Important Points to Keep in Mind as Districts Shift to the Science of Reading

Child reading surrounded by a mountain of books

If it hasn’t happened yet in your district, now is the time to shift to the science of reading. Teachers and administrators need to know that the ‘jig is up’, the ’emperor has no clothes’ and balanced literacy is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Okay, enough with the idioms. Let’s get to the point. Thanks to Emily Hanford’s tireless investigative reporting, the baseless claims of the power of balanced literacy have finally been revealed. Her podcast, ‘Sold a Story’ uncovers the history, key authors, and a powerful publishing company who all played a role in one of education’s worst pedagogical decisions.

We have some important points to keep in mind as you shift to the science of reading.

Teachers and administrators need to know ‘to err is human’.

We all got taken in by masterful marketing. Authors and publishing companies told us that Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy, leveled readers, and Teachers’ College Readers’ Workshop were supported by reading research. We believed what we were told. We failed to understand that the few studies conducted were flawed. The studies were not evidence-based and/or peer-reviewed. Some were funded by the authors and companies who had a significant stake in a positive outcome. We accepted these marketing claims as fact because we were so anxious for an effective and engaging way to teach reading.

It’s important to admit our mistakes and vow to do better.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We get it. Over the years, districts have spent millions of dollars on flawed reading programs. Please, don’t keep spending money on these programs in the hopes that things will change. They won’t.

It’s hard to admit that what we’ve been doing hasn’t helped our students and, in many cases, actually harmed them. Teachers, it’s not your fault. We were all ‘sold a story’. We trusted the professionals who said these programs were research-based. They aren’t.

Our students are depending on us to do better!

Teachers and administrators need to know there is hope.

There is a way to teach students, even struggling readers, how to read. Teachers and administrators have to accept the science of reading. Over twenty years of reading research by leading cognitive scientists has shown that the way to teach reading is by providing a solid basis of foundational skills through explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction. Reading is a code-based system so we must teach the code!

Now that we know better, let’s do better.

Here are some important considerations for teachers and administrators as we make the shift from balanced to structured literacy.

Make sure you do your research when purchasing resources that claim to support the science of reading

A lot, and we mean a lot, of people are trying to make a profit off the science of reading. Some are just rebranding their whole language-balanced literacy materials with the science of reading logo. We’re looking at you, Lucy! If the author or publishing company is still hawking balanced literacy materials along with science of reading, that is an indication that they are more about profit than student achievement.

credentials matter

Again, a lot of people claim to be experts on the science of reading. If you are following a blog or someone on Instagram, be sure to check their credentials. Do they have advanced certifications from institutions that uphold the science of reading? Many teacher prep, as well as reading specialist, programs do not adhere to a structured literacy approach.

There is also a big difference between a certified practitioner and someone who is ‘trained’ in a program. Hours of study and months/years of practicum work go into becoming certified. For example, “OG trained at the associate level” does require hours of supervised practicum work under an OG fellow. However, in other institutions, “trained” might only indicate one to three days of professional development. Do your research!

Remember: the science of reading is not a phonics only approach

True science of reading programs and materials include the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension instruction. The ultimate goal of reading is, and always will be, COMPREHENSION.

teachers and administrators cannot have both balanced literacy and the science of reading

As mentioned in the previous bullet, a true science of reading approach includes the five pillars. Balanced literacy only serves to confuse early and struggling readers by encouraging them to look at the pictures and/or guess as they word solve.

Reid Lyon, a neuroscientist interviewed by Emily Hanford on the podcast, explains the dangers of ‘adding phonics’ without removing the three-cueing system promoted by balanced literacy.

The two are counterproductive.

Providing structured literacy reading interventions in a balanced literacy curriculum is also counterproductive. It’s confusing to be taught explicit decoding strategies in the small group intervention setting, but then be expected to employ multi-cueing ‘strategies’ in the classroom.

It’s important to understand that struggling readers will often take the path of least resistance. If they’re told to look at the picture or the first letter and take a guess, this seems to be quicker than using decoding skills. For this reason, guessing is a hard habit to break…..but we must!

Decodable books and Materials are a non-negotiable for beginning and struggling readers

Decodable books are not meant to be used forever. They’re designed to help students develop neural pathways and reinforce phonics instruction. Appropriate and judicious use of decodable books build the foundational skills of strong readers.

As You Shift to the science of reading, you must shift your assessment practices as well

You can’t teach explicit decoding skills and then assess with balanced literacy materials. Many of the most popular reading assessments, including Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, still require teachers to evaluate whether students are using the multi-cueing system or MSV. This practice runs counter to what neuroscientists have discovered about how people read. As you shift to the science of reading, you must shift your assessment practices as well.

There are better, more time efficient, measures available that can determine reading growth. For example, DIBELS has a free downloadable resource for students in Grades K-8. Each subtest contains standardized benchmark goals that help to identify at-risk readers.

We’ve written blog posts about how to assess students in Grade K, Grade 1, and Grade 2 with measures aligned with the science of reading.

don’t be afraid to ask questions

When you’re new to the science of reading, you will likely have A LOT of questions. Reach out to qualified individuals (see above)…don’t try to figure it out alone!

Not only should you not be afraid to ask questions….you should ASK THE QUESTIONS. We’ve seen many blogs and accounts (with hundreds of thousands of followers) post ‘recommended strategies’ that we’ve questioned. It doesn’t hurt to send a DM or an email and ask for evidence-based research that supports these methods.

Remember, just because it says it’s ‘SOR-aligned’ it doesn’t mean it is…

Want to know more?

Be sure to read this blog post for more information about the trouble with the multi-cueing system. We’ve also written several posts on the power of decodable books and how decodable texts support comprehension.

Have questions? Reach out to us on Instagram!


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