Why Follow the Science?
Over the past four decades, scientific research by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have
discovered how reading occurs in the brain. But why should teachers follow the science?
Just because scientists know how reading occurs, does it make any difference to the way we teach reading? Haven't we always taught reading the same way - and why would we change?
The answer is confronting but it is also the reason so many educators are now re-thinking their practice. No matter how long we have been teaching reading, scientific knowledge that reaches a mature consensus has the best possible opportunity to teach MORE children to learn to read.
By understanding the mechanisms that enable reading, we have the opportunity to teach those children who were previously limited in their ability to learn in whole class settings, or who found whole language or balanced literacy approaches challenging.
There are several reasons why some children aren't able to learn to read adequately when taught using Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches. While all children benefit from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, many children need a lot more opportunities to practise these skills. While some children pick up these aspects of learning to read easily, many do not, and all children benefit from learning them well.
One of the most salient reasons why many children find Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches challenging is that there are two phases of learning to read that are often under-recognised: early reading and skilled reading. While this may seem obvious, the key skills that each of these phases require are often confused, causing many children to miss out on the early, foundational skills they need. (See The Simple View of Reading.)
EARLY READING is enabled by two critical skills: word recognition and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer 1980). If children are unable to independently recognise new words, they are guessing, which is insufficient for comprehension and will become increasingly difficult as texts become more challenging.
SKILLED READING is enabled by establishing the foundational skills of EARLY READING. The diagram below known as The Bridge to Comprehension (Daniel-Zitzlaff 2021), shows how the skills for early reading lead to skilled reading:
So why did we, as teachers, learn to teach strategies for skilled readers before teaching the skills needed for early readers?
One of the key messages from Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches is that we 'read for meaning'. Of course, this is true of all reading. It is untrue that proponents of phonics-based approaches believe anything different. ALL reading is for meaning. However, we can only find meaning in words if we can first read those words.
Ken Goodman, one of the most influential instigators of Whole Language (from which Balanced Literacy was born), believed that children learn to read through exposure to literature (Goodman 1967). He came to this conclusion from his own observations and from the appeal of the work of Lev Vygotsky on social constructivism that had just been published in English when Goodman was formulating his theories.
Goodman presented a 9-page paper in 1967 that contradicted the known science and seemed to make sense to teachers. The paper, 'A psycholinguistic guessing game' described his philosophy, his opinion, after watching students learn to read. His 'findings' were not based on science or any form of credible scientific study. Goodman said he had 'his own science'. Nevertheless, his paper struck a chord with teachers that has lived an extraordinary life of its own and is still deeply entrenched today.
The excellent video by Stephen Dykstra (below) explains the history of Whole Language in more detail.
One of the proponents of Whole Language was Marie Clay, an educator in New Zealand who developed a system of multi-cueing or MSV (meaning, structure, visual) based on Goodman's philosophy that children were able to 'construct meaning' from texts. Once again, Marie Clay's work was extremely popular among teachers who found her system 'made sense', even though it was not backed by verifiable evidence.
Since the development of Whole Language and Balanced Literacy, it has become common to remediate students who do not learn to read using these strategies. Instead of following the rapid accumulation of scientific evidence over the past 40 years, many teachers have stuck to what we felt was the best knowledge available. However, times are changing.
It is being increasingly found that understanding how children learn to read according to verifiable scientific evidence changes the way teachers approach reading instruction. More and more teachers are realising that understanding how children learn to read helps them to reach many more children and ensure they learn to read well.