Student (reading): You have to wear winter coats, and it is not that cold outside.

Teacher: Can you tell me what that word says though?

Student: Do!

Teacher: Look at it closely. Does it really? 

Student: Do!

Teacher: Or does it say… “Boo!”

Student: Do.

It’s Thursday morning in late spring, a Kindergarten classroom in Johnson Elementary School, located in the Spencer Community School District in northwest Iowa.

Student: It has to have an “o” to say boo.

Teacher: Mhmm, I think you’re fishing on the wrong side of the pond there m’dear.

As the students get feedback and complete some independent work during a reading lesson, they are surrounded by bright, colorful signs on their classroom walls, such as the one that shows whose job it is to be milk helper today. There’s also a big bulletin board taking up most of the back wall, covered in different letters and letter combinations and pictures of what your mouth looks like when reading those sounds aloud. It’s called a “sound wall,” and it’s become more and more common in classrooms across the United States. 

A few years ago, Spencer’s administrators, literacy specialists, and teachers began to see a pattern in the way their students were learning to read and write.

Melissa McGuire: My name is Melissa McGuire, and I am the principal at Johnson Elementary. We noticed that our reading scores were not where they needed to be, even with the pandemic. They had dropped, but they were not as near where they were prior to our last curriculum resource being implemented. Instructionally, we needed to change.

Spencer is one of a number of districts that have made the switch to a new way of teaching reading and writing—a way of teaching that aligns with something called “the science of reading.”

Tara Rabenberg: I had no idea what everyone was buzzing about because there was this buzz in our school and amongst our team about the science of reading approach.

That’s Tara Rabenberg, a kindergarten teacher at a Spencer elementary school. For Rabenberg and many of her colleagues, the shift to evidence-based instruction meant a complete 180 from the way of teaching they’d learned at their teacher preparation programs in college.

Tara Rabenberg: It actually frightened me, and I was very skeptical. My first reaction is, Oh no, how am I going to teach these little people how to read?

According to first-grade teacher Kimberly Moser, nervousness and uncertainty were common reactions among the staff at Spencer, at least initially.

Kimberly Moser: I did not know about the science of reading. I had not heard of it. I knew nothing of it. Honestly, when I first read about it, I thought, This is going to be way over their head for first graders.

However, McGuire, Moser, Rabenberg, and their colleagues soon began to change their opinions of this new instructional approach.

Melissa McGuire: As the teachers began teaching it, you could see a shift from the apprehension and nervousness to kind of a relief.

Kimberly Moser: They completely get it. They understand it. I even often see them when I'm introducing new letters… They'll even put their hand on their throat, and they'll tell me whether it's voiced or unvoiced before I even tell them which one that it is. So they're already telling me before I'm telling them. 

Tara Rabenberg: I am a believer that this is the way it works. This is how students learn how to read. It's a total game changer in my opinion, and I will never go back to a different way of teaching. 

McGuire, Moser, and Rabenberg say that the pivot to science-of-reading-aligned literacy instruction has also had an impact on their students.

Melissa McGuire: Student attitude towards our program right now is so much more positive and engaging, and they are producing and working hard. 

 Kimberly Moser: Their confidence has just beamed. And I'm thinking of one little boy in particular. He was, I'll be honest, he was a behavior problem at the beginning of the year. But it was because it was hard. He couldn't do the reading. He couldn't do the writing. Now, he's one of the first ones to shout out the answers, and he's so confident and so proud of himself.

Tara Rabenberg: They're happier. They're joyful. When they see a word, they get so excited. A matter of fact, the whole world kind of has to stop so we can see what they are able to read.

Schools across the country have claimed similar preliminary results following a shift to science-of-reading-aligned instructional practices. But where did these practices come from? Why weren’t we using them before? 

This most recent push for evidence-based instruction could arguably be said to have begun in 1997, when the United States Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the U.S. Department of Education to establish the National Reading Panel. The panel’s goal was to summarize the findings of all credible reading research that had been done up to that point, with the intention of isolating which reading instructional strategies had the most scientific backing. 

Donald Langenberg: Teaching reading really is rocket science…

Dale Willows: They’ve gone to the evidence, to see what the evidence has to say…

S. Jay Samuels: The review of the research literature, which we did, uncovered definite procedures that teachers ought to be using in the classroom if they want to guarantee that virtually all kids will be able to read… (Teaching Children to Read).

That was University System of Maryland chancellor Donald Langenberg, Dale Willows, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, and University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology S. Jay Samuels. They were 3 of the National Reading Panel’s 14 members, which included teachers, researchers, and school administrators. 

In April of 2000, the National Reading Panel adjourned, and though it took a while for its findings to gain national recognition, they would ultimately have a massive impact on the field of literacy education. 

One of the panel’s most influential findings was that existing research supported the idea that reading instruction should include explicit and systematic instruction in five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies.

When literacy skills are taught explicitly, students are directly and clearly told what they are expected to accomplish and what strategies they can use to do so. Systematic instruction occurs when skills progress gradually from simple to more complex in a carefully planned and structured way, often dictated by something called a “scope and sequence.” Typically, students are guided to master easier skills before more difficult material is introduced. 

The results of the National Reading Panel came as a shock to some, but reaffirmed what others had been saying for decades. While this was not the first time that the “science of reading” had been analyzed and summarized, the National Reading Panel’s findings ultimately brought nation-wide attention to an approach to reading that is now championed by educators and experts across the English-speaking world.

In the last two decades, the issue of reading instruction has experienced a significant rise in exposure. The words “science of reading” have gone from a simple turn of phrase to a nationwide movement. Caregiver-led, grassroots advocacy groups, such as Decoding Dyslexia, have done immense work in drawing public attention to the importance of evidence-based literacy teaching. Additionally, the topic has been reported on by major news outlets such as The New York TimesThe AtlanticForbesUSA Today, and more. The concepts of the science of reading were also featured in an influential series of investigative podcasts and news articles published by journalist Emily Hanford. 

Emily Hanford: I’m Emily Hanford. I’m an education reporter. And about five years ago, I started to get really interested in why so many kids are having a hard time learning to read (Sold a Story, 2022).

And Hanford isn’t the only one curious about the way we teach reading. The number of Google searches for the term “science of reading” has more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. Many science of reading fans have found a community on social media, leading to the creation of hundreds of science of reading Facebook groups, the most popular of which contain hundreds of thousands of members. 

In the last few years, hardcore science of reading fans have even created merch! A search on Etsy for science of reading related products brings up dozens of vendors selling posters, stickers, and T-shirts, with slogans like “there’s a phonics rule for that” and “you had me at systematic and explicit”! On YouTube, one can find science of reading related TED talks, 

Melissa Hostetter: As a teacher, I’m here today to talk to you about another, long simmering, slow idea (TEDx Talks, 2021).

explainer videos,

Aja McNair: Well, today I wanna help you by breaking down what is the science of reading… (McNair, 2021).


Susan Jones: Hey everyone, in today’s video we are going to go over some phonemic awareness activities… (Jones, 2021).

and interviews.

Amanda Goodwin: So Rebecca, how did you get into thinking about the science of reading (International Literacy Association, 2020)?

The science of reading was also the basis of a 2023 documentary film titled “The Right to Read,” which explores the literacy gap through a social justice lens and demonstrates the ways that science of reading practices can help all students read proficiently. 

Kareem Weaver: So, this is a civil rights issue. We’re really trying to figure out how to get Oakland kids to read (Mackenzie, 2023).

There are even science of reading themed parody videos, like this one from musician Mike Archangelo and literacy educator Carla Siravo:

Mike Archangelo (sings): When I don’t know a word I start on the left side / I touch every grapheme, starting left and moving right / I say all the sounds and then I start to blend… (Siravo, 2022a).

Since 2018, a number of science of reading podcasts have also emerged, including Amplify’s The Science of ReadingMelissa and Lori Love Literacy, and Reading Horizon’s Podclassed. Emily Hanford’s 2022 audio series, Sold a Story, reached as high as the sixth most popular podcast in the United States on Apple Podcasts. 

Emily Hanford: What I’ve been trying to figure out it is – why? Why didn’t they know? Why haven’t schools been teaching children how to read (Hanford, 2022)?

Sold a Story has had a major impact on conversations surrounding literacy education in the United States. It has been reported on by news outlets such as, Boston’s WBUR, Education Week, New York Public Radio, The Hechinger Report, and Forbes magazine. The podcast’s impact has even reached beyond the United States. There are many science of reading advocates in Canada, and a 2022 article in the Irish Times describes Sold a Story as “a glorious piece of craft,” and celebrates the podcast as one of the best of the year.

The public response to Hanford’s reporting has been similarly enormous. Listener reviews of Sold a Story describe it as “illuminating,” “game-changing,” and a “must-listen.” In the final episode of the series, Hanford says that she has received correspondence from educators, caregivers, and even children expressing their gratitude for her work since the first episode’s publication. Caregivers have seen their children’s struggles reflected in the stories Hanford reports, and educators have applauded her for bringing this important issue into the public eye.

Hanford’s work has even reached people with little personal investment in the issue of literacy education. For example, this last winter, I visited my parents in Minnesota, and at one point, I got in the car with my dad only to find that he was listening to an excerpt from Sold a Story on the radio. He’s a chemistry professor whose children are both well out of elementary school, but even he was interested in what Hanford had to say.

From the Iowa Reading Research Center, I’m Meg Mechelke, and this is A Novel Idea. Throughout this series, we are going to take a deep dive into the science of reading movement, from its origins up until now. 

But first, we need to come up with a common understanding of what the phrase “science of reading” really means. Is it a way of teaching? Is it a research methodology? And what kind of science are we talking about? 

Melissa Loftus: So my name is Melissa Loftus…

Lori Sappington: My name is Lori Sappington…

Melissa Loftus: …and I am currently a literacy producer at Great Minds…

Lori Sappington: …and also the host of the Melissa and Lori Love Literacy podcast.

On their podcast, Melissa and Lori speak about the science of reading and its impacts with a wide range of people, including literacy researchers, authors, caregivers and others. To learn more about the viral growth of the science of reading movement, I spoke with the two of them and dug into what it was that inspired them to create their show. 

Lori Sappington: Yeah it’s, well, it’s really a podcast that happened authentically. It kind of came about authentically between the two of us. And we like to say that we talk a lot about science of reading, high quality materials, and knowledge building. 

Melissa Loftus: Yeah and I think we started the podcast for our own learning, right, we were learning and we were like we want to share this with other people. Why not have other people learn along with us? 

Melissa and Lori met as educators in the Baltimore area, where they had both been tasked with creating videos for fellow teachers about the district’s newly adopted curriculum. Lori was eager to emphasize that much of her early exposure to evidence-based instructional practices came from initiatives that were taking place across Baltimore districts.

Lori Sappington: I had a lot of “ahas” in terms of how I saw phonics and phonemic awareness being taught. I just thought, well, maybe I missed some stuff in college, I dunno. Then I realized ohh, this is pretty important. This is probably the way we should teach this. And then I think, Melissa, we kind of reeled back through the rest of the “strands of the Reading Rope,” and we were like wow, we've been doing this wrong. We missed a whole lot. And that's when the “reading science” term kind of struck us in the face.

The Reading Rope that Lori is referring to is something we will talk about in greater depth in a later episode. But for those who are unfamiliar, it's a simple diagram that was developed by a researcher named Hollis Scarborough to represent all of the different elements that go into proficient reading, including both language comprehension skills and decoding skills.

Melissa agreed that her experience working in Baltimore schools was eye opening when it came to the kinds of instruction that are most effective for teaching reading. Specifically, she remembers having a light-bulb moment when her district required her and other teachers to complete the LETRS training. LETRS, which stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, is a commercial professional development program that includes methods for teaching phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and other foundational reading skills.

Melissa Loftus: And I think that is when it hit me... Yep, you can adopt a curriculum, but especially for those foundational skills, you have to have to have the teacher knowledge as well. Because the teacher just has to know what is happening with each individual student, where they are, what the assessments mean, how to use that curriculum most effectively for each of those students depending on where they are... And that's when it really hit me as, like, this is really technical, you know? This is something really... it’s not just picking up a curriculum and doing it day by day.”

Lori Sappington: Yeah, I was thinking it's like you are a practitioner or a scientist as a teacher at that point, when you're teaching phonics, right? But that is not how teaching was explained to any of us in undergrad, right? It's those types of environments and settings that then kind of give teachers the wrong idea about what they're about to go off and do. 

Many educators have learned about the science of reading movement through the same means as Melissa and Lori: from top-down professional development initiatives brought forward by their districts. However, as the science of reading has begun to spread through other media, reading science has become more popular and accessible than ever.

Melissa Loftus: I mean, I do think part of it honestly is, you know, the journalism that's happening right now, and the journalists that are taking interest and sharing. I would say that it is our reading scores that have not moved, but that hasn't really changed even before the past 10 years, so it doesn't really answer the question of why the past five to 10 years, but to me, that is like a red flag. We've had the national reading panel for what is it? 20 years now? And we still have the same scores. Like what is going on? And so I think this questioning of OK, well what's actually happening in schools and what curriculum are we using and all of that is just coming to the forefront.

The popularity of science of reading podcasts, social media groups, and more has created opportunities for educators and caregivers to learn about reading science in increasingly accessible and affordable ways.

Lori Sappington: You can, like, learn about reading science while you are going for a run. You can learn about reading science while you are shopping at the store. You can learn about reading science while you are making dinner. And then, when you have a free moment later, you can follow up with the resources. Also, we have lots of like reading researchers who are elevating all of this on social media, and we have teachers who are elevating it on social, and I think social media is playing a huge role. I mean, you follow one hashtag and so, so many great things come across your feed. 

The science of reading has been a hot topic for years among those who are involved in the world of literacy instruction. And it's also gotten some mainstream publicity lately. However, it’s still not a topic that gets a ton of attention from the general public. For example, it's definitely not something I knew much about before I started working for the Iowa Reading Research Center. After all, it’s not something most of us non-educators think about in our day-to-day lives. We went to school, we learned to read, and that was that, right?

Man #1: Well, I haven’t been in school in a lot of years, but we always started out with the little Dick and Jane books that were real simple to understand…

I wanted to get a sense of what average adults know about how kids learn to read. To find out more, I visited a few public locations in the Iowa City area. Some of the people I spoke with knew a lot, and others knew very little. However, there was definitely no common understanding of how the literacy learning process works in schools.

Woman #1: I feel like they learn a lot through, um, kind of the basics? Different from what I remember, but like learning, umm, like the sounds? You know, the sounds of the letters?

Man #2: It could be individual or group setting, um… you know, whether they’re using phonetics or sight reading, um…

Man #3: It’s strange, like the question you’re asking, I’m like, “well, I don’t know.” Like… But obviously there must be some methods that are being used… and taught in schools.

The truth is, as literacy educators and many caregivers of struggling readers know, teaching children how to read is a pretty complicated process that involves a lot more than just singing the letters of the alphabet and reading a few picture books. And with the way some reading curriculums have been structured over the last few decades, not all children are leaving the classroom with a concrete understanding of how to read.

Kymyona Burk: Students need to… they need to be able to crack the code. 

Dr. Kymyona Burk is a senior policy fellow for early literacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Kymyona Burk: We want students to have a love for reading, but you can love reading when you know how to read.

According to the results of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the NAEP, only 33% of fourth-grade students are reading at or above the “proficient” level. Instead, the majority of students read at a level that indicates only partial mastery of fundamental literacy skills.

You may have heard it said that third grade is an important year for students when it comes to reading proficiency. This is because, for many students, third grade is the last year in which they will receive explicit reading instruction. 

Kymyona Burk: Yeah, so we talk about from kindergarten to 3rd grade students are learning to read, and from 4th grade and beyond they are reading to learn. So, students must be taught foundational skills because then these skills will apply to all the other texts that they read.

Research carried out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests that readers who are not proficient by the end of the third grade will only fall further and further behind their peers as they progress through school, making fourth grade reading scores in our country even more concerning.

Kymyona Burk: Once you shift to this, kind of, 4th grade level, then it does include more informational text, or paired text, or what things do you see across these different texts, or how can this historical piece of text really fit into what you've already read? A lot of the pictures or the aids or things like that are taken away from students, and it's more about information. You're reading to learn so much about all of these other other things.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading scores are even more concerning for students from low-income families, students who do not always have access to the same support systems and interventions that higher-income students do. Black, Latine, and Indigenous students also tend to score lower on these reading assessments than their White peers. For this reason, many science of reading activists have described the fight for evidence-based literacy instruction in the classroom as a social justice issue.

Kareem Weaver: Civil rights are catalyzed by literacy. 

Kareem Weaver is the second vice president of the Oakland NAACP, and he’s also the chair of its education committee.

Kareem Weaver: Nice, you got the ballot, but can you read the ballot? Nice you can go sit at the lunch counter, but can you read the menu? You know? It's nice that you can go on the other side of town, but can you read the street signs and the property slips. Like, what are we talking about here? So literacy has been a top priority, not just the local branch of the NAACP, but the state and national branch as well.

In addition to his work with the NAACP, Weaver is an award-winning teacher and school administrator. Currently, he is the co-founder and executive director of FULCRUM, which stands for Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate. FULCRUM is an organization dedicated to supporting educators and administrators in the implementation of high-quality, evidence-based reading instruction. Much of Weaver’s work is centered on bringing issues of literacy instruction to the attention of the public, in order to protect the students that are often most vulnerable to the effects of outdated teaching practices. Weaver was also featured in The Right to Read documentary, which we discussed earlier.

There are many potential reasons for the literacy gap between students of different racial backgrounds. Some have suggested that it may relate to wealth inequality between White families and Black, Indigenous, and Latine families in the United States. Research does suggest that students in low-income areas tend to score lower on reading proficiency tests, and that students of color are more likely to live in these areas than White students. However, a 2019 study conducted by literacy researchers at Stanford showed that an academic achievement gap was also observed between White students and Black and Latine students of the same economic background. Dr. Sean Reardon, one of the lead researchers on the study, has suggested that this may be due to the fact that White students are more likely to be admitted into higher level courses than their Black, Indigenous, and Latine peers, regardless of aptitude or achievement. This allows White students access to more advanced and in-depth instruction, which could have an impact on reading proficiency. This hypothesis is supported by recent studies performed by Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins Universities, both of which have shown that Black and Latine students are likely to be academically underestimated by White teachers. In addition, students of color, especially Black students, are suspended and disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their White peers. Because consistent attendance and feelings of academic belonging are important contributors to academic achievement, the racial discipline gap can have enormously detrimental effects on the academic outcomes of these systematically excluded students. Recent research conducted by another Stanford team has shown that disparities in rates of discipline based on students’ race correlate with achievement gaps between Black and White students. In other words, districts with the largest racial discipline gaps also tend to have the largest racial achievement gaps, suggesting that these two phenomena may be related.

A change in literacy instructional styles will not address all of the barriers low-income students and Black, Indigenous, and Latine students face in the American education system. But, many who are part of the science of reading movement suggest that teaching literacy skills in a structured, explicit, and systematic way gives all students in the classroom a stronger chance of becoming proficient readers. When instruction is explicit, systematic, and evidence-based, fewer assumptions are made about students’ potential due to factors such as economic backgrounds, parental education levels, or reading disabilities. Instead, all students have access to high-quality instruction, intervention, and support. 

Consider the following statement from the Oakland, California NAACP Education Committee about structured literacy, which is an overarching instructional approach backed by the science of reading:

“Structured literacy, taught explicitly and systematically by skilled educators, provides the widest pool of students with the opportunity to develop strong foundational reading skills. It also helps lessen the impact of racial attribution by replacing biases and assumptions with objective guidance. This leaves less room for expectancy effects, helps educators identify challenges, and allows them to intervene in a timely manner” (Weaver, 2020).

Implementing teaching strategies that are based in the science of reading can be a strong first step toward creating an equitable learning environment, especially for those students who have been traditionally shortchanged by the American education system. Kareem Weaver echoes this sentiment.

Kareem Weaver: The science of reading is, most importantly, an intentional approach to the instruction that's systematic in nature, diligent, predictable, and consistent. Yes, every kid is different, but we're not throwing spitballs against the wall. These are our babies. There is research. There is science. There is evidence of success and... just do that. That's, I mean, it's not easy, “just do that.” But let's prioritize those things.

Additionally, while the literacy crisis in the United States has historically had a more profound impact on Black, Latine, and Indigenous students, it is important to note that this is an issue that affects all of the country’s children, regardless of race. White students do typically score higher on assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but they still tend to score below proficient levels on average.

Kareem Weaver: Now, we’ve talked about the achievement gap. I could care less about the achievement gap. Like, my goal is not to have half the kids read. If I'm just trying to get half the Black kids reading, then I might as well quit right now. I'm looking at the gap to excellence. Excellence is 90% plus.

Right now, no racial groups in the United States are achieving reading excellence. For Weaver, this is both unacceptable and unifying. 

Kareem Weaver: We gotta find the cause. Why are your kids not reading? Oh, that means it's not all about race, is it? Maybe there are some other things like economics at play that go into it. So there's some layers to this thing. But if half the kids aren't reading regardless... you go to Beverly Hills and you see 70 some percent, 72-73% of kids reading proficiently in 3rd grade... Wait a second, Beverly Hills? You mean one out of four of their kids on Rodeo Drive can't read. Hello? So, something is in the milk, as my grandmother used to say. Something ain’t right.

And to Weaver, the need for literacy proficiency amongst today’s youth is more pressing than ever.

Kareem Weaver: We're in crisis as a society. Now, there's always been a certain percentage of our folks who have struggled to read or have had access to it. But it's at a point, now, where technology, you know, there aren't enough jobs for people who can't read anymore. You know, the underbrush has been cut, the tracks have been laid. Now what’re you gonna do? And if we don't find something for our young people to do, well then what do you think they're gonna do? It can't just be, you know, go to jail. It can't just be, you know, be homeless. It can't just be, be unemployed. We have to find something constructive for people. 

In addition, science-of-reading-based instructional methods are some of the only methods that have been proven to result in an increase in reading proficiency for students with reading disabilities such as dyslexia. When these methods aren’t used, it can be devastating for students and their families.

Kim Taylor: My oldest one, when he was in first grade, he actually started to read by, they had sight words and they memorized sight words. 

Kim Taylor is an Iowa mother whose two sons have both been diagnosed with dyslexia.

Kim Taylor: I would sit and read with him, and he would put words in that were shaped the same. That's how, I'm like, “what is wrong with you? That is not the right word.” And I am pretty much convinced that that has something to do with the sight words. He memorized the shape and the locations of where they were on his sheet of paper.

Memorization and guessing are two common strategies for learning to read that students have been taught for decades. And while it is useful to memorize some commonly used irregular words, memorization and guessing alone are not strategies supported by reading research. They can actually be detrimental to student learning, especially for students with reading disabilities. These outdated instructional methods had a direct impact on Taylor’s youngest son.

Kim Taylor: My younger son, my fifteen-year-old, is severely dyslexic, profoundly disnomic, he has severe dysgraphia, ADD/ADHD, and an executive functioning disorder. And they actually gave him a star. A star that was stuck to a popsicle stick. And nowhere on that star did it say, “sound out your word,” “tap out your word…” It literally said, “Guess.”

This was ten years ago. However, this type of reading instruction–the kind that relies on children using context clues alone to figure out unknown words–has been popular for many years across the United States, and it continues to be used in many schools today.

Luckily, Taylor was able to find a special reading tutor who gave her sons explicit, evidence-based instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness that helped them learn to decode words rather than guessing them. 

Carla Siravo and Mike Archangelo (sing): We don’t skip or guess words, no, no, no, no / We use strategies we know… (Siravo, 2022a).

Just like Siravo and Archangelo suggest, Taylor’s sons now know that they can “tap out” a word when they are stuck, breaking the word into its individual sounds in order to figure out what it says.

Taylor compares this type of phonetic learning to learning basic math facts. 

Kim Taylor: They need to know the math facts, so that they can do the equation. And you need to know your phonetics, so that you can not just sound out the word “it,” but like, a great, big word.

The type of instruction that Taylor is advocating for is backed by years of reading research. Most educators who adhere to the science of reading follow a model of literacy instruction that includes the systematic and explicit teaching of literacy concepts such as phonics, syntax, and morphology. This type of instruction can be a game changer for students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. 

Today, the desire for explicit and systematic literacy instruction in American schools is spreading like wildfire. In 2022, the New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the United State, implemented a plan that will require all public elementary schools in the city to adopt an evidence-based reading program that includes explicit phonics instruction. And New York is not alone. As of July 2022, 29 states had instituted new laws or policies related to the implementation of evidence-based reading instruction. 

Kymyona Burk: Florida passed their Read by Three law in 2002. In Mississippi, we passed our law in 2013, and it was, you know, mostly fashioned after Florida's law. 

That’s Dr. Kymyona Burk. 

Kymyona Burk: In these policies, they have, you know... I kind of put them in a few buckets. The first one is supports for teachers and administrators. Again, empowering them with the knowledge that they need, making sure that professional development is included in the policy, that there are literacy coaches to support teachers and schools, to transfer that evidence into practice, the theory to practice. And we also have to look at the important role of our educator preparation programs in preparing our pipeline of teachers. And then, of course, funding, funding to support all the things. You know, there's nothing worse than an unfunded mandate, right? And then, you think about the next piece, where it's like the instructional piece, and so for that piece... High quality instructional materials that include scope and sequence, that includes the authentic texts and those things that students need, but also making sure that the students are identified early with literacy screeners, interventions are being provided before or after school, whether it's tutoring or other supports. And then, of course, supporting our parents and families.

Of course, when it comes to learning to read, phonics instruction is not everything. Successful readers must also receive explicit and systematic teaching in language comprehension strategies, including vocabulary building, print awareness, and more. However, the inclusion of and focus on explicit phonics and phonemics awareness instruction in early reading does tend to be one of the most hotly debated topics when it comes to literacy education today.

Because, not everyone is on board with the science of reading. There are some who vehemently disagree with the idea that this type of instruction is best or even helpful. A deep dive into web search results for “science of reading” reveals a number of articles with critical headlines, such as “Science of Reading Is Putting Our Children At Risk'' and “Why the Science of Reading is Not Settled Science.” Many science of reading detractors focus specifically on the issue of phonics instruction, arguing that explicit decoding instruction is a sort of one-size-fits-all, robotic style of teaching that prevents teachers from creating personalized lessons that support individual student’s needs. 

In fact, despite the long history of compelling empirical evidence supporting explicit instruction in decoding and other foundational skills, controversy and debate are not new to the field of literacy research and instruction. In the 1980s and 90s, arguments over what type of reading instruction was best for children got so intense that they were labeled “The Reading Wars” by the media. Some say these wars have been revived recently, in part due to the reactions on both sides to Hanford’s Sold a Story

And what’s more, the history of divided public opinion regarding literacy education far predates even the 1990s. So, how did we get here?

Over the course of the next seven episodes, we will explore the history of the science of reading, starting with the Age of Enlightenment and moving through the look-say era, the rise of whole language, and of course, the Reading Wars themselves.

Because, as it turns out, debates about how best to teach children to read stem all the way back to the 17th century. It was around this time that the question of whether or not it was beneficial to teach children phonics began to surface in academic discourse in both Europe and the American colonies. Find out more on our next episode of A Novel Idea. 

A Novel Idea is a podcast from The Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. It’s written, produced, and mixed by me, Meg Mechelke. Editing by Sean Thompson, and expert review by Nina-Lorimor Easley and Lindsay Seydel, with additional review provided by Grace Cacini, Natalie Schloss, and Olivia Tonelli. Fact checking by Maya Wald. 

For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes.  Special thanks to Carla Siravo, Mike Archangelo, Aja McNair, and Susan Jones for their contributions to this episode. Additional thanks to Spencer Community School District, Melissa Pepper, Troy Scholl, Flor, Matt, and Dave. Spencer Community School District interviews and classroom audio collected by Sean Thompson and Vince Fillippini.

Visit us online at to find more episodes and additional literacy resources for educators and families. Again, that’s You can also follow us on Twitter at @IAReading. 

If you want to help spread the word about A Novel Idea, subscribe, rate, and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Institutional support for this podcast comes from the University of Iowa College of Education and the Iowa Department of Education.



Kareem Weaver, M.A., executive director and co-founder of FULCRUM

Kim Taylor, parent

Kimberly Moser, M.A., kindergarten teacher, Fairview Elementary School

Dr. Kymyona Burk, Ed.D., senior policy fellow, Foundation for Excellence in Education

Melissa Loftus and Lori Sappington, co-hosts, Melissa and Lori Love Literacy

Melissa McGuire, M.A., principal, Johnson Elementary School

Tara Rabenberg, kindergarten teacher, Johnson Elementary School

Additional street interviews conducted at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, IA and on the Iowa City Ped Mall. Thanks to Melissa Pepper, Troy Scholl, Flor, Matt, and Dave. Ambient classroom sound collected from Spencer Community School District locations.

Audio Clips

International Literacy Association. (2020). Science of reading interview with Rebecca D. Silverman [Video]. YouTube. 

Jones, Susan. [Susan Jones Teaching]. (2021). How to teach phonemic awareness in kindergarten, 1st, & 2nd grade [Video]. YouTube.

TEDx Talks. (2021). Can we afford to ignore the science of reading? [Video]. YouTube.

Mackenzie, J. (Director). (2023). The right to read [Film]. Utah Film Commission.

McNair, Aja. [Everything AJA]. (2021). What is the science of reading? The science of reading explained [Video]. YouTube.

Siravo, C. & Archangelo, M. [Mrs. Siravo]. (2022a). Open & closed syllables - As it was - Harry Styles (parody) [Video]. YouTube. 

Siravo, C. & Archangelo, M. [Mrs. Siravo]. (2022b). We don’t talk about Bruno reading parody Encanto remix [Video]. YouTube. 

Sold a Story audio clips from APM Reports, a division of Minnesota Public Radio®. ©, (p) 2022 Minnesota Public Radio®. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Teaching children to read, the National Reading Panel. (2000)The Widmeyer-Baker Group.


Allen, K. A., Slaten, C. D., Arslan, G., Roffey, S., Craig, H., Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2021). School belonging: The importance of student and teacher relationships. The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education (pp. 525-550), Palgrave Macmillan. 

De Witte, M. (2019). Stanford scholars develop interventions to reduce disparities in school discipline and support belonging among negatively stereotyped boys. Stanford News. Stanford University.

DeRuy, E. (2016). In wealthier school districts, students are farther apart. The Atlantic. 

Fiester, L. & Smith, R. (2010). EARLY WARNING! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. (2010). Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Hanford, E (Host & Writer). (2022). Sold a story [Audio podcast]. APM Reports, Minnesota Public Radio.

Hanover Research. (2022). The science of reading: K-12 policy brief. (2022). 

McCann, F. (2022). The disturbing truth about a huge educational error. The Irish Times

National Reading Panel (historical/for reference only). National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

Pearman, F. A., Curran, F. C., Fisher, B., & Gardella, J. (2019). Are achievement gaps related to discipline gaps? Evidence from national data. AERA Open5(4).

Racial disparities in school discipline are linked to the achievement gap between Black and white students nationwide. (2019). Stanford Graduate School of Education.

U.S. Department of Education. (2022). NAEP Report card: Reading. (2022). 

Weaver, K. (2020). Casualties of war: Reading science denial and racism’s impact on African 

American children [Webinar]. CORE Learning.

Additional Music

"Acid Jazz" Kevin MacLeod (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License


“Assembling” Asher Fulero (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under YouTube Audio Library License


"Enter the Party" Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License 


"Faster Does It" Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License


“Icelandic Arpeggios” DivKid (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under YouTube Audio Library License


"I Knew a Guy" Kevin MacLeod (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License


"Loopster" Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License


"Plain Loafer" Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


“Rollin at 5 - 210” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


“Super Blues” Unicorn Heads (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under YouTube Audio Library License


“The Urban Symphonia” Unicorn Heads (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under YouTube Audio Library License


“Weekend in Tattoine” Unicorn Heads (YouTube Audio Library)

Licensed under YouTube Audio Library License