Science of Reading Smugglers
Stephanie Huie

The Science of Reading (SoR) is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. And yet, educators in classrooms nationally and internationally are having to sneak and smuggle in the proven components of literacy instruction with the hope of counterbalancing the antiquated and harmful reading instruction methodologies practiced within their schools and districts. SoR research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The Science of Reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform:  

  • how proficient reading and writing develop 

  • why some have difficulty 

  • how we can most effectively assess and teach  

  • improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties (A Defining Movement, 2021).  

This clear and concise definition of SoR has guided many educators in literacy instruction with proven positive outcomes for students with and without language-based learning disabilities, and yet, the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), or The Nation’s Report Card, continues to highlight the deficit of students acquiring the skills needed to be proficient readers. Where is the disconnect? Educators should be able to focus on the practice of pedagogy and being advocates for their students. They should not have to fight to implement the scientifically-proven methods for literacy instruction within their classrooms. Scarborough’s Reading Rope should not be viewed as contraband. Smuggling in the Science of Reading in pieces dilutes the potential outcomes for students and furthers the divide within the educational community. 

It only takes one visit to one of the hundreds of list-servs or social media pages with names like, “The Science Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College”, which has 136,000+ members, to see the critical demand that swaths of educators need to fill in the gaps of their pre-service programs. These online communities are a harbor for frustrated educators who feel disappointed by their teacher training and not supported by their school administration.  Their main resource for access to effective professional development is in the hands of school leaders, whose background in scientifically-based literacy instruction is also comparably lacking as the teachers in-need in their community.  

Sadly, as populations of principals and superintendents continue to silo their schools and districts, the advocacy for access to resources and implementation of practices based in SoR falls on teachers. Many of these educators not only spend precious, personal time navigating research articles, books, and webinars but they must then brave applying this knowledge in their classrooms with fear of pushback from colleagues and supervisors who still hold fast to antiquated and unfounded pedagogical practices such as Whole Language.   

Theories in the medical and hard-science research world are tested and re-tested with rigor. Those theories that cannot be proven true by presenting clear and consistent data are considered dispelled, and the research findings are considered unfounded. Yet, the theories of two prominent, if not infamous, literacy researchers, Smith and Goodman, who are considered two of the leading generals in the Reading Wars, on the side of Whole Language, continue to permeate reading science and methodology. 

It is pertinent to remember that in education they are theoretical zombies that cannot be stopped by conventional weapons such as empirical disconfirmation, leaving them free to roam the educational landscape (Seidenberg, 2017). 

A return to the question: Where is the disconnect? When more than a third of the nation's fourth-graders can't read at a proficient level (NAEP, 2019), schools and administrators must let go of the notion that their reading programs are working for most of their students. When there is an opportunity for something to work for all over work for most, this must be the driving force and focus in a school. Continuing to fail children is not an option. The casualties of the Reading Wars are the children, and the toll rises each day. There is no room for ego in education and now is the time to reflect, not deflect. 

The casualties of the Reading Wars are the children, and the toll rises each day. There is no room for ego in education and now is the time to reflect, not deflect.

It is not as though validated research to chart the course for success is not available. However, it is frequently kept inaccessible or misrepresented to educators. Literacy scholar Louisa Moats (2020) outlined the importance of and elucidated on the core plan forward for equipping teachers to effectively teach children how to read. Given the validated findings in the Science of Reading, this core should be divided roughly into the following four required areas:  

  1. Knowing the basics of reading psychology and development 

  1. Understanding language structure for both word recognition and language comprehension 

  1. Applying best practices in all components of reading instruction  

  1. Using validated, reliable, efficient assessments to inform classroom teaching 

Teachers should not have to fight their pre-service programs or school administration for these fundamental needs. There is no additional cost of training teachers with a program that incorporates explicit, structured, and systematic literacy instruction (ESSLI) that is not worth its price on return in student outcomes. Reading failure can be prevented in all but a small percentage of children with serious learning disorders (Moats, 2020). 

There is no additional cost of training teachers with a program that incorporates explicit, structured, and systematic literacy instruction that is not worth its price on return in student outcomes. 

Having homed in on more concrete disconnects, such as insufficient dissemination efforts to stakeholders, state and district level policies, curriculum and assessment decisions, and lack of professional development of in-service teachers (Solari, et al 2020), every person, at every level in education hierarchy, must be appropriately trained in SoR methodology. 

When education administration invests in becoming versed in the Science of Reading and training teachers in scientifically-based reading programs—as well as early identification and prevention approaches for students with language-based learning disabilities—the impact is clear.  

  • Early intervention is 4x as effective 

  • Waiting 1 year (for intervention): diminishes effect of intervention by 25-50%  

  • ROI: $16 to $31 per $1 spent  

  • Risk prediction: 60-90% accurate  

(Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2006; Wanzek & Vaughn, 2007; Beddington et al., 2008) 

This is solid evidence for even the leaders guided solely by funding and budget. 

We are in a state of emergency. Teachers continue to feel unsupported and unheard in their call for response on training and literacy instruction supported by SoR. Educators are leaving the classroom at alarming rates, with one of the factors being school leaders creating barriers of access to professional development resources and reading programs aligned with the Science of Reading. Those that remain in the classroom are having to sneak in strategies and programs piecemeal to try and help struggling readers. Students continue to lack the foundations to reach grade-level proficiency, which is only exacerbated by the pandemic slide. Illiteracy rates rise as scientific scrutiny within schools dwindles. For those who continue on the path of implementing translational science, who turn the research into practical applications to improve outcomes for all students, the Science of Reading Smugglers, we must consider that before we build more bridges, we might have to reframe the structures that have fallen apart around us.