What the Phonics is The Science of Reading?

A video by Dr. George G. Hruby is an associate research professor of literacy education at the University of Kentucky, and the executive director of the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development.

Here is a transcript:

Hello George ruby here Collaborative Center for Literacy Development University of Kentucky. In this brief video I’ll attempt to describe the science of reading. Fair warning I will not describe science of reading as advocates do. They describe the science as settled, but most reading researchers and literacy scholars would beg to differ. Science is never settled. It’s not a body of received wisdom or holy writ. It’s not an orthodoxy.

Science is a process of discovery and the methods and theories are many. It would be better to speak of the sciences of reading. The fact that science of reading is often written with science and reading in initial caps rather gives the game away. It’s branding. But why and for what? Why is easy. Why is anything ever branded? To sell it like branded products or university taglines — the idea is to create an identity for a product to distinguish it from similar products … something we can recognize quickly and associate with positive defining characteristics. After all there are lots of folks trying to sell approaches to reading. In the case of the science of reading this identity suggests greater scientific credibility for its understanding of reading, reading instruction, and reading difficulties. The academics promoting it are a small but aggressive group arguing for pre-paced and materials heavy programs and especially for didactic methods of phonics instruction in the early reading curriculum.

The programs are variously labeled as systematic structured direct and explicit programmatic, but especially scientific or scientifically based. With that bit of labeling the insinuation is made that competing approaches to the teaching of reading are unscientific and thus to be disregarded as ineffective. The problem is this so-called scientific approach to teaching phonics and decoding and reading have been used on and off for decades going back to the mid 20th century, and it has never been shown to work any better than other garden variety approaches. So why value an expensive set of materials that don’t work any better than what an effective teacher could already do?

The most recent push for what was called scientifically based reading was 25 years ago in the run-up to Reading First, a five-year, 6 billion dollar program that put title 1 K-3 school kids through phonics and fluency drilling for one and a half hours a day, five days a week, for 40 weeks a year, up to four years. According to the 2008 final report on the program, kids who went through it didn’t do any better on their end of third grade reading assessments than similar kids who hadn’t gone through it.

It hadn’t worked just like similar programs in the 1980s and the 1960s hadn’t worked. And now it’s back. Claims made by advocates of the science of reading follow along a continuum from true to false to incoherent.

Some examples:

‘Phonics is an important part of an effective reading program.’ Well that’s true of course. There will be students who don’t seem to need it. They take to reading like ducklings to water and some who struggle with it, particularly kids who are not yet developmentally ready for a grade mandated pre-paced program. But most kids benefit from some form of phonics in the early reading curriculum even those who need more time or support.

‘Structured systematic or explicit phonics approaches work best.’ This is not true.

Both the national reading panel 2000 report and recent synthesis of the research such as by Bowers earlier this year have found no significant difference in student reading achievement between different approaches to teaching phonics.

They all work equally well.
Most of the time “scientifically based” is meant to lend the imprimatur of science to a commercial product that has likely never itself been evaluated for effectiveness by third party researchers. That was the case with the programs mandated for reading first. Shoppers beware. Science tells us what works – why waste time on what doesn’t?

What the term science actually stands in for is psychology as in the psychology of reading. Once the heart and soul of reading research before the socio-cultural turn, qualitative methods and theory came along and at the heart of scientific psychology is inferential statistics. Purportedly such statistical models should predict what works with a useful degree of probability — what will scale up from a research sample to the larger population. What decades of evaluation reveal, however, is that the answer to what works depends on the variables interlaced throughout the learning environment, within and between the students, as well as the teacher. The classroom and school both in the moment and by way of developmental legacy are never adequately factored into the theoretical models employed in statistical research or evaluation. Hence the replication crisis in psychology. According to scientific analyses somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of all scientific studies in psychology, including cognitive neuroscience, are overestimating their reliability in reporting false positives! Half of all studies reporting false effects! Which is why so much psychological research has been failing replication attempts and probably why scaling up applications in the schools has rarely worked.
But brain research proves the science of reading? Not clear what this is trying to say specifically, but no.

There are many disconcerting things about the renewed push for science of reading, but the most depressing for me is that we’ve been here before so many times … scientific industrial management in the schools in the 1890s and 1930s, behaviorist programmatic reading of the 1960s, special ed dyslexia interventions in the 1980s, the Carnegie studies in the 90s, reading first in the 2000s, and now this. The historical record is clear. The pre-paced or scripted approach to decoding skills has never moved the needle beyond what garden variety business as usual in the schools can do at a fraction of the cost.

Which is why these products require a sales pitch to foment support for legislation to force them into our schools. Surely we can be wiser and more ethical and do better than this.

I’m George Hruby. Thank you.