What, exactly, does the “science of reading” mean?

The phrase has become popular over the past several years, used as a shorthand for many of the instructional changes schools have adopted to bring reading instruction more in line with research on how kids actually learn to read.

But not all educators share the same definition, an EdWeek Research Center Survey found, a potential challenge to better align research and practice nationwide.

In June and July of this year, we asked a nationally representative sample of about 1,300 educators the open-ended question: “What does ‘the science of reading’ mean to you?” More than 950 of them responded.

The results range from the very general—“What works in reading”—to paragraphs of detailed text about specific instructional practices.

Many responses focused on the process of kids learning to make speech-to-print connections, learning how spoken words are represented by written letters. Others took a broader view; one wrote: “whole child instruction. Rather than focusing on one area of ​​reading, it encourages us to incorporate all aspects involved.”

The array of responses demonstrates that even as states have passed laws mandating schools use the science of reading, and curriculum companies tout their materials as aligned with it, many educators aren’t agreed on what the term actually means.

“I was not very surprised that you got such a variable response,” said Amanda Goodwin, an associate professor in language, literacy, and culture at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Goodwin is also the co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly, which published a pair of special issues on the science of reading in 2020 and 2021.

Policymakers, researchers, and journalists all describe the science of reading in slightly different ways, she said. “Our teachers and our principals are hearing so many different messages, and that’s why we’re getting so many different responses,” she said.

But it’s important that the field can come to some clarity, said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

“If we’re five years in, and we’re still in a place where educators are giving 30,000-foot definitions of what it is, it means that implementation might not happen the way we want,” she said. “If you don’t have a crystal clear understanding [of] ‘this is what it looks like in a science-of-reading classroom,’ change and improvement isn’t going to happen.”

Responses cite practices, research, and reports

The open-ended results from the survey were coded by EdWeek Research Center staff and fell into several categories. Many educators wrote about practices for teaching reading, and about the research base that informs certain practices.

Another group—13 percent of respondents—specifically mentioned the five components of reading outlined in the 2000 federally commissioned National Reading Panel report, which synthesized evidence on the effectiveness of reading instructional methods. The five areas of research that the panel reviewed—phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—are listed in many states’ recently passed reading laws as mandatory areas of instruction.

The varied definitions could stem from different ways that educators entered the science of reading conversation, said Woulfin.

For example, she said, the 10 percent of respondents who highlighted neuroscience in their response might reflect the dyslexia community. Research has shown that there are differences in patterns of brain connectivity between dyslexic children and children with typically developing reading abilities.

Some respondents mentioned phonics and phonemic awareness by name, or focused their responses on explicit, systematic, and sequential approaches to learning to decode words.

A few called the science of reading a “marketing” term. The phrase has certainly been used that way by some publishers and curriculum providers, Woulfin said.

“It’s very much a labeling and signaling device,” she said. “If we want the science of reading to not just be a label on a program, we need high quality implementation.”

The research base on reading is broad

Despite the common popular use of “science of reading,” it isn’t a phrase that’s as readily deployed in academia.

“The term ‘science of reading’ isn’t one that researchers use very much,” said Mark Seidenberg, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the cognitive and neurological bases of reading.

The body of research on reading is vast and growing, and reaches beyond the common schematics that circulate in educational circles, Seidenberg said. Take, for example, the “reading rope.”

Several respondents in the EdWeek Research Center survey mentioned the Simple View of Reading or the reading rope. The Simple View of Reading is a theory developed by researchers in the 1980s, which proposed that reading comprehension is the product of spoken language ability and word decoding ability. The reading rope graphic illustrates that connection and process.

The Simple View makes clear a key insight, says Seidenberg—that students need instruction in reading words in order to read well. That was an especially important point to emphasize to educators, he said, because for many years decoding instruction had been minimized in schools.

But if teachers, principals, and administrators only have the simple view, they don’t have all of the tools they need for effective instructionhe said.

“It’s not an account of how any of this is learned, how any of this develops—and what it’s missing is that these things depend upon each other,” Seidenberg said. Word-reading and oral language abilities build upon one another, and both need to be supported in schools, he said.

There’s also a nuance about teacher judgment that’s missing from many definitions of the science of reading, said Goodwin.

Teachers should have the flexibility to, for example, move students along a phonics scope and sequence at different paces if they’re progressing at different rates. That doesn’t mean that they ignore the research base, but that they match teaching to areas where students might need more help.

What background knowledge do educators need?

Getting to a more unified definition of the science of reading is a challenging task, but having conversations about different understandings of the term is a good place to start, said Goodwin.

“We’ve got to figure out how to bridge your 37 percent and your 31 percent,” she said, referencing the 37 percent of respondents who defined the science of reading as classroom practices, and the 31 percent who focused more on the evidence base in their responses.

“We’ve got to help people understand how the research informs classroom practice, and how classroom practice informs research,” Goodwin said.

Exactly how much training educators need in cognitive science and psychology research is an open question. In the long term, schools of education could incorporate more courses in these subjects for students, said Seidenberg. But in the shorter term, he called on curriculum providers to bake research into their materials from the beginning.

Curricula from major publishing houses usually include a variety of approaches, including some that are research-backed and some that aren’t—creating work for district leaders and teachers who then have to sort the wheat from the chaff. “To say that they’re consistent with the science of reading is putting the bar pretty low,” Seidenberg said.