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  • Writer's pictureAimée Pharr

The Science of Reading? Reading Wars? What does it all mean?

The Science of Reading represents what we know about how children learn to read and what instructional approaches are effective. Our knowledge stems from a vast, diverse, and cross-disciplinary body of evidence-based research. Hundreds of studies, on and in multiple languages with expert contributions from the fields of linguistics, cognitive psychology, speech-language pathology, neurology, and education make up this body of research.

The “Reading War” historically pitted proponents of “phonics” against those who choose a “whole language” approach. The Reading War is not new and has been ongoing for decades. Terms, approaches, and theories change over time. Sometimes they are based on science, and sometimes they are not. Narrow views lead to further dissent among the differing camps. The current war involves “Structured Literacy” vs. “Balanced Literacy.” Before I delve into what each of those theories espouses, it’s important to understand additional background information that has brought us to this critical juncture in reading instruction. In 1997, Congress assembled the National Reading Panel, a group of 14 people -- educational administrators, parents, teachers, college representatives, and reading scientists -- for the purposes of identifying the best ways to teach children to read. The panel reviewed the existing research on reading acquisition, and on April 13, 2000, they produced a report from which the “5 Pillars of Reading Instruction” were introduced. Those “5 Pillars” included Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. The panel determined that effective reading instruction should seek to develop these five areas in order to produce good readers. It did not recommend specific reading programs, but instead provided a framework of the skills linked to the development of good readers. Some questions were answered, and many questions were raised that provided direction for future research. The National Reading Panel disbanded upon the writing of the report. The executive summary of that report can be found here: In 2001, Dr. Hollis Scarborough, a leading researcher in spoken and written language acquisition, published the most famous visual representation of the skills underlying reading ability. The Reading Rope highlights two primary areas -- word recognition and language comprehension -- each with numerous “strands” or skills that develop and eventually work in unison to produce a skilled reader. Word Recognition includes the strands of phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. Language Comprehension includes the strands of background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Dr. Scarborough created the Reading Rope to illustrate the complexity and interdependencies of reading acquisition, as well as the need to teach skills concurrently rather than sequentially. The Reading Rope is based on a solid foundation of published, peer-reviewed research. You may find the Reading Rope graphic along with a wonderful explanation on the International Dyslexia Association website: In 2014, in an effort to simplify and unify the terms describing the necessary elements of good reading instruction, the International Dyslexia Association suggested using, “Structured Literacy.” Structured Literacy endorses the need for instruction in these six areas -- Phonology (sound system of the language), Sound-Symbol Association (alphabetic principle), Syllables (how sounds are combined to form words), Morphology (sounds and sound combinations that carry meaning, such as -s for plural or -ed for past tense), Syntax (how words are combined in sentences), and Semantics (meaning of the text). Structured Literacy espouses the systematic, cumulative, explicit, and individualized instruction of these six skills. Structured Literacy aligns with Dr. Scarborough’s framework of reading acquisition and contains the components of both “phonics” and “language.” Additional information on Structured Literacy can be found here: “Balanced Literacy” is a theory of teaching reading and writing that was developed in the 1990s to sit between the “phonics” and “whole language” camps. It was designed to “balance” teacher-led instruction and student exploration by incorporating elements, such as comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonics, and phonemic awareness, into the different instructional models -- whole group (e.g., Interactive Read Aloud), small group (e.g., Shared Reading, Guided Reading), and one-on-one instruction. While some elements of phonics and phonemic awareness are taught, Balanced Literacy primarily focuses on the meaning of the presented text. Unfortunately, current research shows that this approach, while working for a subset of students, does not work for most, who instead require systematic and explicit instruction in word-level reading skills. For an easy-to-understand explanation about the differences between Structured Literacy and Balanced Literacy, please refer to the Iowa Reading Research Center Blog: What the Science of Reading tells us is that most children (about 80%), given explicit and direct instruction in the components of reading, can successfully learn to read. We know that reading is complex. It requires direct instruction, flexibility, creativity, and often an approach tailored to an individual student’s needs. Reading programs, of which there are many, that are aligned with the “Structured Literacy” framework and are taught by trained and qualified personnel will result in the largest proportion of skilled readers within a classroom. If you consider appropriate instruction as the starting point, 20% of all children will still encounter reading challenges at school and require additional support. Extremely conservative estimates suggest that with additional and individualized support three quarters of that 20% (or 15% of all children) will develop into proficient readers and one quarter (or 5% of all children) will require intensive instruction. We also know that half of all children encountering reading difficulty exhibit concurrent language deficits that require direct remediation by a speech-language pathologist. In fact, in practice, many therapists find that nearly all children with reading deficits demonstrate some language needs. And if you haven’t listened to the podcast, “Sold a Story,” now may be the time.



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