If you are talking about the actual scientific research that is being conducted in reading, then my answer is definitely yes. As the author of several published scientific studies and books on teaching reading, I believe in the value of true scientific research.
I also believe that true scientific research can help us reduce learning losses and teach failing students to read. Scientific research can be very helpful when tutoring struggling students.
However, if you are talking about people who use the term “science of reading” as a label or new name for phonics, then, no I do not.
We cannot simply say that phonics is the science of reading because there are scientific research studies that do not identify phonics as the best way to teach struggling students to read. Phonics is one method, but it is certainly not the only method discussed in scientific research. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that phonics is the science of reading.
What is the difference?
I distinguish between researchers doing scientific research in reading and those labeling their work as “science of reading.” Why? Because these are two totally different groups with two totally different objectives. We have seen this happen before.
Look-say enthusiasts, when they came under fire for the fact that look-say techniques were not working, quickly changed their terminology to whole language. When whole language came under fire for also not working, they changed to blended literacy. So, there is a long-standing tradition of just changing the label when a reading teaching method does not work.
For those in the phonics camp who are now doing the same thing (changing phonics to science of reading), they will unfortunately get a similar result—failure. Changing the label does not make an ineffective teaching method become more effective.
For more on the reading wars between whole language and phonics, see: Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students.
We need to remember that phonics is an old concept, not a new idea. Phonics education was first introduced in schools in 1690 with the New England Primer. Like whole language, phonics has failed many times.
You can change the name, but unless you change the teaching method, it is still the same. Phonics instruction, even systematic phonics, uses a list of rules that predict when a letter of the alphabet will use a particular letter-sound. As Sarah Forrest, a reading specialist with the Easyread System, explains—such phonics rules are only accurate 60% of the time. That means that, almost half the time, phonics rules give an inaccurate prediction, or the rule is simply wrong.
For those of us who are tutoring struggling and failing students, such inaccurate and unpredictable predictions lead to failure. And this is why I do not support the “science of reading” that is just a relabeling of phonics.
Since it is not correct to say that phonics is the science of reading because there are scientific research studies that do not support phonics as the best way to teach all children to read, we must be careful with the labels that we use. Even many phonics experts will tell you that phonics does not work for every student. Let’s look at some scientific research.
What does scientific research about reading tell us?
The National Reading Panel (2000) stated that, “systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language]…. However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades” (p. 94).
This is an important research study for us to look at because most phonics supporters cite the National Reading Panel (even though the research is over 20 years old) as being absolute proof that phonics is best for every student. Yet, read the quote again. I even gave you the page number. Yes, this is a direct quote, and the National Reading Panel did actually make this statement.
The National Reading panel said that phonics does not work with low achieving students. Remember, the Nation’s Report Card stated that over 60% of students cannot read at grade level—these are low achieving students. If you are tutoring a struggling student in reading, you are tutoring a low-achieving student. That’s why the student has come to you for tutoring help.
That is also why scientific research is so important. We need to know what works and what does not work with low achieving students before we select a tutoring method.
What do the phonics experts say?
The fact that phonics doesn’t work for low-achieving readers is not a new discovery. Scientific research on phonics has always shown that phonics does not work with struggling and failing students.
As far back as 1967, Jeanne Sternlicht Chall a very strong advocate and believer in systematic phonics, visited over 300 classrooms to conduct her research. While she concluded that systematic phonics was superior to “look say” whole language in 90% of the classrooms, she also clearly stated and warned that a purely phonics approach would leave many students failing.
Linnea C. Ehri (2001), another strong advocate for phonics, studied 66 phonics vs. whole language groups and again found systematic phonics to be superior to whole language but also found that systematic phonics “…did not help low achieving readers that included students with cognitive limitations.”
A cognitive limitation is having difficulty with perception, memory, expression and/or processing skills. If you are tutoring a struggling or failing student in reading, you are tutoring a student with cognitive processing limitations. Let’s look at a definition.
As Hands on Learning Solutions states,
“Just about any learning disability or learning challenge can be traced back to a processing problem. Challenges in processing come in all sorts of shapes. A student can have an auditory or visual processing issue, a dyslexic processing style, comprehension difficulties, trouble maintaining attention long enough to process, weak memory, speech and language disorders, sensory processing issues, organization problems, or simply slow processing to name just a few examples.”
Most learning differences (I like saying learning differences rather than learning disabilities.) fall into the category of cognitive processing limitations. This means that if you are tutoring a student who is struggling or failing in reading, you need a teaching method that works with students who have cognitive processing limitations. As Ehri clearly stated, phonics does not.
Similarly, Gerald Hughes and Jennifer Means explain in Gifted Not Broken: Understanding Dyslexia, ADHD and the Autism Spectrum, phonics does not work with struggling students:
“…20% of all children will show little or no lasting improvement in reading ability using phonics-based programs. ...using a phonics-based program on this particular group of children, is more than likely doomed to failure because it is focused on the very weaknesses of the child. Experience has repeatedly shown that when subjected to an extensive phonics-based program, many of these children will experience frustration, anger and ultimately continued failure.”
Therefore, what scientific research about reading tells us is that, as far back as 1967, we have known that phonics does not work with struggling and failing students. So, why are we trying to pull science of reading out of a magic hat and say, “look what we have discovered.” Because the Reading Wars have not really ended. We have just landed in a new phase where phonics will dominate until it is proven to have failed once again. Because, no matter how you label it (phonics, systematic phonics, science of reading), phonics is phonics.
What do struggling and failing students need in reading?
When tutoring or teaching in the classroom, you need to use the most effective teaching method to help students to learn to read. Remember, as we’ve said before, no two students are exactly the same or learn the same—not even identical twins.
If you are using a teaching method that is not effective, your tutoring efforts will not be effective, either. We talked earlier about how important it is to select an effective teaching method when tutoring. So, don’t get caught up in a “fad” or advertising gimmick. Also, don’t believe something just because it is on the Internet. When you are reading and evaluating to see if a particular teaching method would work for your student(s), read carefully.
Check to see if the author cites any research. Some Science of Reading enthusiast will say, “I have over 200 studies that prove….” But they never cite those 200 studies, provide you with any links to those 200 studies, or even quote any of those studies.
Trust me, if someone has 200 quality, verifiable scientific research studies that prove the point they are trying to make, they are going to quote those studies. So, do not get taken in by fancy writing. Follow the research that actually exists.
In an interview with the National Institute of Health, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a leading reading expert, stated that "Teaching matters and good teaching can change the brain in a way that has the potential to benefit struggling readers."
Therefore, we need to search for good teaching methods backed by actual scientific research in reading. Don’t just use a teaching method because it is popular this fall, and everyone is using it. Check to see if the teaching method meets the needs of the student who you are tutoring.
As Dr. Sally Shaywitz goes on to say, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78).
Some will say, “but she talks about systematic phonics in her book.” Yes, she does, but she also clearly states that systematic phonics will not meet the needs of all struggling students.
At my reading clinic, I have worked with children who had failed multiple years. Even if a student has been retained, we stress sending the child back to the classroom reading at their actual age level.
- Some children have moved up 4 grade levels in reading in one year using vowel clustering.
- At-risk children placed in Reading Recovery failed, but the same students succeeded with vowel clustering. They returned to the classroom reading at age level.
- Even failing special needs students placed in one-on-one pull out programs in systematic phonics, came to the reading clinic and with vowel clustering they succeeded. They learned to read.
- Students who failed under whole language in the classroom came to my program to study vowel clustering. They returned to the classroom reading at their age level.
- Balanced literacy failed as well (combining whole language and phonics), but vowel clustering taught the children who failed in the schools under balanced literacy to read at their respective age levels.
What is vowel clustering?
Vowel clustering teaches students to decode and encode letter sounds or sound clusters in order to read and pronounce words. There are no rules to memorize, and students are never allowed to guess at a word. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into individual letter sounds or sound clusters and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. My vowel clustering method also teaches spelling, handwriting, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and story writing. All of my reading programs teach vowel clustering. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students. A student, who failed for nine years using balanced literacy and one-on-one tutoring in systematic phonics, learned to read in 3 ½ years using vowel clustering. I have even had struggling students move up two, three, and four grade levels in one year using vowel clustering. These were students who had failed multiple years in schools that taught whole language, balanced literacy, and phonics. So yes, we can teach students to read, but to do so, we must change the methods that we use to teach reading.
Therefore, tutoring hint #8 would be to stick with real scientific research in reading. Be careful to not fall for gimmicks or popular fads on the internet. Because true scientific research is helpful for tutors.
Next, I want to look at another area of scientific research in reading. We will look at neuroimaging research in reading. We will also talk about two terms that are being thrown around a lot this year: the oral language system and orthographic mapping.
If you have any questions about tutoring, please feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to help.