Education Reform History Literacy Research

Paul Thomas: The “Science of Reading” Is Recycled from the Past

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Paul Thomas, an experienced high school teacher who became an experienced college professor at Furman University in South Carolina, writes here about the ongoing controversy surrounding claims for “the science of reading.” As he notes (and as I wrote about in my book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform), the “crisis” in reading instruction and literacy has recurred with stunning frequency over the course of the past century, plus.

Debates about how to teach reading can be traced back to the early 19th century, when Horace Mann derided the teaching of the alphabet and advocated learning whole words. Warring camps argued over the best way to teach reading. In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, denouncing whole-word instruction and insisting on a revival of phonics. In 1967, literacy expert Jeanne Chall published what was supposed to be the definitive work on the teaching of reading, called Learning to Read: The Great Debate; she recommended phonics in the early grades and a rapid transition to worthy children’s literature. In the 1980s, the whole-language movement swept through the reading field, deriding phonics as Mann had. In the 1990s, the National Reading Panel emphasized the importance of phonics. No Child Left Behind absorbed the conclusions of the National Reading Panel Report and included a large grant program called Reading First, requiring that schools use “scientific methods” of teaching reading. The program, however, was marred by scandals and self-dealing. Some consultants hired by the U.S. Department of Education recommended programs in which they were coauthors and stood to profit.

Thomas writes:

The SoR [Science of Reading] movement is a bandwagon with its wheels mired in the same muddled arguments that have never been true and silver-bullet solutions that have never worked.

My conclusion: There is no one best way to teach reading. Experienced teachers have a toolkit of methods, and they use whatever method works best for their students. All reading teachers should know how to teach phonics, and all reading teachers should understand when it is appropriate to teach phonics. All reading teachers should prioritize the joy of reading and the love of literature.

In time, almost everyone learns to read, regardless of method. John Dewey, it should be noted, recommended that children begin reading instruction at the age of 8. Currently, many states punish students who have not learned to read fluently by the age of 8.

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