Science of Reading: Evidence-based, Road-tested Programs Enable All Children to Learn to Read

By Eric Steckel | September 21, 2022

Q&A With Rebecca Buckley, Director of Succeeding by Reading

A research-based, scientific approach to reading instruction takes a step-by-step approach that starts with phonemic awareness and phonics.

Over the past year, the debate over the “science of reading” has erupted nationwide. In reality, the recent discussion continues the decades-long “literacy wars.” If you have a child in elementary school who is just learning to read, you may wonder what the debate is about and how it may impact your child.

As we continue to celebrate National Literacy Month in September, we spoke with Rebecca Buckley, Succeeding by Reading Program Director. She helps break down both sides of the issue and how Children Rising’s successful, evidence-based literacy program teaches children to decode the written English language and ultimately learn to read.

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What is the fundamental debate surrounding the “science of reading?”

Phonics takes a rigorous, step-by-step approach to teaching a child to read based on scientific research. It starts with building phonemic awareness—decoding the sound a word makes—and correlating it to the symbol for the sound—the letter. In 1999 congress convened the National Reading Panel. The report published in 2002 determined that lack of phonemic awareness was the basis for most of the obstacles children face in learning to read. There are five essential components of reading that need to be followed in a step-by-step approach to reading instruction:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary & Sight Words
  • Comprehension

Balanced literacy is an alternative teaching methodology. This approach is based on the idea that teaching reading should give children the joy of reading from the beginning. Many felt that teaching phonics was a joyless exercise that failed to instill a love of reading in kids. Despite mountains of research, many teachers felt the step-by-step approach tedious and uninspiring. Balanced literacy was often selected as a way to counter that feeling. It’s important to note that balanced literacy does not ignore phonics altogether. However, it does not have a targeted focus on phonics.

Phonics takes a rigorous, step-by-step approach to teaching a child to read based on scientific research. It starts with building phonemic awareness—decoding the sound a word makes—and correlating it to the symbol for the sound—the letter.

The problem is that, unlike teaching phonemic awareness and phonics as the foundational basis for reading, balanced literacy is not based on research. It’s based on feelings. The phonetic system in English is extremely difficult to teach and learn, with many exceptions. Rightfully, teachers always want to inspire students as part of the learning process. Unfortunately, sharing the joy of reading books was often more of a focus than teaching foundational phonics and learning. Phonics just isn’t as inspiring and was perceived to be an obstacle.

Why is this debate happening now?

Many teachers felt that teaching phonics was a joyless exercise that failed to instill a love of reading in kids. Despite mountains of research, the step-by-step approach felt tedious and uninspiring.

Educators adopted the balanced literacy approach over the last 20 years to put an end to literacy debates and provide a nuanced approach to teaching. Unfortunately, in that time, reading scores have plummeted across the country. The COVID-related loss of learning time has exacerbated the problem.

Interestingly, Oakland is one of the epicenters of the current debate. Starting in the late 1990s, Oakland Unified School District used the Open Court curriculum to teach reading. It was very prescriptive and step-by-step. Open Court provided explicit instruction of phonics, which was very effective at getting kids to decode. For seven consecutive years, test scores in OUSD improved in reading, and Oakland was the leading urban school district in California. But from the teacher’s viewpoint, it didn’t provide the quick fix joy of reading. In 2015, OUSD listened to its teachers and adopted a balanced literacy approach. Since then, kids haven’t learned to decode, and test scores have fallen dramatically. Balanced literacy has been road-tested, and it’s proven to be ineffective.

In 2021, the NAACP Oakland Branch filed an administrative petition to OUSD to ensure the district addressed the literacy crisis in community schools through comprehensive training and tools that follow the research of the science of reading. A coalition of literacy advocacy groups, including FULCRUM and Oakland Literacy Coalition, joined as co-signers in support of the issues raised and knowledge offered by the NAACP within the petition. You can read about the petition on the FAQ Page.

What is the basis of Children Rising’s “evidence-based, road-tested program?”

Children Rising’s Succeeding by Reading program is road-tested in our schools, and the results speak for themselves. Over the years, 75% of children who have had at least 20 tutoring sessions advanced two or more grade levels

We looked at the body of evidence, not how people felt. We wanted to create a program that fits how children learn. Research shows that 35% of children can learn no matter how they are taught. This group of kids substantiates some of the balanced learning approaches. Unfortunately, 40-45% of children need to be taught through explicit instruction. 10-15% qualify as dyslexic, and are the ones that benefit most from explicit instruction.

The balanced literacy approach essentially fails to serve 65% of children. It’s important to note that the 35% that will learn no matter the method will not be harmed by learning to decode.

The Succeeding by Reading program focuses 75% of our instruction on decoding sounds and moving step-by-step towards comprehension. 25% of the time is spent memorizing sight words.

That sounds like a deviation from the research. Why is that?

In English, many words do not follow the normal rules. For example, “said,” “comb,” or “tear.”(Is that a “tear in your trousers or tear in your eye?”)

If it weren’t for the peculiar nature of the English language, we would likely focus 100% on phonics. However, after years of working with children in Oakland schools, we have found that the memorization of high-frequency sight words supports decoding.

Our program is road-tested in our schools, and the results speak for themselves. Over the years, 75% of children in Succeeding by Reading who have had at least 20 tutoring sessions advance two or more grade levels.

We have seen so many struggling kids decode and discover the magic of reading. But it takes time, and the approach needs to be step-by-step. However, we make sure it’s not tedious. The children in our program enjoy working with their tutors. Over the course of the year, most children will advance in their literacy skills, begin to read at grade level and enjoy reading. It’s a blessing to watch.

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