The Science of Reading is Not an Either/Or

April 28, 2021 | by Aidin Feenstra

Cover art by Summer Thompson

In recent years, early childhood literacy has become a heated point of debate for educators around the nation, prompting many emboldened arguments based on varying degrees of personal belief and evidence. In the midst of all the noise, this issue has become more confusing than ever before. However, this shouldn’t be the case. Despite the reignition of the flames of doubt, the science behind this subject has been all but agreed upon for decades now. In response to the recent discourse, two notably distinguished education journalists have been adding their voices to the mix, Emily Hanford and Natalie Wexler, both of whom are hitting the issue spot on the nose and working to explain that, while learning to read can be complicated, understanding effective instructional practices shouldn’t be.

What They're Saying

In their work, both Hanford and Wexler dive into the critical factors affecting literacy, taking it from two different angles but ultimately arriving at very similar conclusions. Hanford focuses on the importance of phonics, or the skilled component of reading. In her work, Hanford details why this piece is so critical, as it is essentially the necessary prerequisite for becoming an effective reader. In fact, Hanford argues that “the first task of the beginning reader is to learn how to decode the words he or she knows how to say… [because] children who don’t learn to decode in the early grades can easily grow into adulthood without knowing how to read.” Without effective instruction in phonological skills, beginners can never be expected to engage in the types of habits that will grow them into skilled readers. In this way, decoding skills are the essential building blocks for good foundational literacy, after which can follow the other critical structural components. However, Hanford also notes that phonics alone is not the sole decider.

The second necessary component, which is described in greater depth by Wexler, is comprehension. Unlike its neat and concise phonological counterpart, the term comprehension encompasses a far broader set of components. Of these, some of the most important are explained by Hanford as being “all the words you know the meaning of, and your understanding of how language works — grammar, syntax.” Or, as Wexler more simply describes it, comprehension has to do with how much you already know about the topic.

Essentially, knowledge and content-rich instruction in many areas of education are just as important to literacy as direct phonological skill-building, but the most critical factor in the comprehension equation is time. The issue then becomes how to properly balance instruction between the two, a problem that has long hindered the progress of early literacy education, and whose solution is surprisingly simple.

The Issue Today

For decades now scientists have agreed on the validity and foundations behind the science of reading, and many institutions around the nation have taken on various attempts to utilize this knowledge to improve their own outcomes. Yet still, just as many have come up disappointingly short of expectations, as well as their being bastions of those who continue to wholly reject these findings.

Both phenomena find their roots in similarly dug ground, which is that many who are pursuing these research-proven methods are doing so following less than ideal methods. Wexler argues that this is mainly due to an overly-narrow focus on reading that leads to failures in seeing the bigger picture, which is that students need comprehensive instruction in a litany of subjects in order to become masterful readers.

Along these exact lines is where the discussion becomes as critical as it is necessary to approach with care. Many critics point to findings such as these in a disingenuous attempt to disprove the unanimously agreed upon research behind the science of reading, incorrectly citing instances of lackluster improvement as evidence against it. This hastily drawn conclusion highlights the importance of applying the science of reading correctly, since every inadequate attempt will be used to criticize irrefutable scientific conclusions. To make this point absolutely clear, subpar achievement scores are not evidence against the science of reading, but rather highlight an urgent need to more thoroughly apply its principles using evidence-based practices.

The Solution: Getting Reading Right

How do we get reading right? The answer is quite simple, in fact the driving force of effectively approaching this issue is just that, simplicity. As Hanford explains, at the core of every good reader lies a solid phonological foundation. To think about it in terms of learning a sport such as basketball, decoding is like the essential skills trained every day in order to be able to execute every other part of the game effectively. When a beginner first starts, the majority of their time may be spent on just these, because the game can’t be played without essential abilities like dribbling, shooting, passing, and other foundational skills.

Then, as the player becomes increasingly well-versed in these skills, they can start dedicating more of their practice time to different scenarios and obstacles they would find in an actual match — or in the case of reading, comprehension. Eventually, if the player continues to practice consistently enough, these foundational skills they spent so much time on in the beginning will become so ingrained in their game that they will hardly need to dedicate any isolated time to practice, instead keeping them polished as they utilize them in other motions.

Much like basketball, reading is a non-natural skill that must be practiced consistently and effectively. Just as the former can’t be played without first learning the basics, the game of reading can’t be played without mastering the essential components of phonics, meaning that in the beginning more time might be needed in this area. Additionally, individuals may have innate differences in ability favoring either direction, so while some may pick up phonics more easily, others will require more practice. The key to mastering this strategy lies in differentiation, ensuring the reader efficiently directs their practice time where it’s most needed. The idea is that, as they build these weak-points into applied strengths, they can eventually begin moving more of their time towards mastering other “in-game” focuses, utilizing the skills they’ve perfected to move smoothly through the motions of comprehensive reading.