Is teaching children to read really ‘rocket science’?

by | Oct 29, 2023 | Teaching Struggling Readers

Some people resist this description of the knowledge that teachers need.

Not so long ago, the general attitude to reading was ‘how hard can it be?’. Reading, the ‘experts’ said, was as natural as language acquisition: if children are exposed to print early, given positive experiences with books, and allowed to create meaning from stories, they become good readers.

That approach was challenged from the mid-1980s by reading researchers such as Keith Stanovich (1986, 1993) and Louisa Moats who articulated, in her seminal 1999 paper Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, that the main cause of literacy problems in schools was that “the difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated” (p.11). Although it has taken some decades and formidable effort, there is now a growing appreciation (widespread might be too optimistic) of the technical knowledge required to teach reading, especially for those students who find it most difficult.

However, recently some in the ‘science of reading’ community have begun to push back on this title, (including responding to this post) arguing that with effective preparation, anyone can teach reading. The point about preparation is key. Why do we need preparation? Because, as Moats points out, the knowledge base for teaching reading is “extensive, hidden and complex”. She argues that 60% of children will learn to read regardless of the teaching method used. But 40% have significant difficulties acquiring reading, or lack fluency ,and so need systematic, explicit instruction (p.9). We know that 20% of children arrive at secondary school reading well behind the level required – a number that is consistent across the English-speaking world (Ricketts, 2020).

Moats’ paper sets out four domains of knowledge that teachers need to master in order to be effective teachers of beginning reading:

  • Understanding knowledge of reading psychology and development;
  • Understanding knowledge of language structure which is the content of instruction;
  • Applying best practices in all aspects of reading instruction; and
  • Using validated, reliable, efficient assessments to inform classroom teaching.

Each of these areas is itself complex. As an example, the first point above consists of further subsets of knowledge: basic facts about reading, characteristics of poor and novice readers, and how reading and spelling develop. Although this knowledge seems essential for any teacher, let alone a teacher of reading, even the basic facts are frequently unknown or misunderstood. (If you want to know more, besides reading Moats’ paper, we suggest Kathy Rastle’s chapter in The researchED Guide to Literacy, or Chapter 3 in our book, Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading.)

Further, we would argue that for teaching adolescents with longstanding reading problems, the knowledge level required is even greater, given that managing motivation, identification of poor strategies, and coaching skills for better strategies are essential. In a secondary school environment, intervention is likely to come at the cost of curriculum time, so effective teachers of reading must also be able to employ approaches which enable students to learn at a much faster rate than ‘business as usual’ to minimise the impact.

The main reason that some seem to be opposed to the notion that “teaching reading is rocket science” is that the phrase is off-putting, because it makes the learning required seem too extensive. They argue that we now have a thorough understanding of how reading develops, and the most effective ways in which to teach it. Further, we can train teachers in this knowledge systematically. As a result, teachers can significantly increase the success of their students by employing evidence-based approaches.

On the other hand, is it fair to teachers or students to present this knowledge as simple? Perhaps describing it as straightforward proceeds from ‘the curse of knowledge’ (experts tend to underestimate the challenges that novices will face)? Or is it the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect (we underestimate the difficulty because we don’t realise how much there is to learn)?

A day may come when the teaching profession is so adept at mastering and deploying this knowledge that it will be straightforward. But we are nowhere close to that point yet. In our own work, we regularly encounter simplistic approaches to reading based on vague notions of exposure to print and the love of stories. Most senior leaders we meet freely acknowledge that they know little about the field. Many support staff who work in the literacy area have had very little training, yet they have been left to ‘get on with it’ for years. While some teacher preparation programmes are changing, there are not yet government programmes which will support teachers and support staff working in schools to acquire the systematic knowledge required.

When Moats was asked about the title of her paper in an interview, she explained:

We are never going to get anywhere if our approach is teachers ought to be able to do this simple thing called teaching reading. I think the rocket science of all this has to do with the requirement of a good teacher to understand what is involved in kids learning the alphabetic code and that requires meta-linguistic awareness that speech sounds are different from letters and that speech sound processing is a requirement and underpinning for learning the code. I find that that’s kind of counter intuitive. People don’t get that. They don’t think about it, they don’t know what we’re talking about. (Boulton, 2003)

Moats’ point, of course, is not that the knowledge required to teach reading is unattainable; her argument is that there’s a lot to learn. Is it attainable? Of course: how to attain it is the focus of her paper. But we do ourselves and our students a disservice if we minimise the technical knowledge required to be successful in this field, particularly for those who are hardest to teach. After all, if 60% of children will learn to read regardless of the method used, shouldn’t teacher training focus on the skills required to give success to the 40% who won’t? And shouldn’t we be aiming to have the skills to ensure that every child leaves school able to read well?

What does this mean for schools who have committed to reading for all?

  • If you are a senior leader, it means ensuring that staff, particularly support staff, are given the time and expertise to develop their teaching skills.
  • If you are a classroom teacher, it means studying so that you are familiar with the causes of reading problems, and what you can do in your lessons to support those students while intervention tutors develop their skills.
  • If you are an intervention tutor, it means committing to substantial training on rigorous assessment, motivational coaching  and evidence-based teaching methods.

All that learning takes time and effort. But it is attainable, and the effort is repaid many times over by the results. Let the last word go to a student who, having reached Year 10 with a reading age of six, learned to read in thirteen months at age 16. As a result, he passed his GCSEs, completed sixth form and took a university degree.  He simply said, “Thank you for this life-changing experience.”

 

 

You may also be interested in reading:

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

On Reading

Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results

Finding the Right Partner

References

Boulton, D. (2003) Dr Louisa Moats: Teaching Teachers to Teach Reading. Retrieved from https://childrenofthecode.org/interviews/moats.htm

Moats, L. (1999, 2020) Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.

Murphy, J. (Ed) (2019) The researchED Guide to Literacy. Woodbridge: John Catt

Murphy, D. and Murphy, J. (2018) Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Knows About Reading. Woodbridge: John Catt

Ricketts, J., Lervåg, A., Dawson, N., Taylor, L. A., & Hulme, C. (2019): Reading and Oral Vocabulary Development in Early Adolescence. Scientific Studies of Reading, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2019.1689244

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