Debunking Myths: Misconceptions About the “Science of Reading” Part 1

foundational skills phonics research science of reading Nov 14, 2023

Lit Bits is where I provide brief responses to literacy instruction questions. Teachers submit their questions, and in response, I create a short video accompanied by a blog post. You can fill out this form and submit any question about any element of literacy, and I might answer it here on the Lit Bits blog and in my video segments on the Elm Tree Education YouTube channel.

This week, the format is a little different. I received a few questions on the Lit Bits form that made me think it would be a good idea to cover some of the misconceptions floating around about the "Science of Reading." Once I planned all I wanted to say, I realized that I had more than just a little bit so I will divide this topic over three weeks. Today is Part 1. 


Misconception #1: The "Science of Reading" is…

When people mention the Science of Reading (SoR), they often mistakenly equate it with phonics alone. However, SoR is not limited to phonics, nor is it a curriculum, a program to purchase, or a singular teaching philosophy. Instead, it encompasses the collective body of research conducted across various disciplines that delves into the intricacies of how we learn to read and comprehend. This research also highlights why some children encounter difficulties in this process—an issue that has recently garnered significant attention.

While the term "reading crisis" is sometimes also thrown around, it is essential to recognize that this is not a novel problem; it has persisted over time. Recent attention to the research has brought it into sharper focus. Moreover, discussions regarding the reading crisis and student test scores should acknowledge the positive strides made. Although some scores have shown improvement, a subset of readers continues to struggle and fail to experience the desired progress—an ongoing concern that demands our attention.

The research

In response to students leaving elementary school lagging behind their peers in reading, researchers from fields such as education, special education, cognitive psychology, communication sciences, developmental psychology, linguistics, and even neurology have delved deep into this issue. It was partially through neurological research that the current conversation gained momentum. This research has increased our understanding of the differences in brain functioning between individuals with dyslexia and those who have achieved reading proficiency through conventional instruction.

By exploring these interdisciplinary insights, we strive for a comprehensive understanding of the SoR, aiming to address the persistent challenges and provide effective instruction for all learners.

Other ways to name it

In my readings, I've come across various terms that distinguish the scientific aspect of SoR from its cultural implications. Some refer to it as the "sciences of reading" to highlight the multidisciplinary nature of the research. In contrast, others label it as the "science of reading movement" due to the nationwide momentum it has gained.

Limitations of the research

When entering a discussion on the SoR, it's essential to understand the purpose of research studies. Researchers seek answers to specific questions or test hypotheses to validate their claims. They intend to enrich our existing knowledge of how kids learn to read.

However, a common challenge arises when applying the findings of such studies to classroom practice. The discrepancy lies in the limited research on translating laboratory experiments involving a small sample size to real-world classrooms with more students. The uncontrolled nature of classroom settings adds an element of unpredictability that can't be replicated in controlled studies.

Acknowledging that researchers don't necessarily feel equipped to advise teachers on pedagogical techniques while sharing research implications is crucial. Instead, they provide insights into potential classroom implications. The gap between research findings and their translation into practice is the issue.

The research community acknowledges this challenge and, I believe, is now striving to bridge the divide between research and practical application. For instance, research still needs to determine the most effective allocation of minutes in a school day in optimizing instructional time. We don't know where teachers should concentrate their efforts or whether a particular method or program yields superior results.

I anticipate future developments in these areas as scientific understanding evolves. Science is an ever-evolving discipline, constantly incorporating new insights to enhance our knowledge base. Even though debates such as the reading wars have endured, the ultimate goal remains: equipping children with proficient reading skills.


Misconception #2: If a child is struggling, you focus their instruction on foundational skills.

There is a pervasive belief that when a child struggles academically, it is crucial to focus on foundational skills. While this may be true for some children, others may need help with background knowledge, executive functioning skills, or fluency. Reading is a complex process, and even after years of discussions, we can see that folks still debate how best to teach kids to read. This is because proficient reading requires many interconnected skills, not simply decoding text.

While it is true that specific instructional approaches, like structured literacy programs, may benefit all students and harm none, only some need the same level of focus on those skills. The emphasis on teaching should vary depending on individual needs. Emergent readers still learning the basics of decoding to extract meaning from text need more. In contrast, proficient 3rd graders likely don't need nearly as much instruction to be devoted to phonology. Regardless of the amount, it is vital to remember that foundational skills instruction must also be meaningful and tied to context.

Literacy instruction should not be siloed

Literacy experts from various disciplines assert that the different aspects of literacy should not be taught in isolation but rather integrated. Reading for meaning should always be our goal, and any instruction we provide should work towards achieving that goal. If we work on sound-spelling relationships, this should connect to reading and authentic writing. 

Phonemic awareness, for instance, should not be limited to sounds alone; children need to understand the connections between letters and sounds. Incorporating rhyming and similar activities can support this goal but should always be tied to text.

That's all for part 1. Next week, I'll be returning with two more misconceptions about the SoR, so stay tuned for more! If you don't want to miss the next installment, sign up for the Elm Tree Education Mailing List below!

And if you have anything you want to add to this conversation, find me on social media and share your thoughts!


Stay connected with news and updates!

Subscribe to the Elm Tree Education mailing list to receive the most recent updates, exclusive offers, and be notified about new blog posts.

I don't like SPAM. I will never sell your information, for any reason.