The Science (of Reading) Says…

And How to Respond

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

· That consuming foods with aspartame will cause a whole host of maladies

· That vaccines cause autism

· That an atom is accurately represented by a small nucleus with orbiting electrons much like the solar system (seriously, check this out).

At one time or another, the public was led to believe that the first two claims were true. Studies are inconclusive and ongoing about aspartame, and the study about autism was critically flawed. The good old Bohr atom served physicists well for a few years, until it was supplanted as new evidence became available and the thinking evolved.

But, But, the Science of Reading says…

Here is the thing and stick with me here…”Science” doesn’t say anything. Shhh, do not tell anyone. Science is a concept, a subject of inquiry, a noun — lower case — and, it cannot talk. Scientists, on the other hand, do have plenty to say, and they should. The field of literacy learning has been informed for an exceptionally long time by educational researchers and theorists, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and linguists, plus teachers in their classrooms doing the hard work to put it all together.

Boy reading
Boy reading
No, David! The Reading Corner 2019 © TDWolsey

Didja Know?

Way back in 1967, Jeanne Chall used empirical evidence, correlational studies, and thorough reviews of the literature then existing to conclude that systematic phonics is most likely to result in kids who can read. Really, it was back in 1967. Teachers and researchers have known what to do and why for a long time. Some pushed back[i], of course, but there is little evidence that teachers today subscribe to any pedagogy that does not include or emphasize phonics. A recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center (opens a PDF) found that teachers do believe, among other things, that students encountering a new word should sound it out aka use their phonics skills.

When the Research says…

A while back, a district administrator told me that some practice or other is backed by research. Because I’m me, and I do these sorts of things, I asked, “Would you send me the research you’re referring to?” She did, and a couple of days later a thick packet of materials arrived. It was a thick packet of promotional material from a publisher; glitzy stuff but it was hardly research.

Here is a little secret, too. No researcher in the field of education I have ever met or whose well-designed research I have read has ever claimed to prove anything. Good researchers know that research is a grand conversation that evolves with time and thoughtful inquiry. They know their work is just part of that conversation. Consider this claim by Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley (1990) [ii]about their work over the course of six different studies:

“Our results provide some guidance in selecting material for phonemic awareness training. Of the two aspects we tested, we favor identity over segmentation for practical reasons — it is easier to teach — and because it is a more reliable foundation for discovery of the alphabetic principle” (p. 811).

There are no bold assertions, but there is guidance. There are no claims that their studies prove anything, but there is humility. If a researcher or educational pundit tells you the “research proves,” there is something for sale. You don’t have to buy it.

Next Time Someone Tell You, “Science says…”

Or “Research proves…” you know what to do. Ask them to show you the research. Or better yet, just walk away.


[ii] Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1990). Acquiring the alphabetic principle: A case for teaching recognition of phoneme identity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(4), 805.

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

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