When the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, were released by the National Center for Education Statistics in June, alarm bells could be heard loud and clear. Average reading scores for fourth and eighth graders declined between 2019 and 2022, with fourth graders’ scores coming in lower than results dating back to 2005. The bottom line: only 33% of fourth grade students nationwide performed at or above the NAEP’s “proficient” level for reading in 2022.

While this new data rightfully causes concern, in reality, the nation’s average reading achievement scores from NAEP and other sources have not changed much in the past 30 years. Neither has the predominant method of teaching early literacy to K–3 students. What has changed over this time span is the breadth and depth of scientific research on how children learn to read. This body of research, known by the umbrella term “the science of reading,” flies in the face of the reading instruction status quo. Frustrated that many educators, administrators, and other stakeholders seem to ignore—or are unaware of—the data, champions of the science of reading are leading the charge for reading instruction reform that is currently sweeping the nation, and they are making some hard-won strides. The issue has taken on new urgency as the education system struggles with addressing pandemic learning loss and the racial and socioeconomic disparities that were seen even more clearly during the Covid lockdowns. Here we take a look at this movement’s rise and where it’s headed.

The battle lines

The reading wars—the passionate and often contentious debate over which method of reading instruction is best—date back hundreds of years and have pitted educators, scientists, parents, administrators, policymakers, and various other stakeholders against one another.

On one side stands the method of teaching reading known as whole word, sometimes called look-say. This approach, first endorsed by such 19th-century education reformers as Horace Mann, emphasized making meaning and finding enjoyment in reading by memorizing entire words and short sentences, the kind found in the Dick and Jane series.

The other major approach to reading instruction espouses the explicit teaching of phonics, which includes focusing on letter sounds and combinations so that students can decode and form words. In one example of how the ideologies routinely clashed, even in pop culture, Rudolf Flesch’s 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What You Can Do About It famously argued that the whole word method was ineffective because it didn’t teach phonics.

The tussle over these two instruction models continued until the 1960s, when many teachers embraced a new “three-cueing” approach, which emphasized using context clues and other guessing-style strategies to figure out words. Three-cueing is at the heart of what became known as the “whole language” philosophy of reading instruction, which by the late 1980s became the dominant method taught to preservice teachers in college education programs and used with students in elementary schools. The general idea was that reading was a naturally developed skill and that children learned to read much like they learned to speak, through immersion in books, words, and reading.

But literacy experts and educators had not been the only professionals trying to figure out how to teach children to read for all these years. Scientists had been investigating the issue as well, hoping to better understand exactly how children learn to read, building the foundations of what is now referred to as the science of reading. Advances in medical technology, neuroscience, cognitive and developmental psychology, and other fields have led to a wealth of data in addition to identifying best practices for reading instruction.

As scientific evidence mounted, the federal government took action to help improve students’ literacy and settle the debate over reading instruction methodology. In 1997, Congress—in a bipartisan effort—requested that the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the secretary of education convene a National Reading Panel of experts to assess “the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of the various approaches to teaching children to read.” Released in 2000, the report demonstrated that phonics was a critical element of reading instruction and recommended explicit instruction of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—all considered the pillars of reading instruction now identified under the science of reading banner.

The Bush administration turned these recommendations into policy with its Reading First initiative within the No Child Left Behind Act, but the program fell victim to politics, and its funding was eliminated by the mid-2000s. The upshot of this failed effort—and an attempt at compromise—was that the whole language approach morphed into a philosophy called balanced literacy, which included some minimal phonics instruction, but still mostly emphasized surrounding kids with a variety of books and using context clues and other three-cueing/word-guessing strategies for figuring out words.

Balanced literacy became a well-established presence in the education system in the 2000s, backed by a number of popular books and other professional development materials and training courses created by charismatic superstar authors and literacy experts including Lucy Calkins, Marie Clay, Irene Fountas, and Gay Su Pinnell.

However, balanced literacy didn’t change student outcomes, and nationwide reading scores remained worryingly low. Fed up, several science of reading advocates and activists—including a strong cohort of parents of dyslexic students—had already begun speaking up when 2019 brought a multi-
faceted shift in attitudes toward reading instruction. Science was winning sway.

Moving the needle

Emily Hanford, a senior correspondent and producer at American Public Media, says she remembers “the big aha” moment about kids and reading she had in 2019. “I did a podcast episode called ‘At a Loss for Words’ that year, and the big takeaway from that is many kids in American schools are being taught to read the way that struggling readers read,” she says. She first came across this idea in 2016 while reporting on community college students in Connecticut who were in remedial or developmental education classes. It was there that she met a nurse with dyslexia who described all the strategies she had used to get through college and nursing school without ever opening a book. “She told me how she memorizes words, looks at the first letter, and avoids reading as much as possible. Those are the habits of struggling readers. And that’s what we’re actually teaching kids in school when they’re in first grade.” This revelation set Hanford on the path of intensely researching dyslexia.

“What I learned is that there’s a very active group of parents of kids with dyslexia who have become very effective at drawing attention to their kids’ needs,” she says. “These parents are the ones who told me, ‘Emily, there’s a huge body of research on reading in general, and how it works. We think that our kids with dyslexia are partly having problems not just because there’s a special-ed problem, but because the schools don’t seem to understand reading, how kids learn to do it, and what kids need to be taught.’ ”

Hanford’s deep dive into reading instruction resulted in several other audio documentaries and articles that generated a response unlike any she’d seen before. She received thousands of emails and messages, and the pieces were shared extensively on social media. Then, in October 2022, Hanford and APM reporter Christopher Peak shared what they had discovered about why kids are not being taught how to read in the APM podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong.

“I knew that the previous reporting was having an especially big impact among parents and teachers,” Hanford says. “The reason we wanted to do the podcast was to try to answer the question, how did this happen? How did it happen that there’s such a divide between what researchers have figured out about reading and how it works, and how kids are actually taught in school? And why hasn’t instruction changed more in response to these issues?” To date, Sold a Story has more than six million downloads.

With Sold a Story’s vast audience, Hanford says she’s accomplished her goals of reaching parents of kids who don’t struggle to read and who want to join the efforts to help change things, as well as reaching more teachers and educators. Additionally, Hanford says, “I think the podcast is helping to accelerate a particular kind of legislative change, which is focusing more on the ideas in the curriculum. That’s what I was really trying to get people to focus on, that there are ideas about how kids learn to read that are in the curriculum, and in the professional development that teachers get, and some of those ideas aren’t right.”

Spreading the word

As a group, educators are known to be well-versed in sharing best practices, materials and resources, and support. To wit, a search for #ScienceOfReading on any social media platform yields a plethora of posts. In 2019, when literacy advocate and retired educator Donna Hejtmanek launched the Facebook group “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College,” she drew on her own experience in the field. She had been a special-education teacher and reading specialist for 41 years. “I got out of college in 1976 and, back then, basal readers were how we were told to teach reading,” she recalls. “I really didn’t know what I was doing because there was so much missing from the instruction. It was terrible.”

It wasn’t until 10 years into her teaching career that she took a course from Minnesota-based Project Read, which she described as offering a heavy phonics and structured literacy approach that was very teacher-directed. “It was like I was handed a gift,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this makes so much sense—I can teach my kids how to decode words as opposed to just exposing them to words.’ It was a whole mind shift for me.”

By the late 1980s, Hejtmanek was living in Wisconsin and, in addition to teaching, became involved with a literacy organization that used a more phonics-based approach to train reading tutors. Her body of experience led to her doing a lot of legislative work, including being appointed to a dyslexia study committee in 2018 that generated drafts of two bills and a guidebook for dyslexia and struggling readers for Wisconsin teachers. “It was met with incredible opposition from the state reading association,” she notes. While testifying for the bills in front of the state senate’s education committee, “I told them, ‘I didn’t learn this stuff in college and it’s a shame that, 30 years later, we’re still questioning why this should be taught in college. It makes no sense to me that this information is being withheld from preservice teachers.’ ”

She concluded her testimony with a promise: “I’m going to write a book one day and it’s going to be called Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College, and we need to get this message out.” At home later that week, Hejtmanek was on her personal Facebook account, where she noticed the function to start a group. “That’s when I created the Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College group. And it just took off! I think because the title is rather snarky and it kind of stings. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.”

The group now has more than 211,000 members and has inspired the launch of other groups, as well. “It’s been life-changing for me and my husband,” Hejtmanek says, noting that they’ve spun off two businesses from the page, including advertising for science of reading projects they approve, and a program of microcredentials offered for teachers, created in partnership with a professor from Drexel University. New members receive a welcome letter from Hejtmanek containing science of reading resources and are encouraged to refrain from answering posts until they’ve been part of the group for one year. Numerous resources also live on ScienceOfReadingInfo.com, which Hejtmanek and her husband launched during the pandemic.

Putting reading laws on the books

Though the 2019 NAEP reading results were disappointing overall, they revealed at least one bright spot: significant gains in Mississippi’s fourth grade scores. This improvement, often called the Mississippi Miracle, arrived nearly six years after the state passed a package of legislation in 2013 that embraced the science of reading and required more reliance on phonics, improved professional development and pre-K education programs, and the stipulation that students who cannot pass a reading test at the end of third grade must repeat the year. Mississippi maintained its NAEP fourth grade reading gains on the 2022 assessment, while scores dropped nationally.

Other states are eager to duplicate Mississippi’s success. To that end, 2019 was a year “when a distinct wave of reading legislation began,” according to the new report “Reading Reform Across America: A Survey of State Legislation.” In a joint introduction, Mary Cathryn D. Ricker, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, and Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and American Federation of Teachers, write, “This report reveals that state leaders, regardless of their political persuasion, are answering teachers’ calls for better support with regard to reading instruction.”

The report analyzes reading legislation from 2019 to 2022 considering 40 different areas, including teacher preparation, professional development, assessment, family engagement, and student supports. The data shows that 45 states as well as the District of Columbia have passed at least one bill proposing changes to literacy instruction since 2019. So far in 2023, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, Virginia, and West Virginia have passed new legislation.

Susan Neuman, who served as U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education from 2001 to 2003 and established Reading First among other programs, is optimistic about this progress. She is one of the report’s coauthors. “We’ve analyzed 223 bills in states across the country, and perhaps for the first time in my experience, there’s tremendous consensus in terms of what children really need in order to achieve,” she says. “People are using the science of reading, but there is a view that reading is a skilled process, and that children need to have the skills in order to be successful.” She notes that the skills defined in the legislation fall under the five pillars of literacy. Overall, she says, “We’re seeing some broad, very positive movement toward the science, and that’s really important.”

Hejtmanek has had a seat at the legislation development table as well. In 2021, she and three other women on her committee in Wisconsin drafted an extensive bill that “had a lot of detail about parent involvement, early screening and appropriate interventions, and appropriate materials,” she recalls. It passed the assembly and state senate, but was vetoed by the governor for lack of funding. But in a turn of events, “Just recently, this bill resurfaced,” she says. “Representative Joel Kitchens took it on.” Hejtmanek was especially enthusiastic about the legislation because it contained funds earmarked for teacher coaching, one of the key things that worked in Mississippi. On July 19, Kitchens announced that the Right-to-Read Act, focusing on “science-based, proven methods” of reading instruction, was signed into law, supported by $50 million to be invested in “teacher training, teacher coaching, and new curricula for schools.”

There has been mandated action on reform at a more local level, too. Last May, the mayor of New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, announced that elementary schools are required to adopt a “phonics-based literacy curriculum” in the 2023–2024 school year.

Hanford is a bit more cautious in her view of legislation. “I have conflicted feelings in general about the policy changes,” she says. “There are always unintended consequences, and policies lead to headlines like ‘let’s look in three years and see if there’s a change in test scores.’ I’m worried about the headline three years from now that says, ‘oh, the science of reading didn’t work.’ ” She believes it’s important to look carefully at the bigger picture of what’s really going on. “Just because you pass a law doesn’t mean people follow it,” she says. “It doesn’t mean people understand the intentions of it, it doesn’t mean teachers get the good instruction or materials they need to do it well. And curriculum is one part of a very big puzzle.”

Additionally, new reading reform policies are coming at a time when teachers and librarians are already under attack, targeted by censorship efforts and legislation that mandates what they can teach and what books they can have in their libraries and classrooms. “Teachers have good reason to be skeptical of what their governments are telling them they have to do,” Hanford says. “Politics is messy,” she adds. “Policy and politics have the same root word for a reason: policies get political. These are messy times.”

The way forward

Like many things in education, the push toward science of reading and evidence-based reading instruction is a huge and complex endeavor that will be a work in progress for some time. But those on the front lines of this latest mind shift have many reasons to be encouraged. “We’ve had a problem for years,” Neuman says. “But the pandemic just made it crystal clear that so many of our children are not succeeding and are not achieving. What makes me most hopeful, and what is exciting this time to me, is that the groundswell came from the parents. It wasn’t teachers saying, ‘Oh, I have to teach a new way.’ It was parents saying, ‘I am fed up and you’ve got to do something about it.’ Seeing parent empowerment and parent demand is a very powerful message, and they’re staying at it.”

Hanford rings a similar note as she looks ahead. “There are a lot of people out there who are really trying their hardest to do the best they can for kids,” she says. “I think that some of the politics and policy will be moderated by the fact that this is so important to so many parents, and so many teachers who themselves represent a very wide range of political views. I’m hoping that it won’t become right or left, because too many people who care about this are right and left and everything in between.”

Read more from our School and Library Spotlight:

In the Field with Julie VanLier
Educator Julie VanLier’s approach to literacy instruction changed dramatically when she accepted a position at a school in southwest Michigan with one of the highest poverty rates in her district.

Exploring Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction
EBLI founder Nora Chahbazi had not intended to become a literacy trainer and coach back in 1997; but when her daughter was having reading difficulties in second grade, Chahbazi wanted to find the best way to help her.