The Tragedy of the Science of Reading

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The Tragedy of the Science of Reading

September 15
06:30 2021
The majority of students in the U.S. continue to struggle with reading.

Reading proficiency is critical to academic and career success. Unfortunately, the majority of students in the U.S. struggle to achieve this important milestone. Two out of three 4th grade students failed to score proficient in reading on the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2019, a result similar to all the NAEP results preceding it for decades1. This is a massive and longstanding failure of the US education system.

The “science of reading (SOR)” is often cited as having the answer to this challenge. SOR has become a mantra for supporters of explicit phonics instruction vs. whole language instruction.There are some blended methods and variations, but these two approaches represent the different sides in the debate. This debate has been crafted to suggest there are only two possible methods for teaching students and one is right, the other wrong.

SOR advocates insist that our nation’s reading failure is the result of educators’ unwillingness to implement phonics instruction. What is missing from the conversation is the admission that schools using phonics curricula that adhere to the “science of reading” also experience high failure rates. Overall, the failure rate is unacceptably high and neither approach has demonstrated a solution to the crisis.

This has created the “Tragedy of the Science of Reading.” Science claims to understand how students learn to read proficiently, yet the failure rate continues with both approaches. Either the science is wrong, or we have failed to figure out how to achieve the promise of the science. Based on how successful students achieve reading proficiency, I argue that the key science is correct and a new approach that best mimics how good readers learn to read is needed to address the crisis.

Although science supports that phonics instruction is slightly more effective than whole language instruction in general, the data also shows that phonics has a high failure rate.For example, the state of Colorado passed the READ Act in 2012 with the explicit goal of improving reading scores by using phonics instruction. The state has invested over $230 million in additional funding as of 2019 and has seen no improvement in reading scores2 despite a heavy emphasis on phonics instruction.

Kevin Stanovich, a researcher whose work is frequently cited by Science of Reading advocates, has written that: “skilled readers could instantly recognize words without relying on context.” Other researchers have confirmed these findings with similar experiments. It turns out that the ability to read words in isolation quickly and accurately is a key hallmark of skilled readers. This is now one of the most consistent and well-replicated findings in all of reading research.3 In other words, skilled readers are recognizing words from memory – they are not sounding out words using phonics skills to read. They don’t break down the individual letters and sounds while reading. Memory and instant recognition of words is the key to reading fluently.

Why doesn’t phonics work better? Because English is phonetically opaque. Some languages, such as Italian and Spanish, have a very consistent letter-to-sound relationship. These languages are considered phonetically transparent. Sounding out most words works in these languages. However, only about 20% of English words can be sounded out with a clear and consistent letter-to-sound relationship. Another 30% of words can be sounded out using hundreds of complex rules, but the rules are inconsistent and require a fair amount of guessing. The remaining 50% of words cannot be reliably sounded out.

This is why English requires a pronunciation guide4 as part of the dictionary entry. But even when words can be sounded out with great accuracy – as they can in Italian – students still have literacy issues related to other aspects of reading, most notably comprehension. Being able to sound out words and passing phonics tests is not a good predictor of reading success. I worked with two large school districts recently where over 80% of K-2 students scored proficient on phonics tests yet only about 40% of 3rd grade students passed the 3rd grade state reading assessment.

A curriculum that teaches reading the way good readers learn should have the following characteristics:

  1. Teaches the basics of phonics, including print awareness, letters, sounds and sequencing, but it does not over drill on phonics.
  2. Once the basics are in place, the curriculum focuses on developing instant word recognition, memory, and meaning which empowers reading success. This allows students to move onto building fluency and comprehension skills sooner and not feel stuck on nonsensical drilling. Teach what each word says (word name and meaning) vs. how to say the individual sounds.
  3. Provides instant and proper feedback to help students develop accurate memories for the pattern and name of each word and avoids guessing.
  4. The instruction provides the appropriate individualized training at the skill level of each student.
  5. The instruction teaches non-content words properly with meaning vs. memorization only as sight words.
  6. The curriculum addresses syntax and semantics.
  7. The overall approach also needs to address mindset and cognitive skills development as needed.


Neither phonics nor whole language has demonstrated a reliable way of teaching most students to read. Failure to recognize and to admit this continues a flawed paradigm that allows the majority of children to struggle with reading, which is a tragedy. I have found at least one unconventional curriculum that can deliver on the true promise of the science of reading. I welcome the opportunity to share my findings with interested parties.

Gary Smith

[email protected]


The Reading Success Movement and the Black Youth Success Movement are programs under Crutcher Cornerstone Community Development Corporation, a 501c3 organization.





4. To prove this point, look up several random words in a dictionary. You should see that about 80% of the words require a phonetic spelling to convey the proper pronunciation.

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