A recent Education Week op-ed takes to task many of the advocates for the "science of reading," asserting that they must share some of the blame for the reluctance on the part of many classroom teachers to adopt more effective methods of reading instruction.
Speaking to some of the pushback around the popular term "science of reading," English learner expert and Stanford professor emeritus Claude Goldenberg contends it is the consequence of a number of differing interpretations of what constitutes the science of reading, including a view of what it takes to create a good reader that is far too narrow. In particular, those educators who teach English learners have raised concerns about what they see as an overemphasis on word recognition and decoding skills, while neglecting equally important skills related to oral language development, syntax, vocabulary, and comprehension (see examples of these concerns here and here).
These concerns are not wrong. For children to learn English as a second language—and indeed for all children to become good readers—there needs to be much more focus on oral language development than is common in today's classrooms. For English learners, it requires explicit instruction in the letter sounds that are different from those in the first language, careful instruction in the syntax and spoken grammar of English, academic and general vocabulary, and continual exposure to rich content and conversation from the very start of school.
If we all fully attend to what the research really says, it is clear that neither word recognition nor comprehension at the expense of each other produces successful readers. Both are necessary.
How we got here
So why do some reading advocates understate the importance of language and comprehension?
In part, it's because chronically poor word recognition skills among so many American school children is the canary in the coal mine, the one symptom of schools that can be easily measured as a result of schools using ineffective reading curricula.
In addition, teaching word recognition skills has been the area of reading instruction many educators are least equipped to address and, as such, deserving of immediate attention. In spite of a decades-long advocacy campaign to improve reading instruction, most teachers still have not learned and practiced how to teach children to decode words during their preservice training, and most practicing teachers have few professional development opportunities to hone these skills. Even many of the popular reading journals that teachers are likely to read have rarely covered the importance of these foundational skills (with one notable exception, the AFT's American Educator).
Although the seminal report of the 2000 National Reading Panel certainly emphasized the importance of both word recognition and language comprehension skills, its findings were not intended for a teacher audience. It provides little practical advice for teaching any of the five components. The Reading First initiative that followed on the heels of the NRP report did try to solve for that omission and was certainly successful in some states, but implementation proved inconsistent—and ugly politics its death knell.
Perhaps the most significant unintended consequence from both the NRP report and the Reading First initiative was the exploding "reading block" during the school day. With schools expanding reading blocks to as long as two and a half hours each day, some schools stopped teaching science and social studies altogether—a decision rife with irony given how important it is to teach science and social studies in order to improve reading comprehension.
Rather than correct for this mistake, the Common Core State Standards swung too far in the other direction, implicitly de-emphasizing the early foundational skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency (which its creators vigorously deny while pointing to their only reference buried in an appendix). Some schools interpreted the new standards as a license to forgo foundational skills and instead focus solely on "reading complex texts"—an utterly impenetrable, ambiguous term that only led to further poor instruction. The standards movement, much in need of winning the support of reading advocates, instead lost it.
The heart of the resistance to the science of reading
Eminent reading researcher Joe Torgesen helped to raise awareness of this troubling tension. He reinforced the findings that word recognition skills are, of course, the foundation and backbone of becoming a reader—but they are not enough. He could see that children who could recognize words automatically and quickly were at a great advantage: that the more fluent their reading was, the more they read, the more their vocabulary grew, and the better their comprehension became. However, Torgesen also observed that even with strong word recognition and fluency, some children still did not enjoy reading or choose to read more extensively. Reading development suffers, he observed, if children also have not developed strong oral language, lack robust vocabulary knowledge, or have restricted content knowledge.
Let's give some important perspective: word recognition skills are essential as a base, but teachers must also systematically develop language comprehension.
Even more importantly, we must recognize that comprehension is not a skill that can be mastered in a relatively short time, but rather is "a collection of knowledge and processes that takes many years to acquire."
Reading advocates might nod in agreement, but mere acknowledgement is not enough. We—reading researchers, teacher educators, and PD providers—must demand more of ourselves, addressing the role language plays in reading comprehension, demanding effective curriculum and professional development, and ensuring that teacher preparation fully equips preservice educators to be effective teachers of reading.
Linda Diamond is the founder and former president of Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE), a professional learning organization that serves schools, districts, and state agencies to improve literacy and math achievement for all students. Ms. Diamond is the author of three widely-used professional books for educators, Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, and the Vocabulary Handbook. Previously, Ms. Diamond served as a K-12 district administrator, a middle school and elementary principal, a high school teacher, and a senior policy analyst in an education think tank. She is now spending part of her retirement overseeing NCTQ's revision and implementation of the Reading Foundations standard for the Teacher Prep Review.