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Rebalancing Literacy Instruction: Key Talking Points and Research

Establishing Common Ground between Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy

NAEP scores in reading have not changed significantly in the past decade and were higher in 2020 than in 1971. Nor was there was not a significant change in the achievement gap between white and Black/Hispanic students between 2012 and 2020 (NAEP webpage).

The notion of a literacy crisis has the power to score political points. However, as educators, we should not lose sight of our common goal of teaching our children to read and to flourish as lifelong readers.

The media have stirred up contentiousness around the teaching of reading, portraying Science of Reading (S of R) and Balanced Literacy educators as being at war, and have described both positions using stereotypes and extremist language. This document is developed in hopes that educators of all mindsets will see value in coming on-center, learning from those who hold positions other than one’s own, toward a common goal.

Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy educators enter the discussion–the debate–already seeing eye-to-eye about many things: the importance of oral language; listening comprehension; background knowledge; fluency; vocabulary; rich, read aloud experiences–and the need for instruction to be guided by research. This document aims to establish still more common ground, while also clarifying some of the ways in which the two approaches continue to differ.

  • Early screening is essential for the discovery, but not the treatment, of reading difficulties in children. It is important to screen children for indicators that they may need special support as they progress towards learning to read. The screener, like a thermometer, can reveal the presence of a problem, but does not diagnose the source of that problem nor guide the treatment of it.

  • Many teachers need more education in phonics and phonological awareness. Teachers need sufficient education in phonics and phonological awareness in order to help students who have word-based reading difficulties.

  • Students in K-2 need explicit phonics instruction every day. Until and unless teachers in a school all have a deep knowledge of research on phonics, schools should adopt one of many phonics programs. The National Reading Panel emphasizes that children should spend 20-30 minutes/day learning phonics and phonemic awareness. This instruction should be explicit and systematic. Although Science of Reading advocates regularly say that research has shown that systematic phonics approaches yield better results, this supposedly undisputed consensus was severely challenged by the findings of a review of meta-analyses (Bowers, 2020).

  • Children benefit from reading books that encourage them to decode. The texts that are given to beginning readers have a great influence on how children learn to read. When children have just begun learning to decode, texts that are aligned with their phonics instruction (or their phonics knowledge) allow youngsters to apply their new phonics knowledge as they word solve.

  • Children also benefit from access to books that are not phonics-controlled. English has unpredictable orthography. Learners need what Gibson and Levin refer to as ‘a set for variability.’ They need to know that, when letter-by-letter decoding doesn’t work (and it won’t always), they have other strategies to try. Therefore they need books that channel them to draw on more than just decoding as a word-solving strategy.

  • Children should use phonics as a first recourse to decode tricky words, but research does not support discouraging the use of context clues. Readers need more than one way to word solve. If a child is stuck on decoding a word, instead of prompting the child by giving clues that don’t require the child to work with the letters and sounds, it is wiser to suggest the child “slide across the letters” or “chunk it.” Those prompts encourage the child to work with the letters in ways that make it more likely the word will become part of the child’s long term memory. Of course, as Nell Duke points out, “If children are monitoring comprehension, they will have meaning in mind.” Scanlon recently summarized a thorough review of the research, and said, “There is no evidence available to support the S of R advocacy against teaching and encouraging children to use context.” Readers need context, in combination with code. That way, when decoding produces something that the reader doesn’t identify as a real word, the reader can integrate knowledge from context as well as from the letters in order to word solve.

  • There is no “settled science” supporting a phonics-first, phonics-dominant approach to teaching early reading. No one questions that phonics instruction is important, but it should be limited to 20-30 minutes a day, and set alongside instruction that focuses on meaning and language. The National Reading Panel report, which Science of Reading advocates often reference to support their position, explicitly emphasizes that phonics should be part of, but not the major focus of comprehensive literacy instruction.

The last time this nation veered towards a phonics-dominant approach to teaching reading was during the Reading First initiative. Although it was rigorously implemented in more than 5,000 schools, the government’s own assessment showed no progress on the NAEP scores of children who grew up under this regime.” The problem was not that Reading First included phonics, but that the program’s instruction in phonics crowded out all the other necessary components in a comprehensive language arts program.”

Similarly, In 2012, England instituted mandatory phonics-first instruction. In the 10-year review of that policy, Wyse and Bradbury concluded that no measurable progress had been made as a result of the program.

  • Research suggests that most older readers need instruction on comprehension more than on phonics. Although the media may lead people to believe that there is a reading crisis in America due to lack of phonics education in the primary grades, this is not the case. One study (Jones et al, 2016) found that, of a set of 3rd graders who failed a state reading test, only 8.1% struggled to decode. The majority of students, 63.3% , could decode and read effortlessly but didn’t comprehend well. Hiebert, in a recent summary of research, showed that only 9% of upper grade students in the lowest third of readers have word identification skills, thus making sustained reading impossible for them (Hiebert, 2023). On the NAEP –the only test that has been given across the US for decades – the students who score in the bottom third primarily struggle with comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary (Buly & Valencia, 2002; Hayden, Hiebert, & Trainin, 2019; Center on Teaching and Learning, 2020).

  • Although proponents of Science of Reading often claim that their views are evidence-based, often the “research” referred to by Science of Reading advocates is not from peer-reviewed journals but rather from podcasts, magazines, newspaper articles, blogs, and Facebook posts.

Science of Reading advocates suggest that Orton Gillingham, LETRS, and decodable books are all supported by research; yet there is no research behind any of these. A 2008 study from The American Institutes of Research, found that, although teachers who had taken a LETRS-based Professional Development course scored better on a post-test written by LETRS, their students didn’t have significantly higher reading achievement than students of teachers in the control group (NCEE, 2008).

Emily Solari, Yaacov Petscher, and Colby Hall discuss a meta-analysis that studied the effects of Orton Gillingham, and conclude that OG has no statistically significant effect on students with word difficulties, despite its status as the gold standard for children with dyslexia. In fact, OG doesn’t meet the US Department of Education’s standard for research-based teaching (Stevens et al, 2021). This does not mean that these programs are not sometimes helpful, but it points out that Science of Reading advocates have a double set of standards. They vouch for OG, decodable texts, and LETRS, for example, despite the lack of statistical research evidence. However, they don’t acknowledge that approaches supported by Balanced Literacy educators might be also be viable without those approaches yet having experimental research showing conclusive results.

  • Research supports the value of time spent reading continuous texts as well as of direct instruction. Time spent reading is important for lots of reasons, including for students’ command of phonics and their development of a bank of known words and their oral reading fluency. Freddy Hiebert, a member of the Reading Hall of Fame, points out that reading itself will lead to increased automaticity in recognizing words. (Hiebert, 2023)

Once students acquire minimal competence as readers, their reading volume becomes a predictor of their gains in reading achievement. Even Seidenberg, a proponent of S of R, concludes that “Readers learn our irregular language through experience with words rather than rule memorization. Students need to do a large volume of reading (Seidenberg, 2005).

  • Granted, there are too many children in America who cannot read well and who do not choose to read. However, it can be debated whether there actually is a literacy “crisis” in America.

Research does not support the idea that the reading problems in America are new, nor does it support the claim that two-thirds of students are not proficient readers. Catherine Snow, the preeminent researcher from Harvard, writes, “I am ... struck by the degree to which people are willing to invoke a literacy crisis, when the data do not support anything like a literacy crisis,” Snow says. “NAEP scores, over the last 10-15 years have grown — slowly, but they have gotten better in literacy.” and “Now that isn't to say that all American children are doing wonderfully in literacy. Obviously, they aren't. But it is to say that there's not a new or a sudden decline in literacy performance.” (Anderson, 2023).

Paul Thomas writes, “‘Student learning has been about the same for nearly a century. Some students thrive (mostly correlated with affluence and being white), many students learn in spite of the system, and too many students are neglected or mis-served (correlated strongly with poverty, minoritized race, multi-language learning, and special needs)” (Thomas, 2022).

For more resources on Rebalancing Literacy and to watch Lucy Calkins speak on the topic, you can watch our videos here and read more here.