New York City schools just embraced the science of reading. What is it?

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New York City announced on Tuesday it is switching its 32 school districts, encompassing hundreds of schools, to the science of reading to teach students to read and write.

Over the course of the next year, New York City teachers will have to relearn how to teach literacy as the nation grapples with how to raise dire reading scores. 

“Before kids can learn to love to read, we first have to teach them how to read. And the science on that, on how kids learn to read, is now pretty clear,” New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks said when announcing the change to phonics instruction. “We must give children the basic foundational skills of reading, teach them to sound out words, teach them to decode complex letter combinations and build them into confident readers

Here is what you need to know about the science of reading:

What is the science of reading?

The basic premise of the science of reading, or structural literacy, is a focus on phonics, which is a student’s ability to sound out words or be able to understand how groups of letters sound together. 

Experts emphasize, however, that the science of reading is not just about phonics.

“It’s the explicit and systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and I will also include writing, which is sadly often left out of the discussions but certainly a critical part of early literacy,” said Miah Daughtery, vice president of Content Advocacy-Literacy at NWEA, a research-based education organization.  

The science of reading has risen in popularity as more research has been done to back the method and show it is effective for many students. 

“It’s based on evidence and multiple different research studies, as well as now, increasingly brain science and actual imaging and what we’ve been able to see and learn about the brain,” said Beth Anderson, executive director at the Hill Learning Center, an organization that focuses on helping students who struggle academically. 

Competition with the balanced literacy approach

The science of reading has been in some serious contention among education experts with the balanced literacy approach.

While the balanced literacy approach also can include phonics, it places a bigger emphasis on the “whole language” approach and focuses on ensuring students read works that would inspire them to love reading. 

Proponents say balanced literacy is taught with a combination of group and independent learning that stresses students using “cues” in sentences to understand what they are reading. 

“There’s often an emphasis on larger units of speech and larger units of sound versus individual sounds that you need to learn. It’s often more implicit, and incidental instruction,” Anderson said. 

Critics say this approach leaves behind students who are not naturally good or interested in reading. 

“A lot of the proponents of a balanced literacy approach talk about it being, you know, you’re letting children discover a passion for reading and discover his passion for learning,” Anderson said. “But students can’t discover that if they don’t actually build the foundations and have the background knowledge and the explicit vocabulary and all of the pieces that they need to learn it.”

Post-pandemic struggles

The debate on how to teach students how to read is long-running, practically since the founding of the country, but it has gained increased attention since the pandemic. 

Multiple reports have shown students have had significant reading loss since COVID-19 hit, bringing a renewed urgency to educators and parents who are looking for the best ways to bring their children back up to grade level.

“They’re working with their individual children to teach them how to read, and I think when parents saw what was happening, what their kids were doing,” Daughtery said, it made them “more intimately connected to the kinds of experiences and activities that their kids are doing.”

The pandemic also allowed a lot more money to go toward education and reading in order to prompt more discussions about making a switch to the science of reading, Anderson said.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is trying to push a bill that would require all schools in the state to start teaching literacy with a science of reading approach by next year. 

More than half the states in the country have some sort of laws about the science of reading, either allowing or requiring the instruction in classrooms. 

“I would also be encouraged to see policy movements that are also more comprehensive, including professional learning support for students who are not meeting benchmarks and stronger assessment literacy professional learning,” Daughtery said. “And I would like to see that this policy is adequately funded beyond just the adoption of materials for a significant time to come.”

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