Saturday, 21 March 2020

Anti-science and the science of reading.

Professor Dianne Ravitch, who describes herself as “a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University” has written a brief blog-post this week headlined “There is no science of reading”. Her blog-post is an endorsement of the US
National Education Policy Center (NEPC) March 20 Policy Statement on the Science of Reading.

The inescapable problem for the NEPC, Professor Ravitch and those who sing from the same songbook, is that there is a science of reading, in the same way that there is a science of memory, a science of cognition, a science of perception, a science of language, and a science of learning. And the science of reading is not going away.

In all of these fields (as indeed, in the science of reading field), scientific endeavours are ongoing, building incrementally on knowledge which is released via academics to practitioners. Practitioners then apply it, to be part of the knowledge translation loop that results in ongoing refinements of theories and their implications for policy and practice. 

However, the science of reading has been the Cinderella of knowledge translation because of the resistance of some influential players to adopting the scientific method and changing their messaging as shifts in evidence occur.

If we left debate about reading instruction solely in the hands of Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates, it’s difficult to see how the discourse would have shifted at all in recent decades. What, for example, are most pre-service teachers learning in 2020, that is materially different from what they were learning in 2010? Or 2000? Or even earlier? 

If we interrogate Balanced Literacy practices employed in the late 1990s what would we find?

  • An emphasis on Three Cueing (Multi-Cueing) that encourages guessing rather than decoding;
  • banks of de-contextualised sight words that have no scope and sequence with respect to their phoneme-grapheme correspondences;
  • reliance on predictable levelled readers;
  • reluctance to apply phonics-based instruction of any kind, but begrudging acceptance of analytic phonics as a final resort;
  • advice to parents that they should discourage children from decoding through the word, because this is not true engagement with text; 
  • progress monitoring tools such as Running Records rather than psychometrically valid alternatives. 

And if we interrogate Balanced Literacy practices 30 years later in 2020, is anything different?

Back to the future.

Telling teachers that 

The truth is that there is no settled science of reading. The research on reading and teaching reading is abundant, but it is diverse and always in a state of change.
is designed to foster knowledge translation paralysis and keep teachers in the dark with respect to shifts in understanding that occur in research circles about approaches that are optimal for all children, not merely for those who will likely succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds and the pedagogical rigour to which they are exposed. 

When children do not succeed in Balanced Literacy classrooms the next step is to make blanket calls for better school funding, which understandably chimes with most teachers. Who would not want more money for their school? But there is a fixed cost to the tax-payer of having a teacher in a classroom. Would it not be better use of everyone’s resources for that teacher to be an expert on the current sate of play in the science of reading so s/he can apply this, in the tradition of scientist-practitioner that we promote in other fields such as medicine and psychology? 

Ravitch also quotes and endorses the NEPC statement that:

This key idea of a “balanced literacy” approach stresses the importance of phonics, authentic reading, and teachers who can teach reading using a full toolbox of instructional approaches and understandings. It is strongly supported in the scholarly community and is grounded in a large research base.
I have written previously about the self-described instructional bricolage that is Balanced Literacy. Having everything in the mix does not constitute systematic instruction by knowledgeable teachers. And just who is the “scholarly community” that is being swept up into one convenient collective bundle by this generalisation? I am part of the scholarly community and I for one, did not sign up to have my views appropriated in this way. 

Ravitch also endorses the NEPC argument that 

Education legislation should address guiding concepts while avoiding prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators.
This is just another way of saying “let a thousand flowers bloom”, or “choose your own adventure” and is what sustains this ongoing mess. If Balanced Literacy was a success-story, why are such large proportions of children in English-speaking industrialised nations not reaching their reading (and academic) potential? Where will the jobs be for these future unskilled workers as our economies replace unskilled roles with artificial intelligence and other forms of technology?

Posts such as this recent one by Ravitch (and the NEPC policy statement on which it is based) are a blatant attempt to slow the march of science and in particular, to retard its transfer into the classroom, via transmission to pre-service teachers. Many in education bemoan what is sometimes seen as the low professional standing of teaching as a profession. There is no more sure way of keeping education in the professional esteem shadows than preaching flat-earth mis-truths such as “there is no science of reading”. 

Some years ago, in Australia, there was a proposal prior to a federal election, to bring in a goods and services (consumption) tax. Do you know how this proposal was rolled? By a clever political slogan: “If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”. 

Exactly the same meme is being plied at teachers with respect to the science of reading. 

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that teachers in the main, are not exposed to the science of reading in their pre-service years (see references at this link). It is not surprising, therefore that many do not have an explicit grasp of such linguistic concepts as phonemes, morphemes, graphemes, syllables, phonemic awareness, phoneme-grapheme correspondences, digraphs, trigraphs, schwa vowels, and the need to teach these explicitly, with a scope and sequence in play.

But perhaps there’s another group who don’t understand it and so don’t vote for it: those in the academy and government who are stuck in a 1990s vision of what they would like the process of reading to be, rather than a 2020 science-informed position about its complexity and optimal ways of unlocking this for students. 

The only reason that we are not closer to a consensus on what constitutes the science of reading (what the reading process is and optimal ways of teaching it) is the deliberate obfuscation and anti-science rhetoric of some in pre-service teacher education and influential policy roles.

We don’t have a science problem. 
We have a rhetoric problem. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2020)


  1. Thank you for this. I wonder how "a 2020 science-informed position" is different from a 1955 position by the likes of Dr. Flesch? It seems it is not science but big money involved in printing of all these readers that prevent return of phonics to schools after a hundred years of oblivion.

  2. Diane Ravitch's texts and her point of view were prominently featured in my early doctoral course work just 5 years ago. She informed NCLB and nationwide testing then walked that back. She is currently battling the charter school movement. Her passion and ability to publicly admit the error of her ways was truly admirable. Her current public endorsement is influenced by her affiliation with Columbia University and Lucy Calkins. Her position in reading aligns with her battle for empowering teachers- which is at the cost of student outcomes- it appears she has lost the forest for the trees. My hope is that as a historian, which she is, she will recognize how her own history is repeating itself and she will reverse course as she did ten years ago. Her influence on education policy needs to be on the side of science and I am saddened and disappointed but not all that surprised that she is blinded by the voices in her ear. She is quick to call out Bill Gates and his for profit influence on education but she turns a blind eye to Lucy. Unfortunately, for Diane Ravitch- history is repeating itself.

  3. An interesting comment Cheri, thanks for contributing to the discussion. I am aware of the idea (it is present here in Australia too) that teachers need to be empowered through autonomy, but ironically I think this thinking creates a severe backfire effect, because it denies teachers access to what I think is their "family china" - knowledge of the science of reading. So trying to foster professional autonomy has exactly the opposite impact for teachers and of course sustains poor outcomes for students, particularly those who start from behind. Medical practitioners and psychologists (as a couple of examples) are not autonomous practitioners. Their practice is driven by evidence-based guidelines and care pathways, and in many cases these are quite prescriptive.

    It is ironic indeed that Diane is a historian, because none of this will look better through the lens of historical perspective, unfortunately.

  4. My question (to anyone and everyone) is why do so many teachers dismiss and even actively rally against evidence from research?

    From what I have seen:
    1. Some see it as an ideological war (anti-progressive methods)
    2. Others think only the experience of 'real teachers' matter (RT typically means practicing teacher in a public system).

    At a deeper level on point 1, progressive vs traditional is applied to teaching methods, rather than outcomes. Many teachers are progressive and see traditional methods as 'old school' and anti what they stand for. Yet, somewhat ironically, mastering reading leads to so many better outcomes for all, especially disadvantaged students (a progressive outcome)

    At a deeper level on point 2, I think many teachers have a professional identity. That is, being a teacher is a core part of who they are and is integral to their self-worth. Telling what they have been doing for ages is not the best way to teach therefore challenges who they are as a person. Furthermore, basing practice on research was not the approach they were taught at university, and has therefore not become part of their professional identity.


    1. it's a lot more complicated than that Shaun.The Journal - Educational Research and Evaluation devoted a whole Volume (25) to this issue.

      Others have written extensively on the problem, e.g. the highly respected European academic Gert Biesta- summarises the problem "...we have not yet conducted sufficient research in order to be able to encapsulate all factors, aspects and dimensions that make up the reality of education"

      Daniel Willingham also writes, there is "a big gap between research and practice" and influences "cannot be separated in the classroom" as "they often interact in difficult-to-predict ways." He provides the following example,
      "... laboratory studies show that repetition helps learning, but any teacher knows that you can’t take that finding and pop it into a classroom by, for example, having students repeat long-division problems until they’ve mastered the process.
      Repetition is good for learning but terrible for motivation. With too much repetition, motivation plummets, students stop trying, and no learning takes place. The classroom application would not duplicate the laboratory result."

  5. Are there ANY examples of ITT institutions that are following the science of reading in their courses? Best practice would be a great way to start to see real change happening.