The science of reading: no op needed

Recently an op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles times, entitled: Should California schools stick to phonics-based reading ‘science’? It’s not so simple. The author makes a case against the suddenly-trendy “science of reading,” which has been in the news frequently due to a popular (and very good) podcast from American Public Media, reporting in the NYT and other outlets about a popular-yet-inefficient teaching program from Lucy Calkins, and an awareness that America lags behind other rich countries in overall literacy rates – and even how this relates to social justice and equality.

To be clear: this problem has been solved by other countries. I don’t only mean rich countries (the UK, Australia, Canada: 99% adult literacy rate), and I don’t only mean rich countries with relatively homogeneous populations (Japan, Netherlands: 99% adult literacy rate), and I don’t only mean tiny countries (Lithuania, Armenia: 99% adult literacy rate). Also let’s forget about the possible liars on the list (North Korea at 100%?). America is also being beaten by…Zambia, Honduras, and Mexico. In fact, America is more in line with Syria and Iraq.

Ahh, America. Or as I like to call it, the good ol’ one-thirty-six.

We are quite literally sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, two countries which outperform America in adult literacy. Teaching people to read is actually not very mysterious at all – though it seems that different countries define “literacy” in entirely different ways, with America having somewhat high standards. Nevertheless, by at least some measures, America lags behind comparable countries.

Why do we suck at it? The answer is found in Project Follow Through. Zig Engelmann developed Direct Instruction, a teaching method that incorporates scripted lessons, choral responding, and carefully analyzed and field-tested curricula. In Project Follow Through, kids in the Direct Instruction group improved in every category – even self-esteem. The reason we’re not using Direct Instruction boils down to philosophy

As an example: there are two classrooms, and you are deciding where you will be sending your precious toddler, Tayden. The Bunny classroom is taught by Ms. Frizzle, whose philosophy is that she facilitates student learning – she follows their lead, based on motivation. “For example,” says Ms. Frizzle, “Tayden likes trucks, so we will do project-based learning where he constructs a truck and a ramp, and he may want to learn more about physics.” The Beavers classroom is taught by Ms. Nye, who chooses the lessons, leads the class, and sets expectations for learning. “Tayden will receive a formative assessment when he enters the class,” explains Ms. Nye.

If you’re like the average person, Ms. Frizzle sounds like the teacher you – an adult – would want to have. Ms. Nye sounds strict, or boring. How much learning do you accomplish when it is dictated to you by boring adults? It turns out that for children, quite a lot. The Wing Institute at Morningside Academy is an invaluable resource for evidence-based practice in schools. They use Hattie effect sizes in the previous link to show that teacher-led, teacher-centered instruction is superior to child-led, child-centered instruction. Frankly, it’s not particularly close:

Hattie effect sizes, despite some clear flaws, do provide some interesting insight into education. Looking at the top and bottom of the list makes for a fun game (if you’re a weirdo): 

Is teacher performance pay (bonuses) effective? Not

Are charter schools effective? Not

Do rehearsal & memorization work? Yes

Are learning goals effective? Yes

Examining the list, you may come across an effective (or ineffective) practice that defies your expectations, or even your values. As but one example, I believe that teachers should be paid more, yet the evidence is clear: higher pay does not necessarily improve outcomes.

Which brings us up to speed to address the LA Times op-ed.

The author is correct that the “science of reading” is not well-defined, but then calls it a “marketing ploy.” This is a contradiction – marketing for…a thing with no definition? Frankly, it’s difficult to market science, because it’s accessible to anyone looking for it. We might similarly say that evidence-based practice in medicine is difficult to define, but you’re probably hoping to visit your next heart surgeon due to their grasp of the available evidence. Just because it’s hard to define doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying.

This is an interesting point, but we’re really jumping ahead. If we’re talking about teaching reading to brand-new learners, we’re starting on the low end of every skill. Beginning readers cannot be writers – that would be impossible. However, as they develop, writing becomes quite important. Language development is also extremely important, and should come from every subject. A child could technically read anything but lack the background or knowledge to understand, as in the sentence, “The sail unfurled on the schooner.”

The same point as above but elaborated: vocabulary development suffers when schools cut all electives to put kids into remedial math and reading. That’s true! Why do schools put kids into remedial reading for the whole day and cut out electives? Well,

The implication in this paragraph is that “differentiated” strategies will be most effective, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. But generally speaking, people do learn in approximately the same way. Learning styles are a myth. Effective learning strategies, for the average conventionally developing person, are approximately the same. Individual differences exist, but are small. A framework like PBIS/RTI, wherein a smaller percentage of students need more instruction, could include different intensive strategies. Giving teachers ineffective curriculum in the name of choice is like allowing your doctor to use homeopathy to treat your severe case of pinkeye. Choice is a matter of philosophy – not of evidence.

Here is Zig showing off what kindergarteners can do in 1966, including algebra. Maybe it’s OK to focus on the basics.