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Bridging the Gap Between Science and Poor Reading in America

Paying more attention to science can increase reading scores in America.

For nearly two decades, there has been a huge gap between the science of reading and instructional practices in America’s classrooms. Reading scientists such as Mark Seidenberg, a researcher in cognitive psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, correctly attributes the problem to the failure of educators to pay attention to reading science (Seidenberg, 2017). With two decades of groundbreaking research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience and an explosion of new understandings about the architecture of the reading brain and how children learn to read, how is it that two-thirds of American fourth and eighth graders still read below grade level proficiency?

The answer harkens back to scientifically debunked practices indelibly planted more than three decades ago by the whole language movement. I was part of that movement, so I take the liberty to write about it! These same misunderstandings in reading education can also be traced back to the National Reading Panel report that came out during that same period when whole language dominated reading education. We now know what science says needs to be fixed.

The Missing Link

Mark Seidenberg touched on what’s missing in an interview entitled “The Ignored Science That Could Help Close the Achievement Gap” in The Atlantic (Glatter, 2016). He’s quoted as saying reading education is misdirected and ignores the science of how to teach children to read in the first place.

He’s right. In schools that are failing, children are often not being taught to read in kindergarten and first grade. In Seidenberg's words, “That leaves all the stuff about how kids actually go from not reading to beginning reading to skilled reading out of the curriculum. So they [educators] emphasize 'literacy' and we [scientists] emphasize, I would say, the prerequisite: being able to read quickly and accurately with some basic skills under your belt.” As Seidenberg puts it, “They focus on a high-level notion of literacy and assume that just being able to pick up the mechanics is easy.”

What we’ve learned from brain science is that “picking up the mechanics” isn’t easy. Humans are born with circuitry already in place for picking up spoken language; no one is born with reading circuity. Reading has to be taught.

Getting children to reading proficiency by the end of first grade and supporting the reading brain’s continued development with ongoing foundational skills such as grade-by-grade growth in spelling is the missing link. With a few exceptions, all students should have the basic reading circuitry for proficient reading in place by the end of first grade—that is to say, they should independently read easy chapter books with comprehension and fluency. This is achievable under the care of teachers who have been well trained to teach reading even in high-poverty area schools.

Once children can read, they build their spoken language vocabularies and gain new concepts principally by reading and by exposure to an academic curriculum supported by good teaching. In addition to making sure that all kindergarten and first-grade teachers are trained to teach reading, how can science help us fix the few remaining whole language myths that continue to plague the teaching of reading?

Tracing the Missing Links in Reading Education to Whole Language Myths

Understanding where myths come from helps debunk them. Yet there is no need to denigrate whole language. Positive transformational changes in education advanced by whole language include the use of invented spelling, expectations for classrooms filled with good children’s literature, efforts to motivate children to read, use of thematic units, the writing process approach, more time for reading in school, plus integrating reading and writing across the curriculum. These contributions to reading education notwithstanding, too many of today’s educators hang on to five core principles of whole language that have been incontrovertibly debunked by science.

5 (Debunked) Whole Language Principles that Are Still in Use

Debunked Principle #1: Learning to read is as natural as learning to speak.

This principle, at the very core of whole language theory, has been debunked. The truth is that learning to read is not as natural as learning to speak. We all are born with built-in circuitry for speaking language but no one is born with built-in circuitry for reading. Brain science has proven that reading circuitry and spoken language circuity do not develop in the same way. We now know that speaking and reading share many processing domains and brain areas, but the actual brain development for speaking and reading is inherently different; the development of reading brain circuitry requires explicit instruction. Students do not simply “pick up mechanics” from reading and writing for their own purposes. For most kids, the foundational skills of reading have to be taught. Weighing in from a scientific perspective, renowned French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislis Dehaene did not mince words in his highly touted book, Reading In the Brain. He asserted that whole language “does not fit with the architecture of our visual brain” (2009, p. 195). Dehaene went on to say “Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a “global” or “whole language method” (2009, p. 219).

Debunked Principle #2: Meaning always comes first in language (Goodman, 1986).

Some current classroom practices still reflect the whole language notion that meaning always comes first. As it turns out, word reading comes first in reading. A deep level of word knowledge—including having spelling representations in the brain—has to be taught. As you read this passage you can see the word dosseret in this sentence; you can read it in context as in “The dosseret is milky white.” But unless you have the spelling in the word form area of your brain, which maps the visual image of dosseret on this page to the same word in your spoken language system that you know the meaning of, you can’t comprehend dosseret. With “meaning comes first” theory, whole language gave meaning and syntax precedence in a three-cueing system; however, brain science flips that notion on its head. Given meaning, syntactic, or graphophonic cueing, it’s the graphophonic cue that ignites the reading brain, that is to say, it is word reading—ability to read and write a word correctly and automatically—that comes first. Meaning clues and syntax clues are secondary at best.

If you hear the word dosseret and understand it, if you say dosseret correctly, if you know dosseret’s meaning and, importantly, if you have the correct spelling representation of dosseret in memory, you will indeed comprehend it when you see it either isolated in print or in context. The fact that word reading comes first is supported in hundreds of published peer-reviewed studies that show skilled readers are able to rapidly recognize and read printed words, regardless of whether the words are presented in context or in isolation. When new or difficult words are encountered in context it is still the letter-sound associations that provide the first and most efficient route to reading, not the meaning or syntax from context.

Debunked Principle #3: Do not teach handwriting explicitly. Money for handwriting programs should instead be spent on children’s literature (Goodman, 1986).

Research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience supports teaching handwriting in elementary school. For example, a number of brain scanning studies demonstrated how handwriting aids preschoolers in learning their letters (James & Englehardt, 2012; Longcamp, Anron, & Velay, 2005). Learning to write in manuscript sets up neural systems that underlie reading. Gimenez and others found higher handwriting quality correlating with gray matter volume and density signaling more efficient neural processing and higher skills and ability (Gimenez et al., 2014).

Debunked Principle #4: There is no pathology such as dyslexia (Goodman, 1986).

Dyslexia is certainly not a disease. But any idea advanced by whole language advocates and others who claim that there is no such thing as dyslexia have been debunked by science. Brain imaging irrefutably shows differences in processing in the reading circuity of children who are dyslexic versus normal readers. Some researchers even posit that dyslexia can be a gift with cognitive benefits. But in terms of learning to read and spell, there is no longer any doubt that this learning disability exists.

Debunked Principle #5: “There should be no special spelling curriculum or regular lesson sequences” (Goodman, Smith, Meredith, & Goodman, 1987, pp. 300-301).

Perhaps the most universally misunderstood aspect of the brain’s reading architecture is the importance of correct spelling representations in the word form area of the brain. We now know that the word form area where representations of spelling are stored is critical to proficient reading. It also plays an important role in detecting students at risk from dyslexia. Yet the destructive clarion call of whole language advocates three decades ago to not use spelling books or not teach spelling explicitly and systematically is still resounding in many school districts and schools. Here are three scientifically unsound practices with spelling instruction still in use today.

  1. No Spelling Instruction. As I travel across the country working with teachers in scores of districts or speaking at conferences, I hear the refrain over and over—“We don’t really teach spelling.” The weekly spelling unit of study has been replaced with test prep with no realization that the students would be better readers if we taught them to spell. “We don’t have time for spelling” is scientifically unsound; reading circuitry is optimized with automatic word reading for fluency, which greatly benefits from retrieving knowledge of correctly spelled words from the brain’s word form area. Compelling new research supports that teaching kids to spell in kindergarten and first grade, using techniques that support the use of invented spelling, not only increases end-of-first grade reading but also results in better conventional spellers (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017). A meta-analysis (Graham & Hebert, 2010), highlights connections between orthographic representations in the brain, spelling accuracy, and reading, all of which support the notion that spelling instruction is a way to improve reading in elementary school.
  2. Haphazard Spelling Instruction. Haphazard “hit or miss” spelling instruction is found in hundreds of schools across North America that have no plan for teaching spelling, no specific grade-by-grade curriculum, or random and disorderly instruction within a school. In some schools teachers choose their own words pulling them from the internet while other teachers rarely get around to teaching spelling at all. Spelling components of mammoth reading programs are always hit or miss. They present the wrong words for the grade level and no grade-by-grade curriculum. Beyond that, they subordinate weekly spelling lessons by mixing them in with too much other stuff to cover in a week. The spelling component may compete with each of the following for the teachers time: a vocabulary and oral language component, a phonemic awareness component, a phonics and fluency component, a sight words component, a text-based comprehension component, and a grammar and writing component. Remarkably, these components all focus on different words with no integration, leaving students floundering as spellers.
  3. Word Sorting Alone with Hypothesis Testing. Many teachers who continue to use commercial word sorting programs for spelling may not realize that they are using a 20-year-old whole language methodology that lacks support from today’s science. This spelling methodology exhibits many inadequacies such as no grade-by-grade curriculum. Moreover, it is scientifically problematic when word sorting is utilized as a single strategy system (Sharp, Sinatra & Reynolds, 2008) as opposed to a multi-strategy system that mixes up instructional strategies over time and distributes practice in ways that are supported by cognitive psychology (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013).

5 Science-Based Ways to Bridge the Gap

Fixing the gap between the science of reading and how we teach it is not rocket science—it’s based on research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Here are five ways to bridge the missing link.

  1. Assure that all kindergarten and first-grade teachers have been properly trained to teach beginning reading with an emphasis on the student’s ability to read quickly and accurately.
  2. Replace whole language practices with science-based practices such as an early focus on word reading.
  3. Teach handwriting (i.e., manuscript beginning in kindergarten and cursive beginning in grade two or three).
  4. Provide extra support for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
  5. Teach spelling with research-based methodology in a grade-by-grade curriculum.


Dehaene. S. (2009). Reading in the brain. New York: Viking Penguin.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham. D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Gimenez, P., Bugescu, N., Black, J.M., Hancock, R., Pugh, K., Nagamine, M., Hoeft, F. (2014). Neuroimaging correlates of handwriting quality as children learn to read and write. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(155). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00155

Glatter, H. (2016). The ignored science that could help close the achievement gap. The Atlantic magazine, Nov. 4.…

Goodman, K.S. (1986). What’s whole in whole language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Smith, B., Meredith, R., & Goodman, Y. (1987). Language and thinking in school: A whole language curriculum. New York: R.C. Owen Publishers.

Graham, S., and Hebert, M.A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

James, K.H., & Englehardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 32-42.

Longcamp, M., Anton J.M., & Velay, J. (2005). Premotor activations in response to visually presented single letters depend on the hand used to write: a study on left-handers. Neuropsychologia, 43, 1801-1805.

Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77- 88.

Sharp, A.C., Sinatra, G.M., & Reynolds, R.E. (2008). The development of children’s orthographic knowledge: A microgenetic perspective. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(3), 206-226.

Siedenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what we can do about it. New York: Hachette Group.

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