The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

The Science of Reading and the Media:  How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

Maren Aukerman, University of Calgary


In the field of reading education, we are in the midst of what can fairly be characterized as a media crisis. In my first previous Critical Conversations contribution, I documented how reporting on the “science of reading” suffers from bias errors, that is, errors where a journalist takes sides and/or pushes an agenda rather than communicating a nuanced story. In my second piece, I detailed specific errors of insufficient understanding, that is, errors that reflect inadequate grasp of the field.


As a result, journalism frequently bestows unquestioned status to systematic phonics instruction while emphasizing other aspects of literacy learning far less. This instructional approach has come to be known in the popular press by the moniker “the science of reading,” even though actual research-based science of reading is far more nuanced and expansive. Furthermore, journalists often dismiss another approach to teaching called balanced literacy, an orientation supported by 59% of reading researchers 1 that advocates for a robust range of literacy learning opportunities that include phonics, comprehension, writing, and other forms of literacy development in contexts that motivate young literacy learners. 2


Error in the Media and Elsewhere Online


To recap, here are some common media errors:


Bias Errors

  • Lack of balance in reporting. Reporting fails to include and/or respect varied perspectives.
  • Sensationalistic “straw man” arguments. Reporting wrongly ascribes outlandish beliefs to those who advocate for balanced literacy, then proceeds to dismiss them by shredding those ideas.
  • A myopic lens fetishizing phonics instruction. Reporting fails to highlight the many essential dimensions of good literacy instruction that go beyond phonics.
  • Logical fallacies. Reporting faults balanced literacy for any and all struggles children have with learning to read, in the absence of causal evidence.

Errors of Insufficient Understanding

  • Weak connection to actual research. Reporting misrepresents research findings and/or over-relies on a narrow slice of research – if it even cites research.
  • Inaccurate, distorted use of terminology. Reporting explains concepts poorly, particularly those related to balanced literacy.
  • Spurious claims that one approach is settled science. Reporting maintains that there is one right, research-based way to teach reading even though there is insufficient evidence for such a claim.
  • Lack of context about previous phonics implementation attempts. Reporting omits information documenting the underwhelming results of previous phonics-heavy mandates.


Taken together, these errors raise serious questions about the trustworthiness of journalism about reading education. Professional journalists are not the only culprits: similar issues appear on many reading-related websites where, too often, biased and non-research-based rhetoric predominates. 3 For example, a viral infographic called the Ladder of Reading and Writing 4 claims that a “structured literacy” approach (i.e., intensive phonics) is “essential” for at least 50-60% of students and beneficial to nearly all students – with fine print maintaining those percentages are based on “the best available evidence” and pointing readers to the author’s website for more information. However, I found no peer-reviewed research to substantiate the percentages on that website or elsewhere. And the author described her process of assigning those percentages with considerable vagueness: “experts in the field were contacted for their feedback about this during the process [and] research articles were explored,” before she conceded that “There is no agreement on the percentages.” 5 Remarkably, that did not stop her from posting them.


Numerical estimates from such a flawed vetting process should have no place in anything calling itself “the science of reading.” Yet, the Ladder of Reading is widely distributed, showing up as unquestioned fact in multiple tweets and Facebook posts as well as on literacy-related websites across North America, from the Colorado Department of Education 6 to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). 7 8 9 When journalists rely on such websites instead of peer-reviewed research, the questionable information becomes further amplified. For example, a recent Education Week article cited IDA when it claimed that most students “need explicit phonics and the rest can benefit from it”, closely echoing the Ladder of Reading on the IDA website. 10


Consequences of Problematic “Science of Reading” Reporting


When the media cannot be counted upon to paint a fully accurate, unbiased picture of research on early reading instruction, the consequences may be grim. Here are some of them:


As reporting descends into advocacy with tenuous research connections, actual research becomes increasingly marginalized.


When the media fails to engage deeply with the fuller body of reading scholarship, advocates of an instructional technique can circumvent the need to make a compelling scholarly case for their perspective that is convincing to the research community. A perspective on what constitutes quality reading instruction that has convinced barely a fifth of researchers in the field 11 gets pitched in the media as a “research consensus.” 12  13 Those advocates speaking to reporters likely have the best of intentions and may genuinely believe their perspective is the most research-based one. But the passion of advocates does not displace the need for proper vetting. The media should be engaging substantively with a range of perspectives and – even more importantly – with the actual research literature, which tells a nuanced and complicated story about the teaching of reading in general and about the teaching of phonics specifically. In the absence of such engagement, advocacy rather than reading research has come to drive educational journalism, and ultimately public discourse and policy. There is huge irony in the fact that something billed as “the science of reading” may well be undermining the impact of real research on classroom practice, due in large part to lack of quality reporting.


Representing reading instruction in biased and/or inaccurate ways can lead to policies and practices that amount to barking up the wrong tree.


Districts are flocking to ramp up phonics teaching. 14 Politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, passing laws that mandate phonics-intensive reading instruction, place requirements on teacher training, and even require retention for some students on the sole basis of phonics assessment scores. 15 16 The problem is not with phonics being “in,” but with much else being crowded out. 17 One study noted that even preschool teachers are rejecting rich (and research-based) language-building activities such as shared book read-alouds in favor of drill in phonics. 18 Teachers of linguistically diverse students are being directed legislatively to teach phonics at the expense of the vital goal of developing students’ English proficiency. 19 Opportunities to read actual texts are in danger of being overwhelmed by emphasis on phonics drill. 20 In short, rather than benefiting from instruction informed by varied insights from contemporary research, children may receive one-sided instruction, with poor kids least likely to get opportunities for critical and complex thinking, reading, and writing. 21 22  23 


Falsely positioning teachers and teacher educators as out of touch can undermine the teaching profession and public understandings of what researchers do.


There is evidence that different children need different instruction tailored to their needs, such as more or less phonics instruction, 24 yet insistence on one-size-fits-all instruction can make it difficult for children to get the reading support they need. As prescriptive curricula and policies chip away at teachers’ ability to use professional judgment 25teachers may not have flexibility to make decisions in the best interest of their students. For example, teachers may be provided with unengaging phonics programs that treat students as passive learners and leave little room for children’s voice and choice. 26 There are other ways to teach phonics 27 , but teachers may not have the materials or autonomy to choose those.


Moreover, the effort to paint teachers and teacher educators as ignorant about the so-called “science of reading” bears uncanny resemblance to other ugly rhetoric 28  29 30 asserting that teachers and teacher educators are ideologically driven and prone to teach the “wrong” things. While not all proponents of what gets called “the science of reading” would support other teacher censorship, the orientation does align with these other movements in policing what teachers may say and do, contributing to a culture that undermines teacher autonomy and fans the flames of popular distrust of schools and teacher education programs. 31  32 


Divisive rhetoric also gets picked up by politicians and their allies: former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 33 recently berated teacher educators for preparing teacher candidates with “junk science,” and an education advisor to the governor of Tennessee is on record saying that teachers are taught “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” 34 With all that, the public is easily left with a faulty impression of what educational research is, and with diminished respect for teachers and teacher educators.


Problematic journalism can contribute to the disintegration of genuine dialogue among educators and other stakeholders by increasing polarization.


There are commonalities between many approaches that call themselves “science of reading” and many that define themselves as balanced literacy if one bothers to look for what is shared. Indeed, “balanced literacy” proponents articulate a key role for phonics instruction 35, and “science of literacy” proponents are increasingly acknowledging the need for high-quality instruction in domains beyond phonics. 36


Yet, for all the commonalities, the media still tells us there is a war. Conflict framing is a commonly used technique in U.S. media stories, and evidence suggests that such framing increases polarization not only in politics but in other domains. 37 In other words, because journalists use war metaphors and us/them descriptions to paint a picture of early reading instruction 38, people may be more likely to separate themselves from one another, to develop animus toward the “outgroup,” and to discount the position of the othered group. Civil discourse suffers.


While competing perspectives on reading instruction are hardly new 39 40 41, the vitriol and distrust in the past few years 42 feel different, eerily similar to the frenzied lack of civil discourse in other arenas of public life that some scholars have called a threat to democracy. 43 Those who believe the “science of reading” storyline often outright reject the idea that there could be value to alternative approaches, and balanced literacy proponents can be dismissive of the concerns and solutions offered by the “science of reading” advocates as well.


Not only are such attitudes anti-scientific, but they also serve no one well. Dialogue around differing perspectives is critical to a robust educational community. Educators should be discussing outcomes questions like what kinds of readers we should seek to develop (How important is fluency? The ability to read critically? The urge to imagine?). Educators should be discussing methods questions, like the pros and cons of different methods of teaching for and assessing decoding skill, comprehension and literacy motivation. Educators should be discussing equity questions, like how to ensure that emergent bilingual students learn to read with understanding. Educators should be discussing questions concerning student variation, like when it is helpful to differentiate instruction for those with reading disabilities, for gifted learners, or for those with ADHD. And educators should be discussing values questions like how important it is, ethically, that children find learning engaging and meaningful. All of these conversations should be informed by the wealth of perspectives and research that the field of reading has to offer. Indeed, they cannot be discussed meaningfully if individuals already believe that those with diverging views have nothing to offer. We learn when we are willing to talk, listen, and disagree; we owe it to one another and to the children we serve to reject rhetoric that demonizes and divides, whether it be a “critical race theory” bogeyman or a “balanced literacy” one. 


Where Do We Go From Here?


In closing, then, my exhortation to readers of popular media is to be on the lookout for the above kinds of journalistic errors, both in the popular press and on popular reading websites. Insist on fair reporting and connections to real, high-quality research. Kick the polarization monster to the curb whenever writers practice divisive reporting: refuse to accept flawed premises and call media outlets out on it, whether you are drawn more toward balanced literacy or more toward what gets called “the science of reading” – or if neither term adequately describes your approach.


My exhortation to education journalists is simpler still. Acknowledge that reading teaching and research are complex; follow best practices for journalism to avoid the aforementioned errors; read a range of high-quality research that takes different perspectives; don’t use the phrase “science of reading” unless you acknowledge it as multi-faceted, evolving, and the domain of all serious reading researchers; and remain curious and open-minded. And finally, stop feeding the polarization monster with what you write. Reading educators and other stakeholders all want children to read well, after all, and we need each other’s voices, perspectives, and research in conversation rather than in battle in order to best make that happen.


Please cite this work: Aukerman, M. (2022). The Science of Reading and the Media:  How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage? Literacy Research Association Critical ConversationsCC BY 4.0 license.


Maren Aukerman is a Werklund Research Professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on literacy education and democratic citizenship. She studies educational ethics, how youth engage with information in the media, and the preparation of students for responsible citizenship and democratic dialogue, particularly in the context of literacy education. Aukerman previously was on the faculty at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship as well as the 2009 Albert J. Harris Award and the 2018 Dina Feitelson Research Award from the International Literacy Association. In her current work, she is studying how young people make sense of COVID-19 information that they encounter, with a special emphasis on what they do and do not find trustworthy as information sources.


Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?

The Science of Reading and the Media:

Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?

Maren Aukerman, University of Calgary


Recent stories about the “science of reading” in the popular press have often distorted how children learn reading. Reporting can be biased, as my last Critical Conversations piece discussed.  But there is another problem, equally grave: reporters telling these stories may have only a partial grasp of reading research. To be fair, developing deep proficiency in a research domain can be elusive and take years of intense study. 1 For example, to report well on astrophysics news, science reporters need more than interest and a grade-school understanding of the scientific method; they require meaningful grounding in astrophysics and its research. The field of reading is no less specialized, involving thousands of scholars using a variety of research methods in robust dialogue with one another. Thus, to report well on developments in reading education, reporters must understand more than just one vocal corner of this research landscape. They should know how the information they communicate connects to a large body of scholarship that frequently includes conflicting findings and scholarly disagreement. 


Unfortunately, education journalists frequently fail to meet this bar. In this post, the second of three, I use two recent articles to illuminate 4 error patterns I call errors of insufficient understanding. One, from Time, discussed “an enormous rethink of reading instruction that is sweeping the U.S.”,  the push for more phonics. 2 The other, from the New York Times (NYT), reported on updates in a widely used published curriculum called Units of Study, one that the article lambasts as unaligned with the “science of reading” because it is anchored in an approach known as balanced literacy. 3


Error of Insufficient Understanding 1: Weak Connection to Actual Research


The Time and NYT articles both made claims about reading research, but neither appeared substantively grounded in it. Links provided in both articles mostly take the reader not to peer-reviewed research, an expected standard in scholarship, but to other news articles, podcasts, and/or popular (but not always scholarly) books. Both journalists often relied on the word of “science of reading” advocates, failing to verify those statements against research.  For example, The NYT cited a Units of Study critic claiming that the program’s author was “disconnected from research” without clearly situating this as opinion. 


By drawing mostly on vociferous advocates of one approach and bolstering their claims primarily with other journalism, journalists create an echo chamber which itself is disconnected from reading research. Indeed, Time cited no individual research studies, even where those would clearly be relevant. For example, it discussed widespread adoption of LETRS training, a professional development program supposedly aligned with the “science of reading;” yet it never acknowledged a rigorous study indicating that LETRS had no positive effect on student achievement, a critical detail from a research-based perspective. 4


When it is present, coverage of reading research also often fails to pass muster. Both Time and the NYT heavily rely on a research synthesis over twenty years old, the National Reading Panel Report. 5 Indeed, Time laments the ostensible fact that “the National Reading Panel’s recommendations and all the research were so blithely ignored” (again citing a journalist as proof of the claim). The NRP Report is an extensive, important research analysis, but it is far from complete (given research available at that time), up to date (given research conducted since then), or irreproachable (given limitations in methodology and scope). It has been the subject of numerous critiques, including scathing criticism by a participating panel member as well as reanalysis of its findings on phonics that calls those into question. 6 7 8 9 10 It is fair to call it influential, but false to equate the whole of reading research with this document, to dismiss scholars who fail to fully embrace it as ignoring research, or even to assume “science of reading” advocates and the NRP Report are themselves fully aligned.


Troublingly, Time treated the NRP Report and books from the popular press as the whole research story; it never mentioned individual research studies. The NYT did discuss two studies relevant to its topic – one that observed substantial student gains with a treatment sample of 40 schools using Units of Study 11 and one showing no effects from its use at a single school. 12 The article treated the studies as though they were of equal import and thus inconclusive, with no acknowledgment that the first, far larger in scale, was more robust. Such reporting is not research-aligned.


Recommendation: Ensure that “science of reading” news meshes with up-to-date, varied, peer-reviewed research before accepting its claims. 


Error of Insufficient Understanding 2: Inaccurate, Distorted Use of Terminology


Another problem is faulty use of terminology. For example, both articles criticize something they call “cueing” or “three-cueing,” describing it respectively as “a word-guessing method” (NY Times) and “get[ing] children to ask a lot of questions about the word they’re stuck on” (Time). But “cueing” is not an instructional approach, reading technique, or guessing game – except in the minds of certain detractors. What the reporters are likely referring to is something that those who actually use it call the three-cueing system, a framework for analyzing errors to understand children’s decoding attempts. 13


In fact, educators can use it to identify when a child over-relies on guessing. After identifying the primary nature of children’s errors, teachers can guide them into attending to new information so they no longer need to guess. If a child guesses “mother” in place of “mommy,” the child might be asked to slide their finger under the word to sound it out. A different child, who pronounces “said” so it rhymes with “raid,” might be asked if it makes sense in the sentence – not to replace the child’s phonics-based strategy, but to supplement it. This instructional guidance is not usually called “cueing” by those who use it. Rather, it may be called an interactive strategies approach. 14 


Well-designed instruction based on a three-cueing system analysis of student errors emphasizes tailored, progressively more refined strategies so that, for example, a child over-relying on pictures to decode would not be encouraged to keep using pictures. If a teacher or instructional program nonetheless does that, it is inconsistent with the whole basis of the approach. Some researchers argue that a subset of children need more systematic exposure to phonics than may happen with an interactive strategies approach. 15 But even those critics generally do not characterize the approach as “guessing.” That characterization is unhelpful, polarizing, and false.


This is not the only journalistic misuse of literacy terminology. For example, “balanced literacy” is frequently caricatured as involving little phonics, in contrast with what gets called the “science of reading.” Time explained it as offering “instruction in the link between sounds and letters… sprinkled in with other methods teachers thought worked.” The article wrongly suggested that the defining feature of balanced literacy is teaching idiosyncratic, non-research-based ways of decoding outside of phonics. In reality, advocates of balanced literacy see phonics as integral but also recognize that it should not displace attention to other important things like comprehension and language development, even in the early grades – a position firmly rooted in what reading research suggests. 16 17 In fact, some educators ascribing to balanced literacy may exclusively teach decoding via explicit phonics instruction (not interactive strategies).


Recommendation: Be aware that “science of reading” news may contain distorted information and wrong use of terminology: do not take accuracy for granted.


Error of Insufficient Understanding 3: Spurious Claims that One Approach is Settled Science


The NYT article argues that one particular approach to teaching decoding, called systematic phonics, “is the most effective way to teach reading,” and the Time article conveys a similar message. One can certainly make a strong case for such instruction 18, but the research terrain is complex: some analyses of phonics-intensive approaches, including studies of the much-touted Orton-Gillingham approach and the aforementioned LETRS program, have found no positive effects. 19 21 22 Moreover, little research examines whether systematic phonics ultimately improves comprehension, which is arguably the gold standard; studies that do examine this have failed to find clear benefits. 23 In short, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any single approach, including the particular systematic phonics approach often elided with “the science of reading,” is most effective. 24 25 


The NYT not only insists that the type of phonics pushed by many “science of reading” advocates is the “most effective;” it also maintains that interactive strategies approaches – wrongly called “three-cueing” –  don’t work. 26 The actual evidence there is also more nuanced: for example, while one study suggests that gains associated with interactive strategies fade over time 27, another found positive effects even 10 years post treatment. 28 Moreover, journalists often have a double standard, pointing out the current lack of evidence for the long-term efficacy of interactive strategies approaches but staying mum about a corresponding dearth of evidence regarding the longitudinal efficacy of more exclusively phonics-based approaches. 29 30 


Worth noting, too, is that what gets called the “science of reading” is in no way analogous to the science of climate change, where 97% of scientists agree. 31 Nearly 57% of education professors favored balanced literacy in a recent survey, with only 22% favoring systematic phonics. 32 The press should be asking why buy-in by researchers is so low rather than accepting on faith that the minority position is the research-based one; few journalists appear to be doing so.


But beyond that, a genuinely research-based science of reading must be rooted in a scientific process – ways of engaging with the known, posing questions, and reconciling complexities – more than it is about adhering to fixed knowns. Disagreement is vital. This does not mean anything goes: reading researchers examine goals, what can be extrapolated from different measures, how research should be designed, whether research is generalizable to a larger sample of children, and what implications are valid. But it is a misrepresentation of research to treat it as fixed knowledge handed down by irrefutable researchers: this is perhaps what “science of reading” advocates within and outside the press get most wrong. Indeed, someone who denies the role of research-based dialogue is not a scientist at heart, but rather an ideologue.


It could be different. Early literacy researchers investigate many things. For example, there is likely a limit to how much phonics instruction children should receive. Phonics skills instruction alone produces less benefit than splitting time between skills instruction and practice in applying those skills to real texts; 25 or 30 minutes of targeted skills daily may be the sweet spot 33 34, which is pretty close to the average of what teachers already report doing. 35 Other scholars argue against one-size-fits-all solutions: stronger initial decoders in first grade benefit from less phonics instruction even as peers who begin the year with fewer of such skills benefit from more. 36


And other things similarly remain contested: how to make phonics instruction more engaging and effective 37; whether to teach phonics beyond first grade, given diminishing returns 38; what kinds of texts should be used with emergent readers 39; how much phonics should be “pushed down” into kindergarten when earlier does not mean better in developing reading 40; and so on. Researchers do have varied opinions on whether interactive strategies instruction contributes enough to warrant teaching it. 41 42 But that disagreement is not the only or even arguably the most important debate. 


Intelligent, informed people can disagree about these issues. Reading researchers regularly seek to persuade other researchers without dismissing those who see things differently as not listening to science. And adjusting one’s approach as one becomes persuaded of the need, as was done when the Units of Study update incorporated more phonics, is a mark of thoughtful engagement with research, not a “major retreat” (as per the NYT article).  


Recommendation: Be skeptical of “science of reading” news that touts “settled science,” especially if such claims are used to silence disagreement.


Error of Insufficient Understanding 4: Lack of Context about Previous Phonics Implementation Attempts


The NYT notes that Units of Study is being dropped in Oakland, apparently because critics believe that its less phonics-intensive approach has not seen enough success. The article does not mention that Oakland previously used a phonics-heavy program, Open Court Reading 43, introduced there in 1998 with similar media fanfare to the current hoopla. 44 The Time article does bring in a historical perspective after a fashion, quoting an Oakland-based “science of reading” advocate who claimed that the previous Open Court implementation there had led to strong reading gains before it was abandoned. But Time failed to discuss actual research on Open Court. In point of fact, there is evidence that Open Court actually had a negative effect on many kids’ reading, particularly as kids aged up and encountered complex, harder-to-understand text. 45   


The idea that phonics can fix children’s reading ills is at least 70 years old, yet results from other large-scale phonics reforms have also yielded disappointing results, including during the Reading First era in the U.S. and as England’s recent national curriculum mandates have played out. 46 47 48 And Canada, which has relied mostly on a holistic, less phonics-intensive approach, has generally had excellent reading scores in international test comparisons. 49 Both historical and international comparisons unravel the narrative that systematic phonics is a do-all fix. 


Recommendation: Consider whether “science of reading” news acknowledges the uninspiring track record of real-world phonics-intensive initiatives.


These four kinds of errors show up in numerous “science of reading” articles in the popular press beyond the two analyzed here. Particularly in combination with media bias errors, they do real harm. In my final contribution to this Critical Conversations series, to be released in the coming weeks, I will discuss some of these consequences. 


Please cite this work: Aukerman, M. (2022) The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research? Literacy Research Association Critical Conversations. CC BY 4.0 license.


Maren Aukerman is a Werklund Research Professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on literacy education and democratic citizenship. She studies educational ethics, how youth engage with information in the media, and the preparation of students for responsible citizenship and democratic dialogue, particularly in the context of literacy education. Aukerman previously was on the faculty at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship as well as the 2009 Albert J. Harris Award and the 2018 Dina Feitelson Research Award from the International Literacy Research Association. In her current work, she is studying how young people make sense of COVID-19 information that they encounter, with a special emphasis on what they do and do not find trustworthy as information sources.


Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash