Blog Post
Science of Reading and the Practice Pendulum

The controversy around the Science of Reading has unfolded like a good story, with all its key elements: two sides, heroes, villains, myths debunked, generations of students impacted, and career teachers’ hearts breaking from regret.  In October 2022, the NAEP report card painted a bleak picture for today’s post-COVID era students: 68% of them are not able to read proficiently by the end of 4th grade. Meaning that more than two-thirds of students have not acquired the reading skills they need to succeed in school by the time schools stop teaching it. 

Between 4th grade and 12th grade, this gap only widens. In middle and high school, we no longer teach reading explicitly. We expect that our students know how to read, and that they can use those reading skills to analyze character development in their class novels, to study chapters on photosynthesis in their science textbooks, to read the fine print on their student loan agreements. 

But what if they can’t read? What if they don’t know how to accurately decode new multisyllable words? Like pho-to-syn-the-sis? Or what if they can read each word perfectly, fluently, but then cannot tell you a single thing about what they read? How then, do they excel in history, in science, in life beyond?

And how do they catch up? Because not only are we not teaching reading in middle school and high school, we don’t even make books* for students who are reading below grade level at this age. 

To become a stronger reader, you must read. The more, the better. But how can you meaningfully practice reading as a 9th grader with choices like “Junie B jones?” And what’s your alternative?


The Science of Reading has brought to light a great deal of research, highlighting the complex systems at play as our brains rewire to process written language. This instructional policy shift comes after a multi-decade “balanced literacy” era, which de-emphasized phonics instruction in favor of a “whole book” approach. Which was itself a reaction to the preceding philosophy… which prioritized phonics and decoding. 

As research is applied to practice, the risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction is high. To develop strong readers, explicit decoding instruction is necessary, but not sufficient. For students to build fluency, comprehension, and a love of reading: meaningful practice and independent reading opportunities are equally fundamental. 

In conclusion, while the pendulum of reading instruction has swung between phonics-heavy and whole-language approaches, the Science of Reading offers a more nuanced understanding. Explicit phonics instruction is crucial, but it must be combined with opportunities to build fluency, comprehension, and a love of reading through access to engaging and age-appropriate materials for all students, even those struggling beyond elementary school. Only then can we create a generation of strong readers who can not only decode words but also understand and enjoy what they read.

*Up until now. Click here to learn more about Storyshares’ solution for reaching older, striving readers.