What IS Science of Reading Anyway?
Click to jump right to these sections:
- What is Balanced Literacy, Really?
- So, Balanced Literacy Might Not be Enough?
- Is Science of Reading the Answer?
“As for comprehension, the most important factor in determining whether readers can understand a text is how much relevant vocabulary or background knowledge they have.”The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler
That quote has been ringing in my ears for the past few weeks. Like many of you, I have been learning about Science of Reading. I listened to the Sold a Story podcast with dismay. When I finished the podcast, I dusted off my bruised heart, and then asked myself, “What now? Do I make drastic changes to the literacy program in my kindergarten classroom? Am I hurting kids with my balanced literacy approach?”
Here’s the thing, I’ve been teaching long enough that I can remember the heated Reading Wars. When I entered the profession in 1995, teachers were still asking themselves which was better, Phonics or Whole Language? And then, in 1996, my aunt, a Reading Recovery Teacher, sent me “Guided Reading, Good First Teaching for All Children” by Fountas and Pinnell. And I had my answer. We should teach both.
That was my first exposure to the idea of balanced literacy. Fountas and Pinnell did spend more time talking about comprehension than decoding, but Word Work was intended as part of the lesson. As a young teacher, I had methods courses on phonics in college, but the world of reading strategies was new to me. I immediately resonated with it. It matched my own experience as a reader, and it felt really good. I felt like the Word Work was easy to teach, so I was grateful for their insights into engaging students in authentic text, and helping them develop comprehension, and along the way, to fall in love with reading.
What is Balanced Literacy, Really?
Balanced Literacy is taking a beating right now, and so are Fountas and Pinnell. In a recent blog post, Fountas and Pinnell said, “… in 1996 we used the word “balanced” as an adjective when describing a high-quality language and literacy environment that would include both small-group and whole-group differentiated instruction that included the various types of reading and writing, letter and word work, oral language, observation, assessment, homeschool connections, all supported by good teaching.”
I spent many years working to become proficient at all the things included in that quote. I learned how to take running records and how to understand MSV. I learned what to do when a student did not use ALL of the cues (including visual letter cues) to read accurately, and I learned how to improve oral language so that reading comprehension would also grow. I learned how to manage whole class and small group instruction in every grade, K-5, and I improved my skills as a writing teacher. I opened my classroom as a lab and invited other teachers to observe my practice and reflect on it with me – a process that helped me as much as it did them. I trained teachers in many of the things that I was learning.
And I had decent scores on state tests. I live in Washington state, and our first high-stakes test was called the WASL. I was there when they rolled it out, and my kids did OK. Then we had the MSP, and finally the SBAC. My kids always do fine. I’ve spent my entire career teaching in schools with high poverty rates and usually many multi-language learners, and my kids made good growth each year. But, despite my best efforts, I never reached my goal of 100% of students at standard on the test….
So, Balanced Literacy might not be enough…..?
In my quest to help all students reach the standard, I did what I always do. I read, I researched, and I learned. I tried new things in my classroom. And in 2004 I read this book, “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement”. If you know Marzano’s work, you know that he approaches a question by studying ALL the available research around it – his conclusions are based on meta-analysis. That means hundreds, or even thousands of research studies. Better him than me!
In this book Marzano makes the case that academic achievement will increase when kids know stuff. In other words, background knowledge, also called schema, is key to helping kids comprehend and achieve at high levels. During the past 20 years, as school systems struggled to meet the demands of the high stakes tests, they have reduced and eliminated instruction in any subject that isn’t tested. So, it is normal for students to spend an entire year in an elementary classroom learning only reading, writing and math. If a student is lucky, science might get a little time. But the bulk of instruction time is spent on reading and math.
Since many published reading curricula focus on fiction, the majority of time is not even spent reading content. So students are not building background knowledge, which means they are not gaining the skills and vocabulary that they need to comprehend. Marzano made the case for building background knowledge in 2004. Natalie Wexler is making that case in The Knowledge Gap right now.
Is Science of Reading the Answer?
Well, yes and no. It is important to pay attention to what cognitive science tells us about reading development. But we can’t be simplistic and cherry pick the science. It is tempting to pay attention to the Science of Reading that is quantifiable. It is easy to assign certain phonetic skills to kindergarten, others to first grade etc. Systems love that kind of clarity, and I suspect, that’s why Science of Reading is becoming synonymous with systematic phonics.
But it’s not going to be enough. If the pendulum swings back to an all-phonics approach, we are going to face the same problems we faced in the 1990’s when kids could fluently decode any text, but they didn’t have any idea what the text was about. Right now, we need to take a good look at ALL of the Science of Reading – everything. There is a growing bank of cognitive research around what really works to help ALL students become good readers. The short answer is not a simple list of phonics skills to teach, it is much more complext than that.
Come on this journey with me as I dive into the Science of Reading. Together let’s explore what cognitive science says about reading proficiency. Let’s learn how phonics is part of the puzzle, and figure out which phonics skills should be taught when. Let’s understand the importance of vocabulary and background knowledge in fostering comprehension, and let’s figure out which reading strategies lead students to greater success as readers, not just in elemenary school but in life.
Cognitive Science has answers for us, and together we can bring reading success to ALL of our students by bringing the science to our classrooms. This is going to be a lot of fun!
Ready for Part 2? Click here for the next post in this blog series.