What happens when the science of reading fails

Yes! There’s the science of reading but there’s also the art of reading, here’s why we need both. 

Reading is a complex task and one necessary for success in life. It involves an understanding of how printed texts include letters that make certain sounds and combinations of letters to join these sounds to make words. The ultimate goal of reading is to comprehend the meaning of a string of words so that you can learn about different topics and/or enjoy stories. 

But many students find learning to read difficult. And reasons for this vary greatly. Some research says certain incidents such as trauma might affect brain development. Also, some brains may be atypical and therefore need different ways to help them work. But it may not just be cognitive impairments that impact on children’s reading ability

Understandably, a number of opinions and approaches are offered in the research literature regarding the most effective approach to teaching reading, some controversial. Many note different competencies needed for fluent reading including constrained and unconstrained skills. In addition, many commercial programs that are not evidence-based have been developed to address student learning needs in reading. 

Given reading is so vital to success in life it is critical we support students who find reading hard. Such a concern is a focus for many governments and it often becomes personal because people want what is best for children. I hope that this blog can help people understand there are two (if not more) ways of thinking about supporting readers. That is from both a science of reading approach AND an art of reading philosophy.

The science of reading

The science of reading (SoR) represents “best practices for reading instruction” identified through scientific methods. SoR explores what the brain does when we read. Known as neuroscience, evidence suggests that several cognitive processes are required for competent readers. When these processes go wrong researchers in the science of reading offer different strategies that teachers can use to help their students.

In my research with expert speech pathologists, we offered a manualised approach involving intense intervention for students based on the Simple View of Reading or SVR. The SVR involves two parts to being able to read fluently. These are word recognition and language comprehension. Word recognition involves being able to decode printed words on the page and language comprehension is how we make meaning from a group of words.

Another approach is to use decodable readers. Decodable readers are books that slowly introduce specific letters and sounds, that is, each book covers a grapheme-phoneme combination such as at, ow or ai. They are often repetitive, ensuring the child can learn these combinations in early reading programs.

But what happens when even these approaches fail children? I believe some interventions that stem from cognitive science do help struggling readers but we also need to inject special care, compassion and perhaps more emotive approaches to support what might be impacting students’ ability to read. This is why the art of reading is equally important.  

The art of reading

Do you remember your favourite book as a child? It may have been one you read yourself or one read to you. What was it about the book that attracted you? The art of reading refers to the pleasure you feel when reading books or “celebrating your power to turn shapes on a page into a lifelong adventure”.

According to the OECD, reading for pleasure or enjoyment is “an important prerequisite to becoming an effective learner” and continues to influence adult motivation and skill. Many authors skillfully write books using literary devices that can also spark our imagination. In fact, books can take us to many places, help us become better citizens, and extend our knowledge across different topics.

If reading is difficult, there are still many ways that we can help children ‘access’ books and stories such as being read to. Mem Fox, a world renowned Australian Children’s book author has a wonderful website explaining how to read aloud to children. She notes that reading aloud can foster an “essential enchanting engagement with books, stories, rhymes and songs”. 

Storytelling is also an important part of learning to read. For many cultures, learning comes first through oral language and much research has explored the connection between oral language and early reading success. Stories enable cultural continuity and heritage and are a powerful way to share knowledge. Therefore, the art of reading acknowledges that the reading process can be both social and cultural.

The art of reading is a philosophy that sees the beauty in texts. It is a process that should be enjoyed. It relates to the literary prowess of the written word and how they engage and inspire us to be better people. Certainly, the Australian Curriculum espouses that learning English “ helps create confident communicators, imaginative thinkers and informed citizens. It is through the study of English that individuals learn to analyse, understand, communicate and build relationships with others and with the world around them”.

If our own curriculum and others around the world acknowledge the beauty and power in being able to read, then why are we still saying one approach is better over others?

Perhaps it comes down to people’s own personal philosophies in life and how we view success. Yes, reading is critical to post-schooling success, without adequate reading skills we limit the ways in which we can communicate with others. We also limit our capacity to be employed. But being successful is not just about earning potential but also how we relate to others and what we can contribute back to society.

It is ok to agree to disagree. Ultimately, we all want the best for every child so for me, it’s like tacos – why don’t we have both! “Porque no los dos?” Because if we don’t we might have fluent readers but we won’t have readers who see the beauty and joy in life.

Georgina Barton is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. At USQ, She is the discipline lead for literacy and pedagogy.