Debunking Myths: Misconceptions About the “Science of Reading” Part 2

balanced literacy phonics research science of reading Nov 21, 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.

Last week, I covered 2 of 5 misconceptions regarding the “Science of Reading.” If you missed it, you can read it here or watch it here. This week, I’ll tackle two more. Starting with…

Misconception #3: All of the following practices are now considered “bad teaching.”
balanced literacy
running records
leveled texts
guided reading
MSV- Meaning, Structure, Visual cues (aka 3 -cueing system)

In recent years, there has been some vilification of using certain words or even uttering the names of certain thought leaders in literacy instruction. While I understand where some of this is coming from and can especially empathize with any situation where a parent has a kid struggling to learn how to read, I feel there are some very one-dimensional narratives of what’s happening in today’s schools. Unfortunately, this limited understanding creates a situation where non-educator policymakers make sweeping changes without being fully informed (or, more likely, sitting in their echo chamber).

I am concerned about losing nuance in the conversation. Reading instruction is not black and white. The idea that there are two sides and that these sides are at war is ridiculous. We educators ALL want kids to be able to read. There might be some varying opinions on the level of emphasis on specific reading skills, but we have the same goal in mind.

I can't speak for all teachers, but for some teachers, having all this research come to light in the media and brought to the forefront made them question all the practices they've been doing for however many years of teaching before that. I can understand how that cognitive dissonance is hard to navigate. I also understand why some people might try to hold on to things they've always done.

Effects of binary thinking on reading instruction

So, while I can see the big picture, I’m still concerned with how this plays out in classrooms. While we have some practices that the research has repeatedly validated are better than others, there are still kids (as I mentioned in misconception #2 last week) who will present with different needs.

What I hate to see is that teachers feel like all the things they have put in their little toolkit of ways that they respond to kids in their reading and the practices they have done to encourage enjoyment and love of reading should go away. Because who wants that? Who wants to have kids who don't want to read and are highly unmotivated and not at all engaged? No one.

As I mentioned last week, the process of teaching reading and learning to read is incredibly complex. Regardless of whether one identifies as a “science of reading teacher,” it is critical to remember that the science of reading is a body of research rather than an ideology. The “science of reading” should not be viewed as opposing balanced literacy; ideally, you are utilizing the best of both.

What teachers and students really need

What's most important is that we are equipping our teachers with the breadth and depth of knowledge they need to be responsive to the learners in the seats in front of them. Elementary classroom teachers have to know a lot. You have to be a content expert when it comes to teaching reading, and we have not been providing our teachers the level of professional development they need to become content experts.

Quite a bit of recent professional development teachers have received (if they’ve received any) has been around teachers learning how to use particular curricula, a specific assessment, or a specific intervention. This gets a little muddy because of who's providing that information. (More on this later.)

Forbidden language and practices

In some places, there are new strict mandates on teachers and what is or is not allowed regarding reading instruction. There have been directives that have outlawed a teacher from saying anything that would be considered “three queuing language” to kids. Or they are telling teachers to get rid of leveled texts. These kinds of rules are an overcorrection of the situation. They also completely strip the teacher of autonomy as a professional.

Yes, we need to see systematic, explicit instruction on phonics–especially in the early years. And, yes, when it comes to a kid stuck on a word they're trying to read and looking at the letters, we want to prompt them to think about the letter-sound relationship. We want to encourage them to try another vowel sound or think about the word parts that are there. We want those things to happen because the research is pretty straightforward.

However, as a proficient reader, if I'm encountering a word that I don't just recognize automatically, then I'm going to look at it and I'm going to try to sound it out or use the word parts that I know. But then I will also check by thinking about what's happening in the text and how English works. I’m likely to think about if this would be where a noun, adjective, or verb would go and see if I can figure it out from the context of what I’m reading.

It's not as if we say, “Child, you cannot look at the pictures. Child, you cannot think about what's been happening in the text thus far. Child, you cannot think about what you know about English and the rules of how we construct sentences.” Students must have some semantic and syntactic knowledge. MSV is what our brains utilize when we read. It’s how we can self-correct when we’ve misread something.

So here’s where the nuance comes in. Instead of people directed to only prompt for phonics, you start by asking a student to look at the letters. However, I would include a prompt to remember to check that you're right by thinking of the meaning and if that’s how we sound when we talk. If I can’t prompt for these skills, I’m not sure how we can get kids to be independent with self-correcting errors and catching when meaning breaks down.


In education, it is commonplace that a particular instructional practice will hold different meanings for different educators. How you interpret a term and how I interpret a term may be completely different. For example, what I think of when I hear balanced literacy and what you think of when you hear balanced literacy could be divergent. My classroom and yours look nothing alike, but we’d both say we teach in a “balanced literacy” framework.

I learned how to use MSV to analyze student errors to inform my instruction. However, that might differ from how you used MSV when taught about it. Or perhaps you were taught to prompt kids without ever being told the why and when behind it. The subtle distinction is often lost when a practice is performed in multiple ways across different locations. In some classrooms, MSV is utilized quite well, and the teacher does not ask kids to “guess” words, so we do not want to lose something that could help kids progress. It's not either/or; it's both/and.

Misconception #4: The “Science of Reading” promotes a simplified “one-size-fits-all” approach to literacy

I know I’m becoming a bit of a broken record, but the fact remains that learning how to read is too complex and that there is no “one right way” to teach reading. If there were, we wouldn’t have been debating about this for decades and decades and decades. (This piece does an excellent job of summarizing the history of how the different views on reading instruction come up repeatedly throughout this country’s history.)

If we think about this recent science of reading movement and the research some folks are hanging their hat on; we should also ask ourselves a few questions. What does the research say about a practice's efficacy? Is it even efficient? And how is equity involved? Those three questions came from a talk by Mark Seidenberg from March 2022 that I recommend you listen to if you haven’t already. He is also the author of Language at the Speed of Sight and a well-respected education researcher.

He's a proponent of listening to the science to inform instruction but has also been vocal about oversimplifying research. He also mentions that some of the research tossed around was never peer-reviewed or replicated. In science, that's pretty key because no matter how well a respected researcher you are, we can't rely on a single study. It has to be able to be replicated, and it has to have been peer-reviewed. So if it's not, then this is not something that we can take to the bank and say, “This is it!”

Limitations from the research

Ironically, there isn’t enough research to determine the effectiveness of practices adopted from research. There's often a disconnect between research findings and teaching practice. Researchers can't tell educators how to run classrooms because they conduct studies in labs or with an entire team of researchers. Implementing specific classroom methods is challenging due to uncontrollable variables (distractions, teacher-student rapport, student-student rapport, trauma in the home, multilingual learners, etc.).

Time can also be a significant factor in the disconnect. Many practices that benefit student learning in research settings are unrealistic in real-world environments because there isn’t enough time in the school day or enough adults in the room to carry something out. Even if a study is conducted in a classroom with the teachers implementing some specific practice, it’s impossible to say that the kids saw growth from this one variable. Maybe they just had a skilled teacher, so the kids would learn no matter what method she used.

So when you are presented with something as “researched-based,” or you are given the actual study and told to start doing this practice in your classroom, you should be asking these questions of the research: Who does it work for? How much of it do they need? Is it realistic in the classroom setting? If we focus on this one thing more heavily, we're doing it at the expense of something else because we only have so much time in a day, so what makes this practice worth the time and attention?

Dated research

Another example of oversimplification is when folks talk about the Simple View of Reading. It’s been all over recent pieces of training, infographics, articles, curricula materials, and resources. This model came out in 1986. I was six years old in 1986, so you can do the math to figure out how old I and the Simple View of Reading are. While there’s nothing incorrect with the Simple View of Reading model, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Especially the fact that we’ve learned a lot more since 1986.

There's also the more recent Scarborough's Reading Rope, another start to understanding how we learn to read but still over 20 years old. Yet, these are the frameworks that have been recently highlighted. If this were the most recent information in educational research, that would be one thing, but the research has seen an enormous explosion in the last 20 years. I don't believe this model gives us the full picture, either.  Again, nothing is "inaccurate" with Scarborough's rope, but it feels like there has been a lack of acknowledgment of the research post-2001. 


Active View of Reading Model

A more recent framework, building upon Scarborough's Rope model and incorporating current research, is the Active View of Reading by Duke and Cartwright (2021). What I find intriguing about this framework is its depiction of the interconnectedness of word recognition and comprehension. It visually highlights the importance of integrating literacy instruction skills rather than teaching them in isolation.

Another piece Cartwright and Duke add to their model is executive functioning (EF). They highlight that you must have good self-regulation and other EF skills to attend to a text, be engaged, and stay motivated. They also call out that there are strategies that you have to know how to tap into to recognize words and comprehend text.

They also name several skills as the “bridging processes” between word recognition and language comprehension, such as reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge, print concepts, morphological awareness, and graphophonological-semantic cognitive flexibility. Graphophonological-semantic cognitive flexibility is a long descriptor for what Duke and Cartwright define as “the ability to simultaneously consider and actively switch between the letter–sound (graphophonological) and meaning (semantic) features of printed words.”

Finally, and this is some of the essential stuff when we think about the varied backgrounds of the students in today’s classrooms, Duke and Cartwright added the importance of cultural, content, and other reading-specific background knowledge that you have to have to make deeper connections as well as having the social awareness needed to put yourself in the characters' shoes as you read a text–which is labeled as “theory of mind” in the framework.

Trouble with curriculum

Many literacy curriculum materials make assumptions about who the kids are in your classroom. They very likely are designing these materials for kids who are white, have resources outside of the home, maybe have similar background knowledge and experiences, come to school fed, and experience no chaos at home. They can also understand the teacher when he talks.

This “student avatar” is vastly different from the reality for most of us. That's not who the kids are in front of you. We already know that a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy will not work. It is something we already established a long time ago, and yet we're going back towards that in some of the curricula that are out there right now—especially ones on the short list of “approved curricula” in some states.


That’s all for part 2 of this series--next week, I'll be back to wrap up this 3-part series. If you didn't watch part one, I encourage you to go back and watch or read last week's blog post, where I cover those first two misconceptions. 

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