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Has the Science of Reading become a rampant thought-terminating cliché?


I was running a workshop last week when I was asked, “Is The Writing Revolution SoR?” Now, all this educator wanted from me was a yes or no response which is worrying in itself, but they were talking about a book about writing techniques, and there is no such thing as an “SoR” curriculum, resource or set of instructional techniques. The question was a symptom of how terribly thing have gone wrong in systems and schools, thanks to the indefatigable and apparently irreproachable Science of Reading (SoR) tsunami, which based on what I see in hundreds of schools across any given year, is currently leaving a lot more debris than delight in its wake. I write all of this as an evidence-based practitioner and proponent, and as someone who once hoped the Science of Reading (SoR) was a term with utility. I even used the term for a while, up until around 2020, but over the last few years I have purposefully distanced myself from it, after seeing firsthand, over and over, why it’s not really fit for purpose, and why we probably need to move on.

 

The Science of Learning (SoL) is the same. You will often hear people asking, “Is this SoL?” or “Are you an SoL school?”, or schools will say, “We use an SoL approach”. What does that mean? In concrete terms, what exactly would you observe in these schools with respect to documentation, assessment, or teaching and learning practices that would mean they were an “SoL” school, and who decides? Structured literacy is another meaningless term. Again, in concrete terms, what exactly would you observe in "structured literacy" schools with respect to documentation, assessment, or teaching and learning practices that would mean they were such a school, and who decides? The way it is being “done” in schools varies wildly, often in ways that are not supported by research. My view is experts and academics who now use this term should hold themselves to a higher standard because we cannot just make things up. We cannot just create a term to counter other terms or movements or approaches we do not like or agree with.

 

With the excessive use of any term, we risk opacity, meaninglessness, and my sense is we are now at that point. The Science of Reading (SoR) is almost everywhere in Australia, yet coming across schools that teach students to read in highly effective ways, maximising potential, year on year on year, using the best available evidence, with the outcome being students who are highly engaged and value reading, is still relatively uncommon. How is that possible?

 

We have a body of research, or scientific evidence, that tells us about the various sets of knowledge and skills involved in reading, how reading proficiency develops, and therefore some likely best bests for teaching reading. If you want to call this the Science of Reading, go for it, but that’s all it is. There’s a lot of gold in there, but there is also so much more we have to figure out on the ground, more than any research paper can provide and likely will ever provide.

 

Schools cannot be Science of Reading schools. There is no such thing as a Science of Reading approach. There is no such thing as a Science of Reading curriculum. There is no such thing as Science of Reading pedagogy. There should be no such thing as a Science of Reading policy.

 

Somehow, we have catapulted from a very helpful, informative body of research to this point where SoR is a movement, a group to belong to, an overarching pedagogy, a belief, a rebuttal, a title, a platitude. We have so many experts across the globe disseminating information via professional learning who rarely have the practical expertise to support sound implementation, so en masse we’ve activated the adage of “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous”. Many educators follow experts blindly in cult-like wonder. And to be fair, educators should be able to trust experts and systems to advise them, but often they can’t, at least not in a practical sense.

 

On the ground I see hugely problematic consequences of “SoR”, like the overuse and misuse of decodable readers, phonics instruction across primary and even secondary years, a reduced focus on comprehension and reading rich and challenging texts, bad mouthing or banning of comprehension strategies, isolated and sustained oral phonemic awareness across multiple years, reflexive implementation of assessment tools or curriculum resources without any consideration of if or where it might fit, a complete imbalance when it comes to time allocation for the elements of instruction, attachment to one reading model or mantra, declining rather than improving reading data, and on it goes.

 

If schools and systems truly want to be planning, teaching, and assessing in ways that are consistent with the evidence base, they should be able to justify decisions at a far more granular level, rather than trotting out meaningless tropes and terms like “We use an SoR approach”, “We teach structured literacy”, or “Science has proven…”. When I ask people to tell me in detail what it means to be an “SoR school”, mostly the wheels fall off very quickly, as they should, because it’s not really a term that can stand up to scrutiny, it cannot cover or be used to justify all the things we have to achieve in a reading curriculum, or you discover a range of things occurring for which there is no research base.

 

Those promoting SoR who are removed from the coalface consequences need to know that implementation by and large is not being done well. Those who provide professional learning to educators and schools, or advice to systems, without giving concrete, actionable, impactful whys and hows are complicit in botched research translation.

 

More helpful frames for lasting change can be, we use the best available evidence (and can tell you what it is) to inform how we:

 

1.     select and sequence elements of our reading curriculum

2.     select and utilise assessment tools across the elements of reading

3.     allocate time to the various elements of reading

4.     teach the various elements of reading

 

It’s not too late, but we really need to change the way we talk about achieving excellence and equity in reading, and part of that, I suspect, may be by relegating “SoR” to obscurity.

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Betty King
Betty King
2 days ago

The best blog ever is your post. Your post is interesting and interesting io games


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Thank you.

Teaching reading must be flexible and nimble allowing for the uniqueness of each child as a learner. No packaged program - can do what a knowledgeable teacher can do. Decisions needs to be made in the moment, materials need to support learning to read. To read is to construct meaning from text. A steady diet of isolated phonemic awareness and phonics instruction does not a reader make.


Please bring back the books - the wonderful creative language rich books. They are a very good reason to want to be a reader! I am distraught by the classrooms that have closed off their classroom libraries and limited read alouds.


I have hope, that we an all begin to embrace…


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Well spoken.


As an OT I'd also consider an addendum to be so bold 5. Review results, reflect on the findings and refine the process - an open feedforward loop is the only way to mitigate our very human propensity (irrespective of evidence base) for pendulum swings in pedagogy, and elsewhere.

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Thank you Emina, and also Marnie for emphasising the stacking of 'isolated components of reading sun-skills one on top of another'. Unintended consequences have proved extremely counter-productive.

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Thank you for this bold piece on the current state of affairs. This field is highly susceptible to bandwagons and course over-corrections. While it's an exciting time to be a language and literacy enthusiast, there are a number of current trends that, in my view, will not likely age well. In a dream-world, the translation of research to practice is an efficient and seamless endeavour. But... in the real world, there sure are a lot of bumps in the road! Your piece is a timely call for reflection, for all those pushing for improved practices, at any level.


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