Why Putting the 'Science of Reading' Into Practice Is So Challenging (2023)

Washington, North Carolina
Raul Olivares Jr. had heard the phrase “science of reading” before.

Like other education buzzwords, it had filtered down through the ether, mentioned casually in colleagues’ conversations or included in communiques from the district. But it was only last fall that he realized its significance—when Olivares, a kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., heard that his state had passed a bill that would require elementary schools to teach the “science of reading.”

This past school year, he has spent hours going through state-mandated training designed to teach the foundations of reading science, processing it with colleagues, and trying out new ideas in his classroom.

“I do like it, and I’m learning a lot,” he said. But the process has been “very, very intense.”

He’s experienced a major shift in how he thinks about his teaching practice. “I almost feel like I need to say ‘I’m sorry’ to some of the kids I taught before,” he said.

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North Carolina is one of more than two dozen states that have embarked on an attempt to radically transform reading instruction over the past few years. The goal is to bring instruction in line with the decades of research on how young children learn to read.

Reaching that goal will be messy and hard.

“Your philosophy on reading is as deep as religion,” said Sherri Miller, the principal at Lacy Elementary School in Wake County, N.C. “I’ve had many matches with people where you just go round and round and round. It’s kind of like the politics in our country.”

For many teachers in North Carolina and the other states pursuing “science of reading,” the demands to change will require a seismic shift in how they teach and a complete rethinking of their best practices and beliefs.

As North Carolina’s experience underscores, this kind of change is happening slowly, unevenly, school by school or even teacher by teacher. It relies on a careful alchemy of encouragement, incentives, and teacher buy-in—a challenging balance when most school systems and many individual teachers traditionally make their own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it.

Olivares is committed to learning from the training. He wants to do what’s best for his students. But he’s still not sure what his reading instruction should now look like.

“I felt like a lot of it was giving me background knowledge, background knowledge. But I wasn’t getting—how do you apply it?”

Why would a state want to overhaul reading instruction?

To understand why North Carolina is pursuing such sweeping changes, it’s important to know what reading instruction looks like in most classrooms across the country.

Most early reading teachers in the United States—North Carolina included—say that they practice balanced literacy.

The approach usually relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment: Teachers are taught to have many “tools in their toolbox” and use the methods that they think are most appropriate for the students in front of them.

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One common practice in balanced literacy is guided reading, in which teachers coach students in a variety of comprehension strategies as they read a book matched to their level. Teachers encourage students who struggle over individual words to use pictures and context, in addition to looking at the letters, to guess at what the word could be.

This was how Olivares was trained, he said. “At the university level, it was more of look at the pictures, use those picture clues.”

But decades of psychology and neuroscience research have demonstrated that many of these strategies aren’t the most effective for creating skilled readers. Studies have shown that explicit, systematic instruction in how letters represent sounds—phonics—is the most effective way to teach kids how to read words. Teaching students to rely on other clues, like pictures, takes their focus away from the letters. And restricting students to books deemed “at their level” can actually widen achievement gaps.

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Phonics vs. Balanced Literacy: A Classroom Comparison
Liana Loewus

, October 2, 2019

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The science of reading takes a more structured approach. Teachers start with the foundations of language, including phonics. The youngest students don’t spend a lot of time attempting to read books that they can’t decode; instead, teachers work on developing kids’ language abilities and knowledge of the world through read-alouds and conversations.

As students begin to read more fluently, these word recognition skills and language abilities weave together like strands in a rope. Students read increasingly complex texts at or above their grade level—not just in English class, but across disciplines.

There are fundamental differences in how these two approaches work. But often, these differences are flattened into a conversation about phonics—whether to teach it or not, and how much time to spend.

It’s true that some balanced literacy teachers don’t teach a lot of phonics. But others do. And as the science of reading movement has picked up steam, more schools have implemented explicit, systematic phonics programs, while still using guided reading throughout the rest of the school day.

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That can undermine the whole approach, researchers say. If students learn phonics in the morning but are then asked to guess at words while reading in the afternoon, they won’t be honing their phonics skills for authentic reading. If teachers then restrict these students to lower-level texts, they won’t be building the knowledge and disciplinary literacy that will propel their learning forward.

Olivares’ school had started this kind of transition long before the new legislation. Eastern Elementary has been using a systematic phonics program for the past several years. But it’s just started figuring out how to move away from guided reading and other balanced literacy practices this past year.

You can never say enough that … decoding is only half the story.

Gina Cervetti, associate professor of education at the University of Michigan

The phonics program was overwhelming to learn at first, Olivares said. But over the past couple of years, he’s started to see his students applying the skills they’ve learned outside of his literacy block—to read math word problems, for instance.

On one Monday this past May, Olivares sat in a chair in front of his classroom smartboard, writing out letter combinations for his students to sound out. They were reviewing several digraphs—combinations of two letters that represent one sound. When they got to “ph,” Olivares reminded the kindergarteners on the rug that this particular duo of letters is tricky—it might not make the sound his students thought it would. This digraph? “He loves to be a spy,” Olivares said.

The letters “ph” make the /f/ sound, “but they look like they want us to say ‘puh-huh,’” said Olivares, steepling his hands together and leaning forward conspiratorially. “We’re not going to fall for it.”

Olivares coaches the group as they diagram words at a quick pace, the kindergartners identifying digraphs and vowels and then raising fingers in the air to “slide” read the words from left to right. He sounds practiced, confident. But that wasn’t always the case, he says.

“It was very hard to accept that it was our new normal, because that’s not what I was taught going to school or at the university level,” Olivares said. “It took me a good two years before I finally saw the benefits of it.” He is an evangelist for the program now. This past year, he had three students start school with no English who are now all reading at or above grade level. Seeing these students’ progress was “my true buy-in,” he said.

But he’s still not sure how the rest of the “science of reading” should apply to his practice.

“For years, it’s been guided reading, guided reading, guided reading: the Jan Richardson model,” Olivares said, referencing a popular balanced literacy approach. But now, the training has introduced him to a new way of understanding how kids learn to read. He feels like he needs a new model to match—he’s just not sure where to find one.

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