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Science of Reading – Half Measures

Published On: August 11th, 2022 | Categories: Latest News |

By Connie Briggs

The Science of Reading Initiative (SOR) has successfully convinced state legislators, educators, and parents that the latest silver bullet to improve reading outcomes for all children is a large dose of explicit, systematic or structured phonics, taught in isolation of other literacy skills.  This simple theory advocates that children learning to read should master phonics before being taught any other reading skills.  In reality, teaching only phonics as a literacy curriculum is but a raindrop in the ocean.   

Phonics instruction, while extremely important in learning to read, is only one component of a complex cognitive system of learning to read and write. It’s like practicing basketball skills in isolated drills but never playing in a  game. Emergent readers can learn phonics and vocabulary and comprehension while they are engaged in reading and writing real texts.  In fact, from a developmental and cognitive viewpoint, working with multiple sources of information (print, background knowledge, and meaning) provides opportunities for problem-solving, checking, self-correction, and integration in order to develop a strategic foundation for the complex processing they will need to do as competent readers and writers.  Even the lowest-achieving emergent readers are quite capable of learning successfully from a complex theory of literacy. 

Science of Reading advocates seem to be on a mission to disparage any other elementary literacy curriculum that is not phonics only. Through podcasts, blogs, and articles they repeatedly share misrepresentations, mistruths, and opinion-only information that has seemed to gain traction.  Truth be told, 80% of children will learn to read despite of the type of instruction they receive. It is the other 20% that need special intervention and personalized support as they emerge as readers and writers. 

Research has shown that the most important factor to a child’s success in school is a knowledgeable and highly trained teacher.  Highly trained teachers focus on children’s strengths, use assessment to plan instruction, and make daily decisions about curriculum and teaching based on the idiosyncratic needs of each child in their classrooms. Yet, the SOR advocates paint all teachers with a broad brush when they say that teachers do not know how to teach phonics.  They also promote scripted and structured phonics programs that do not value teacher decision-making or differentiation.  One size does not fit all, and children learn in different ways. Yet, from a SOR perspective every child needs the same structured sequence of phonics instruction. Unfortunately, enacting this perspective/advice guarantees that some children will be left behind. 

Teaching children to become literate is complex and difficult, not because we don’t know what works, but, in part, because of the many societal issues that come to school with the children.  When looking at the bigger picture not only do we need to provide a fully comprehensive literacy curriculum to elementary children, but we also need to address issues like poverty, race, language acquisition, and attendance. A simple theory cannot and does not address these complexities.  



Connie Briggs is an Engaged Emeritus Trainer and Professor Emeritus at Texas Woman’s University





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