Love It or Hate It, the Science of Reading Gains Traction in Schools

Andrew Bauld

In 2018, Anders Rasmussen arrived as principal of Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa, NY, in his words, a “reading neophyte.” A former high school English teacher and assistant principal, Rasmussen came to the new job with a basic background in elementary reading curriculum and a readiness to learn what was working at his new school and what needed revamping.

What he heard from teachers was that there was a need to rethink the way reading was taught.

“What that started for me was a real effort to understand reading and how we teach it,” Rasmussen says.

Until then, the district had used an amalgamation of several different reading programs to provide a balanced literacy approach to reading instruction.

The concept of balanced literacy appeared in the 1990s, a curriculum meant to appease two camps in the long-feuding reading wars—those favoring explicit phonics instruction on one side; on the other, whole language advocates who believed simply exposing kids to a lot of books would get them to learn to read naturally.

Critics of balanced literacy say the approach, which emphasizes student choice, independent reading, and small group work along with some phonics, fails to incorporate the science of reading and the wealth of research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have produced over the last few decades.

Rasmussen hadn’t been trained in any one program, so he immersed himself in everything recent studies said about how kids learn to read. He came away convinced there was a clear pathway to get students reading on grade level.