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The Art and Science of Reading Instruction

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

If you’re interested in reading instruction, you’ve probably heard about an approach called the Science of Reading (SOR). Advocates of SOR suggest that the slow reading achievement gains shown within the United States over the past three decades result from reading instruction that’s not scientifically grounded. Embracing science, according to these advocates, leads to significant, substantive improvement in literacy achievement.

SOR has been around as long as scientists have studied reading development and instruction, but the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report in 2000 was a major milestone in the SOR movement. These highly respected scientists and literacy scholars reviewed the scientific research on reading, determining the foundational skills required for effective reading curriculum: phonemic awareness, comprehension, phonics or word decoding, vocabulary or word meaning, and reading fluency (both automatic word recognition and prosody).

The NRP Report led to teachers, schools, curriculum developers, policy makers, publishers, and political leaders working to include all these elements in their reading curricula and programs. For example, President Bush’s reading initiative, Reading First, made findings from the NRP Report a central part of its program. But after several years of implementation, analyses of Reading First indicated that students’ reading outcomes had not substantially changed.

Even 20 years after the NRP Report, with nearly all reading instruction in the United States at least partially guided by the NRP’s findings, reading achievement has barely budged from where it was in 1992 for grades 4 and 8, the two grade levels regularly assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Why haven’t we seen the progress promised by this orientation toward SOR? Some in the SOR community suggest that phonics is not taught with sufficient rigor (as directly and systematically as it needs to be) in early education. SOR advocates also suggest that younger students are often given mixed messages about word decoding (taught to analyze but also encouraged to “guess” using context) and that schools typically adopt an overly simplified model of reading focused solely on word decoding and comprehension.

Reading instruction can be studied and guided by science, but the teaching of reading is also an art.

The problem at hand is in fact more complex than the lack of science guiding reading instruction. Reading instruction can be studied and guided by science, but the teaching of reading is also an art, in much the same way the practice of medicine is guided by science, but its practice is an art. That’s one reason being a teacher is so challenging. A good teacher must be both a scientist and an artist. In our quest to base reading instruction on science we have, as a community, neglected the artistic aspects of teaching.

When reading instruction is guided primarily by science, the instruction can take some odd forms. Students spend time reading nonsense words in isolation, work to become fast readers just to achieve some scientific fluency norm, and strive to succeed on scientifically developed tests and assessments. None of these activities are authentic reading. As a result, students may disengage.

I am not advocating for moving away from a scientific approach to reading instruction. On the contrary: over the course of my career, I’ve engaged in many of my own scientific studies of reading and reading instruction. But the science must be artfully applied to create truly effective, engaging instruction. Three characteristics help define artful instruction: authentic, aesthetic, and creative.

  • Authentic reading instruction should look and feel like real reading as much as possible. Students’ reading should involve reading real words and real texts for real purposes. Nonsense words aren’t inappropriate, but they should be used sparingly and strategically.
  • Aesthetic reading instruction should be aimed at touching the heart. Give students opportunities to have the kinds of emotional (aesthetic) responses adults crave in their own reading.
  • Creative reading instruction means giving teachers choice and agency in how they teach. Too often teachers are required to follow a script. Creativity should also be encouraged in students as they show their understanding of texts. Ask them to write their own poems and skits in response to texts or have them create visual artworks inspired by the texts they’ve read.

When educators can achieve the right balance between science and art in reading instruction, we’ll be closer to achieving the long-held hope of proficient reading for all students.

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