What Exactly Is the Science of Reading? (2024)

Last summer Nonie Lesaux, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who leads a research program that seeks to improve literacy outcomes for children and youth, was approached with a problem. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) needed to help the 600-plus school districts that the state agency serves better understand what scientific research had to say about how children learn strong reading and writing skills. Their query came at a time when powerful public advocacy for bringing the science of reading to classrooms, which had been steadily gaining momentum, had reached a fever pitch.

Over roughly the past decade, 38 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or introduced policies that aim to bring literacy instruction in line with decades of interdisciplinary research on the science of reading. In New York, in fact, Governor Kathy Hochul introduced a plan earlier this year to have schools in the state adopt science-based methods to improve reading instruction by September 2025.

When they approached her last summer, administrators at NYSED told Lesaux that many school district leaders and educators across the state felt “angst, confusion, and worry about the science of reading.” They weren’t sure what the term meant exactly — they had lots of questions, and they needed clarity and resources, she says, to help them “cut through a lot of noise,” including some misconceptions.

So Lesaux produced a series of seven briefs to help the educators better understand the research, as well as the work that is needed. The briefs explore key ideas and myths about the science of reading, and leadership strategies for those in New York’s preK–12 systems who are working to improve literacy and provide professional learning supports.

Lesaux recently discussed the briefs, as well as how they have been received.

You worked with NYSED on a series of literacy briefs back in 2017. How did you build on that previous work with this new set of briefs?

Literacy is still the multifaceted, complex construct that it always has been, and the demands on the learner and the citizen today, in this global knowledge-based economy, are significant. You have to develop literacy skills to a level that is much higher than might have been necessary even 25 years ago, for entry into the workforce and for a good wage and income and lifestyle — that hasn't changed. … There is some overlap [in the briefs] because the knowledge base didn't change much. I think what changed, which was super important for the field, is the public became much clearer that there are effective and ineffective ways to teach early word reading.

In your first brief, you say that the science of reading reflects more than 50 years of research across multiple disciplines about how children successfully learn to read and write. If there is so much research and evidence, why has there been so much confusion about effective literacy instruction?

I think what has created some of the confusion is that there are a couple curricula and approaches that took hold at large scale — this kind of “leveled reader” approach, “balanced literacy” — and the field took that up and the research was not there. In fact, it's deleterious for some kids because it's not the right approach. It's true that phonics instruction should be very explicit and direct, and that is not the same as teaching language and comprehension. And we need the language and comprehension teaching, but we can't confuse the two. And I think for far too long there was sort of this text-based approach to teaching phonics that wasn't actually the explicit direct instruction that a very significant number of children both need and respond so well to. But I think the danger is that we then swing the pendulum and pit the two ideas against each other, ideologically, and create this thing called “the reading wars,” when in fact we know we need a strong plan for phonics, and we need a strong plan for language and comprehension. It sounds so basic, and yet the politics and some of the ideologies of what it feels like to educate in developmentally appropriate ways got in the way of all of this. You know, rote explicit phonics instruction only needs to be about 20 minutes a day, but if you overdo it and it becomes synonymous with your reading instruction, you don't have a very engaging academic environment. When you do it really well and in the short burst that every first and second grader needs, it becomes very reinforcing and exciting because kids see their growth.

In one of your briefs, you set out to debunk common myths about the science of reading and you point out that learning to read and reading to learn should not be two distinct stages. You say effective teaching aims to teach all skills simultaneously from the earliest years?

Yeah, we need to stop pitting the two and we need to do both really well…. [and be] honest about the fact that there are lots of kids who don't have a vulnerability in the phonics area and don’t need more than the standard foundational instruction in this area, but who have very underdeveloped vocabulary and comprehension skills, you know, à la achievement opportunity gaps, and need a lot of content building knowledge. So, if we turn around and only do structured rote phonics programs, ad nauseum, they’re no better off for the long run.

What you mentioned about building up students’ background knowledge, to assist with reading comprehension, makes me think about the work of HGSE’s Jimmy Kim, correct?

Definitely. Jimmy’s portfolio of research has shed light on the effective strategies and the complexity of building up knowledge and comprehension skills. The same is true for Meredith Rowe's vocabulary work. There are others at HGSE, like Nadine Gaab with her [dyslexia] screening work, whose research is equally important. We’re all in the same fight together, contributing in specific ways for the same outcomes, but we're all looking at different pieces.

Regardless of which pieces we’re each focused on, some of the feedback that I get repeatedly [from school districts] is that it's so helpful that we step back and look at the policy and practice landscape and look at what the research really tells us about where we are, and then craft guidance in the form of resources and tools.

What Exactly Is the Science of Reading? (2024)
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