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The Science of Reading

The Science of Reading

The “Science” of Reading

Recently, the embers of the never-ending American reading wars have been stirred to flames with the buzzphrase: The Science of Reading. It’s all over teacher Facebook groups, in blogs, and in professional development PowerPoint® presentations. If you will, permit me to grapple with that phrase, as well as the attitudes and motives behind those using it. Before I begin, please notice that I have chosen not to cite any empirical reading research; I assure you that this is not an oversight.

Let’s start this analysis with the cold, hard facts. Most young, beginning readers have minimal problems learning how to read, irrespective of the instructional methodology. Explicit, systematic phonics seems to work fine, as does a “balanced literacy” approach based upon read alouds and guided reading. Much to the befuddlement and chagrin of die-hards from any instructional reading camp, this good news is validated by research and experience. And we’re not just talking about recent research and experience.

For my master’s thesis, I analyzed the impact of the 1836–1837 first editions of the McGuffey Readers. Along with future editions, these basals helped three generations of school children learn to read with instructional techniques that would raise the eyebrows of every reading specialist and reading teacher today.

In my career as an educator, I’ve taught reading and coached teachers at the elementary school, middle school, high school, and community college levels in both upper and lower socio-economic status districts. I’ve seen plenty of instructional approaches and analyzed plenty of data derived from a plethora of reading assessments. I can say, unequivocally, that a variety of approaches seem to work, and not just for young, beginning readers. Much of my career was in secondary education, working both with students reading far-below-grade-level and with the best and brightest students who knew how to read, but did not have the high levels of reading comprehension requisite for understanding challenging text. From these experiences, I’ve found the maxim that “What works for me (or some students) may not work for you (or some students)” to be validated countless times with older readers who significantly improved their reading skills with a wide variety of instructional approaches. So much for THE Science of Reading.

Reading Science

“Science” of Reading

And now for a bit of advice to fellow teachers. Parents, administrators, reading researchers, students, and anyone else may stop reading at this point, because this is “inside stuff.”

If you’ve been teaching a few years with different age levels, my take is that you’ve probably noticed that there’s more than one way to skin an instructional cat. My apologies to the two felines in the room as I write, as well as to my vegan daughter-in-law. Although you have success with a particular instructional reading method (or any curricular skill), you know colleagues who have quite different approaches, yet these approaches seem to work for them and their students by any measure. Of course, you see your approach as better informed by reading research, brain research, experience, or… than that of your colleagues’ instructional methods, but your colleagues probably feel the same about your teaching approach, as well.

If my observations make sense in light of your own professional teaching experience, you may concur with these conclusions:

  1. We need to respect each other’s different instructional approaches and be open to learning something from our colleagues.
  2. We need to avoid the absolute statements, claiming one or the other approaches has exclusive claims to the science of reading. Remember the old test-taking tip: “Absolute words, such as always, never, all, or none tend to be part of wrong answers.”
  3. We do value research; however, what we don’t know far outweighs what we do know regarding reading instruction (and what we do know certainly varies), so let’s maintain a bit of humility as we learn and teach.
  4. Be “street-wise” regarding those who claim to know The Science of Reading. Education is a business. Selling something new and improved is as old as the hills. Unfortunately, many reading researchers have published books which tend to skew the research in favor of their particular instructional reading approach. Disclaimer: I’m selling, too. See my author promo below.
  5. For newer teachers, follow Hans Solo’s advice to young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: “Don’t get cocky, kid.” Hold your deeply-held theoretical and pedagogical convictions loosely in you hands. You might just change them. I have.
  6. For older coaches and teachers, don’t be stuck in the mud and so entrenched in your own beliefs and ways of doing things that you stop learning and experimenting. Don’t undervalue newer teachers.
  7. The chief variable to my mind, in terms of reading improvement, seems to be the passion, work ethic, and skill of the teacher, not The Science of Reading.

Mark Pennington is the author of a decidedly eclectic reading intervention program.

*****

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

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