A Message from SEAL Executive Director: Why the "Science of Reading" Isn't Enough

May 15, 2024
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We find ourselves amidst ongoing discussions surrounding the "reading crisis," and it is hard not to feel a sense of urgency. With alarming statistics and growing concerns, action is certainly needed. But as we witnessed recently with California’s attempt into proposed legislation, it's essential to proceed thoughtfully and consider the potential implications and unintended consequences to our students, educators and communities.

Making waves nationally in these conversations is the "Science of Reading" (SOR). This approach emphasizes the importance of teaching specific foundational reading skills to improve literacy outcomes—an admirable goal, no doubt. Yet, as we examine the policies already adopted in various states and proposed bills and policies centered around SOR, it's crucial to ask ourselves: Is the focus too narrow? How will these SOR initiatives impact multilingual learners if they have an English-centric lens? And what about the integrity of bilingual programs and efficacy of our state’s multilingual goals? What happens to learning when educators are confined to a one-size-fits-all approach?

Legislation that prioritizes SOR undoubtedly has good intentions. After all, who wouldn't want to see improved reading proficiency for our youth? However, we must proceed with caution. And recently in California, legislators agreed. While foundational reading skills are undeniably vital, we risk overlooking the broader landscape of education and the multifaceted nature of literacy and language development. It's like looking at individual trees and forgetting about the whole forest.

Imagine a scenario where legislation mandates a strict adherence to SOR principles without considering the diverse needs of students or cultivating a love for reading through meaning making, knowledge development and overall joyful learning.

Picture classrooms where teachers are pressured to prioritize English-centric phonics drills without fostering a deep understanding of content, building multilingualism and encouraging creativity. This is exactly what we saw under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and it didn’t work. Is this the direction we want our education system to take - again? Have we forgotten what recent history has taught us?

Consider this: When kids are excited about learning, their brains work better. I recently experienced this firsthand in a dual language first-grade classroom where kids were immersed in a science-based thematic unit titled “Patterns in The Sky”. They sang a content based chant in English about the moon's orbit with such enthusiasm, the engagement was tangible.

They incorporated movements for specific concepts and vocabulary which clearly indicated their comprehension of the content. From singing the chant, the teacher moved seamlessly into a mini lesson about the sounds of certain letter combinations in English using specific vocabulary that had been intentionally incorporated in the chant.

They then analyzed the difference between the particular sounds of the letter combinations in English and Spanish. In this classroom, explicit multilingual reading instruction was integrated with and connected to understanding ideas, being interested in content, and making connections across languages. This kind of approach doesn't just help kids read better, it also supports their development as thinkers and learners– joyful learning.

Our policies must recognize the importance of comprehensive learning experiences, where literacy is intertwined with language development, curiosity, critical thinking, and a passion for exploration.

Let's not lose sight of the bigger picture: Comprehensive literacy approaches, responsive professional development for educators, and resources for the diverse instructional support our students need and deserve. By doing so, we can work towards a future where every child has the opportunity to become a proficient reader and a lifelong learner; where educators find joy in their work because they have the resources, tools and skills they need to respond to Californian’s diverse communities.

And let’s not overlook the fact that it's becoming pretty clear: in today's job market, speaking more than one language is a major plus. Researchers and businesses agree there is a great demand for employees and community members with multilingual skills, and this will only continue to grow. California’s Global 2030, Seal of Biliteracy, EL Roadmap, ELA/ELD Framework –  these are the policies and investments that will prepare our students for tomorrow’s global society and workforce. 

As these discussions continue to unfold, we need to remain informed and actively engaged in shaping the policies that will impact the future of education and our children. We need to see the trees and the forest. Let’s ensure that our sense of urgency is not a reactive over simplified answer but one that is holistic, responsive and aligned with our state’s commitment to multilingualism.