School Talk

Teaching Reading Is Science. And We Believe in Science, Right?

But it’s science! We hear it all the time whether in debates over climate change or vaccinations. Some even prefer the more certain-sounding phraseology of “settled science.” And if ever there were a battle that should be over once and for all—in the name of science—it is how to teach reading. Phonics is scientifically proven to be the best way for children to learn to read and yet somehow, huge numbers of teacher education programs are not teaching their teachers about the science of reading or training them in how to teach children to read.

Emily Hanford

The proof isn’t new. In fact, it’s decades old. But thanks to journalist Emily Hanford’s recent report and fantastic podcast, “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?” the conversation is front and center again. But it is 2019 and still, the majority of teachers aren’t getting what they need, deserve and are paying for from their teacher prep preparation programs. Outrage seems to be a bit of an overused term these days but THIS actually is an outrage.

Yup, you heard right. Elementary teachers far and wide are not being properly trained to teach reading even though it is the most important job they will have once they graduate to the classroom. It may sound crazy, but ask any teacher and there’s a very good chance that they will confirm that they don’t know the science because they didn’t learn in their teacher prep program. They may even tell you that, thanks to fierce resistance within the educational establishment, they were taught the opposite of what the science says.

So it really isn’t a surprise that only a third of American students can read proficiently. Ponder the fact that if we line up 10 fourth-graders and 10 eighth-graders, only 3 children from each group would be classified as reading at grade level.

Are the teaching colleges in your area preparing their teachers to teach reading? Are the programs at public colleges and universities that you and I pay for continuing to deny science and choosing to send their teachers into our children’s classrooms woefully unprepared? It’s time to find out.

If you haven’t heard of what are commonly called The Reading Wars, they refer to the centuries-old debate over how to teach reading. In the modern era, the battle lines have been drawn between whole language instruction and phonics instruction. Whole language is the idea that reading is a natural process and that if you just plop a child down in a room full of good books, they’ll figure out how to read. Many who subscribe to this scientifically disproven theory continue to hold on to the wrongheaded belief that children learn to read in the same way that they learn to speak. But that is simply not true. Children’s brains don’t come hardwired for reading like they do for speaking. Teaching is required.

I know, I know. Everyone has a story of their child or grandchild or niece or nephew who was reading chapter books at age 4. And sure, that can happen. But it is not the norm—and in many of those cases, despite the beaming pride oozing from the adults who love them, the child isn’t actually reading.

It is mostly a debate between philosophy versus science. Phonics was seen by those in the philosophy camp as boring, rote, and old-fashioned. They latched on to the idea that reading is a natural process and that being surrounded by books would foster a love of reading; they feared that phonics would damage children and prevent them from ever loving to read.

The battle between these two sides in the reading wars got so hot that in 1999 the U.S. Congress convened a National Reading Panel. The panel was tasked with reviewing all of the research on reading and in the year 2000, they released a report. And it was unequivocal. Reading achievement improves when children are taught the relationship between sounds and letters, and phonics lessons help young students become stronger readers. The report contained zero evidence that any of the same benefits exist when whole language programs are used.

Every single parent of school-aged children and every board of education member, school board member, superintendent, and taxpayer should know if the teachers coming out of their teacher preparation programs are being taught reading science. And if they aren’t, we should rise up and demand that they immediately change course and do right by the teachers they serve as well as our children who need to learn how to read and read well.

So let’s ask. And then act.

For thoughts and suggestions on what you, as a parent, can do to better understand what is happening in your children’s schools and push for change if it is needed, Emily Hanford published a follow up piece to her original story. It comes with warnings about what to expect as well as important advice from parents who have already lived and fought this battle for their own children. Here’s how one mom describes it in Hanford’s follow up piece: 

Please reach out to us here at Good School Hunting if you need help finding someone to talk to or partner with in your area. There are so many parents and advocates working in every state and they will welcome more voices pushing for the right—and proven—kind of reading instruction in schools. 


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