The Science of Reading: Getting it Right This Time 

Elizabeth Bassford Vice President of Content and Implementation,

Curriculum Associates

I’m becoming one of those people: in the throes of conversation, I assert music from the 60’s or 70’s people will not know, or reference television shows from my ‘tween years like Mod Squad or Adam 12. There is always a collective blank look and a couple of beats before the chatter picks up again and the train that carries the future slowly pulls away…

I get that same stare when I am speaking to a large group of educators and ask– was anyone teaching during the Reading First years?  Polite silence; maybe a little shifting. If there are a few remaining administrators from my era in the group, the hands go up slowly as if admitting to it is an embarrassment equivalent to having fallen for the Fyre Festival.

It’s risky not to look back at Reading First with a critical eye at a time of great opportunity for us with the Science of Reading. It is important we improve and advance the practices of those years to realize fully, once and for all, a national imperative to teach the foundations of reading explicitly and systematically to automaticity. To that end, I offer three ‘watch-fors’ from our efforts of yore, and what we can do to get it right this time.

This is Not a Simple Swing of the Pendulum

A life in reading is fraught with frustrations and disappointments—amid the hard-won glories of teaching a child to read. Despite years of scholarship, frameworks, approaches, PLCs and sweat equity, we have not been successful in our quest to get all our nation’s children reading by grade 3. I’ll spare you the data here; we all see those numbers and the faces behind each metric on our ceiling at night when we cannot sleep. It’s easy to get jaded, to think, “oh, here we go again…”, but to do that undermines the optimism upon us. To paraphrase Dr. Maya Angelou, when we know better, we do better.

  1. This is not the same science.   Reading research does not sit still. There have been advances in the cognitive camp and brain imaging that overtake the academic research of the decades prior, bringing a fresh set of insights and nuance to our brains on reading. We can pepper what has been proven in the work around dyslexia, what we learn from our colleagues in intervention, in the specialty of teaching multi-lingual learners… all of which take us well beyond “the five big ideas”. Let all that scientific progress and the resurfaced elegance of both the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Rope, neither of which had airtime during Reading First, light our path forward.  
  2. We need little books in little hands.  The tragedy of the 90-minute reading block during Reading First was that the majority of time was spent on everything but reading: drills of the name of the letter, the sound that it makes, and access to one-dimensional decodable readers with wildly excessive decodabilities, rendering them devoid of any content worth thinking about. This time, let us enact explicit, systematic instruction that follows a scientifically research-based scope and sequence of skillsand allows for abundant practice and application in both decodable and readable, knowledge-and vocabulary-bearing text. 
  3. Speaking of knowledge….    Today’s discerning educator must look beyond a skills-centered curriculum. A renewed focus on knowledge is urging us to honor what we know about reading comprehension: the more you know, the more you learn. The best classroom condition we can create is one where lots of happy, independent readers find their joy in both the wonder and the work of reading for discovery and knowledge, building a positive reading identity from that first day of school. In short, the best path to reading is more reading—place-based, immersive reading of culturally-relevant texts that are content rich, compelling, and accessible to all as part of a steady diet of grade-level endeavors.

It is invigorating to witness the hard work underway to overhaul the culture of American reading away from the errant pedagogies of our past. This effort will be intricate, emotional and the best thing we do with the years we give to our calling. Rely on each other, listen to—and critique—the new voices leading us forward. Be unmoved by trends, marketing, the shiny new things that will come stamped with the lingo of our reading revolution. Leave fashion to the Met Gala; let’s follow the science, and only the science, home.  

Elizabeth Bassford is Vice President of Content and Implementation with Curriculum Associates, with a fruitful tenure in teaching, research and development. Focused solely on literacy for the entirety of her 40-year career, Elizabeth has contributed to a number of gold-standard core, specialty and intervention programs. Elizabeth consults with school districts nationally, guiding impactful initiatives with an emphasis on the transformative power of data and high standards for all. Elizabeth holds a B.A. in Education from New York University, and a M.S. in Education from Fordham University.