Science of Reading: A Critique

A Bilingual Educator’s Critique of the Science of Reading Movement

Jill Kerper Mora

The Science of Reading is a hot topic on the internet and in the media these days. A plethora of Facebook groups and other social media venues advertising themselves as Science of Reading for XYZ group of educators have sprung up recently. These groups are drawing considerable interest and lots of members with hundreds of comments daily. One example is a Facebook group that calls itself Science of Reading for Bilingual Education. Many of the posts in this group are by dual language teachers who are seeking information about whether the instructional programs they are using in their classrooms are “Science of Reading-aligned.” These queries reflect a genuine concern among teachers who seek confirmation and validation that their instructional approaches are maximally effective for the students they teach.

The issue with these social media that tout their bilingual credentials is that there is often no way for teachers to verify the bona fide expertise of group administrators or participants who comment in the group on the Science of Reading (SoR) research. This is especially problematic for teachers in dual language programs who implement instruction for bilingual and biliteracy learners. This concern is what prompts me to post this analysis and critique of the SoR. My purpose is to challenge some of the claims made in these groups by self-proclaimed “experts” regarding the research on literacy instruction in Spanish/English dual language programs. I present this critique of the SoR as it applies to bilingual learners based on my 40 years of experience as a bilingual teacher, teacher educator and researcher.

This analysis makes an important distinction between the Science of Reading and the Science of Reading Movement (SoRM).  Bilingual educators who visit my website do so with trust in my advocacy for biliteracy learners and their teachers, families, and communities. The term Science of Reading is a global descriptor of research from multiple academic disciplines that informs literacy program design and instruction (reading and writing). In and of itself, the term is not problematic. However, determining the extent to which research meets the criteria for claiming that it is “science” or “scientific” very quickly becomes problematic. Much of what is touted as the Science of Reading does not meet the criteria that the research community sets for itself to ensure the credibility and legitimacy of research and the interpretation and application of research findings. A concern is that the term “science” is being used as a cudgel to marginalize and discredit certain theoretical perspectives and bodies of data that have a track record confirming their legitimacy and credibility, while some other research frameworks claim to be “more scientific than thou.” When we go below the surface, we discover misuse and abuse of the notion of scientific research in service of ideological and political agendas. 

The purpose of this critique of the Science of Reading is to accomplish the following:

  • Review criteria for judging the legitimacy and credibility of claims made in the name of science.
  • Identify misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and misapplications of scientific research that lead away from, rather than toward, effective literacy instruction.
  • Examine what the neuoroscience research tells us about the bilingual brain and literacy learning to articulate the implications of bilingual brain research for effective instruction for multilingual learners. 
  • Debunk false claims that are unscientific and without a credible evidence base in the research literature made by proponents of the Science of Reading to avoid perpetuation of inequities in language and literary education for multilingual learners. 

The format for this analysis is a presentation of a summary of an argument that I make with a link to further elaboration of the argument on a separate webpage. I begin with an analysis of the media’s portrayal of the Science of Reading perspective of the Reading Wars. I elaborate on how journalists are framing an argument around particular teaching strategies for the purpose of promoting fear and distrust of teachers and publishers of instructional programs to promote policies and regulation to mandate more teaching of phonics in the public schools. I present the reasons why this media campaign is detrimental to public education, and specifically to language minority students. I point out that despite claims of “science” as the basis for the policies that the Science of Reading Movement promotes, the media’s portrayal of reading research and the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of certain instructional practices do not qualify as scientific. The SoR Movement seeks to politicize rather than professionalize the teaching of reading and writing in the public schools. The purpose of this analysis is to empower teachers to combat the abuse of the term “science” and to respond with knowledge and expertise to false claims and misrepresented research from the SoR Movement. 

Here I list the related webpages that together present a thorough analysis and critique of the applications of the Science of Reading to language and literacy instruction for multilingual learners. 

Neuroscience Research: Literacy Learning in the Bilingual Brain

Miscue Analysis Research: The Ghost of Whole Language

The Structured Literacy Approach: Implications for Multilingual Learners

Lexical Inferencing: The Truth About Cueing

Science as Metaphor: Debunking the More-Scientific-Than-Thou Argument

Simple View of Reading

California’s Reading Wars: A Brief History

So, without further ado, let us examine together the claims and counterclaims that arise from the new battlefront in the Reading Wars

The Media Portrayal of the Science of Reading

An article in a supplemental edition of the Reading Research Quarterly (MacPhee, Handsfield & Paugh, 2020) titled “Conflict or Conversation? Media portrayals of the Science of Reading” provides an analysis of the media uses strategic metaphorical framing to politicize the teaching of reading. Emily Hanford of APR Reports is one of the journalists’ writing that these reading researchers reviewed to illustrate how the media use discourse intended to perpetuate conflict over conversation. Hanford has authored eight articles between 2017 and 2020 portraying the Reading Wars as a public policy crisis in education. Hanford’s reports carry titles like “Hard to Read” and “Sold a Story” and “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?”  MacPhee et al., (2021) express their concerns about media portrayals of the science of reading with this statement: “The media have asserted a direct connection between basic research and instructional practice that, without sufficient translational research that attends to a variety of instructional contexts and student populations, may perpetuate inequities.” (p. S145).  

In this critique, I demonstrate how Hanford and other journalists use straw man arguments to attack literacy research that is the knowledge base for biliteracy instruction and effective teaching practices for enhancing literacy learning of multilingual learners. In this critique, I analyze Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast episodes using the three criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of the theoretical framework of claims made in the name of science and scientific research using Professor Jim Cummins’ three criteria. I also point out Hanford’s logical fallacies and fallacious argumentation, which include straw man arguments, ad hominem arguments, post hoc fallacies and others. Critical analysis based on the structure of logical argumentation reveals the many fallacies in Hanford’s portrayal of literacy research and instructional practices. 

First, I offer a definition of a straw man argument: “The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it. A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself. By doing this, the arguer attempts to make their opponent look ridiculous and/or make their own position seem like the only rational option. A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself.”

Emily Hanford of American Public Media has declared that teachers are teaching reading the wrong way because they are following “a disproven theory” of how students learn to read. Here are quotations from Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong podcast that frame her argument against “three-cueing.”

“Teaching kids to read this way has become known as “three cueing.” It’s not a term Marie Clay used, as far as I know. But three cueing is based on her theory of how people read. An influential academic in the United States came up with the same basic theory at about the same time. The cueing theory provided justification for not teaching children how to sound out words…because the theory was that good readers don’t have to know how to do that. They have other ways to figure out what the words say. This made sense to Sandra Iversen. She says she was kind of lost trying to teach kids to read. And then Marie Clay showed her a way.”

The first question that is raised here is this: Who is Marie Clay and why is she the target of Emily Hanford’s attack?  To begin with, Hanford misrepresents the body of theory that is the framework for Dr. Clay’s research and curriculum design. 

New Zealand literacy educator Marie Clay’s theoretical model and research base is applied through the intervention program known as Reading Recovery (Clay, 1979). I speculate that these journalists have chosen Marie Clay and Reading Recovery as the target of their attack on reading instruction because as a researcher, Clay is associated with a perspective called constructivism. Constructivism is the theoretical and empirical base for the Whole Language approach. Consequently, Marie Clay’s work is based on a theory of how people read using the entirety of the language of text. This is how Marie Clay (1991: 6) defines reading: “A message-getting, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced. My definition states that within the directional constraints of the printer’s code, language and visual perception responses are purposefully directed by the reader in some integrated way to the problem of extracting meaning for cues in a text, in sequence, so that the reader brings a maximum of understanding to the author’s message.” So, according to Clay, readers use an orchestrated mixture of linguistic and non-linguistic sources of information about text in decoding and comprehending text, which is language represented symbolically through print.

Clay (1989: 275) also explains reading instruction this way:

Thus the route to awareness lies within the learner and the actions taken by the learner. It does not depend upon the teacher’s words or the terminology of instruction. Because children act, they come to know they are acting and what they are acting on. They need support and opportunity to become increasingly independent. As they read, they create occasions for noticing more things about print. This discrimination of new features may be facilitated or retarded by the teacher.

What’s Wrong with Guessing?

In another episode of her podcast, Emily Hanford identifies what she believes to be the real culprit behind the three-cueing system: Guessing. According to Hanford’s interpretation of theories on how students learn to read and write, guessing is the enemy of decoding because it distracts the emergent reader from paying attention to letter-sound associations. 

“So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.” (Hanford, 2019, p. 4)

We must wonder, what is Emily Hanford’s problem with emergent readers’ guessing as they are learning to read? The verb “to guess” means to make a judgment or belief without sufficient evidence or certainty. Guessing goes by many different names: Hypothesize, approximate, predict, inference, postulate, estimate, calculate, speculate, gauge, determine, resolve ambiguity, etc. Guessing is a common phenomenon among learners who are novices at the skill they are learning. Teachers of multilingual learners use students’ guesses or approximations in language use as a valuable source of information about their levels of competence and language proficiency for purposes of designing lessons that address their second-language learners’ zone of proximal development. Guesses are called miscues that are analyzed to inform teachers about a students’ utilization and comprehension of texts in the psycholinguistic and cognitive research in literacy development. So we must ask, why does Emily Hanford report a strong objection to guessing among the proponents of the Science of Reading? 

We also have the anti-cueing campaign being waged by Sarah Schwartz of Education Week writes an article titled Is This the End of “Three Cueing“?

“Cueing has, for decades now, been a staple of early reading instruction. The strategy—which is also known as three-cueing, or MSV—involves prompting students to draw on context and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words. But it isn’t the most effective way for beginning readers to learn how to decode printed text. 

According to Schwartz,, … Research has shown that encouraging kids to check the picture when they come to a tricky word, or to hypothesize what word would work in the sentence, can take their focus away from the word itself—lowering the chances that they’ll use their understanding of letter sounds to read through the word part-by-part, and be able to recognize it more quickly the next time they see it.”

On May 10, 2023 Sarah Schwartz of Education Week published an update on the fate of “three-cueing” in Science of Reading mandates. Schwartz reports state legislatures in Arkansas, Louisiana and Indiana   “cueing” is now officially banned in public schools. See ‘Science of Reading’ Mandates (edweek.org)

Most of these laws promote the adoption of evidence-based practices. But some legislation also bans methods that researchers have called into question. The new Indiana law takes aim at one particular instructional practice—a technique often referred to as “three cueing.”  … The term refers to one method for reading instruction and assessment that’s included in popular curriculum materials and often taught to teachers in preparation programs. It teaches that students can rely on multiple sources of information, or cues, to figure out words. They might look at the letters to sound the word out, but they could also rely on context or pictures to make a guess.  … Many reading researchers have warned against the practice, saying that it can discourage children from putting their phonics knowledge into practice and teach them to rely on ineffective strategies.”

The lack of identification of the “many reading researchers” who have warned against “cueing” and “three-cueing” that is allegedly a theoretical model of reading is itself problematic. This is because other researchers cannot challenge their claims since we are unable to access the empirical studies on which they allegedly base this “warning.” Nor can their fellow researchers dialogue with these “many reading researchers” to offer their own perspective on logical coherence of these warnings, which they allegedly base on scientific research themselves. So perhaps these “many reading researchers” are simply using the term “science” as a metaphor to lend credibility to their ideological assertions. 

Debunking the Three-cueing Straw Man Argument

According to Emily Hanford of APM Reports and Sarah Schwartz of Education Week, “three cueing” is an idea, theory, method, approach, strategy, and system that 75% of elementary special education teachers and 65% of college professors teach, but shouldn’t. Consequently, Hanford declares that we are wrong.  Hanford’s interpretation of the Science of Reading is that this practice is based on a “disproven theory” of how students learn to read. Emily Hanford of American Public Media has a theory of her own about a theory attributed to Marie Clay. Consider the premise of Emily Hanford’s series of articles: Gullible teachers have been misled into basing their approach to teaching reading on a “theory” that has been “disproven.” Never does Hanford state clearly exactly what the theory is, but whatever it is, it is proclaimed to be harmful to children, “wrong”, “debunked” and “disproven.” In fact, Hanford implies that Marie Clay’s theory is prejudiced against the graphophonic cueing system, the cueing system of printed language based on the relationships between letters as graphic representations of the sounds of oral language. In other words, Hanford accuses Marie Clay of being biased against the alphabetical principle on which written text in alphabetical script is based. This negative judgment against Marie Clay and her work as a literacy educator and researcher is elaborated throughout the six sessions of Hanford’s unscientific critique of reading instruction that she claims is based on the Science of Reading.

Does Emily Hanford believe that other cueing systems, specifically semantics and syntax are not cues available to readers to use to make meaning from printed text? Do these cueing systems not exist? Or are they just not useful to readers, according to Hanford? Or are there forbidden cueing systems because the only “legitimate” cueing system, as Hanford and Schwartz argue, is the graphic representation of phonology, what is known as phonics? These journalists appear to believe that readers should use no subsystem of language other than phonology to make meaning from written text because of the alleged dangers of “guessing” at the meaning of words. 

If Emily Hanford and Sarah Schwartz were students in a university course where they turned in term papers with a statement with claims about the effects of a “disproven theory” without citing any authoritative sources with a thorough description of the “disproven theory” and who had allegedly disproven it, the professor would give them a failing grade on their term papers. However, this is exactly what these journalists have done in their argument. Academic research requires citation of specific research studies to support conclusions drawn from research findings. These journalists claim that there is a group of researchers and policy makers who have the “science” needed to protect children from the alleged harm done by teachers who have bought into the Marie Clay’s “story” about how to teach struggling readers. The lack of citations may not be problematic in opinion pieces in the media, but it is very problematic when journalists claim to be speaking in the name of “science.”

What Emily Hanford and Sarah Schwartz describe as “cueing” is direct, explicit and systematic instruction through transactional feedback that a teacher provides an individual student as the learner reads a passage orally with the teacher, one-on-one. The reader’s process of making meaning from language is inherent in producing and comprehending language, whether it is oral or written language.  Therefore, the process of “cueing” in reading cohesive text based on the cues available from the printed language of the text acts as a prompt from the teacher for the reader to seek information from the written language to make meaning from the text. An attack on the use of “context” in reading is an attack on language itself. 

According to advocates of the Structured Literacy approach to reading instruction (Odegard, 2020; Spear-Swirling, 2019), direct, explicit and systematic are the characteristics that instruction exemplify Structured Literacy. How much more direct, explicit and systematic can reading instruction get than when a teacher guides an emergent literacy learner as the student reads orally and is given immediate supportive and corrective feedback one-on-one as s/he encounters points of difficulty with a text? There is research evidence that students’ learning of orthographic knowledge (phonics) is both implicit and explicit (Apel, et al., 2019). There is little disagreement among literacy researchers that context of a text is important for resolving ambiguity (MacDonald et al., 1994; Parault Dowds et al., 2016). This occurs at different levels of text (word, phrase, sentence, discourse) as the reader extracts meaning from forms and features of the language of the text. Yet, Structured Literacy advocates appear to be opposed to teachers guiding and instructing emergent readers on strategies for meaning making from text when reading orally with them one-on-one. This posture is incomprehensible to the majority of literacy researchers, but most particularly, those of us who conduct research on literacy and biliteracy instruction with multilingual learners. Click here for further discussion of Structured Literacy from the perspective of literacy instruction for and with multilingual learners. 

Dual language researchers and educators have no problem with having approaches such as Structured Literacy compete on equal footing in the marketplace of pedagogical knowledge with other approaches for adoption as the theoretical orientation of teachers. However, justifiably, we object when Structured Literacy is falsely claimed to be the only “scientifically-based” or “evidence-based” approach to literacy instruction for all students equally, without regard to their linguistic and cultural characteristics. It is disingenuous and counter-productive for proponents of Structured Literacy to claim that other approaches and the strategies that they do not support are not “research-aligned” or are not based on a credible theoretical framework, as do the critics of Whole Language. Simply because certain literacy researchers are not familiar with the wide range of methodologically-sound studies on certain concepts or constructs and instructional approaches or strategies from other academic disciplines does not mean that there is no such “evidence” of their use and effectiveness. 

Click here to read more about the research on readers’ miscues in oral reading referred to as miscue analysis. Keep in mind that this is the body of research that Hanford and Swartz claim has been “disproven” and “debunked.”

Click here for further debunking of the media’s claims against “three cueing” as a strategy for reading instruction based on the multidisciplinary research in second/foreign language acquisition on lexical inferencing.

When the Science of Reading is Not Science

Yet another example of the SoR Movement’s attack on “three cueing appeared in the February 2023 Language Magazine in an article by Kari Kurto titled “Clarifying the Science of Reading.” Kari Kurto is the National Science of Reading project director at The Reading League. Ms. Kurto’s argument against certain pedagogical practices without citing any scholarly scientific theoretical framework or empirical research illustrates the very core of the problem with the “Science of Reading.” First, Ms. Kurto makes this claim: “The scientifically based research on reading instruction is a critical understanding that has not been historically provided to educators.” No citation is provided here, so we must conclude that this is Ms. Kurto’s opinion. On what basis does she make this claim? Is this claim true? Based on what evidence? If so, who is it that has allegedly withheld this “critical understanding” from educators? And why would the culprit have done this? What could the motive possibly be for withholding “scientifically based research on reading instruction” from educators?

Next, Ms. Kurto makes this sweeping claim, again without citing any scientific research studies: “Currently, practices that run counter to how the brain processes print and language, such as three-cueing and leveled literacy, are still widely used in classrooms.” Ms. Kurto provides no citation from any “reading scientists” as an authoritative source of scientific research to support her claim that a certain “practice” called “three-cueing” and a certain commercial program called “leveled literacy” run counter to neuroscience research on how the brain “…processes print.” Since Ms. Kurto provides no citations, as a researcher myself, I have no way to look up the studies that may have empirical data to support this claim, if such data exists. It is unclear what it is that teachers are being told to stop doing by the reading scientists, but it sure seems like that’s what the Director of the SOR project for the Reading League expects to happen.

Are we in the academic research community expected to simply take Ms. Kurto’s word for it? Ms. Kurto is speaking in code here to followers of the media campaign against scientific research that does not fit the SoR Movement’s definition of “scientific.” The claim that certain reading instruction practices or strategies run counter to brain research is patently false. There are overtones of this argument in this article by Kari Kurto of The Reading League. Yet, Ms. Kurto of the Reading League does not cite Emily Hanford as the authority for the rejection of “three-cueing and leveled literacy” in her article in Language Magazine. Click here for an explanation of the findings of the neuroscience research on literacy.

Are journalists really qualified to declare a theory about reading to have been disproven? Are they qualified to pick winners and losers in the Reading War? Let us compare the media theories of reading that are claimed to be based on science with what neuroscientists themselves say about reading in the brain through their peer-reviewed published research. A frequently referenced theory about reading is called the Simple View of Reading (Hoover & Gough, 1990). Kurto (2023) cites this study in the Reading League article, calling the SVR theory “…the research that the framework used to describe the reading process is built upon…” (p. 34). The theoretical framing and research on this theory can inform our understanding of the two sides of the Reading Wars debate. Click here for a description and analysis of the theory of the Simple View of Reading. 

Theory in Education Policy and Practice

The nature of the problem posed by dubious claims made in the name of the Science of Reading is that the education community and the academic education research community expect SoR proponents and advocates to themselves adhere the standards for scientific research to support their claims. Professor Jim Cummins in his book titled “Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners” (2021: 136), describes the process in the mainstream of scientific inquiry for ensuring the legitimacy and credibility of claims. 

“In complex educational contexts, research findings become relevant for policy purposes only in the context of coherent theoretical models or frameworks. It is the theory rather than the individual research findings that permits the generation of predictions about program outcomes under different conditions. Research findings themselves cannot be directly applied across contexts. However, when certain patterns are replicated across a wide range of sociolinguistic and sociopolitical contexts, the accumulation of consistent findings suggests that some stable underlying principle is at work. This principle can then be states as a theoretical proposition or hypothesis from which predictions can be derived and tested through the accumulation of additional data…. This process is in the mainstream of scientific inquiry… observing phenomena, forming hypotheses to account for the observed phenomena, testing these hypotheses against additional data, and gradually refining the hypotheses into more comprehensive theories or models that have broader explanatory and predictive power.” (p. 136)

Professor Cummins (2021) offers three criteria for evaluating constructs and claims that are advanced under the rubric of the analytical processes common to all scientific inquiry:

  • Empirical adequacy—to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?
  • Logical coherence—to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?
  • Consequential validity—to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

Cummins suggests that these criteria “… enable us to distinguish between evidence-free ideological claims and evidence-based, logically coherent and pedagogically useful claims.” The criteria of empirical adequacy and logical coherence apply to all theoretical propositions, while the criterion of consequential validity is context specific” This is because “… isolated research findings become relevant for social policy and educational practice only when they are integrated into coherent theoretical frameworks.” (p.  191-192).

Click here for an analysis of the legitimacy and credibility of the arguments against “three-cueing” based on Professor Cummins’ criteria. 

Also, please see this article in the June edition of Language Magazine that presents an analysis of the arguments against “three-cueing” based on the Professor Cummins’ criteria for judging the legitimacy of claims about research. Mora, J.K. (June, 2023). To cue or not to cue: Is that the question? Language Magazine, 18-20. 

California’s Reading Wars: A Short History Lesson

A short history lesson is in order here. Remember the Reading Wars in California back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s? We bilingual educators need a quick stroll down memory lane to remember the history of the attacks on bilingual education and Whole Language in California during the 1990’s. We need to be reminded of how the anti-bilingual education initiative Proposition 227 and the Reading Wars were intertwined. this history that we share as bilingual educators, we need to talk about the attack on Whole Language and its research base because a renewed attack on Whole Language is at the core of the “disproven theory” straw man argument. The SoR Movement needs a scapegoat, a boogie man. Since it appeared to work before, the theoretical/research base of Whole Language has taken on that role as a straw man for their propaganda campaign.

Click here for an overview of why we bilingual educators understand and utilize the research base of the approach that became known as Whole Language. 

Why Literacy Research Matters

The latest battle in the Reading War pits three identified approaches to literacy instruction against each other: Whole Language, Balanced Literacy and Structured Literacy. The Science of Reading Movement has taken the stance that the Structured Literacy approach is the only approach that is supported through “scientific” research. Consequently, this amorphous group of self-proclaimed experts is claiming to have the authority to determine what commercial programs and instructional practices meet their criteria for being “scientifically based” and effective. They are attempting to take on regulatory power and authority that is beyond the scope of identifiable government agencies and academic entities. We in the community of advocates for educational equity for multilingual learners must challenge this encroachment on our knowledge base and policy initiatives. Our knowledge base for multilingual literacy includes the legitimate and credible research from Spanish-speaking countries on literacy learning and teaching of monolingual Spanish-speaking student populations. Click here for Dr. Mora’s review of Spanish literacy research.  

In conclusion, the claims and arguments of the Science of Reading Movement against multidisciplinary research on second/foreign language acquisition do not themselves meet the criteria for scientific research. For instance, the neuroscience of reading research provides evidence to affirm the applicability of the reciprocity of the components of the Simple View of Reading: decoding and comprehension. The neuroscience research does not delegitimize any particular approach to reading and writing instruction or nullify other research data bases. Instead, this extensive body of research leads to understandings of the universals of learning to read and write in different languages’ orthographies while highlighting language-specific features of their linguistic subsystems. Bilingual educators must be critical consumers of research who are vigilant in recognizing when research is being used for ideological and political purposes rather than to enhance teacher agency for supporting literacy learning for all students. 

Please click on this link to view Dr. Mora’s CABE 2023 Conference presentation on the bilingual brain research titled El Cerebro Lector: Avoiding Anglocentricities in Appling Neuroscience Research.

Thank you for your attention. I invite your comments and feedback.
Jill Kerper Mora