For almost two centuries, the debate about teaching reading has raged. Not every day, but in spurts. It started in Horace Mann’s day in the early 19th century, and periodically flared up again, as in the 1950s, when Rudolf Flesch wrote a national bestseller called Why Johnny Can’t Read, excoriating “look-say” books like the Dick & Jane series and calling for a revival of phonics.

In 1967, the literacy expert Jeanne Chall wrote the definitive book, called Learning How to Read: The Great Debate, which was supposed to end the debate. It didn’t. She recommended early phonics, followed by emphasis on engaging children’s literature. Chall warned against extremes, which would lead to extreme reactions. In the 1980s, the “whole language” movement swept the reading field, led by anti-phonics crusaders. A reaction set in, as Chall warned it would. No Child Left Behind mandated phonics instruction in 2002, based on the findings of the National Reading Panel.

I covered most of this contested ground in my 2000 book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. My book came out before NCLB was passed, so it did not cover the post-1999 developments. Chall warned against going to extremes between the pro-phonics and anti-phonics ideologies. She said we had to avoid extremes, yet here we are again, with phonics now bearing the mantle of “the science of reading.”

I favor phonics, as Chall did, and agree with her that it should be taught early and as needed. Some children absolutely need it, some don’t. Nonetheless, I maintain that there is no “science of reading,” as there is no science of teaching any other subject. There is no “science” of teaching history or mathematics or writing. There are better and worse ways of teaching, but none is given the mantle of “science.” Calling something “science” is a way of saying “my approach is right and yours is wrong.”

Tom Ultican writes in this post about the cheerleaders and critics of “the science of reading.” He is especially critical of journalist Emily Hanford, who has been the loudest advocate of “the science of reading.”

He begins:

The Orwellian labeled science of reading (SoR) is not based on sound science. It more accurately should be called “How to Use Anecdotes to Sell Reading Products.” In 1997, congress passed legislation calling for a reading study. From Jump Street, the establishment of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a doomed effort. The panel was given limited time for the study (18 months) which was a massive undertaking conducted by twenty-one unpaid volunteers. The NRP fundamentally did a meta-analysis in five reading domains while ignoring 10 other important reading domains. In other words, they did not review everything and there was no new research. They simply searched for reading studies and averaged the results to give us “the science of reading.”

It has been said that “analysis is to meta-analysis as physics is to meta-physics.

Ultican reviews the recent history, starting with the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) at the beginning of this century. He describes it as the work of dedicated professionals that has been distorted. What he doesn’t know is that the panel was selected by Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He believed passionately in phonics, as did a majority of the NRP. After the election of 2000, Lyon was President George W. Bush’s top reading advisor. The NRP final report strongly recommended phonics, decoding, phonemic awareness, etc. Given the membership of the panel, this was not surprising.

One member of the NRP wrote a stinging dissent: elementary school principal Joanne Yatvin of Oregon, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Yatvin complained that the NRP was not balanced and that it did not contain a single elementary teacher of reading.

In 2003, Yatvin wrote in Education Week (cited above):

Out of the 15 people appointed, nine were reading researchers, two were university administrators with no background in reading research or practice, one was a teacher- educator, one a certified public accountant (and parent), one was a middle school teacher, and one an elementary principal (me). When one researcher resigned after the first panel meeting, the NICHD declined my request that he be replaced by an elementary-level teacher and left that position unfilled. As a result, the panel included no teacher of early reading instruction.

Moreover, the science faction of the panel could hardly be considered balanced. All were experimental scientists; all were adherents of the discrete-skills model of reading; and some of them had professional ties to the NICHD. With so many distinguished reading researchers available in the United States, it is difficult to understand why the NICHD could not find one or two involved in descriptive research or with a different philosophy of reading.

A balanced group that included classroom teachers of early reading would have produced a nuanced report. The NRP report became the basis for the $6 billion-dollar “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind. An evaluation of the program by the federal government found that more time was devoted to reading instruction because of the NRP recommendations, but there was no statistically significant improvement in students’ reading comprehension.

The death knell for Reading First, however, was not the evaluation of its results but charges that some of those responsible for the program had conflicts of interest and were steering lucrative contracts to corporations in which they had a financial stake. The Department of Education’s Inspector General substantiated these charges. Kenneth Goodman, a major figure in the whole-language movement, released an overview of the scandals in the Reading First program.

Be sure to read the critiques of “the science of reading” quoted by Ultican, especially those by Nancy Bailey and Paul Thomas. Today, even the New York Times and Education Week write uncritically about “the science of reading,” as if it were established fact, which it is not.

It seems we are doomed to repeat the history we don’t know.