Is Your Child’s School Still Using Debunked Reading Theories?

Like many people who care about kids learning to read, I’ve been hearing a lot about the “science of reading” lately. The other night, I asked a teacher friend if their school is using a curriculum based in the science of reading. He wasn’t sure, but said they recently switched to materials produced by the Saavas Learning Co. and asked me if that was what I was talking about. 

I didn’t know.

As a parent of struggling readers and as a professional who works for an education advocacy organization, you’d think I would know. 

Naturally, I took to the internet for answers, but quickly realized that anyone can claim to use the science of reading in their curriculum. So how does one know for sure? 

First, you’ve got to know what to look for.

What is Science Of Reading?

I used to think the science of reading just meant phonics and “decoding” words, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could more easily tell you what it’s not (e.g., whole language, leveled reading scores, etc.).

But when savvy people talk about the science of reading, they’re typically talking about a preponderance of scientific research (literally thousands of studies), done over the last 50 years or so, all over the world, that tell us how children best learn to read. More technical definitions exist that talk about developmental psychology, educational psychology and cognitive neuroscience, but it can be understood by knowing a few key categories of the science.


Some key science of reading elements include: 

  • Background knowledge - The more words you know and the more you know about the world, the easier it is to recognize words and understand their meaning.
  • Comprehension - The ability to process text and understand its meaning.
  • Decoding - The process of translating print into speech (i.e., you can read and say the words “tension” or “double-hitter” without knowing what they mean, or what they mean in a given context.  
  • Orthographic mapping - A mental process where our brain learns words (the spelling, pronunciation and meaning), and locks them into our long-term memory subconsciously so we don’t have to sound them out once learned. It’s amazing how our brains work. Here’s an excellent seven minute video from The Measured Mom that explains it in more detail.
  • Phonemic awareness - Awareness of the speech sounds in words.
  • Phonics - The relationship between the sounds of the spoken language (phonemes), and the letters or groups of letters (graphemes).

What It’s Not

As mentioned above, there are a few things that can signal your school or teacher is not using instructional approaches based on the science of reading. Each of them are much more thoroughly explained by Emily Hanford, an investigative education journalist credited with exposing some harsh realities about how reading is taught in this country. Here are the basics:

  • Whole language - the whole language approach is a method of teaching reading that relies on surrounding children with books and people reading. Essentially, the belief is that children learn to read similar to how they learn a language. The discredited approach became popular in the 70s across the U.S., Canada and New Zealand and is still widely used today.

  • Three-cueing - Three-cueing goes hand in hand with whole language and is a method of teaching that cues (or prompts) the children to guess the word they’re reading, rather than sound it out. There are three cues: 

  1. Semantic/meaning cues (Does it make sense?) 
  2. Syntactic/sentence structure cues (Does it sound right?)
  3. Graphic/visual cues (letters) (Does it look right?)

Who’s Behind these Debunked Theories?

Lucy Calkins is the author of an influential and almost religiously followed reading curriculum called Units of Study.  Her curriculum was based on the disproven whole language theory and encourages teachers to prompt kids to use sentence structure to predict words as they read. 

In 2020, AMP Reports reported Calkins was changing her views to support the practice of sounding out words. Emily Hanford produced a riveting podcast series Sold a Story which examines how Calkins and others could be so prolific and yet so wrong about reading instruction. 

Fountas & Pinnell is the most influential curriculum publisher in America, according to a 2019 national survey by EdWeek. As of November 2021, they’re standing behind their disproven curriculum approach that teaches children to rely on pictures and context to read guess words. If your teacher talks about leveled literacy, this is where it came from and it’s not a scientifically sound approach. 

So how can you know whether your school is using the science of reading to teach your kids?

First, understand that a curriculum alone is not enough. You also need to have a sense of how the teacher is actually using it.

Steps Parents Should Take

This stuff matters. Across the nation, roughly two-thirds of fourth and eighth-grade students aren’t reading proficiently. More effective science-based reading instruction can change that for millions of children, including yours and mine.

What can you do?

First, learn more about the topic. In addition to the links in this article, Hanford put together a great reading list.

Next, ask your school for the name of the ELA curriculum it uses and the publisher. Then look up the curriculum on EdReports, a curriculum evaluation nonprofit. They’re more standards-focused than tuned into the science of reading, but still helpful.

Finally, query both your child and their teacher about the reading approach being used. Ask your child if the teacher encourages them to look at pictures to guess unfamiliar words. Or, if they ask students to look away from the word and think about what would make sense. Ask what the teacher does when they come to an unfamiliar word.

Ask the teacher if they encourage students to sound out unfamiliar words or predict words based on context, sentence structure, or pictures. Ask them what they do to support your child’s phonemic awareness, background knowledge, and comprehension. 

Finally, be kind as you discuss this with teachers, administrators and other parents. Unfortunately,  most have been taught to believe in the whole language approach, three-cueing, Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell.

If you need help advocating for science-backed reading instruction in your school, parents of children with dyslexia can be your best allies. You can find some of your state’s parent advocates through the Decoding Dyslexia directory.

Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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