Science Says Reading Education Must Change

Cognitive psychologists lead a powerful revolution in reading education.

Posted Sep 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Be an advocate for better reading instruction for children in vulnerable populations. Join a powerful Science of Reading (SOR) revolution led by developmental cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, speech language pathologists, forward-thinking educators, advocates for children with dyslexia, concerned legislators, and disgruntled parents. The clarion call? “Things must change!”

Q: Why is there a Science of Reading revolution?

A: Because of ignorance (as in ignore the science), crisis, and chaos.

The Science of Reading has been in existence for hundreds of years, but in today’s internet age, the movement is inciting a revolution kindled by cross-disciplinary communication exposing a crisis worsened by pandemic chaos. Cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, reading researchers, teacher educators, and others are all making extraordinary contributions intended to change how we teach reading.

The fact is, we know how to teach reading based on science. The SOR movement advocates that all programs should provide explicit instruction in phonics, spelling, and handwriting — all incontrovertibly supported by scientific research. You may be thinking, “That’s common sense!” Yet ignoring the science is rife in thousands of everyday language arts classrooms.

Far too many kindergarteners and first graders aren’t being taught phonics, spelling, and handwriting explicitly and systematically. It’s a problem directly linked to our deplorable reading scores. Cognitive scientist Dr. Mark Seidenberg, a thought leader in the SOR movement expounds, “When more programs embrace the Science of Reading, we will see better outcomes for students, educators, school districts, and society” (The Reading League website, 2020).

The crisis is widespread. The populations hurt most are poor kids, children of color, and English language learners. Currently, with the COVID-19 slide and pandemic-related chaos in schools, expect things to get worse.

This crisis compounds; we know from science abominable reading scores engender grievous social, emotional, political, health-related, and economic consequences including the following (Cree & Stewart, 2012; Sanfilippo, Ness, Petscher, Rappaport, Zuckerman, & Gaab, 2020):

  • Downward achievement
  • School dropouts
  • More likelihood of poverty
  • Less likelihood of gainful employment
  • Lower incomes
  • More likelihood of incarceration
  • Poor health

The crisis is compounded doubly (and some say morally) because poor reading proficiency is directly linked to a lack of education equity in vulnerable populations.

What change is needed?

To answer with a broad stroke, SOR calls for structured literacy to address what too often is missing in literacy education. Structured literacy is systematic and explicit instruction in a grade-by-grade curriculum with continuous individualized assessment (Cowen, 2016), and it must be applied to phonics, spelling, and handwriting instruction in kindergarten through grade 2. Doing so would enable almost all children to learn to read.

Structured literacy empowers beginners to build a corpus of 300 to 400 English words and syllable chunks they can read automatically by the end of first grade. These “brain words” are the words a beginner retrieves from his or her brain automatically for reading and writing (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Brain words free the developing beginning reader’s brain from the initial slow and laborious process of decoding letter by letter and eliminate engrained whole language practices such as guessing from pictures. With structured literacy, the beginning reader will move to a phase whereby he or she consolidates letters into logical chunks of phonics syllables or automatically recognized sight words (Ehri, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Movement to this consolidated automatic phase makes skilled reading with comprehension possible.

A well-known depiction of what we need to teach is represented below in the famous Reading Rope developed by Hollis Scarborough, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories (Scarborough, 2001). This Reading Rope supports the SOR theoretical stance called “The Simple View of Reading” (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), a position supported by literally hundreds of scientific papers in the best education and psychological journals. The highlighted strands depict a speech to print structured literacy solution to automatic word recognition.

 Guilford Press.
Reading Rope
Source: The image, courtesy of the author, originally appeared in the following publication: Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Both Language Comprehension (top strand) and Word Recognition (lower strand highlighted in red) must be woven together in kindergarten and first grade resulting in a trajectory of increasingly automatic word-level mastery. The end result? Skilled reading! The red highlighted Word Recognition strand includes integration in the brain of essential elements for skilled reading including phonological awareness, syllables, phonemes, phonics, alphabet knowledge, and spelling (which incorporates morphology, vocabulary, and grammar). The simple view is actually complex.

Research supports reading programs that have a strong spelling component, but systematic spelling instruction is often the missing strand (Moats, 2005; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Heron & Gillis 2020; Weiser (2013). Educators who stopped using spelling books fail to notice that teaching spelling as sound to symbol association includes all the elements represented in the Word Level strands: starting with sound (phonological awareness), the alphabetic principle, syllables, morphology (meaningful word parts including Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes), vocabulary and word meaning.

How must we change?

Sadly, too many educators are trapped in whole language practices now debunked by science. Education publishers invested millions in scientifically debunked whole language practices profiteered and now resist change. For example, the top five reading programs in the U.S. shortchange the explicit teaching of spelling and handwriting (Swartz, 2019). Still stuck with habitual whole language domination, many teacher training programs, and even professional organizations are slow to change to SOR.

SOR advocates say we have to get out of this whole language rut. It may be hard to change an educational publishing juggernaut with billions of dollars invested in the debunked practices along with educational organizations and leadership who have spent entire careers spreading the discredited methodology but largely for financial reasons refuse to respond to critiques (Swartz, 2019).

The course forward is clear. All stakeholders must support and fund systemic change:

  • Struggling students must be taught phonics, spelling, and handwriting explicitly and systematically.
  • In grades 2 and beyond, students must be taught spelling in a grade-by-grade curriculum to develop brain words needed for reading comprehension.
  • Districts that bought into programs not supported by SOR must supplement those programs.
  • Publishers must incorporate real SOR and cease false “based on science” marketing.
  • Teacher educators including colleges and university programs must embrace SOR. Parents must demand SOR practices.


Cree A, Kay A, Steward J. The economic and social cost of illiteracy: A snapshot of illiteracy in a global context. Melbourne, Australia: World Literacy Foundation; 2012.

Cowen, C. (2016, Summer). What is structured literacy? The International Dyslexia Association.

Ehri L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Heron J., & Gillis, M. (2020. Summer). Encoding as a route to phoneme awareness and phonics: A shift in literacy instruction. Perspectives on Language and Literacy. International Dyslexia Association.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.

Sanfilippo J, Ness M, Petscher Y, et al. (2020). Reintroducing Dyslexia: Early Identification and Implications for Pediatric Practice. Pediatrics. 146(1):e20193046

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.

Swartz, S. (2019, December 3). The most popular reading programs aren't backed by science. Education Week, 39(15).

The Reading League website. 2020.

Weiser, B. L. (2013). Ameliorating reading disabilities early: Examining an effective encoding and decoding prevention instruction model. Learning Disability Quarterly, 36(3), 161–177.