The “science” of reading

The latest national reading test scores have been released and the results are-to say the least-not good.

2 out of 3 students in the US fail to achieve proficiency in reading.

2 out of 3!

But the reading “experts” claim to have found the reason why so many students fail. They say it’s because parents and teachers are not teaching using a “science of reading.”

But this claim – which is not backed up by science – is complete and utter nonsense, and it reflects tremendous ignorance about both what the so-called “science” of reading has really found, and the history of reading instruction in this country!

When people refer to a “science of reading” what they are typically talking about are studies that show 2 things:

  1. If you drill kids on phonics skills, they do better on tests that specifically test phonics skills — but not actual reading. This should be obvious, and it’s why districts all over America that have increased time and money spent on phonics curricula and intensive phonics drills, have seen some gains on what they call “early reading” (K-2) phonics skills test scores, but then seen little to no gains in their tests of actual reading ability (3rd and 4th grades and up).
  2. Phonics works a bit better than another approach called Whole Language. This is not surprising since Whole Language offers students no system to decode text while phonics at least offers something. But Whole Language is a straw dog! Saying a program is “good” because it’s better than something even worse is false advertising. Why are those the only 2 options?

The idea that teachers are choosing not to use a so-called “scientific” approach that works because they are too lazy, selfish, or ignorant to bother is absolutely ridiculous and very insulting to teachers! Almost all reading teachers are using phonics, but they end up trying other approaches because phonics leads to failure for so many students.

This pattern can be seen in the history of reading instruction in the US as educators have used phonics, then tried something else to deal with phonics’ high failure rate, then switched back to phonics, and then switched again because of phonics’ high failure rate. It’s a sad pattern that’s been repeated numerous times in our history.

Moreover, there is no evidence that following a rigorous phonics curriculum significantly improves student reading outcomes (as opposed to “early reading skills”). In fact, decades of testing show just the opposite – that phonics instruction always yields a high failure rate. Always. Just look at the NAEP reading results for the last 40 years.

So why does phonics fail so many students?

Because English is a highly irregular language that cannot be sounded out. It’s why English is one of the only languages in the world that includes a pronunciation guide in its dictionaries. It’s also why phonics has almost 600 rules – rules that have been studied and found to have more exceptions than applications.

Dr. Robert Hillerich, the former Chariman of the Dept. of Reading & Language Arts at the National College of Education concluded: “Generalizations [i.e. rules] about vowels can be grouped into two categories: generalizations which hold true most of the time but which include too few words to be worth teaching, and those which apply to many words but which are so unreliable that they are not worth teaching.”

For example, in this one sentence below, the very common “ea” vowel combination can be pronounced 13 different ways!

Dr. Godfrey Dewey, from Harvard University, who devoted his career to studying English spelling, found that of the 10,000 most common printed words in English, only 1 in 5 is spelled phonetically. 1 in 5!

The Department of Education asserts that 50% of words are phonetic. This is based on a 1966 study by Dr. Paul Hanna who programmed a computer with 203 phonics rules and found that the computer achieved 49% spelling accuracy. So in case you know a student who can memorize 203 phonics rules, they can use those rules to accurately spell 49% of the words!

How can students be expected to use phonics to correctly sound out English when even a computer programmed with 203 rules gets it right only 49% of the time?

They can’t.

Reading Kingdom is the closest thing you’ll find to an actual “science” of reading, and that’s because it uses a unique, patented reading system based on decades of research into how children learn to read – a comprehensive science of reading.

It’s an ingenious approach that yields results in a short time.

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