Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Advocacy, Journalism, and the Science of Reading

My position in the reading wars is pretty simple:

The person who claims that one particular approach to reading instruction, codified in law and disseminated through teacher-proof scripted program-in-a-box instruction, will successfully turn every single child into a reader--that person either doesn't understand reading and literacy, or they are selling something.

As states line up to make the Science of Reading the law of their land (even if legislators have no idea what the hell it is), a pair of journalists offer some useful perspective (spoiler alert: neither one is Emily Hanford, but she offers something, too). 

One is this piece by Matt Barnum, long my favorite Chalkbeat reporter and now their interim national editor. The piece makes a solid dig into a basic truth about reading and literacy-- being able to decode is not literacy. You can decode phonemes all day, but if you don't know what the hell any of it means, you are no more literate than the software that "reads" articles aloud. For another example-- I can learn to pronounce Latin pretty easily. Phonetically it's a far more tidy language than English. But the fact that I can pronounce Latin words aloud accurately doesn't mean I can read Latin.

I also highly recommend this piece by Rachel Cohen for Vox, which presents a nuanced view of the whole SOR wrangle and a well-balanced picture, including some pointed comments from Mark Seidenberg, whose cognitive neuroscience work has been the basis of some SOR advocacy.

In an interview with Vox, Seidenberg expounded on his criticism: “It’s a difficult situation because people want to adopt better practices, they understand the idea that what was done before was not really based on solid ideas … but now you have a huge demand for science-based practices pursued by advocacy groups and people who don’t have a great understanding of the science.”

Seidenberg believes that moving away from strategies like three-cueing is important. But he warned that a simplistic reliance on some of the foundational reading science research can lead to some misinformed instructional conclusions, like the idea that children should learn units of sound (or “phonemes” ) before letters, and letters before syllables and words.

“That’s a basic misunderstanding,” said Seidenberg. “Phonemes are abstract units that are results of being exposed to an alphabet, they’re not a precursor.” He also lamented that some leaders have incorrectly cited his research to suggest there’s no downside to teaching kids phonics in the early grades for too long. “There are big opportunity costs and the clock to fourth grade is ticking,” he said. “You only want to do a lot of instruction on these components enough to get off the ground.”

All of education is about balancing different, even conflicting, ideas and approaches and interests, while the reading wars run on absolutes. At its worst, the SOR push has been a simple "everything schools do now is wrong and only this is right," which is bunk no matter how you fill in the specifics. So yes, phonics are crucial, and yes, they aren't the only crucial thing. And yes, the love of reading is a crucial thing to fosters, and yes, nobody loves doing a thing they don't do very well. It's a complex, unending discussion.

Stories like the two above are special precisely because journalists have done a pretty lousy job of covering the reading wars. Largely lacking any reading instruction expertise themselves, journalists have done a poor job of distinguishing between people who know what they're talking about and those who don't, as well as distinguishing between anecdote and data.

Education writers association (a group that does not allow full membership for those of us who don't make our primary living writing about education, but I swear I'm not bitter) hosted a panel about covering literacy with Rupen Fofaria (EdNC), Mandy McClaren (Boston Globe) and Emily Hanford. It's not encouraging.

The article about the panel doesn't really distinguish between reading and literacy, for starters.

McClaren notes that "each side" has research, and that the subject is complex and complicated, but it's important, but that it's important not to take a "both sides" approach to writing about  reading. I'm not sure which each or both sides she means. Is there a side in the reading wars that is against teaching children to read? The implication is, at a minimum, that there's one side that is right and one side that is wrong, and the wrong side has to be shut down. And the journalist will figure out which is which. But at worst, the implication is that there are a bunch of people out there actively trying to thwart the Real teaching of reading (that implication is how SOR people were an attractive target for co-opting by Moms for Liberty types).

But for all the people on Twitter who have told me repeatedly that Hanford is a journalist and not an advocate--please read this piece. 

Hanford asserts that the research on how students learn to read is settled--which is an astonishing thing to assert about any research at all. Hanford acknowledges that criticism of her work exists:

There are those who don’t believe the research or don’t understand it, she said. Others agree with the research but didn’t like that the “Sold a Story” podcast focused so heavily on phonics, and less on the other parts of learning to read, such as fluency and comprehension, that are also important.

But phonics is the piece that’s been missing, she said, and the goal was to combat “this idea” that students could largely learn to read without it, without being given explicit, direct, cumulative instruction.

As soon as you declare that your goal is combat a particular view, you're an advocate, not a journalist. And Hanford has other thoughts-- Journalists, she said, have control over the narrative. "We get to be the watchdogs. We get to be the ones who can contribute to what happens." Again, this is advocacy. 

I have nothing against advocacy (obviously). But if you're going to be a journalist, that involves things like trying to understand the various viewpoints, educating yourself to the nuances of the topic, and certainly not declaring that the whole question is settled and all that's left is to push strongly for the side you've decided is the correct one (based on your months of study). 

Coverage of the teaching of reading is hard. It would have to be, because the actual work is hard and complicated and complex and has always been at the mercy of wars between various people with partials understandings of the issues involved. A few journalists are helping. A bunch of other sort-of-journalists are not.

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