The Science of Reading: An Equity Issue, Part I

March 5, 2021

We’ve noticed many conversations lately about the “science of reading” and how an evidence-based early literacy program can directly impact students’ life-trajectory. Notably, many of these conversations have centered on equity and anti-racism, recognizing that literacy, opportunity, and liberation go hand in hand. We wanted to dig a little deeper into this conversation with two UnboundEd facilitators. Here are some thoughts from Shanita Rapatalo, independent education consultant, and Karin Ryan, director of teaching and learning for Erie’s Public Schools, on the science of reading. 

1. Why is understanding the “science of reading” important from an equity perspective?

Karin: As educators, we have the instructional power to ensure that all students in our care receive instruction that will provide them the opportunity to learn to read. Withholding quality reading instruction aligned to the science of reading will adversely affect students’ ability to access knowledge, access to an education that leads to career pathways, and the knowledge to advocate for their civil liberties. 

Shanita: Implementing a reading program centered on the research on the science of reading ensures that all students will have the tools and opportunities to decipher language through reading. While it makes sense to pay attention to the pictures and context, make connections, and draw on words that you learned before reading the text, if you do not teach children to decipher words using a systematic phonics approach, students’ reading will suffer. Not teaching explicit phonics can also lead to self-fulling prophecies for teachers. If students are not taught to sound out words properly when attempting to read words, they will often mispronounce them. This can lead teachers who rely on cueing systems to try a different cueing system (for example, having students guess the word) instead of teaching students strategies to address the word or letters. It disregards the learning process; it’s the equivalent of brushing something under the rug, seeing the pile grow, and moving on anyway, ignoring the accumulation that the rug is covering.

2. If you have held previous understandings or beliefs about reading instruction, what caused you to change your mind about the science of reading? Was there an “aha” moment?

Shanita: I began teaching reading in 2003 and was taught to use running records to track my students’ reading progress. At one time, I even did this on a citywide level, training other teachers throughout the school district on various running record programs. What changed my perception about reading instruction was a special graduate program that focused on working with students with reading disabilities. We developed instructional plans to use with students that included explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, fluency practices, vocabulary development, and comprehension strategies to support students performing below grade level in grades K-2.

My big “aha” moment came when I worked as a reading specialist with grades 3-6. All of my students were between two and four years below grade level for reading, so they were struggling with it, specifically decoding. Drawing on the approach to reading instruction that I learned in graduate school, I created Tier 2 and 3 learning sequences that met my students in their decoding and helped them grow from there. The first years of this systematic approach to reading instruction allowed my students to show two, and even three, years of growth in just one year of instruction. There was also a 20% increase in ELA scores on the state assessments. Consistency and research work!

Karin: I did hold previous understandings and beliefs about reading instruction. My university coursework did not strongly address the science of reading. Throughout my teaching career, the professional learning we received focused on balanced literacy, guided reading, and writing workshop. The impact of my instruction was inconsistent, and I was frustrated by my inability to reach certain students. 

My “aha” moment began as I was afforded the opportunity to become a Core Advocate with Student Achievement Partners. I began to attend as many literacy sessions as I could on foundational skills. David Liben spoke so passionately and clearly about the science of reading that it inspired me to dive further into the research. Soon after, the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) curricular materials became available on The combination of an understanding of the science of reading research and what it looked like in quality curricular materials pushed me to make a change for the children in my school.

3. When you began using the science of reading to inform your practice, what changed?

Karin: I began using the science of reading to inform my practice when I was selected to lead a school transformation within my district. Teachers chose to come to the school for the opportunity to learn and employ research-based best practices. One of the first initiatives we undertook was the adoption of CKLA in our school. Teachers began to implement the materials while developing their understanding of the science of reading. As we began to align our structures and practices to the science of reading, we saw our students succeeding. The combination of quality materials and professional development that unpacked the science of reading has been crucial in our work. We had to be open to new instructional practices, and we also had to be open to eliminating ineffective practices that we had utilized for a long time like leveled, guided reading. 

Shanita: What changed when I began using the science of reading to inform my instruction was simple: I began to see real results from my students, especially those struggling with reading at grade level. It was as if I gave them the code to learning, and they could now move on in life with the gift of literacy. It also informed how I advised teachers. Instead of advising teachers to use the running record programs they were given, which essentially stifles students’ reading growth, I gave them additional resources to teach systematic phonics.

I don’t recommend an all-or-nothing approach, but I do recommend a “both-and” approach. When I advise school leaders, I ask them to consider performing a curriculum audit to see if the programs they use for reading instruction are high-quality programs that apply the science of reading, especially in the lower elementary school grades. I ask school leaders a series of questions that get them to think more critically about the materials they provide teachers and students, such as:

  • Does your current ELA program have a systematic phonics component? 
  • Is your current ELA curriculum clearly aligned to high quality, college- and career-readiness standards? 
  • Does your current ELA curriculum use grade-level complex text for core instruction? 
  • Are there clear connections in your instruction between reading, writing, speaking, and listening? 
  • In what ways are the materials a reflection of the students in your school and school communities?

When we talk about equity in schools, we have to ensure that we are diligent in giving school leaders, teachers, staff, and students high-quality materials, aligned instruction, and experiences that affirm their world. We must be clear on what practices hinder or help students prepare for college, career, and life after graduation.