The S Word


During a recent visit to the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago, I spent a few minutes paying my respects to one of my favorite exhibits, the giant pendulum which greets you as you enter the weather pavilion. It’s hypnotic to watch that pendulum follow its unchanging course back and forth across the circular perimeter, knocking down pegs arrayed around the circle at regular intervals. Once, my fascination with the phenomenon led me to teach a whole science unit about pendulums in my elementary school classroom.

There’s a lot to be learned scientifically from the movement of the pendulum, but I think I’m drawn to its workings for metaphoric reasons as well. The constant and predictable movement from one point to its diametrical opposite represents so much of what we observe socially and politically. The outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd was sure to be followed by a wave of anti-CRT sentiment. Although we’ve all been schooled on Newton’s Law of motion which states, among other things, that “All actions have an equal and opposite reaction,” there appears to be an occasional exception for pendulums, which are capable of swinging back further in the opposite direction than the original movement.

That’s what I fear is happening with the current hoopla about “the science of reading.” Just to recap, the dominant approach to reading instruction in the early grades for the past several decades has been balanced literacy, a version of which was known earlier as whole language. It’s important to understand that both of these approaches, though not quite synonymous, were part of an earlier pendulum swing away from the numbing phonics-only instruction which preceded them, along with reliance on Dick and Jane readers that were devoid of any real or engaging content. The intention was to look beyond the initial stages of learning to read to what teachers hoped would create “lifelong readers,” lovers of books and literature.

It’s not surprising that this noble effort produced an over swing of the pendulum, which reduced the attention to phonics, and which introduced some practices that were not helpful to emerging readers, like substituting sounding out words for guessing at difficult words based on context or picture clues. The result has been some troublesome data, particularly from the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress about the percentage of children reading “proficiently.”  In the current context of teacher and public school bashing for political reasons, these numbers have been weaponized — this year’s most overused term — which has allowed a blurring of the distinction between proficiency and reading on grade level. 

If you read back through my postings over the years, you will find numerous entries about the over-reliance on test score data in the shaping of educational policy. The origins of this approach can be traced all the way back to the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 which painted a dire picture of American schooling. Recent evidence has emerged from some of the original authors of the report about the ways in which the data was manipulated to make the points that the powers -that- be had intended to hammer home from the start. So, look with suspicion on another pendulum swing built on a foundation of easily misinterpreted data.

Back to phonics. All the proponents of balanced literacy have been engaged in mid-course corrections of their curriculum, some more diligently than others. I’ve spent time in a lot of classrooms over the years, and I can testify to the fact that I have never seen a reading teacher worth his or her salt who didn’t include a heavy dose of phonics in their instruction. Recent evidence from the “science of reading” has highlighted additional corrections that are needed, and this is happening. My fear is that the pendulum principle I’m playing with here will negate and eliminate all the valuable aspects of the balanced literacy approach. The colorful, engaging and relevant reading material which didn’t exist in the Dick and Jane days has made reading time a joyous part of the instructional day in so many classrooms, as has the presence of rich libraries, which provide children with the agency to choose their own reading. These should not be lost in the revision of current practice.

Can I pause to say a word about why the Science of Reading — the S word of my title — elicits such a visceral reaction in me? When you attach the word Science to anything, it’s as if you preclude the need for any further discussion of the topic. The matter is settled. There are areas where that may be true, but reading instruction is not one of them. There’s a lot still to be learned in this field and my fear is that in a decade or two we will discover that this so-called settled science has returned us to where we were in the dead hand days of nothing but phonics, once again in need of the fresh air that Balanced Literacy brought.


PS. After I finished my pendulum piece, Diane Ravitch posted her take on the seemingly never-ending Reading Wars, part of which I append here to bolster my case:

In my opinion, Jeanne Chall (kindergarten teacher turned Harvard professor of literacy) settled the issues in her book called Learning to Read: The Great Debate. Her authoritative book, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, was published in 1967. She came out in favor of both early phonics and a rapid transition to children’s literature. She insisted that learning to read was never either-or. I wish she were alive to slap down the journalists and pundits who are now insisting that phonics and phonics alone is “the science of reading.” I feel sure she would laugh and say there is no science of reading. She warned that if we didn’t avoid either-or thinking, we would continue to swing from one extreme to another.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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