If science has identified what works in reading instruction, why aren’t all schools teaching a science-based curriculum?
In order to answer the question regarding why all schools don’t teach scientifically-based reading instruction, it is necessary to consider briefly how reading has been taught in the past. For over one hundred years there has been an ongoing battle in education regarding what type of reading instruction works best for developing readers. One group embraces phonics instruction and the other group supports what was formally called whole language instruction and now operates under the name balanced reading instruction. Phonics instruction has been used for almost 400 years to teach students how to read the English language. Whole language instruction was developed in the 1960s and was preceded by the look-and-say method made famous with the Dick and Jane Reading Series published in the United States in 1930 and Janet and John Reading Series published in Great Britain in 1940.
Phonics teaches students to learn the sounds letters represent and to use that knowledge to sound out words. Whole language teaches that learning to read is a natural process that does not require specific skills such as phonics to be taught; they reject structured, explicit, reading instruction. Children in whole language are expected to learn to read through exposure to good literature.
No reputable research has ever been published to support the whole language method, and the results of the National Reading Panel in the United States, the Rose Report from England, and the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading in Australia all firmly reject this notion and instead support the value of systematic, synthetic phonics instruction as a core component in any effective reading program.
But the entrenched and interlocking interests of the whole language industry did not abandon the lucrative, multi-billion dollar field so easily after scientifically-based reading instruction was defined by reading panels in the United States, Great Britain and Australia. Instead many whole language advocates and publishers simply co-opted the language of the National Reading Panel Report in the United States and claimed that the five core elements identified in the report as being present in their curriculum.
This list of the five critical components of reading instruction provides publishers and authors the ability to claim that their curriculum adheres to research-based reading science by simply mentioning the five components in their marketing materials. But claiming that a curriculum is scientifically-based doesn’t make it so. The hallmark of a scientifically-based reading program is that these five skill strands are organically interwoven into and constitute the bedrock core of the reading curriculum. Many publishers today in order to demonstrate that their programs are scientifically-based will claim to incorporate these five skill strands in their curriculum. However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that their claims are false and that the five strands of instruction they claim to incorporate in their curriculum are not present in any substantial way. Some publishers highlight the five instructional strands in their sales literature as a way to reassure potential customers that their material satisfies federal legislation that requires schools purchase only scientifically-based materials.
Discredited and ineffectual practices now continue in many schools under the guise of a new name for whole language called balanced instruction or balanced reading instruction. The term balanced reading instruction implies that the very best methodology and ideas from both phonics and whole language have been combined into a more comprehensive and effective curriculum. But in reality a majority of programs that employ the term balanced instruction or balanced reading to describe their curriculum are overwhelmingly whole-language based with just enough scientifically-based terminology to satisfy the law. Many adult literacy programs use a learner-centered curriculum which does not teach science-based reading instruction.
EVEN COURSES CLAIMING TO PROVIDE A “BALANCED” APPROACH IGNORE THE SCIENCE OF READING
The notion of “balanced literacy,” which many institutions claim to promote, was developed in the 1990s. This approach was an effort to retain the best practices of the whole language method (presumably preserving the important role of good literature) while injecting greater emphasis on decoding (phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency). However, our analysis of courses revealed that this balance is rarely achieved. We searched our sample for courses that might be described as teaching balanced literacy.
We identified 93 courses in our sample of 223 courses that fit these criteria. Of these, only eight courses (9 percent) devoted lecture time to teaching the science of reading as an approach that aspiring teachers might need to know …only 9 percent of reading courses calling themselves “balanced literacy” courses actually are in fact “balanced“.
The above report was released in 2006. But ten years later in 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality issued an update to this report. In their updated findings they conclude that even after ten years since their initial report was released, more teacher-education programs in colleges and universities continue to cover the components of comprehension and vocabulary than cover phonics, fluency, and phonemic awareness.