Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The phrase “science of reading” is coming up more and more in discussions about education these days. It is talked about among literacy educators and caregiver advocates on social media. It is written about in education news and opinion pieces. It comes up in Sold a Story, the hit podcast from American Public Media’s Emily Hanford. It is even being mentioned in state capitols across the country as lawmakers engage in discussions about strengthening reading instruction. But what does the phrase “science of reading” really mean?

Defining the Science of Reading

When educators have a mutual understanding of the science of reading, educational approaches become more consistent and effective across regions. Also, when professionals within the education field have a mutual understanding of the science of reading, it is easier for that information to be communicated with families, policymakers, students, and others outside of the field.

While there is no universally agreed-upon definition of the science of reading, the following definition provided by The Reading League has garnered wide acceptance among both educators and researchers:

“The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.”

When describing the importance of the science of reading, The Reading League states:

“This 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; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.”

The Science of Reading Is Evidence-Based 

As previously stated, the science of reading is derived from research. But not all research is designed the same, nor is it all intended to produce the same types of findings. Reading research originates from one or more of a wide array of scientific fields, including psychology, communication, education, special education, linguistics, and neuroscience. 

Research that is included in the science of reading should be evidence-based. A study is considered evidence-based when it is quantitative in its design, meaning data has been objectively collected and analyzed. In contrast, qualitative studies, such as case studies, observational reports, and focus groups, do not produce evidence-based results. While qualitative studies are a valid form of research that can serve a purpose, it is imperative that evidence-based research informs foundational instructional practices. Learn more about evidence-based practices in our previous blog post.

In evidence-based studies, some study participants are assigned to a treatment group, and others are assigned to a control group. The treatment group experiences the instructional approach, intervention, or variable being studied, and the control group does not. In a quasi-experimental study, participants are assigned to groups non-randomly, and in an experimental study, participants are assigned randomly. Because of this, experimental research provides stronger evidence than quasi-experimental research. 

Evidence-based study findings should include a full description of study methods and the research participants who took part. This makes it possible for other researchers to attempt to expand on the findings. Studies that can be replicated to produce similar results are more reliable than those that cannot be replicated, especially when those results remain true for a wide variety of people. Study findings should also be peer-reviewed, meaning that experts who were not involved with the study have found the findings to be credible. 

The Science of Reading and Its Relation to Reading Programs and Curriculums

The science of reading is not a commercial product or reading instructional program. It is also not a curriculum, which is a set of learning objectives and teaching materials used to achieve those objectives. However, there are companies that use the phrase “science of reading” when promoting their products. Some of those products are based in the science of reading. However, the phrase “science of reading,” is not trademarked, and companies do not have to have their products tested or studied in order to use the phrase in their marketing materials. Because of this, some companies use the phrase “science of reading” to advertise products that are not actually evidence-based.

It is up to literacy leaders, curriculum directors, administrators, school district boards, private schools, and home school instructors to do their due diligence to determine whether program materials and approaches are aligned with the science of reading.