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May 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 8

The Sciences of Reading Instruction

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When it comes to reading instruction, an "all or nothing" approach is actually unscientific.

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Every January, my social media feeds fill with ads, free trials, and coupons from the diet and wellness industry, promising to help me with my (presumed) resolutions to be better, faster, leaner, and healthier. Every diet program claims some type of relationship to science.
The same is true with reading instruction. Most programs or approaches claim to be based on "science." But consider the many possible meanings of this claim. Some approaches to reading instruction are developed as part of rigorous, peer-reviewed research and are continuously evaluated and refined. Others are designed by practitioners who draw on experience, and whose insights are validated by inquiry after development. Many are based on well-known principles from research or assumptions about learning in general, but haven't themselves been tested. Some "research-based" instructional tools and practices have been shared, explained, interpreted, misinterpreted, and re-shared so many times that they bear little resemblance to the research on which they were based (Gabriel, 2020). Others rack up positive evidence no matter how many times they're studied. Then there are practices that have no evidence behind them but are thought to be scientific—because they've always been assumed to be true.

"Polarizing Pitches"

When it comes to diet and wellness, advertisers work to make complicated choices about food and exercise appear simple and easy. And once phrases like "clinically proven" began to appear on almost every dieting option out there, many products—to stand out—changed their messaging to the now-familiar polarizing pitch, which typically involves one or more of these claims:
  • Everything you have been told before is wrong.
  • This approach is different.
  • No one wants you to know this industry secret.
  • This explains why you haven't been getting results.
  • All the others are only trying to make money off you—and will say anything.
This type of promotion is challenging because approaches that seem to conflict with each other both make claims about their own effectiveness and the ineffectiveness of others.
Similar polarizing pitches can now be seen in approaches to early reading instruction. Multiple approaches—often different and even resistant to each other—claim to be scientific and "evidence-based." But too few programs have been examined with gold-standard studies to make comparisons meaningful. And every new evidence-rating system has slightly different recommendations (Gabriel, 2020). The "evidence-based" label seems to have lost its distinctive meaning. Rather than solely asking whether an approach is "evidence-based," most educators now want to know what the individual components of high-quality instruction truly are.

What We Do and Don't Agree On

The challenge, really, is to discern which reading-instruction approach is right for your school community, in what ways, at which times. Understanding what your school or classroom needs for current students is made more difficult by the lack of shared language for common concepts in the field, and the "all-or-nothing" mentality that suggests you must go all one way or another. Moreover, instructional decisions in this area matter tremendously. Just like unbalanced nutrition, the wrong program or combination of approaches can do more than waste time; it can discourage, limit, and minimize students' opportunities to learn. Perhaps this is why discussions about various programs evoke passionate responses from different factions in the "reading wars."
Within every approach to literacy instruction lies a unique logic or way of making sense of the central challenge of literacy development and of the best strategies for dealing with that challenge. Still, there's little disagreement on the non-negotiables of effective reading instruction, even if polarized perspectives use different terminology to describe them. I state these non-negotiables as: Students need developmentally appropriate, precise (explicit) instruction about every strand of literacy (letter patterns, vocabulary, usage, comprehension), instruction that includes clear modeling, plenty of practice, and specific feedback on that practice. There's also little disagreement on these general principles for effective reading instruction:
  • Reading and writing more is better than reading and writing less.
  • Clearer specific teaching and feedback is better than vague teaching and feedback.
  • Code-focused instruction (in which students learn about letter sounds, patterns and word structures) is important, and meaning-focused instruction (where students learn about vocabulary, text structure, discourse, genre and communication patterns) is important. But their successful integration is most important.
This last point is the crux of media representations of the "reading wars" and the conversations and, in some cases, legislation, that has followed. Code-focused instruction, or phonics instruction, has been presented as largely absent in reading instruction, and its absence is viewed as wholly responsible for persistently low achievement in reading (MacPhee, Handsfield, & Paugh 2021).
But the tension between code- and meaning-focused reading instruction has led to pendulum swings toward trends in curriculum and instruction that favor one and then the other for nearly a century. This in itself is problematic, leading to narrow conceptions of what students need.
The principles behind code-focused and meaning-focused reading instruction have been anchored in different fields of study and are best understood by researchers or practitioners in those different fields, so varied terms, philosophies, and approaches will always be at play. For this reason, the term "science of reading" really ought to be plural. Understanding reading development among diverse students requires an understanding of multiple fields of science (bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing), not just one. A myopic focus on just one field leads to deficiencies in one area or another—for teachers and students. And there's mounting agreement that to interrupt the status quo of unequal reading achievement in the United States, research in the science of reading needs to use more diverse tools and perspectives (Milner, 2020).

Soil Scientists and Botanists

In my graduate classes, I refer to people who are heavily invested in code-focused instruction as "soil scientists" because they focus on the foundation in which literacy (considered here as a tree) grows. They're often interested in the granular details of early literacy skills, like phonological and phonemic awareness, that are hidden below the surface for a competent reader. Evidence for instruction here is often drawn from linguistics, speech-language pathology, neuroscience, and cognitive science. Foundational skills provide readers with access to written words by "cracking the (alphabetic) code" and allowing students to look at letters and link those letters with sounds that combine into words. Using my tree metaphor, building basic skills is like focusing on the right nutrients and balance within the soil to support the proliferation of skills (roots) that can fuel initial growth—and are vital for the life of the tree. A strong foundation of skill mastery can be the first step to healthy growth in literacy.
I think of educators more heavily invested in meaning- and comprehension-focused instruction as botanists. They are interested in nurturing the tree as it grows: ensuring it has sunlight (language exposure) and water (compelling reasons for reading and exposure to a wide range of text types). Evidence for instruction in this area often drawn from sociology, sociolinguistics, semiotics, rhetoric, and communications.
As a tree grows, it sprouts branches that reach out toward its best sources of nutrients. Similarly, students with an interest in and knowledge about a certain topic or genre will extend (read) in that area and grow a stronger, leafier "branch" in that subject. With trees, as more leaves emerge, they provide increased surface area for capturing nutrients from the environment, until the leaves become the main source of nutrients for the tree and its roots. If each leaf represents a student's experience with a text, this metaphor illustrates how reading more can reinforce the brain's understandings of letter- and text-patterns (the roots). Reading more helps a student build content knowledge, linguistic knowledge, and textual knowledge through increased exposure to language and ideas.

What Does This Mean for Teaching Reading?

No tree is the same. Some are well-matched to their current soil environment; others are not, and require more attention to thrive. Similarly, no two students are the same. So, in teaching reading, depending on the needs of the student, there's a time for a focus on the "soil" and a time to focus on nutrients in the environment (texts, talk, and teaching that's explicitly about meaning-making).
A scientific approach to teaching reading would acknowledge that, like a sapling, every student has within them the natural ability to develop literacy. It would acknowledge that each unique student will require different kinds and degrees of support for component skills and the many processes of literacy.
A scientific approach would also acknowledge that any teacher will bring expertise to some, but not all, of the many strands of literacies and pedagogies for teaching those strands. No good botanist can work without knowing something about soil science; no soil scientist succeeds without knowing the parts of trees. But people usually specialize based on their interest and experiences. So, a school leader has to gauge how well a particular teacher's strengths and focus areas align with the school's literacy curriculum and goals—and how much additional training she may need to adapt to her students' needs.
Many argue that basic skills have been neglected and need a renewed focus. However, historically, it's not the presence, absence, or balance of phonics vs. comprehension instruction that always leads to poor outcomes (Bond & Dykstra, 1967); it's the lack of responsive integration of phonics and other instruction (Connor & Morrison, 2016).
It's worth adding that there is an implicit history of inequality behind the reading wars that's rarely discussed in conversations focused on reading science. Historically, code-focused, direct instruction was part of a no-frills, no-nonsense version of literacy teaching (Eppley & Dudley-Marling, 2018; Haberman, 1991). Such instruction was seen to require little teacher expertise to deliver because it's largely scripted or routinized (though delivering it well actually requires significant skill). Under-resourced schools have long seen a revolving door of inexperienced teachers and persistently low test scores which make this approach seem all the more logical.
On the other hand, child-centered, unscripted approaches that depend on teachers' use of data and in-the-moment analysis of student needs have often been the domain of better-resourced schools with experienced teachers who were trusted to make their own instructional decisions. (For information on balancing literacy instruction, see sidebar "How to Know If You're Providing Enough Phonics Instruction.")
Today, some teachers have the tools, training, and ongoing support to provide systematic code-focused instruction (phonics) in a way that is engaging, cohesive, and differentiated. But many do not. This is clear from surveys and interviews with teachers, who say they lacked preparation for the complexity of teaching reading, especially phonics, to diverse learners, despite passing scores on the tests of reading knowledge required for initial certification in many U.S. states (NCTQ, 2020).
Likewise, some teachers have the tools, training, and ongoing support to provide explicit comprehension instruction in a way that's purposeful and integrated with all aspects of written language, from phonics to spelling to grammar. Many do not. This is clear from looking at the questions on standardized tests that students most struggle with and the underlying mental processes, as reflected by recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP, 2019) findings. According to the 2019 NAEP, 66 percent of 4th graders tested could do the tasks required to score as "basic," which require little more than accurate word recognition and literal comprehension. However, scoring "proficient" requires inference, judgement, and the ability to construct an argument about ideas drawn from a text. Only 35 percent of U.S. 4th graders scored proficient or advanced.
This pattern suggests that meaning-focused comprehension instruction is neither absent nor adequate. So I would argue that one more pendulum swing towards phonics (to be followed in 15 years by a swing away) would do little to equip educators with the ongoing support they need for cohesive, integrated instruction. Explicit comprehension instruction must engage all levels of language, using culturally sustaining texts, in the context of purposeful activities if students are to develop higher levels of comprehension.
A lack of adequate phonics instruction is surely a social justice issue. A national debt is owed to students whose school experiences haven't included full access to rigorous skill development for reading and writing. Yet teaching students to recognize words without also teaching them to integrate, interpret, apply, judge, critique, and construct arguments about or with them is an example of systematic oppression. If literacy is to liberate, its components must fully integrate.

Needed: An Integrated Approach

Let's return to our comparison of reading programs and diet programs. We seem to have an understanding as a culture that there are multiple evidence-based ways to go about getting in shape, even if some basic principles apply to all of us. We don't seem to have this sort of flexibility about approaches when it comes to beginning reading instruction. But we desperately need it. Significant evidence has accumulated about the different profiles of learners, the varying reasons for students' difficulties with reading, and the need for different forms of instruction to ensure equitable opportunities to develop literacy. Some students need teachers who can build up their foundation for literacy with explicit, teacher-directed instruction. Others need an opportunity for increased independence as their literacies self-extend through engagement with texts they can and want to read.
If science is both a body of knowledge generated through systematic inquiry and a process for generating such knowledge, then embracing the sciences of reading should include embracing the process of inquiry as we implement various reading instruction approaches, as well as embracing research findings to help choose an effective program. Testing out a certain approach and finding it sound doesn't mean a wholesale rejection of all others. Science is tentative, not tyrannical.
Leaders and policymakers should remember that the individual differences that make each of us unique matter for reading instruction. Reading and writing require the orchestration of multiple complex cognitive, social, affective, and linguistic tasks. How well a student performs these tasks is influenced by many factors, only one of which is the type of instruction her teacher uses. Students' individual language histories, cultural knowledge, interests, skills, health, text exposures, and reasons for reading affect their responses to instruction and intervention.
Treating evidence-based programs or approaches as solutions to be applied rather than possibilities to be tried out is problematic. Figuring out who needs what means asking the right questions about our students, instructional routines, and contexts, and having the wisdom, flexibility, and resources to adjust. It means positioning each teacher as the principal investigator of their classroom, someone who consistently inquires about the optimal balance of instructional practices for their current students—and positioning leaders to investigate how teachers are implementing reading instruction.
If anything, science shows us that the diversity of students' responses to instruction—even the same instruction—requires instructors to be flexible in their selection of content and pedagogy to provide equal opportunities for each learner's development.

How to Know If You're Providing Enough Phonics Instruction

So how can school leaders know if they're providing the right balance between a basic-skills-centered and a meaning-centered approach? As described by the IRIS Center at the Peabody College of Education (2021), you'll know whether your approach is delivering sufficient phonics if 80 percent of all students, including those in special education, can read simple texts independently at the end of 1st grade and more complex texts with understanding by the end of 3rd, and if those who require additional support show progress as a result of a short-term (about 3–4 months) intervention.

On the other hand, you'll know your current emphasis (or lack thereof) on phonics has missed the mark if interventions for most students take longer than a few months, and/or if more than 20 percent of students seem to need them. These percentages are based on federal guidelines for RTI models.

Critical Questions on Literacy Instruction

Science is about asking good questions and using those questions to find evidence or explanations that help improve an endeavor. Unfortunately, as H. Richard Milner notes, most research highlighted in current discussions of the science of reading has been conducted on white, monolingual students and may have limited implications for the education of diverse learners, whose pathways to literacy may vary (Milner, 2020). Ethical action in determining effective literacy instruction in the current climate means asking the right questions and responding quickly to the answers. Three questions are a solid start:

  1. Is there a pattern based on language, culture, or skill level of students who are well-served by your current curricular approach? How would a rebalancing or reintegration of instruction help you better serve students not in this group?

  2. Are all students engaged in meaningful practice in reading? If so, are there ways you might make such practice even more engaging, meaningful, and inclusive? If, on the other hand, students are practicing isolated skills without opportunities for integration, or reading without building skills for more complex engagement, what missing instruction or opportunities for integration could you provide?

  3. Is this approach bearing fruit? This is the key question when weighing whether the literacy instruction approach you consider scientific—and have been trying out—is right for your students and teachers. Even if individual measures or skills show growth, ask whether all students are increasingly independent, engaged, and flexible as readers and writers—and if not, why not.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What are your greatest concerns about current trends and programs in early-reading instruction? Why?

➛ Consider examples of effective reading instruction you've observed or participated in. What are the key components or characteristics of such instruction?

➛ Do you agree with Gabriel that schools need "flexibility" in their approaches to reading instruction? What does flexibility mean to you in this context?


Bond, G. L., & Dykstra, R. (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 2(4), 5–142.

Connor, C. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2016). Individualizing student instruction in reading: Implications for policy and practice. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 54–61.

Eppley, K. & Dudley-Marling, C. (2018). Does direct instruction work?: A critical assessment of direct instruction research and its theoretical perspective. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 16, 1–20.

Gabriel, R. (2020). The future of the science of reading. The Reading Teacher, 74(1), 11–18.

Haberman, M. (1991). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4), 290–294.

IRIS Center at Peabody College of Education, Vanderbilt University. (2021). What is RTI for mathematics? https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/ rti-math/cresource/q1/p01/

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L. J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S2).

Milner, H. R. (2020). Disrupting racism and whiteness in researching a science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S249–S253.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C.: Author.

NCTQ. (2020). Teacher prep review 2020: Program performance on early reading instruction. National Council on Teacher Quality. https://www.nctq.org/dmsView/NCTQ_2020_Teacher_Prep_Review_Program_Performance_in_Early_Reading_Instruction

Rachael Gabriel is professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent book is Doing Disciplinary Literacy: Teaching Reading and Writing Across the Content Areas (Teachers College Press, 2023). Her current projects focus on neurodiversity inclusion, state literacy policies, and systems for improving literacy instruction.

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