my own education, despite being a qualified reading instruction teacher, with an additional qualification in primary education, and a specialist in both reading and special education, I received no formal training on phonics or phonemic awareness instruction during  any of my course work. 


And yet, a common defense I have seen for balanced literacy, has been that everyone is already training in phonics and that all districts are already teaching phonics in a systematic way, therefore we can stop talking about it. This did not match my own experience, as a reading teacher, so I put out a poll on my twitter feed, asking two questions: 

  1. Were you trained on phonics and phonemic awareness, during your teacher training?

  2. Does your school board currently mandate systematic phonics instruction? 

120 people responded to my twitter poll. 39% of respondents said they were trained on phonics and phonemic awareness instruction during their teacher training, 61% said they were not. 36% of respondents said their district did mandate systematic phonics instruction, 64% of respondents said that their districts did not. While this poll was not scientific, it does not surprise me to hear that the majority of respondents had no significant training in phonics, and that their districts do not mandate systematic phonics instruction. Truthfully, I think the exclusion of phonics within education has been the main cause of the SOR movement.

Is Phonics Supported by Science?

Interestingly, while many of the balanced literacy detractors of the SOR movement have built their argument around the claim that schools are using phonics and teachers are being trained in phonics, other balanced literacy detractors of the SOR movement have built their argument around trying to discredit the scientific evidence for phonics. These scholars usually cite one of two recent papers: a recent study by the UCL’s Institute of Education on the implementation of phonics in the UK, which showed less than ideal results or a paper by Dr. Jeffery Bowers which highlighted methodological limitations with some of the phonics research. While I don’t think either study should be immediately discounted, it also needs to be said that two individual papers do not disprove an entire body of research. 


To the best of my knowledge, there have been 15 meta-analyses on phonics instruction to date, examining hundreds of scientific studies. All of 15 meta-analyses found positive results, with a mean effect size of .55, a mean effect size of .43 if outlier studies are excluded, and a mean effect size of .60 if non-peer reviewed meta-analyses are excluded (including mine). 

While not all areas of reading research are settled, with over a dozen meta-analyses and hundreds of individual studies, we have overwhelming evidence showing that phonics instruction works and is important. With this in mind, you could say that the debate on phonics is settled. Conversely, when I look at the main alternatives to phonics, balanced literacy and whole language Instruction, I can find no meaningful evidence that they work better. And yet, most of the detractors of the SOR community and phonics instruction, have not focused on trying to prove the validity of their instructional theories. Instead, they have focused their efforts on trying to discredit the science behind phonics. This leaves those who advocate for phonics indefinitely playing defense for an already proven concept. Case in point, I once spent two weeks re-analyzing my phonics meta-analysis because I saw a prominent Reading Recovery scholar claim that the phonics studies only showed significant effect sizes for decoding outcomes. It wasn’t true, but it took me weeks to prove it. There is a common saying amongst lawyers: If you don’t have a winning argument, attack their argument, if you cannot attack the argument, attack the individual making it. 


Is the Science of Reading a Right Wing Attack on Education?

Many prominent newspapers have recently tried to spin this issue as left vs right or conservative vs liberal issue, claiming that Balanced Literacy is a liberal idea and that the Science of Reading/pro phonics movement, represents a right wing attack on education. As someone who identifies as both far left and as a science promoter, I find this narrative deeply disturbing. We need to stop trying to identify science within political terms, as it polarizes people's understanding. Science is supposed to be apolitical. Prominent left wing newspapers calling the Science of Reading movement, a right wing plot, is no less absurd than Alex Jones calling global warming a communist hoax. Which brings me to my final point. We need to start identifying these types of articles for what they truly are: science denialism. 


Written by Nathaniel Hansford, 
Last Edited 2022-11-13



Bowers, J.S. Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction. Educ Psychol Rev 32, 681–705 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y


J, Hattie. (2022). Whole Language. Visible Learning Metax. Retrieved from <https://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/influences/view/whole_language_approach>.


 NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>. 


N, Hansford. (2022). A Meta-Analysis and Literature Review of Language Programs. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <https://www.teachingbyscience.com/a-meta-analysis-of-language-programs>. 


N, Hansford. (2022). Language Program Reading Outcomes. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <https://www.teachingbyscience.com/reading-rankings>. 


N, Hansford. (2022). Language Program Comprehension Outcomes. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <https://www.teachingbyscience.com/comprehension-outcomes>> 


Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers' practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10, e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314