The Science of Reading – Trendy Trap or Trusted Term

As far as trendy educational terms go, the “science of reading” sounds hopeful, promising, optimistic.  It suggests a pendulum shift in classroom reading instruction, one that returns the focus toward data-driven, science-backed strategies that help children become strong readers.


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As we know, change is hard.  Complete paradigm shifts, even harder.  No surprise, then, that the science of reading debate amongst educators is sometimes, oh, let’s just say… heated.


I told myself that I’d avoid the frenzied debate about a term that’s stirring up so much controversy.  In fact, when I wrote The Comeback Kid of Effective Reading Instruction, I proudly patted myself on the back.  “Good job,” I thought.  “You stayed out of it.  Way to stay focused on the good bits!”


After that post, someone (who doesn’t happen to be an elementary teacher in the trenches) asked me to clarify.  “If we aren’t teaching kids how to sound out words, then what ARE we teaching them?”


Oh dear.  If I answer THAT loaded question, I certainly won’t be able to stay focused on the positive.  Ehem.  Let’s continue.


The Science of Reading, Defined?


Okay, so here’s one thing I can say about the term science of reading without offending too many people.  Not everyone, not even those in the field of education, agree about what it means.

Can you choose the correct statement below?  Which one is true?

  • The science of reading is instruction that targets the following: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
  • The science of reading is not a specific recipe for reading instruction. Instead, it’s a broad collection of research designed to answer the question, “How do children learn to read best?”
  • The science of reading is synonymous with “structured literacy” (another term that not everyone agrees on).
  • The science of reading primarily refers to children’s decoding skills, or how they learn to sound out words when learning to read.


So, is it a method?  A philosophy?  Is it reading instruction with a specific set of rules?  Is it a body of research?


I commend The Reading League, a non-profit organization, for writing their own Science of Reading: Defining Guide in an effort to bring us all on the same page.  Unless it becomes recognized as THE national gold standard, however, conflicting definitions will persist.


If I understand correctly, the term itself was popularized by a reporter, not a professional educator.  The reporter, Emily Hanford, investigated the state of classroom reading instruction, and how it “went so wrong.” Where the term originally came from?  (Say it with me now…)  Not everyone agrees.


The Danger of Trendy Terms Like the Science of Reading


So why, after successfully staying out of it, did I feel compelled to add my voice to the mix?  The reason has nothing to do with the recently shunned term “balanced literacy,” or some of the dangers the balanced literacy approach to reading instruction can cause.  It has nothing to do with WHY we strayed from good, effective reading instruction in the first place, and for so long.


Those are valid reasons, but no.  My rationale for speaking up isn’t quite so controversial.  Instead, I’ve noticed that when a term in education starts to become “trendy,” another dangerous trend emerges right alongside it.  Well-meaning educators who create their own educational materials (as I do), start to claim that their materials are, for example, “Science of Reading Aligned.”


Back when Common Core State Standards became popular, teacher-authors labeled their materials as “Common Core Aligned.”  This made sense.  This added clarity.  The state standards were clearly defined, so no one had to guess what they were.


Science of reading, on the other hand, is not a global standard.  What does it really mean?  The term itself shares some of the same challenges as the ones I wrote about in The Trouble With Research-Based Reading Programs.  Is it research-based?  Is it evidence-based?  What does that mean?  And who ultimately decides?


Science of reading also shares similar challenges with Orton Gillingham.  Orton Gillingham is a philosophy, not a standard, and yet some Orton Gillingham training programs claim they certify their students in the OG “method.”  This is a slippery slope.  Words matter.  Semantics matter.


My Personal Plea to Teacher-Authors


If the science of reading is not a global standard, or a method, if we can’t all agree what the term really means, please, dear teacher-authors out there, let’s not label our materials as if they are the holy grail of instructional tools, or that they fit some generally agreed upon ideal.  Doing so does not, in fact, add clarity to our offerings.  It only serves to mislead and confuse unsuspecting customers even more.


Yes, we can declare that our items are based on the latest research, if that, in fact, is true.  But please, let’s not perpetuate this tendency to jump on the bandwagon of trendy educational terms and inadvertently participate in deceptive marketing.


Besides, as of this writing, balanced literacy is out.  Structured literacy is in.  Who knows if the science of reading will still be popular in a few years.  Why not save ourselves the trouble of relabeling materials down the road?  Why not use radical honesty and transparency as our guide?


Whether the science of reading becomes a trendy trap or trusted term, well, that’s up to us.