How the Science of Reading Really Works

Why Capital S Science of Capital R Reading Gets it Wrong

Do you work in the trenches, as so many teachers are told they do? Maybe your child was taught word attack strategies. What side are you on in the reading wars? Wars are the great binaries of our time, as a former US President once proclaimed[1]: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” leaving absolutely no room for disagreement or discussion. I ask, “What place do war metaphors have in education, in teaching our children, and in our classrooms?”

Consider the recent spate of commentaries advising parents and teachers to pay attention to the “Science of Reading (Capital S and R).” While “Science of Reading” sounds like, well, science, it is not. Rather it is a call to battle, once more unto the breach[2], of the reading wars. Let’s leave war, trenches, and battles out of the classroom, shall we? Before we dive into the “Science,” a quick look at what science (lower case) looks like may help.

How Small s science Works: An example

Human brains are wired for learning, for inquiry, for communication including reading (stay tuned). At the turn of the last century, some scientists confidently told the world that intelligence was a fix from birth. Either you had it, or you didn’t. But nowadays, we know better.

Until recently, scientists thought that the ability to solve problems could not be improved because science said so, time and again, in trial after trial. Then, in 2008, scientists began to find evidence that fluid intelligence, as the problem-solving type of smarts is known, might actually be malleable. Maybe fluid intelligence could be improved, and scientists set an agenda to find out. The results are inconclusive but promising[3]. As important, if fluid memory can be improved, it seems it can be improved through specific dosages of training depending on the problem at hand.

Fluid Memory and the Reading Wars

The research on fluid intelligence is significant for several reasons because it illustrates how science and scientists work as they explore the possibilities of what the human brain can do.

1. Science is the essence of skepticism. It means we do the best work we can with the evidence we have using the tools available, and then we question all of it. All the time.

2. Science was a thing long before we could stuff humans inside an fMRI and see what was making the old noggin’ work. fMRI has greatly improved what we know and what we can do with what we know, however.

The takeaway is this: The Science of Reading (big S, big R) did not swoop down from the gods of fMRI in the late 90s and show teachers and teacher educators the true path if only they were paying attention. More important, the science that preceded current studies from neuroscience had already mapped what effective early reading instruction looks like.

Another ancillary takeaway is that as long as we think of education as some sort of war, an ‘us who know’ and a ‘them who haven’t a clue,’ we won’t make much progress. Thinking in binaries, using a two-valued orientation,[4] leaves us without any opportunity for discussion, for exploration, and to recognize that we don’t need the Science of Reading (big S, big R), but we do need the science of reading (lower case s, lower case r) to continue building the most effective path forward from where we are now.

The most effective path forward for young readers, starting today, needs no metaphors for war. Especially important, the path does not need a dog-whistle using big S Science to convey the idea that there is a reading war out there, and your child might be a victim, something small s science never meant. Small s science moves forward thoughtfully, carefully, and without propagandizing or overreaching. That path requires educators, teacher educators, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists to start talking to each other.

[1] George W. Bush, 2001.

[2] Henry V, Act III, Scene I

[3] Jaeggi, 2008.

[4] Hayakawa, S. I. & Hayakawa, A. R. (1990). Language in thought and action (5th ed.). San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc.

Professor of Literacy at The American University in Cairo & global wanderer

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