Transcription of the episode Critiquing the “science of reading” movement: Teaching reading is “both/and” 

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Lynne Einbender and Susie Rolander. Lynne and Susie are faculty members in reading and literacy at Bank Street College of Education. We’ve invited them to talk about how children learn to read, especially in the context of the current push across the country for what is called the “science of reading.” Welcome, Lynne and Susie. 

[00:00:40] Lynne E: Thank you. So nice to be here. 

[00:00:42] Susie R: Same.

[00:00:43] Amy H-L: Lynne, maybe you could start. Would you speak briefly about what its advocates mean by the “science of reading”? 

[00:00:53] Lynne E: Yeah, so that’s a really good question. I’ve seen a lot of variation about that and it also, it depends on who is speaking. So I feel like the largest megaphone has been the media and a lot of what is said in particular, what Emily Hanford has said, and has been promoted, is an emphasis on phonics, mainly to the exclusion of other parts of reading. And that’s pretty much where we take issue with it. Of course, phonics is part of learning to read and continuing to read. That’s not really in question. But it’s the balance of other parts of the reading processes. It is many integrated processes that are necessary. I’ve seen other people amending the dominant science of reading stance to include comprehension, for example, and fluency. If that’s the version they mean, then we’re okay with that. So it’s really hard to answer that definitively because there are so many people speaking from different vantage points, some of whom are educators and some of whom are in the media.

[00:02:19] Amy H-L: Susie, is there anything you’d like to add to that? 

[00:02:22] Susie R: No, The only thing that I would say is that it’s a very broad range, and we hear mainly the ends, as we often do. And so there are a lot of folks in the field who actually are much more middle of the road, but because of the kind of politicization, we hear the loudest voices, and that makes it seem like much more of an either/or.

[00:02:52] Lynne E: Yeah, I would agree with that. I feel like it’s been sensationalized, I guess because that attracts attention. 

[00:03:01] Jon M: What are the most effective ways to support children in learning to read and acquiring literacy?

[00:03:09] Lynne E: We would say that there’s more than one effective way, but the current focus is on the teaching of phonics, and again, it almost feels like a red herring because I don’t know anyone, and I haven’t known anyone for several decades, who would contest that systematic phonics instruction is a useful thing. There’s more than one way to teach phonics. There are more standardized ways of teaching phonics and ways of teaching phonics that are more responsive to children, which is where we would end up. But the question of whether to teach phonics or whether teacher educators should teach teachers how to teach phonics, to us, is a settled thing. We don’t even really understand why that’s been so prominent. 

The history of reading instruction has gone back and forth. In the 19th century, the back and forth was between phonics and whole word approaches. In the earlier part of the 20th century, there was also a whole word approach, and many people might know that as like the Dick and Jane readers, they mainly relied on memorization. That was challenged. A really famous book in 1955, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” said “That doesn’t work and we need to go back to phonics.” But phonics has never gone away, so it’s really not the what of it, but the how of it and how skillful teachers are on bringing in students’ engagement and teaching phonics in a way that it’s pretty readily implemented in the process of reading. Other parts of the reading process include read-alouds, which are really central to helping kids build their oral comprehension, their vocabulary, and that’s really essential, as essential as phonics to the reading process, learning to read. Susie, anything I missed?

[00:05:24] Susie R: Yeah. What is important when we think about how we teach kids to read is that it’s a very complex process and there are so many pieces of it that one of the issues that has come up, and we are seeing a lot in schools, is that there has been kind of an overcorrection or a leaning into the importance of teaching phonics. And we’re not saying that it’s not important. Absolutely. But what has happened recently, actually a lot, is that we’re leaning into that while losing other pieces that Lynne just spoke about. And what the consequences of that are that students get to second and third grade, and they can decode or figure out the code, how to say a word or a passage, but they aren’t able to understand it. And so that’s for us why, we need to be teaching phonics and we need to be teaching comprehension at the same time, and we need to be teaching how the phonics we teach integrates into when students are actually doing that reading. So, It’s complex. That’s a huge piece of it. 

[00:06:44] Jon M: One of the elements, I guess, in the so-called “reading wars” over the past maybe 30 years, has been the idea of balanced literacy. What does that mean and how does that fit into things?

[00:06:59] Lynne E: Well, I would actually go back, to the seventies and really we’d start with whole language, which came out of, really a lot of linguistic information coming into the mix, especially like psycho linguistics and social linguistics, and that really privileged comprehension and kids’ engagement with reading over some of the “how” to read things. We would call that approach embedded phonics. As it came up, it was taught, so when students came towards it, they couldn’t decode. They were taught the skills right on the spot in response to what they were reading. Balanced literacy, which hit the schools in the late eighties into the nineties, attempted to hang on to that engagement with whole text, high quality literature, which is really the purpose for reading, and added or other components, what we would call “word work,” – phonics is absolutely word work – although it wasn’t exclusively phonics because there are other things that are important like morphemes, which are the endings. And people would know the suffixes and prefixes, for example, are also really important reading. So it’s phonics and more in the word work. Along with that continued emphasis that came out of whole language, which is largely carried by the read aloud and differentiated reading instruction, which is what guided reading was designed to be.

One of the problems, and this is actually an ongoing problem in American education, is that it wasn’t fully understood out in the field and it was unevenly implemented. If balanced literacy is conscientiously implemented where you’re giving enough attention to the development of comprehension and decoding skills, and you’re doing it in a differentiated way, meaning you have kids who are in similar places working on similar strategies, and you’re taking them through a teacher facilitated learning process, and I should also add opportunities for them to read independently books that they’re able to read so that there’s so a lot of practice reading… Bottom line, kids learn to read by reading, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t skills that we teach, maybe in isolation of the actual reading process.

That’s one of the things that we’ve been seeing that really concerns us in the classrooms, we’re in. In first grade classrooms, kids are now, or teachers are now, mandated to spend 40 minutes on phonics and they’re saying, we don’t have any time to do the read aloud. So to us that’s an out of balance situation.

Again, going to what Susie said, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. And it’s harder to teach both/and. It’s easier to just get on one bandwagon and say, this is what we’re going to do and everybody’s going to do it. And it’s a program. You just follow it, and you hold everybody accountable for doing the same thing at the same time. However, that’s not effective instruction.

[00:10:30] Jon M: Can learning to read be separated from learning to write?

[00:10:37] Lynne E: They’re separate, but they’re symbiotic. Talk about phonics, for example. Early writing in most classrooms uses as a process called “invented spelling” in order to spell that first graders rely on or, and even younger, or sometimes older, too. But when young children rely on using phonics to sound out words and it’s seen as… Well, first of all, it’s a fabulous opportunity to use the phonics that they’re being taught in the writing process, and it liberates them from being concerned about getting the the right spelling down so that they can really focus on what they want to say. And then at a later point in the writing process, the teacher does explicit instruction around editing, which could look at some of those invented spellings and look at the standard spelling and make comparisons between the two. So there are many opportunities for them to enhance each other. 

[00:11:47] Susie R: Absolutely. And I, I also, it’s interesting, as it gives kids also a purpose. If we teach writing well, it gives kids a purpose to write. So if the child is writing the principal, or if the class is writing the principal, that they really want to change some type of rule out in recess, and by writing that, even at a certain point developmentally, if they haven’t been taught the exact spelling, if they send that message to the principal and the principal starts talking to them and they get that changed, there is an authentic purpose for their writing. And again, with reading, the more we read, the better we become. The more we write, the better writers we become. So it’s also giving them authentic reasons and, and really in the end, we should be giving authentic reasons for both reading and writing.

[00:12:46] Lynne E: Jon, another part is that time is the currency in schools. There’s never enough of it, and how you spend it is really consequential. And so if we take time away from other parts of the reading curriculum, which includes all of the things we were saying before — comprehension, fluency, decoding, vocabulary development, writing in the ways we were talking about, and word study, which would include spelling. A full fledged language arts program includes all of those components. And so if, if we focus on one of them, it takes up so much time that we have to like let go of others. We’ve created an unbalanced reading program basically. 

[00:13:39] Amy H-L: A majority of states and many districts have passed laws related to “science of reading” instruction. How have these impacted student achievement, or have they? 

[00:13:54] Lynne E: Well, the jury’s out on that because what happened the last time we went through this, which was pretty much mandated by No Child Left Behind, at least for all the districts who needed the Title I money, the consequences of privileging phonics instruction over other parts of reading instruction, we didn’t see the consequences pretty much, as Susie was saying, until third grade. In-house, people talk about the third grade cliff, and it’s where expectations change pretty dramatically. It’s to the upper grade, upper elementary grades, and sometimes you don’t really find out the child’s reading issues until third grade. They could have been decoding accurately, let’s say, in grades one and two. And then when content gets more complex, if comprehension instruction was, let’s say, very minimalized, that’s where it’s going to come to fruition. So sometimes you don’t find out like that quickly. 

And also, a lot of times people don’t make connections. Sadly, they don’t make connections between, let’s say, what’s happening with third graders and what happened with them when they were first graders,. let’s just say 

[00:15:21] Jon M: The “science of reading” advocates say that it’s necessary because so many children are not becoming proficient readers. What would you say to them, and more generally, what would you advocate as the best ways to help more children become proficient readers? What’s the best way of approaching that? 

[00:15:45] Lynne E: Well, it’s not a quick fix. I would say the best way would be to prepare teachers more thoroughly to teach reading. Right now in New York, which is one of the states that at least requires a Master’s degree. But even for a master’s degree, only requires two courses in the teaching of reading. And that includes everything, reading, writing, comprehension, decoding, the whole shebang. And if let’s say they were to require more preparation for elementary school teachers, we would have more people going into the field better prepared to teach.

It comes down to an investment in teachers, which of course is an investment in children. If we truly had the will to solve the problem in a long-term way, that would address it. Because one of the things that we haven’t talked about is learner diversity, which is, Huge. And so the best way to address learner diversity is to have a highly skilled practitioner who has a repertoire of teaching strategies and can pull from those strategies in response to the kids the teacher is teaching. I mean, that’s the most effective. This is why when people keep saying what’s the most effective intervention? And tutoring, high quality tutoring, comes up, and this is decade after decade. And it’s because a highly trained tutor is responding to the individual child. Now, obviously that doesn’t translate well into a classroom where you’ve got one teacher to 25 kids, but there are ways to do that. I don’t know if we want to get into the weeds about that. But the insight though is still true. There are patterns to how kids learn to read. Absolutely. But there’s also tremendous learner diversity. Many different factors go into that. 

[00:17:50] Susie R: The difficulty with embracing a program, which is happening so much now, is a program does give a baseline of a scope and sequence and kind of a roadmap, but to add on to what Lynne was saying, not all of your students in your class are going to need exactly what the program says each day, right? And so really what we try to teach at Bank Street is given a certain program, how would the teacher differentiate for the different learners in their class? So we actually, in the kind of one robust, we have a literature class and we also have a how to teach reading and writing class. And in the reading and writing class, their final project actually is, after working with a student all semester long, design a week of literacy curriculum based on a program, but then tweak the program in order to meet the needs of their students. So it’s what Lynne is talking about, of having some really highly skilled teachers because back to the point of time, if we are teaching all kids the same and through the same program, we’re wasting many kids’ time. And so we really need to understand our students first and foremost, and then be trained enough to understand what each of those students need and how we can meet their needs in our classrooms. 

[00:19:20] Lynne E: Just to add on to that, a way to sum it up is that any program is going to work for some kids, but no one program is going to work for all kids. And so when an administrator or department of education, or wherever the mandate is coming from says this program has to be implemented in this way at this pace for everyone in the classroom, there’s going to leave some kids behind. It’s going to be a right fit for some kids and it’s going to be the wrong fit for some kids. Some kids will already pass what’s being taught. Some kids aren’t ready for what’s being taught. So it just goes back standardization is not a good way to teach a wildly diverse group of students. It’s just not the right fit.

[00:20:13] Jon M: You are sort of answering this already, but, as you know, “science of reading” advocates specifically criticized widely used programs such as Lucy Calkins’s Reading Workshop and Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention System (LLI) as being the wrong way to teach reading. What’s your opinion?

[00:20:37] Lynne E: So what I would say about Lucy Calkins is that she also has a program, she’s got, a number of programs, is the same thing that we said about phonics programs. We also would say about those programs, that doing it the same way for all kids and also schools across many, many contexts in geographic regions… It’s better if people have the background knowledge and the preparation to look at let’s say a Calkins unit and, as Susie said, tweak it for the students that they have. And Susie does that in her reading class. And I also do that in the course I teach on writing. Students look at published curricula and in some cases, change it a lot. In some cases, change it less. It depends on whom they’re teaching. So the critique that’s lobbed at Calkins is the same critique we would lob at any program. 

If schools want to outsource their decisions to publishing companies who publish these programs, then they need to realize that they’re going to need quite a few different programs because no one program is going to do everything. So Calkins does something. Wilson does something else. If you want to rely on programs, you’re going to need quite a few of them, and you need to have somebody who’s knowledgeable enough to pull together different programs so that you have a full bodied comprehensive reading curriculum. I would say the same thing with Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention System (LLI). It’s essentially a form of guided reading. It’s one part of a reading curriculum.

[00:22:31] Jon M: Are there any particular resources that you would recommend to our listeners who want to learn more about any of these questions? I know when we were talking the other day, there was one book you thought was particularly exciting. 

[00:22:45] Susie R: Yeah, I think that Jan Burkins and Kari Yates have really done a fabulous job. Their book is called “Shifting the Balance,” and they have looked at the “science of reading” and balanced literacy and have basically come up with six shifts while not throwing away the important pieces like we have talked about, the teaching of comprehension, the, reliance on really incredible read alouds, literacy, literature rich experiences for kids, and they have come with six really important shifts for blending those and taking the best. That’s a K-2 book, and they’re also coming out later with a 3-5 book. And their resources are phenomenal.

[00:23:41] Jon M: So we haven’t talked in terms of reading and children with special needs. Is there anything that you’d want to say about that?

[00:23:52] Lynne E: A lot of the push for “science of reading” is coming from families who are understandably really frustrated that their children’s special needs have not been adequately addressed in the schools, and this is a larger systems issue. I don’t feel like we’ve done special education well in this country. There are some exceptions to that, but writ large. And so those kids often have fallen through the cracks. And some of what the “science of reading” is advocating for is actually an appropriate instructional response for the roughly 20% of kids who really struggle to learn to read for a variety of reasons. An important thing to know is that those kids are very idiosyncratic learners. There’s no one reason why somebody has a hard time learning. So if anything, they need a more individualized approach, like an intervention program that really does fit them, but that’s not the reason to give an entire class an intervention program.

It’s kind of like the idea that they’re inoculating the other kids or something against reading failure, which is the name of one of the very popular programs, Preventing Academic Failure. The title tells you that it’s coming from a deficit perspective. Kids that are coming from really different linguistic and social and cultural and ethnic backgrounds are expected to conform to the the demands of English as it’s coming through in the phonics programs. And that’s problematic in terms of kids hanging onto either identity and their first language oftentimes. 

[00:26:00] Susie R: Two thoughts about learners of English. First is just the value of being bilingual, right. I don’t think that is even discussed. Many times we request it, require it when kids get to middle school and high school. But when kids come in, that other language or languages are not valued. The other thing we don’t really understand well when we are so driven by test scores is that the process of acquiring English is incredibly complex and it takes, according to research, three to seven years for full acquisition.

And so actually learning the phonetic code and decoding is, is actually the easy part in terms of all of that. And the complex piece comes with the the higher order thinking that one has to do in a new language. So I do think we have to think about that when we are assessing new language learners in terms of their reading, that it actually takes quite a long time.

[00:27:07] Lynne E: And also, as we said earlier, the oral comprehension is a really foundational component to learning to read. So yes, you need phonics, but you need the oral comprehension. So if you’re only just developing that, the time needs to be given for kids to get more fluent before I would layer phonics on on top.

[00:27:35] Jon M: Is there anything that we haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add? 

[00:27:39] Lynne E: The question of equity, which is an ongoing challenge in American schools for a whole host of reasons, is something I’d like to to talk about. Going back to the idea of standardization, some people think that if everybody is getting this same approach, that is in fact an example of equity. And I would argue that it’s actually not, because kids have different needs, and if that standardized approach is not addressing them, then we’re not achieving that goal. 

The other thing that we didn’t really touch upon is whose language, whose form of English, is represented in the programs that are being purchased. By elevating one particular kind of English, the dominant discourse, which is white English, over all of the many other Englishes that our children are speaking, schools can send a message to kids that undermines aspects of their identity. And that’s really concerning also. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s problematic. Susie, do you want to add anything to that? 

[00:29:16] Susie R: I agree with you on the standardization, and it comes back to the fact that we have to pay attention to the learners in front of us. And there are some learners who come who have in depth background knowledge that helps in terms of their oral language comprehension. There are some learners who don’t. And so if we are primarily focusing on phonics, it actually disadvantages those students who come with less background knowledge because we aren’t giving them the oral language comprehension that they are going to need. So by simply saying, we are going to give all of these students this phonics program that they are going to learn to read, well again, that’s one part of reading, the decoding. But if you’re not giving them the other part, then you’re actually disadvantaging them because as we’ve spoken before, they get up to the more difficult readings with complex language and vocabulary, and then they fall away because they can’t actually sustain the reading and the comprehension.

[00:30:28] Jon M: Thank you., Lynne Einbender and Susie Rolander of Bank Street College of Education. 

[00:30:35] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners,. Check out our new video series, What would YOU do?,” a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click Video. In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but rather to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints. 

If you’ve found this podcast worthwhile, please share it with a friend or 10. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. 

Check out our website for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas.

Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

Click here to listen to the episode