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We Need to Pay Attention to the Science of Reading!

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 3 Comments

The scientific evidence base on how we learn to read and how to best teach reading has been growing and converging over 40 years. This includes brain imaging studies that show how our brains learn to read and underlying causes of why some students have difficulty learning read.

Sadly, teachers often do not have access to this evidence base. Many teachers report that their preservice education in college did little to prepare them for teaching reading. Many veteran teachers report a lack of quality professional development once hired that could help them improve their reading instruction. And for too long, the reading wars have confused teachers and administrators. These wars started in the 1990’s when whole language advocates succeeded in convincing too many schools that learning to read comes naturally without the need for explicit instruction in decoding skills. Even today, there are many reading “experts” that say they promote a “balanced” approach to beginning instruction, but what that actually represents is a little bit of incidental phonics thrown in on top of the same approaches to reading instruction that have not worked for the past 25 years. The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, were just released—and things aren’t looking good for the country’s young readers. 

Reading performance has dropped significantly among both 4th and 8th graders since the last release two years ago. Just 35 percent of 4th graders are considered proficient by NAEP standards as of this year. That’s down from 37 percent in 2017. And 34 percent of 8th graders scored at the proficient level or higher for this year, down from 36 percent in 2017. 

I recently had an opportunity to hear Emily Hanford present a keynote at The Reading League’s annual conference in Syracuse where I had the opportunity to present a workshop. Last year I focused a blog post on Hanford’s 2018 American Public Radio piece “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” An investigative reporter, Hanford started out a couple of years ago researching why so many college students have to take remedial reading. Her search led her to an even larger question – Why are so many students not learning to read in elementary and secondary grades, and why aren’t the colleges doing a better job of preparing teachers? I find it interesting that it took someone from outside the education and literacy community to bring to public scrutiny how bad things have gotten in terms of our failure to teach reading.

This summer, Hanford followed up that piece with a new one titled “At a loss for words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers” in which she details how the “three cueing” approach that has long been promoted by whole language educators together with a refusal to use what we have learned from research about effective reading instruction continues to hurt kids. Tim Shanahan wrote a blog post about the three cueing system last March in which he also points out that there is no research to support this approach that so many teachers still (mistakenly) think is the best way to teach reading.

The good news is that I see evidence everywhere that finally, there is an uprising of educators around the country who recognize that research must be what drives our instructional practices, not theories or something being promoted by publishing companies. Even the International Literacy Association, long known for its lack of support for explicit phonics instruction, put out in 2019 a position paper titled “Meeting the Challenges of Early Phonics Instruction” in which they clearly state the need for phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

Another factor that is driving increased attention on the need for science-based reading is the large number of dyslexia laws passed across the country over the past few years. Scores of parents of students with dyslexia have been working in a grass roots way to get legislation passed that highlights the need for science-based reading instruction that includes explicit phonics instruction, as summarized in a PBS news hour piece from April, 2019.

How is Keys to Literacy addressing this need?

Our professional development programs for K-3 (including Key Comprehension and Key Vocabulary and Keys to Early Writing) have always been tightly aligned to the research about effective ways to teach these skill areas to young children.

We now have a new training offering that offers professional development based on the science of reading for ALL components of beginning reading instruction: Keys to Beginning Reading. It is a full course that totals 31.5 hours of PD covering these nine modules: Reading Basics, Oral Language, Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, Sentence Structure, Text Structure, Comprehension.

We originally designed the course for a large district who explained that they needed something that would provide practical training based on the science of reading for the large numbers they hire each year for elementary grades who just do not have sufficient knowledge to effectively teach reading. The course is now available to schools across the country, including a train-the-trainer version that large districts are asking us to provide so they can train large numbers of teachers.

Contact Keys to Literacy if you would like to learn more about Keys to Beginning Reading!

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. jfreihoefer

    I appreciate this article and understand the difficulties that can occur when teaching children to read. I am a Title 1 teacher and have also taught in the elementary grades. While I understand the point that Emily Hanford is trying to make in her article, “At a loss for words”, unfortunately she does a disservice to so many teachers who understand the research and work tirelessly to help children read. Her example of children reading and getting cues to look at the picture and first letter is only a snapshot of a portion of a lesson. Teachers use those strategies but know their students and how to scaffold their learning to take them beyond just these strategies.
    I, too, understand the need for phonics instruction. However, not all students will need it. Some children read effortlessly. Others struggle day in and day out even with interventions in place that match their needs. Other factors can play a role as well including ELL, Special Education, little family support etc, etc.
    Your professional development programs look wonderful! Administrators and superintendents need to take the lead to move their districts forward in consistent and ongoing professional development in literacy instruction.
    Thank you for this article.

    • Joan Sedita

      Thanks for your comments and kind words about our PD programs. I think most people, including Hanford, agree with you that teachers work hard to meet their students’ needs and to differentiate their instruction appropriately. And you are correct that some students will learn to read regardless of the approach used. However, after spending over 20 years working with students who struggle with learning to read as well as reading all the research meta-analyses about effective instruction, I truly believe that at least 50% of our students need (and deserve) an explicit and systematic approach to teaching foundational reading (and writing) skills. This number may be even higher in districts with high numbers of ELLs and children who have minimal exposure to rich oral language before coming to school. This goes for decoding skills (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency) and meaning based skills (i.e. vocabulary, comprehension, text structure). The research also has found that even those students who easily learn to read still benefit from phonics instruction, especially as it relates to growing their spelling skills.

  2. Sera L.

    It is shocking that it has taken so many decades of research findings to influence daily classroom practices and yet “what research says” has been widely ignored. We need to counter the dominant one-size-fits-all entrepreneurial curriculum that dominates schools today and seems the dominant model for the future. I agree that science-based reading instruction is what will raise reading achievement and I am feeling more optimistic as there is an uprise in educators who recognize that fidelity to a flawed program is not a virtue and it remains up to us as educators to alter our schools’ budgets for our students to be successful readers. This article was an interesting read, many thanks for posting!



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