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The Science of Reading

Please start here with a Science of Reading SoR 'Cheat Sheet'

Science of Reading (SoR) Programs are popping up all over the world - which is fantastic!
This site shows those that have been accredited or validated - eg DfE Validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Programmes - and align with the Simple View of Reading. 
Should we be moving more towards the Active View of Reading? Info about that here soon!


Science of Reading (SoR) groups are popping up all over the internet, many set up by people with the very best intentions. Many of the most active in these groups are convinced that SoR confirms their own beliefs, and choice of programs; to the extent that those who challenge them, are kicked out of the group or attacked. And yet 'we need a substantial commitment to all those things found to benefit kids learning — not just to the ones we may like best.' (What is the Science of Reading, Reading Rockets 2019)

Perhaps, however, as discussed by Daniel Willingham the reality is that 'we are not as polarized as the media and social media make it seem'...and 'the people closer to the center are sick of the yammering anger of those on the far left and right.'
In practice, how many of these new SoR groups are actually classroom teachers? Classroom teachers are often time poor, and fairly selective in how they spend their free time. So which people are the most vocal?  

Willingham proposed that most would agree on the following statements, even if they tend to focus on specific elements:


  1. The vast majority of children first learn to read by decoding sound. The extent to which children can learn to read in the absence of systematic phonics instruction varies (probably as a bell curve), depending on their phonemic awareness and other oral language skills when they enter school; the former helps a child to figure out decoding on her own, and the latter to compensate for difficulty in decoding.

  2. Some children—an extremely small percentage, but greater than zero—teach themselves to decode with very minimal input from adults. Many more need just a little support.

  3. The speed with which most children learn to decode will be slower if they receive haphazard instruction in phonics than it would be with systematic instruction. A substantial percentage will make very little progress without systematic phonics instruction.

  4. Phonics instruction is not a literacy program. The lifeblood of a literacy program is real language, as experienced in read-alouds, children’s literature, and opportunities to speak, listen, and to write. Children also need to see teachers and parents take joy in literacy.

  5. Although systematic phonics instruction seems like it might bore children, researchers examining the effect of phonics instruction on reading motivation report no effect.

  6. That said, there’s certainly the potential for reading instruction to tilt too far in the direction of phonics instruction, a concern Jean Chall warned about in her 1967 report. Classrooms should devote much more time to the activities listed in #4 above than to phonics instruction.


Arguments about how children learn to read, and therefore how to best teach them, is not new. 

This situation is especially distressing because we now know that the majority of students can learn to read irrespective of their backgrounds—if their reading instruction is grounded in the converging scientific evidence about how reading develops, why many students have difficulties, and how we can prevent reading failure (Lyon, 2002; Moats, 1999; Shaywitz, 2003). Unfortunately, many teachers do not have the background or training they need to access this information and implement research-based reading instruction in their classrooms.'
The Science of Reading Research

G. Reid Lyon and Vinita Chhabra (2004)

This is why there were national inquiries into the teaching of reading, in the UK, USA and Australia. 

It might be helpful to think of the Science of Reading as described by Dr Moats below; especially when groups (or even education departments) try to sell you the idea that, to be teaching in ways that align with the Science of Reading, teachers must be using specific programs. This is simply not the case and a potentially dangerous situation to put teachers in; until fairly recently NSW was spending around $50 MILLION per year on Reading Recovery, as this program was deemed 'research-based and research-backed' Teachers who wanted to use a different approach were ignored, even when they showed the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, Rose Report or Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. The focus, surely, should be on demonstrating that what is happening in classrooms actually aligns with research findings; teachers can do this without using a commercial program.   

It is time to stop ignoring teachers and focus instead on the criteria that indicate whether an approach or program is likely to meet the needs of the highest number of students. Most teachers who create their own programs do not have access to researchers, but they DO have access to SoR research already conducted, and all teachers these days have to submit data to evidence the academic achievement and skill level of their students; most also have a National Curriculum. So it is relatively easy to ascertain whether the program is effective for the highest number of students. A list of elements that are deemed necessary, according to the Science of Reading research could be at the heart of all discussions, rather than commercial programs, while recognising that it is the teachers themselves and their ability to USE the approach or program in their classrooms, that is an incredibly important factor. This may be why some program developers seem to 'dumb down' their programs; some even writing scripts for the teachers. Why not focus on supporting and empowering teachers, so that they can teach every child to read - often in SPITE of the programs they are given. (but why are we giving teachers programs, rather than letting them choose what is most likely to meet the needs of their students - using the SoR criteria list ?) As teachers are so time poor, a SoR 'cheat sheet' could be highly beneficial. However their priority will always be HOW to apply this within the classroom.



Dr Louisa Moats

The body of work referred to as the Science of Reading is NOT an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, not a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don't learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for most students. ​


Yes, we know a great deal, but we do not know enough. We may not even be asking the right questions. 
Researchers study educational practice from an outsider perspective in contrast to teachers, who operate in educational practice and view it from an insider perspective (Kemmis 2012).

Quotes, as follows, imply that we know 'what works' and that teachers either don't know about it, or haven't been trained. This is a bizarre idea, knowing how accessible information is to teachers.  


‘We consolidated the research on what it takes to teach children to read way back in the early 1990s, and yet today a majority of teachers still haven’t been given the knowledge or instruction to effectively teach children to read.’

Dr Louisa Moats

Teachers are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled with knowledge, any more than students are.

Montaigne (1987), in the eighteenth century, divided philosophers into three classes: those who claim to have found the truth; those who deny that truth can be found; and those like Socrates who confess their ignorance and continue searching. If, after ‘consolidating’ the research, and yet literacy levels are still low, perhaps literacy researchers should take a leaf out of Socrates book, of only to say ‘we do not know why teachers are not teaching more children to read, earlier’.

Perhaps it is because there are 'flawed ideas' in most of the programs they are presented with. 

No two pieces of educational research can exist with identical characteristics; without accepting that how can we expect to engage teachers, who are, surely, our key audience; without believing the program will be effective, even if forced to use it, they will not change their teaching behaviours/ practices. 
Should we not focus on the results of individual pieces of research and ask ‘So what? Why does this matter?" If not, we are contributing to the argument that there is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or scientific and interpretist) way of teaching reading.

Beyond the 'Reading Wars': How the science of reading can improve literacy (2018)


A new scientific report from an international team of psychological researchers aims to resolve the so-called "reading wars," emphasizing the importance of teaching phonics in establishing fundamental reading skills in early childhood. The report, published in in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows how early phonics skills are advanced with a rich reading curriculum throughout the school years.

Scientists Anne Castles (Macquarie University), Kathleen Rastle (Royal Holloway University of London), and Kate Nation (University of Oxford) report their conclusions as part of a thorough, evidence-based account of how children learn to read. They synthesize findings from more than 300 research studies, book chapters, and academic journal articles published across a variety of scientific fields.

"We decided to bring this knowledge together in one place to provide an accessible overview," Nation says. "We didn't want it to be buried in the scientific literature, we wanted it to be useful to teachers charged with the vital task of teaching children to read."

Read on

This supposed attempt to 'end the reading wars' is not new.  They were supposed to end following the National Reading Panel Report (2000) and the Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) and the  Rose Report (2006) 

So why are we still taking so long to teach so many to read; some never develop the proficiency to keep up with the demands of the curriculum. If academics have the answers, the 'science of reading', why do we have so many instructional casualties? Is one reason that outstanding teachers are not being asked to create programs and resources, to help others APPLY the science? Take, for example, the Reading Recovery program; created by a clinical psychologist in New Zealand who conducted observational research in the 1960s that enabled her to design ways to detect children's early difficulties with literacy learning. Much of the reason it was so widely accepted for so long, and promoted above so many other interventions, was because of the scientific approach taken. 'Research on the effectiveness of Reading Recovery has also continued around the world. Consistency of independent findings on the effectiveness of the intervention in very different settings offers compelling evidence that Reading Recovery accomplishes its goals.'
Policy makers and politicians are naturally going to want 'evidence'; for the same reason they want every child to undertake regular standardised testing. When classroom teachers try to object, or suggest other ways to apply the science, they are often treated scornfully. How can we try to argue, in the face of 'the science'. There is 'substantial evidence evaluating Reading Recovery’s effectiveness with the lowest-attaining pupils in a wide range of educational contexts.  Here are the most recent. '

How do teachers push back? We don't usually have the time (or training?) to analyse the research deeply and broadly. So we find research that fits with our belief system. What I have found is that SHOWING teachers ways to teach differently can bring even the most sceptical to the table, and start to shift those beliefs. I recently posted a 30 second video showing a child using our 'sight word' videos, which are all 'Code Mapped', in response to someone asking how to teach 'sight words' in line with the science of reading. I could SHOW what the latest science tells us regarding orthographic mapping. The response was overwhelming ! Why? Teachers can SEE the application, and immediately start figuring out how to apply it in their own classrooms. We must making these changes VISIBLE, while understanding that we all only know what we know.
The beauty of science is that there is always more to learn. 

My journey; bringing the Science of Learning into Aussie classrooms.

After about a year of delivering workshops across Australia, sharing 'the science of reading' (in 2008/9) I realised I wasn't really getting anywhere. Teachers may have been interested in the research findings (the Rose Report and Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy were fairly recently published ) but they certainly weren't going back to their classrooms enthusiastic about making big changes. I thought I'd try something different, and upload videos to the Read Australia facebook page, even if just to get people talking !   
So I went into a Kindy and was videoed working with young children; I worked out who had poor phonemic awareness, and showed 'the audience' how to overcome the deficits, and transition to phonics within a few sessions. As I conducted these sessions outside, using a playful approach, I quickly started creating a buzz. I have put a few clips in the channel below. 

I then spent two terms with a prep class in Brisbane, and again we videoed the sessions and uploaded them every day to the  'Read Australia' page. Unfortunately a new school leader came in who couldn't understand why we were asking children to decode words (it was taking them ages to read, apparently) and she wanted more of a focus on PM readers; so my visits were stopped. Teachers and parents tried to explain what I was doing, but it fell on deaf ears.

I showed teachers strategies I had personally developed for example our unique 'this thumb' action, and 'visual prompt' to help children distinguish between the two sounds represented by the grapheme 'th' You can see that we were segmenting the words at the phoneme level, and mapping to graphemes (speech to print) while making it meaningful by writing a poem about it.  
These are ideas you will
 only usually find when watching real teachers! We are always trying to make learning easier.
So when teachers read research about 'phonics' they may understand the need to teach children about the phoneme to grapheme links but my work was showing them HOW. Perhaps they needed a different 'how', in order to better apply the science?


I then spent time in another Kindy (pre-school) and soon afterwards spent a whole year supporting a grade 2 teacher. Pretty soon 4 out of 5 prep teachers at the school started using the strategies and resources. Again, the 'Read Australia!' following grew and grew, and teachers started replicating what they saw on youtube, in their classrooms. Their data improved. The deputy principal even turned down a position as principal at another school as she was excited about what was happening! 
Unfortunately the school leader and I disagreed about methodology, and again my help was no longer needed.
You can see clips of the Year 2 class, and some of the wonderful Preppies in the channel. Note the clip where I assessed 135 children for phonemic awareness deficits in 45 minutes, after teaching all 5 prep classes to use duck hands in the hall each morning for a week. We were doing ground breaking, innovative work there! Pity it was only the teachers that realised it.   

I also went in to help a local Gold Coast high school develop strategies to overcome the issues faced by 'instructional casualties'; after a decade or so in school they were still functionally illiterate. As far as I know the work was included in a Smith Family community research project (but I wasn't involved) We took groups of 20 or so grade 7-10 students and code mapped for 45 minutes in a temporary classroom. It had no air conditioning, so this was great fun in 40 degree heat. But we had fun, Gold Coast Titans would regularly come to help out, and I became 'The Duck Lady' 

These are just a few of the places I visited, to try to make the application of the science VISIBLE.
It was when I stopped trying to show how to make **** phonics and other programs more effective and put together the SSP routine and videos, that I started to experience major resistance. It seemed that some groups were happy to hear me explain where the gaps in the programs were, but not to actually ditch the programs altogether.   

We have been collecting SSP data for over 5 years now, and I have met some amazing teachers who have said these early clips were instrumental in changing the way they taught. At every turn, however, I have been thwarted by 'leaders' who didn't understand my work or want to 'rock the boat' by not using government recommended commercial programs. They had their own agenda, but teachers could see what I was doing, and why. And this is the point! Teachers generally WANT to find ways to improve the learning outcomes of their students, as they are so emotionally invested in their students. To SEE the science of reading in action, within a 1:1, small groups and whole class settings was powerful.  I wouldn't try to 'edit' the videos to show 'perfect' teaching or to only show the students who 'get it' with ease. Teachers tend to trust what they can see happening in real classrooms, and then they talk. But I could also see just how difficult change can be, even for teachers who really want it.  
Policy leaders and academics can be so invested in the science they support, and their own agenda, that they can squash attempts by teachers to bring about change. Academic and government bureaucracies resist change; something recognised by sociologist Max Weber ‘once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social institutions which are hard to destroy. They are often intolerant of individuals and organizations that challenge their authority.’

So I now focus on developing collective teaching efficacy and creating a movement based around SHOWING 'what works' as opposed to 'what isn't working', and helping teachers as much as possible. We are arrogant if we believe we will ever know 'what works'. We can always teach children more quickly, find was to get them ore excited about the code, encourage them to read more books!
We are always learning about how our students learn. We are teachers !