Education Reform Literacy Science

Why I Object to the Term “Science of Reading”

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As anyone who read my book Left Back (2000) knows, I have long been persuaded of the value of phonetic instruction for early readers. I was a friend of the late Jeanne Chall, who began her career as a kindergarten teacher and eventually became a Harvard professor and the nation’s most eminent reading researcher. Her 1967 book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, should have ended the reading wars, but they continued for the next half century. She understood that both sides were right, and that teachers should have a tool-kit of strategies, including phonetic instruction, that they could deploy when appropriate.

In recent years, proponents of phonics have termed themselves champions of “the science of reading.” Even though I support phonics instruction, I find it misleading to use this term. Learning to read is one of the most important experiences that children have in their lifetimes. Of course, teachers should know how to teach students how to decode words. Of course, teachers should use reading and writing instruction together. Of course, teachers should introduce children to wonderful literature. Of course, of course, of course.

But teaching reading is not science. Good reading teachers use their knowledge, judgment, skill, and experience. They are not scientists. They are reading teachers.

The “science of reading” sounds to me like “the science of play,” “the science of cooking,” “the science of pedagogy,” “the science of love,” “the science of finding the right mate,” “the science of tennis.” You can take it from there.

Reading is not chemistry, biology, physics, or mathematics. Some children will learn to read before they ever start school, because they sat on the lap of a parent who read the same books over and over, with love, delight, and enthusiasm. Many children do need systematic decoding instruction and phonemic awareness. Reading teachers know which children need which approach.

Just as there is no “science of history,” “science of literature,” or “science of government,” there is no “science of reading.” I would go farther and ay there is no “science of teaching science.” Science is based on hypothesis and evidence, but teachers will find a variety of ways to teach science. Good teachers, whatever their field, rely on the knowledge and judgment gleaned from practice, study, and experience. With time and good teachers, all children will learn to read.

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