EXPLAINER: What is the Science of Reading (SoR)?

Lately I have been called on to explain what the SoR is by education systems, schools and colleagues. This blog posting is designed to support these discussions. I hope you will find it helpful. Wherever possible I have provided direct quotes with references so that you know where the information is coming from and where to go for some follow-up reading.

While the term ‘Science of Reading’ is not new, but it has recently re-emerged, and there are many research papers with 2020 and 2021 publication dates that discuss the SoR – from a range of perspectives and a range of research disciplines. Sadly, there is a considerable amount of misinformation about SoR in the public space (Petscher et al, 2020).

In the last decade alone, over 14,000 peer-reviewed journal articles have been published that included the keyword ‘reading’ based on a PsycINFO search.

Historical definition of Science of Reading:

The term ‘SoR’ was first used to refer to text ‘reading’ during the 18th century, coinciding with the birth of linguistics or the scientific study of language. The original agenda of scientific linguistics was the determination of proper pronunciations of ancient languages (Allan, 2010). 

More recent definitions and interpretations:

  • International Literacy Association

The SoR represents a “a corpus of objective investigation and accumulation of reliable evidence about how humans learn to read and how reading should be taught.” (ILA 2020, p. 2)

Others explain the SoR in a range of ways, although the main gist is the same:

  •  Petscher and colleagues.

The “SoR” is a phrase representing the accumulated knowledge about reading, reading development, and best practices for reading instruction obtained by the use of the scientific method.

Petscher and colleagues advise that it is important to note that the ‘accrual of scientific knowledge related to reading is ever evolving, at times circuitous, and not without controversy(Petscher et al 2020).

  • Seidenberg and colleagues first remind us of the complexity of reading.

‘Reading is a remarkably complex activity involving most of our mental and neural capacities. . . the focus of a massive amount of research by scientists from numerous disciplines who study human behavior and its brain bases.’ This interdisciplinary body of research constitutes what is sometimes called the SoR (Seidenberg et al, 2020).

  • Graham suggests that the SoR includes research about:

 “. . . how reading operates, develops, is taught, shapes academic and cognitive growth, affects motivation and emotion, interacts with context, and impacts context in turn. It includes genetic, biological, environmental, contextual, social, political, historical, and cultural factors that influence the acquisition and use of reading” (Graham, 2020).

  • Goodwin & Jiminez

The SoR is “a corpus of objective investigation and accumulation of reliable evidence about how humans learn to read and how reading should be taught” (Goodwin & Jiminez, 2020, p. S7).

Shanahan explains a link between SoR on ‘decoding’ and a particular type of research methodology.
The term SoR has usually been reserved for discussions of decoding, often with an emphasis on noninstructional research (including studies of eye movements and linguistic analyses of the English spelling system) (Shanahan, 2020).

Not only is there no single definition (of the science of reading), but there is also no consensus as to what has been cited to inform theory, research, policy, and practice in the name of the SOR (Goodwin & Jimenez, 2020).

The SoR may in fact be considered a ‘virtual library’ or collection of research findings from multiple disciplines and methodological approaches that inform our understanding of reading. Many of the studies come from laboratory research, with a considerable percentage focused on reading difficulties or dyslexia. Laboratory studies are often easier to replicate, control and quantify than classroom-based studies.

Hruby & Goswami have argued that ‘If we require research-based evidence on effective classroom practices, we should first attend to the copious research on effective classroom practices. If we are dissatisfied with this research, or the implications of its findings, we ought to attempt to improve on it’ (Hruby & Goswami, 2011, p. 166)

Does the SoR refer to a particular theory or way of understanding reading?

No.

 “. . . researchers often frame the science of reading from contrasting applied epistemological perspectives. Thus, two scientists who approach the science of reading with different epistemologies will both suggest that they have principled understandings and explanations for how students learn to read; yet, the means by which those understandings and explanations were derived are often distinct” (Petscher, et al 2020, p.3).

Does SoR = SVR?

The term “Science of Reading” (Shanahan, 2020, Seidenberg et al., 2020) has increasingly been used by some involved in the reading ‘debates to claim that neuroscience studies support the Simple View of Reading (SVR), a model of reading which views the reading process in unidirectional linear terms’ (Ellis and Bloch p. 3).

“The simple view of reading (SVR) (Decoding x Listening/Linguistic Comprehension = Reading Comprehension, Gough & Tunmer, 1986) is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance—in fact, the necessity—of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading” (Duke & Cartwright, 2021). [More about the SVR in a future post].

Neuroscience

Some have claimed that neuroscience provides support for a unidirectional explanation of reading (e.g. SVR). Others disagree.

“The link to neuroscience is limited to diagrams of active domains and pathways in the brain when phonemes, words, or non-words are read, or more accurately, decoded, particularly referring to the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA). These are supported by functional neuroimaging studies. While this gives useful information about neural pathways associated with reading, one should be aware that they are rarely accurate representations of the full functional brain networks operating when a person reads or attempts to read meaningful texts, and hence they only give a very partial picture of what goes on in the brain when such purposeful reading takes place.

Furthermore, many assume that perception operates in a linear manner from sensory data input to analysis of that data in the cortex, resulting in the Simple View of reading(Gough & Tunmer, 1986). For this reason, we term this reductionist neuroscience’ (Ellis & Bloch, pp. 3-4).

Compton-Lilly and colleagues (2020) argue that reductive and singular models of reading fail to not only honor the individuality of young readers but also to recognize the systemic changes needed in schools and communities to equitably serve all students.

Science or Sciences?

The term SoR is usually used in singular form (Science of Reading) to reinforce a singular authority and position alternatives as unscientific. This belies the richness of scientific evidence that could inform the teaching of reading and writing (Gabriel, 2020).

Others suggest it is more accurate to use the plural, Sciences of Reading, as many fields contribute to knowledge for the teaching of reading (e.g., education, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, sociology, biology)’ (Gabriel, 2020).

Lost in Translation

The science does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how and for whom at a level that is useful to teachers” (Seidenberg et al, 2020).

There is a ‘need for additional translational research linking reading science to classroom activities, the oversimplified way that the science is sometimes represented in the educational context, and the fact that theories of reading have become more complex and less intuitive as the field has progressed’ (Seidenberg et al, 2020).

To date, limited reading research has focused on how, why, and under what conditions research-based instructional practices can be implemented effectively in routine classroom-based settings little is known about how to make these practices applicable to all classroom contexts and student populations,. . .’ (Solari et al, 2020, p.348).

‘Show me the research’

 “Real world teaching and learning are incredibly messy and always cumulative; any student’s measurable achievement has a mind-numbingly complex history behind that achievement that is not fairly attributed to a single cause” . . . In virtually all fields, especially medicine, gold standard quantitative empirical research with controls and which is generalizable, is sacred for good reason . . . however, this view of science is deeply flawed in education  . . .

‘Show me the research’ seems on the surface to be a reasonable and even essential starting point when debating how to teach students to read. Yet it isn’t” . . .  The problem with “show me the research” about teaching reading is not a lack of research, but a fundamental failure to understand human behaviour, especially how one comes to be an eager and independent reader . . . The accountability movement has dominated the teaching of reading with a formula that is somehow absent in the current debate:

“standards + high-stakes testing = reading programs – teacher autonomy” (Thomas, 2020).

Does a one size ‘fits’ all approach work?

There are also those researchers who argue that teaching is an art and the teacher is the one who must adapt the science to support their teaching – that the social construct of the classroom requires differentiation. I would also argue that different teachers have different styles and approaches – just as one size doesn’t fit all in regard to children, teachers bring their own personalities and styles into the classroom.

‘. . . reading instruction can and should be delivered in artful and authentic ways that engage students. We propose that successful teaching of reading blends both science of reading and teacher art or craft.’(Paige et al 2021)

What about writing?

Recommendations . . . often fail to take into account the reciprocal relation that exists between reading and writing. Writing and writing instruction improve students’ reading and vice versa’. (Graham, 2020)

Media Impact

The science of reading is the latest version of the reading wars brought to national attention by the popular press. The media have asserted a direct connection between basic research and instructional practice that, without sufficient translational research that attends to a variety of instructional contexts and student populations, may perpetuate inequities” (MacPhee et al, 2020).

References

Allan, K. (2010). The Western classical tradition in linguistics (2nd ed.). Sheffield, UK: Equinox.

Compton‐Lilly, C. F., et al. (2020). “A Confluence of Complexity: Intersections Among Reading Theory, Neuroscience, and Observations of Young Readers.” Reading Research Quarterly 55(S1): S185-S195.

Duke, N. K. and K. B. Cartwright (2021). “The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading.” Reading Research Quarterly 0(0): 1-20.

Ellis, G. and C. Bloch (2021). “Neuroscience and literacy: an integrative view.” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa.

Gabriel, R. (2020). “The Future of the Science of Reading.” The Reading Teacher 74(1): 11-18.

Goodwin, A. P. and R. T. Jiménez (2020). “The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions.” Reading Research Quarterly 55(S1): S7-S16.

Gough, P. B. and W. E. Tunmer (1986). “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” Remedial and Special Education 7(1): 6-10.

Graham, S. (2020). “The Sciences of Reading and Writing Must Become More Fully Integrated.” Reading Research Quarterly 0(0): 1-10. doi:10.1002/rrq.332

Hruby, G. and U. Goswami (2011). “neuroscience and reading: A review for reading education researchers.” Reading Research Quarterly 46(2): 156-172.

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L. J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or Conversation? Media Portrayals of the Science of Reading. Reading Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Paige, D. D., Young, C., Rasinski, T. V., Rupley, W. H., Nichols, W. D., & Valerio, M. (2021). Teaching Reading Is More Than a Science: It’s Also an Art. Reading Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.388

Petscher, Y., et al. (2020). “How the Science of Reading Informs 21st-Century Education.” Reading Research Quarterly 0(0): 1-16.

Seidenberg, M. S., et al. (2020). “Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice.” Reading Research Quarterly 55(S1): S119-S130.

Shanahan, T. (2020). What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction? Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S235-S247. doi:10.1002/rrq.349

Solari, E. J., et al. (2020). “Translational Science: A Road Map for the Science of Reading.” Reading Research Quarterly 55(S1): S347-S360.

Thomas, P. (2020). “The problems with “Show me the Research” in teaching reading.” https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2020/08/17/the-problems-with-show-me-the-research-in-teaching-reading/.

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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