When the ‘Science of Reading’ Goes Too Far (Opinion)

Picture 3rd classroom classroom. A teacher and a child sit next to each other, open brochures in front of them. The teacher starts a timer. The girl begins to read, “Goldfish make good pets. They are easy to care for and don’t cost much to feed. Goldfish are fun to watch as they swim.

“Now tell me as much as you can about the story you just read. Ready, start,” says the teacher, starting the timer again.

The girl quickly scans the passage. “Um, he has a pet goldfish. It is easy to take care of. He likes to watch him swim. It’s a good pet.”

The teacher counts each word the child says in relation to the passage, determines that she has provided three meaningfully ordered details that capture the main idea, and marks the highest score she has: 4.

The teacher restarts the timer and repeats the process with two more passages.

The teacher in this scene tests the child’s reading using Acadience, one of several literacy screenings that the New York City Department of Education mandates elementary schools administer three times a year. And the child, according to the handbook on the teacher’s lap, has just demonstrated excellent reading comprehension.

The department’s mandate was no doubt influenced by the rising “science of reading” movement. Its supporters advocate a greater focus on phonics instruction — structured lessons that teach the connections between letters and sounds — in kindergarten through 2nd grade. They recommend screening programs like Acadience because they generate useful data about children’s phonics knowledge in these early grades. However, in New York, these testing programs are also used in the upper elementary grades, where they offer teachers very little of what they really need: a nuanced and accurate picture of students’ comprehension abilities.

While proponents of the “science of reading” see comprehension as the ultimate goal of readingthey don’t prioritize it as a goal or focus of reading instruction. They argue that as long as readers come to texts with strong decoding skills and a broad knowledge base, comprehension is almost guaranteed. Therefore, according to the thought, instruction should focus on developing students’ knowledge of phonetics (which underpins decoding) as well as broad subject knowledge.

A reading assessment cannot be valid if the type of reading it requires does not match the type of reading we need to do in real life.

The two of us—a teacher educator specializing in literacy and a veteran elementary school teacher—argue instead that teachers should actively support student understanding. This means two things. First, we must teach understanding as a multidimensional experience. We want children to understand what is literally happening in the text (who did what when), but we also want them to be able to analyze how parts of the text (literary devices, figurative language, structural choices) work together to develop ideas. And we want them to interpret the purpose and meaning of the text in relation to their lives and society.

Second, helping students understand means fostering what’s called active self-regulation—the ability to monitor our understanding and correct our reading when something doesn’t make sense. Readers can do this by simply rereading, by strategically focusing their attention, or by deliberately searching for information to fill in gaps in understanding.

Any instrument we use to assess reading should generate information about these two aspects of reading comprehension. In Jessica’s 3rd classroom, the Acadience check did not. Jessica did not sense students’ understanding of how characters change, what an author teaches us, or how details support main ideas, nor did she find students’ ability to appreciate the author’s point of view or analyze how literary devices add meaning to the text. In other words, the assessment did not show her whether children were engaged in thinking that allowed for deep understanding in realistic reading situations.

This screening took over two weeks to administer. Multiplied by three administrations per year, that’s six weeks of lost reading instruction. All he had to show for this time investment were simple numerical results based on the words the children said in their retelling.

The idea of ​​a simple score—the idea that we can quantify reading ability at all—can feel comforting to educators who yearn to tie their teaching to something solid. But screeners like Acadience offer only the illusion of scientific objectivity. After all, a reading assessment can’t be valid if the kind of reading it requires doesn’t match the kind of reading we have to do in real life.

More importantly, how we assess reading shapes how we teach reading. If assessment tools require children to say a certain number of words about an unrelated set of trivial passages, then teachers will tend to emphasize recall and be reluctant to support children in choosing complex, relevant texts to read.

Our approach to reading instruction is embedded in a broad set of educational values—values ​​seemingly shared by the New York City Department of Education and many other districts across the country. In the summer of 2021, when the department mandated the literacy test, it also released a “vision statement” for teaching reading that called for an emphasis on “critical literacy” — instruction designed to “challenge students to be critical thinkers” and “to foster critical awareness.” The statement sees literacy being applied to a “culturally appropriate curriculum”.

However, we believe that the verification mandate and the vision statement are in conflict. The mandate undermines the vision statement’s arguably worthy goals by giving short shrift to the support students need in constructing meaning from diverse texts and then applying that learning to other pursuits.

What’s happening in New York reflects a broader trend in which teachers are expected to negotiate the conflicting pressures to teach reading in a culturally appropriate way, but to value reading in a way that robs it of all relevance.

What might an appropriate assessment look like?

Imagine a 3rd grade classroom. A teacher and a child sit next to each other, open brochures in front of them.

The teacher starts a stopwatch, not a timer. A girl reads a short text about sharks while the teacher notes her decoding errors and tracks her fluency.

“What is the author’s opinion about sharks?” asks the teacher.

The child replies, “Well, the author wants us to think that sharks are dangerous. Check out this headline “You can run but you can’t hide.” It creates a scary feeling. But I don’t agree! Humans are probably more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans. Sharks should be more afraid of us.

There is no numerical assessment, but the teacher notes that the child knows what is literally happening in the text and analyzes and evaluates it.

The child in this scene reads the way we read in real life. We want our children to read with a critical point of view, not to take the author’s opinion at face value. We want our children to empathize. And this kind of reading requires instruction and therefore assessments that are rich, meaning-based, and authentic.

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