Debunking Myths: Misconceptions About the “Science of Reading” Part 3

curriculum integration research science of reading Nov 28, 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 is the final post in the 3-part series on misconceptions regarding the “Science of Reading.” If you missed it, you can read Part 1 & Part 2 or watch Part 1 & Part 2. This week, I’ll share the last misconception and thoughts for teachers on moving forward.

Misconception #5: All "Science of Reading" or "Evidence-Based" labels on materials guarantee alignment with the research and successful student outcomes.

Teachers, careful examination and logical reasoning must come into play here. You should be very cautious and a critical consumer of any social media post, article you read online, curriculum materials, intervention materials, etc., that says “evidence-based.”

Recently, I got to listen to Marianne Wolf give a brief talk. (She's the author of Reader, Come Home.) She said, “Evidence-based doesn't mean anything anymore.” It's just like saying something is “new and improved.” It’s become marketing copy that is empty and has nothing behind it.

Curriculum publishers are like weight loss gurus

Stamping curriculum as “science of reading” or “evidence-based” is similar to how diet culture attempts to entice you with claims that all your previous diet attempts failed because these other diets targeted the wrong thing for your body type, age, gender, etc. Then, they toss out some studies to support their specific “XYZ method.”

They promise that if you adhere to XYZ, you'll experience remarkable results. They showcase individuals who have lost significant weight, like 60 pounds in three months. While they keep telling you that you WILL see results if you stick to the program, there is a disclaimer in the fine print: individual results may vary. We all know what happens when we try these new fad diets, yet we fall for the marketing every time (or at least I know I do) because we want to achieve the desired results of losing weight.

This is exactly what's happening with curriculum companies. Publishers are telling you to “Buy our curriculum because we have evidence-based results! Your students are going to all grow as readers!” So, as a teacher, you believe this curriculum will provide you with everything you need to reach all your students. Yet, there’s no way that a curriculum publisher can possibly promise that, and if you dig a little deeper, you will find that this “evidence” is far from scientific research.

Like I said before, they don't know anything about the kids in front of you. They make pretty big assumptions about who the kids are and rarely is that the actual reality of your classroom. (If you want to hear more about that, go back to the second post of this series.)

What’s their agenda?

When encountering terms like "science of reading" or "evidence-based," it's important to consider a few key factors. First, reflect on the source of the information. Who is providing it? Next, examine their motivations. Are they driven by financial gain or a genuine desire to help? Additionally, evaluate the experience of those involved. How long have they been working in this field? Finally, scrutinize any hastily developed curricula that may have been created in response to recent events.

The problem is not the research. The problem is not the “science of reading.” The problem is not this movement. The problem is that different versions of the “science of reading” are being implemented. As usual, things in education can get lost in translation. It may be more appropriate to say that a particular curriculum was “inspired by the research” or they utilized “some of the research and not others.”

Many curriculum publishers are throwing everything they can, and the kitchen sink, into some of these products because they're trying to meet everybody's needs, and it just becomes too much. There are many pieces– a basal, several workbooks, an online component, leveled texts, read alouds, grammar, word study, writing prompts, etc.

Teachers then feel overwhelmed because they want to do right by their students, yet they wonder how they are supposed to use all of these materials. They don’t know what to prioritize. They also feel guilt for knowing that, although they have this curriculum that is supposed to provide these amazing results, it’s not meeting the needs of all their learners.

No silos

I have spent the last few months reviewing the work of numerous researchers– whether it’s been in studies, presentations, blog posts, podcast interviews, or books they’ve written. The consensus among them is clear: integration is key. Reading instruction should not be taught in isolated activities, but rather, they should be intertwined. Similarly, word study and writing should not be treated as separate entities from reading, as decoding (reading of words) and encoding (spelling of words) are inherently connected.

Be suspicious if you are being sold a curriculum or an intervention program or if your district has adopted something that only covers one piece. For example, there's one particular really popular phonemic awareness curriculum that people use out there. It turns out that they don't have it tied to science because if they did, they would make sure they did show print to students and not say that you can “do phonemic awareness instruction in a dark closet.” In other words, the curriculum creators have stated that it’s “unnecessary to see print” because we are talking about recognizing and manipulating the sounds of our speech.

If the whole goal is reading–then all of our work should be an advancement of that. So you can't just do phonemic awareness outside of the letters and the phonics. It's got to be connected and not done as a prerequisite for phonics instruction. Yes, you need those skills. Yes, they're important, but they should all be integrated. (I believe the publisher is making some revisions to its program, but the current version is widespread–which will continue to perpetuate this belief that phonemic awareness instruction needs to be its own part of the day.)

Moving forward

Speaking of integration, there is a powerful quote from the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Knowledge Matters Campaign. The 14 interdisciplinary researchers on the committee believe students are losing content (social studies and science) knowledge at the expense of prioritizing reading and math.

“The scientific research on reading and writing is clear: foundational skills including phonemic awareness, knowledge of sound-letter relationships, decoding and spelling skills, and fluency are necessary, but not sufficient for students to become fully literate. Systematically building knowledge is also vital, so students can understand and apply what they learn from the words on the page and can write in a way that shares their knowledge with others.”

The goal of education is to produce productive members of society. To achieve this, students must comprehensively understand how the world functions. They should develop a sense of civic responsibility, appreciate the significance of history, and grasp the implications of research studies, including identifying weaknesses in methodology.

Perhaps it’s time to return to thematic units; they save time and allow students to perceive connections, value, and relevance in their learning experiences. At the very least, it’s time to stop teaching specific areas of literacy during separate times of the day. While I know many teachers have mandates or have to teach a district-adopted curriculum “with fidelity,” it doesn’t hurt to reconsider how you are scheduling your day or to advocate for integration.

The reading wars

The ongoing "reading wars" phenomenon is not unique; it echoes many other societal issues, often leaving us disheartened. It's common to feel like a political casualty and desire more knowledge, yet finding time to sift through information as an educator is daunting. In addition, teachers have limited access due to paywalls or exclusive university systems, which further exacerbates the challenge of accessing research studies.

I aim to provide accurate support by thoroughly verifying my answers with research. I take great care in ensuring the information I share is reliable. If I make a mistake, I welcome being corrected because I don't want to be disseminating anything that would be inaccurate.

While it’s also easy to get the feeling that this is just such a silly fight and folks in education are always arguing, I think many researchers are more closely aligned than we think. It's a little bit of the rhetoric that's to blame there. We're all striving to guide students in learning how to read.

Many of us are worried about those from low socioeconomic status and minority groups because we've seen the data, and it's not great. It's one of our biggest social justice issues for education. Hands down. So, I think the “sides” have much more common ground than you might be led to believe.

Keep these things in mind

  • Researchers agree that nothing should be happening in isolation–integration is KEY! I really want to hammer home that the researchers agree that nothing should happen in isolation, and you shouldn't put one thing ahead at the expense of something else. The emphasis should be adjusted depending on the needs of the students.
  • Don’t fall victim to the “basal bloat.” Earlier, I mentioned how a publisher tries to include every possible resource in a curriculum to make it more attractive to school districts investing significant funds. This is the “basal bloat.” Teachers must live with the consequences of being handed many materials and trying to sift through it all.

Side note: I recently heard Dr. Nell Duke as a guest on a podcast where she was talking about her and some colleagues doing a thought experiment about a first-grade classroom. They were thinking, Okay, well, if we take all the recommendations about when kids need movement (recess breaks) and what they should be getting for instructional minutes in reading and what they should be getting for math and science and social studies and social-emotional learning, etc. Once we consider all of those things that the research would advise is needed, and then even if you went with the most conservative minimum of those numbers, the school day is still three hours short. 

  • Balance standards with students’ individual needs. I know you know you are always up against time in the classroom. We never have enough time to get it all in. So when you have a curriculum that is overwhelming you because there's too much there, you can't do it all, and you're going to have to make some decisions about what the kids in front of you need, and then you have to let go of the rest. It also might be that some kids get some of it and others don't. It’s your job to be responsive to the learners in your classroom.
  • Don’t lose the art of teaching in the science of teaching. Teachers are losing autonomy and the ability to utilize professional judgment. Some of the mandates and curricula that are coming out are trying to make instruction “teacher-proof” by having everything scripted. However, we're not teaching robots. We're teaching humans. And we're human. We bring ourselves with our personality and style into the classroom and the work–and we most definitely should continue to do so because that’s how we form relationships with our students. You have to create a joyful space for you and your students.
  • Don’t forget the Gradual Release model of instruction--> Say less so they can do more! Student agency! One thing that I’ve noticed is that good generic instructional practices are suddenly out the window. I'm seeing a lot of teacher talk and not as much gradual release–at least in my neck of the woods. This might not be everywhere, but it is something I’m noticing.
    How can you say less so the kids can be doing more? Because we know that the one doing the talking (or thinking) is doing the learning. Also, we cannot have them lose their voice and choice in their learning, or engagement and motivation will be out the window.
  • Finally...we are all doing our best given our context and background. Wherever you are with teaching reading– if you're a brand new teacher to the profession, if you're a veteran, a veteran of 20 years like me, if you have been teaching even longer than that, or somewhere in between–I want you to remember that we're all doing the best we can in our context and with what we know. We don't know what we don't know.

How I can help

Our system has let us down, and I would like to be the person you can come to for straightforward advice. I'm doing the research. I'm reading the books. I'm taking advantage of every chance to hear more or learn more about literacy instruction to pass it all along to you. I'm even listening to people I wouldn’t have always agreed with and open up to what they say. I'm trying to do the work so that you will feel supported by me. Know that I've tried my best to ensure that I'm giving you the most accurate information available now with what we know.


If you couldn’t tell, I enjoyed putting together this series! I hope you found it valuable and gained some insights. I’d love to know your key takeaways from the past three weeks. Share your thoughts on social media - I can't wait to hear them!

By the way, if you have any questions or are curious about my sources of information, please reach out without hesitation. I'd happily share all the relevant details based on my research.

If you think I might have gotten it wrong, I'm all ears to alternate viewpoints. Remember, growth happens through collaboration and considering diverse perspectives. Science is always evolving, and so should our teaching practices. Let's keep that in mind together!

One final reminder: If you didn't catch Part 1 or Part 2, I encourage you to go back and watch or read them to hear the rest of the Top 5 misconceptions.


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.