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What is The Science of Reading? Busting the 6 Biggest Myths of SOR [episode 54]


Click below to hear 6 myths about the science of reading:

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Overview of episode 54:

If you’ve been in education long enough, you know all too well about the pendulum swing, trends, and buzzwords surrounding education and ways to teach. Well, to be honest, that’s exactly what we thought the science of reading was when we first heard of it…the newest trend.

However, when we actually started reading and learning about it, we realized it was just a body of research around the topic of reading. In learning about what it is, we also discovered some misconceptions. So in today’s episode, we’re sharing 6 common myths about the science of reading.

This idea helps teachers examine every part of what we do in the classroom and decide if it’s something worth keeping or not. So whether you’re a veteran teacher or this is your first year, learning about the science of reading will help you make the most impactful decisions involving literacy for your class. 

Everyone is at different places along the SOR path, so we hope we’ve uncovered some of its truths and busted a lot of the myths surrounding it. Since this idea might be new for some, if you’ve made changes in your classroom based on the science of reading research, please share it with us in our Teacher Approved Facebook group!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:50] Today’s morning message: when did you realize you were one of the more seasoned teachers?

[4:02] Feedback of the Week: Podcast review from a listener

[7:53] The Science of Reading: Myth #1

[8:42] The Science of Reading: Myth #2

[9:59] The Science of Reading: Myth #3

[11:35] The Science of Reading: Myth #4

[13:12] The Science of Reading: Myth #5

[14:07] The Science of Reading: Myth #6

[19:10] Today’s teacher approved tip for starting small.


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Read the transcript for episode 54, What is The Science of Reading? Busting the 6 Biggest Myths of SOR:

Hey, there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re tackling six common myths about the science of reading.

We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meetings in our classroom. This week’s morning message is when did you realize you were one of the more seasoned teachers?

How about you, Heidi? Well, it didn’t take very long for me. My second year of teaching, I moved to a new school. And obviously my second year, I had taught a year at that point. And then another teacher on the team Karen had taught a year. And there were two first year teachers and that was the our whole second grade team. So I was the seasoned teacher with one year’s experience.

As soon as you get a brand new teacher on your team, you really start to feel seasoned. Oh, yeah, absolutely realize just how far you’ve come.

Emily, how about you? Well our mom sent me a couple of pictures she took when she came to help in my class on Valentine’s Day, my second year of teaching in 2008. And she just sent these to me on Valentine’s Day when she saw them in her memories.

And the overhead projector was right next to me in the picture. And it reminded me not only of how archaic that was but how much I loved that thing. I had gotten some like cool math manipulatives that you could use on the projector and I like those were some of my prized teacher possessions.

So seeing myself in that photo that looked so dated was a real slap in the face. Yeah, yeah. If you had a an overhead projector, you were definitely seasoned.

We have some awesome responses from our community. Tracy said, Well, last year when I’m older than my co workers parents, oh, that’s a painful one. Stephanie said when my instructional assistant said, You’re the same age as my mom. Amber said when one of my former students teaches on my team with me now. That would be painful. Hope you did a good job. Yeah, right.

Lauren said when I got a student teacher, are you sure I’m the one they are supposed to be with? Oh, I remember that moment. Like, I don’t know enough to help someone else with this right?

Charity said, I’m on my ninth year of teaching and I just realized this year that I know what I’m doing now. That sounds about right. Beverly said when I was afraid of the new smart boards we were getting. But now she loves it. So don’t worry.

Michelle said I am really old, a mimeograph machine that made the purple copy. Wow. Like I grew up using them but never had that as a teacher. Right?

Don said when I was one of the only ones who knew what mailbox magazines were. Okay, I follow Mailbox Magazines on Instagram. Surely for the nostalgia. I had a collection of those. That’s where you can find things we were we had to teach before TPT you guys. Yeah, we earned our stripes.

And then Carla said when I didn’t go to morning briefing simply because I didn’t want to and you know, there will be no repercussions. And I learned that from Miss Heidi here. There was a certain meeting at the beginning of the school year that we all hated to go to. And my second year of teaching, I was just freaking out about not having time to go.

And Heidi was like, Well, if you don’t go what would happen? And I was like, we could do that. And guess what? There were no repercussions. No one even even say no one even noticed I wasn’t there. Now they probably take roll call because of us. We’d love to have you join the conversation over in our Teacher Approved Facebook group.

Now it’s time for the feedback of the week and we’re sharing a recent podcast review from Mrs. Kay’s class. She says, “I have been listening to the podcast for a year. I love the ideas that Emily and Heidi share. The tip that they give at the end of each episode is very easy to implement right away.”

Yay, that’s our goal.

“I also love the question that they start each episode like they would have done in morning meeting in their classroom.”

Thank you so much for that feedback, Mrs. Kay. As a reminder, if we share your review on the podcast, send us an email so we can send you a little surprise as a thank you. So Mrs. Kay, thank you for that review. And please send us an email at And yes, it’s a mouthful. Sorry about that.

Today we are diving into the waters of SOR. If you’ve somehow missed all the talk, SOR stands for Science of Reading. And it’s become part buzzword part rallying cry part catch-all term for the body of scientific research surrounding reading.

I started the education program in the year 2000. No, it’s been a minute since then, does make it easy to figure out how many years it’s been though that’s nice. My professors would talk about the reading debates of the 90s. And you would think they had been through a war.

But they assured us it was all okay now, they had saved the day by taking the best ideas from the whole language camp, and taking the best ideas from the phonics camp and blending them into this new approach. They called it balanced literacy, because it wasn’t polarized on either side of the debate. They had sold the reading wars. Oh, if only.

So I was taught balanced literacy. And that’s what I taught my students, I taught them using balanced literacy. We did writers workshop, and reading benchmarks and word walls, all of the things that happen in a good balanced literacy classroom. I was on it. Most of the things I was never good at shared reading. Yeah, or, yeah, some of the writing too. A lot. I try, I had good intentions.

And of course, we went to the same university and we taught in the same district. So my secondary classroom looked essentially the same as yours did Heidi. I felt like we were the enlightened ones fresh out of college, new on the scene, and ready to do all the guided reading and writers workshops, and it was just going to be amazing.

And our experiences are probably pretty similar to any teacher who has graduated in the past two decades. We did what we had been taught to do, because we were assured this was the way that kids learn to be literate. I definitely felt like we had the secret keys to teaching reading.

And I thought so too. And then in 2017, journalist Emily Hanford started investigating how children learn to read. She started pulling at some of the threads in the balance literacy sweater, starting with the MSV system you might be familiar with. She pointed out that that MSV queueing system wasn’t actually supported by any research, but was instead based on an idea from a few influential people in education.

So then people started pulling it other balance literacy threads until there wasn’t much left of that sweater. And now balance literacy is turning into a bit of a curse word in education.

In place of balance literacy, people have started advocating for more research backed practices. And that is where the science of reading or SOR seem to arrive on the scene.

And that brings us to today’s discussion. Instead of just getting into an overwhelming discussion about the ins and outs of SOR, we’re going to dive into six of the most common myths about SOR, starting with this one, the science of reading is new. Heidi, why don’t you tell us a little about that myth?

So there is a very robust body of research from the past 50 years and even earlier, that examines how people learn to read. Some of it was known before balanced literacy was developed. But people chose to ignore or suppress what didn’t align with their own theories of reading development.

So while the information isn’t new, it might maybe even it probably does feel new. Because many of us are just now learning about research findings from decades ago. If you are someone who feels like this just came out of nowhere, don’t feel bad.

It’s the term science of reading that is new, not the research. Which brings us to myth number two, the science of reading is one specific book or program.

Okay, so maybe this is just me. And maybe no one else has had this problem. But when I first heard people talking about the science of reading, I was curious. So I went to Amazon to buy the book. And I couldn’t find any books with that title. I could find a lot of books that referenced it, but not like the main science of reading book.

So I assumed it must be some kind of box curriculum or a textbook program that some schools were really passionate about. And I wasn’t gonna pay for that. So I just let it drop. But then SOR kept popping up in places. And Emily, I think you were the one that finally set me straight.

Well, I definitely felt a little confused when I first started hearing that term batted around because I just wasn’t sure what people meant when they said the science of reading. I wasn’t sure, either if it was a curriculum or what. And to be honest, I initially ignored the talk because it felt like the latest trendy buzzword and we really try not to be the sort of people who are jumping on the latest bandwagon unless there’s research behind it.

So then I finally took some time to figure out what SOR was all about. And I was relieved to realize that the science of reading is just the body of research around reading. We already love that. Yay research.

But when people talk about SOR, the biggest talking point seems to revolve around phonics specifically, which is our third myth that the science of reading is only about phonics. While research definitely highlights the need for more robust systematic phonics instruction, SOR takes in every facet of reading, comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, fluency.

Yeah, if it’s literacy, it falls under SOR. I’ve been thinking about like why phonics is so hot right now. And I think there are a few reasons for that. First, some balanced literacy classrooms have traditionally been light on their phonics instruction. I mean, I know I taught phonics every day.

But a survey in 2019 found that a huge percentage like 80%, of first grade and kindergarten teachers weren’t teaching any phonics at all. Oh, my gosh. And that highlights one of the weaknesses of balanced literacy. In a balanced literacy class, a lot of what is taught is up to the teachers discretion. And it’s not necessarily supported by data.

That was shocking for me to hear, too. I had no idea that many balanced literacy classrooms were not explicitly teaching phonics, because we definitely were. So I assumed what we were doing was what everybody was doing.

And I think another reason that phonics is currently in the spotlight is that it’s an area that is pretty well researched. For the most part, there’s a clear progression and a certain set of skills that need to be mastered. That makes it easier to learn about and teach in comparison to some other areas where there’s just less research to draw from.

And while it’s clear that balance literacy has definite weaknesses, we want to highlight myth number four, which is that everything we were doing in the name of balanced literacy was bad.

I don’t know if other fields are like this, but in education, as you may have noticed, there is a definite tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We joke about those wild pendulum swings in education and yet we find ourselves doing it all the time. I think because we all want the best for our students. So if we hear something we think is better, it’s really easy to just start running that direction, throwing out everything,

I felt a little resistant to SOR at the start for this very reason, I didn’t want to just burn it all down and start over. Luckily, SOR isn’t calling for us to abandon everything we’ve been doing in the past 20 years, it’s just pushing us to make sure that what we continue to do has some actual data to support it. No baby’s going out with the bathwater here, and worse, especially for educators.

So we should continue to design print rich classrooms with robust libraries, we should continue to teach kids how to draft and edit their writing, and then celebrate when they share a piece they’ve published. Those are gifts from balance literacy, and there’s a lot worth keeping there.

We just have to be very intentional about the pieces we choose to hold on to. I think one of the benefits of all of this talk about SOR is that it’s giving us an opportunity to take every part of what we do in the classroom, out of the toolbox and examine it and decide if it’s something worth keeping or not. And that should always be our focus as educators.

Our fifth myth is that research can tell us today, everything we need to know to teach reading, or math or theoretical physics. But unfortunately, that is just not the case in any area. New studies are published all the time. And we have to be flexible enough to adapt to new information.

And that is difficult to do sometimes. It’s hard to loosely hold important ideas because we know there are real negative consequences if we get things wrong. So we invest a lot in learning the right way, quote, unquote, to teach, which can make new ideas feel threatening.

But we have to welcome the vulnerability of changing when we learn new information. Unless we want to find ourselves locked in reading wars three in 2040. Reading wars three, sounds like the next big HBO Max hit. Is Reese Witherspoon in that one?

Here’s a word of caution when it comes to change. Since research hasn’t clearly identified best practices for every single situation, a lot of what we do still comes down to teacher judgment. Yep. And that brings us to our final myth, which is anything labeled the science of reading aligns with the research.

Sadly, not everything that claims to align with SOR actually does. As educators, we have to know enough about learning to be able to separate the sheep from the goats.

I just saw an example of this yesterday. So I got an ad for a product that claimed to help kids decode short vowel CVC words. So there are words like man, pit, fog, awesome, and ball. Oh no. And if you just look at the word, it seems like ball fits that short vowel pattern, but it does not.

The A says ah, instead of the short a, aah a lot of teachers are just going to see that this product claims to be decodable. And think that that must be true. And that’s why we need good teachers who will be able to wisely make decisions on what’s the best for their students, and not just go along with whatever they hear on the internet.

Check out the research yourself. And then choose the materials and guidance that aligns best with what we know, make the best decision you can for your specific students, you are the teacher here, and we trust you even if it doesn’t feel like your admin trusts you, and we trust you.

And stay open to the idea of more change in the future as we continue to learn more about the best way to teach reading, new information is going to come out you’re going to look back and see things you did that you wish you had done differently. That’s just part of the process of being a teacher, unfortunately, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. As long as you’re doing your best you can right now.

We are really all at different places along the science of reading path. If like us, you spent a lot of years teaching balanced literacy, we want to acknowledge that this might be a really painful discussion. Maybe you’re feeling defensive right now. Maybe you’re angry or hurt. Or all of those feelings rolled into one squirmy knot in your stomach.

Oh my gosh, listening to the podcast sold a story made me physically ill. It was really easy to just feel so much guilt for doing what we were told to do. We were told that that was the right thing for our students. It’s what our college professors taught us. It’s what the literacy specialists in our districts came and modeled for us. We were doing what we thought was the best and then to hear that that wasn’t the case. It felt terrible.

Yeah, I’m gut wrenching is the term I just keep coming back to like, it is gut wrenching to find out that there were opportunities that I missed, and maybe I did some things that actually caused harm. And if you are in that boat, please just know you are not alone.

I just want to say and give yourself credit, you probably did a really good job with the information available to you. And I just think we need to be careful to not be too hard on ourselves.

And if you were feeling some of that turmoil right now, we highly recommend the book Shifting the Balance: Six Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. It takes a clear look at balanced literacy practices, and the ways that they can be improved. But it also offers teachers a lot of grace, it understands that teachers are just trying to do what was best for their students based on what we knew to do.

I loved that book. It was such an approachable way to get started with SOR especially for those of us with a background in balanced literacy. If you’re young and you don’t have that background good for you.

So let’s recap the six takeaways for you about the science of reading. Number one, the science of reading is not new. Number two, the science of reading is not a specific book, program or curriculum. It is just the body of research about reading. Number three, the science of reading is about all facets of literacy: phonics, phonemic awareness, reading comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, writing the whole shebang. If itt’s literacy, it’s science of reading.

Number four, not every component of balanced literacy is bad. Number five, we need to make space for future research that will continue to change the way we teach reading. And number six, not everything labeled SOR actually aligns with the research. So be sure to do your own evaluation of the resources you see labeled as SOR.

If you have made changes in your teaching based on SOR research, will you help us out and come share it in our Teacher Approved Facebook group? We would love to hear what you’ve changed and why and cheer each other on as we figured out what the next decade of teaching reading should look like.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is start small.

So we hope that you are wanting to learn more about the science of reading so that you can make the most impactful decisions for your class. But if this is all new, or you are coming at this from a balanced literacy background, please just start with something small. Despite what people on the internet say you don’t need to master the entire scope of the science of reading in one day. Yeah.

So just pick a small way to wade into the SOR pool. Read a blog post, listen to a podcast episode, or follow someone on Instagram to start your SOR learning journey. Or you can pick up one of the many books available about the science of reading. The book Shifting the Balance that we just mentioned is a great place to start. It’s an easy read and full of meaningful takeaways.

To wrap up the show we are sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Emily, what are you giving extra credit to? Well, this feels a little like old news, but I’m giving extra credit to the movie Matilda on Netflix, the new one with Emma Thompson. Oh, I haven’t watched that one.

We watched it for family movie night a few weeks ago and we really all enjoyed it, which is rare for us with the ages my kids are at. Usually the youngest can’t keep track of the movie or the oldest is bored. So this was the magic perfect movie that engage all of us. I was even engrossed by a truly I have actually never seen the musical. So the musical aspect of it was new to me.

And it’s so well cast. The Miss Honey. Oh my gosh, the Miss Honey in this movie is so perfect. I love her. I want her to be my teacher. And my youngest has been into the soundtrack ever since we watched it. So if you need a family movie night option, I highly recommend Matilda.

How about you, Heidi, what’s your extra credit? I am giving extra credit to the show Traders on Peacock. Our parents got hooked on it to the point that our dad is watching the original Dutch version, the benefits of being able to speak Dutch. So I went to watch it. And of course got sucked right into it, too. I just have the finale left. I watched like four episodes yesterday.

And of course, I didn’t even think about the consequences of that. Because I was dreaming Traders all night, woke up at some point and like was doing that they were conspiring over a bowl of soup. Which the show was much more entertaining than soup, but my brain my brain was trying to work it out. But it’s a very fun, just an escapist TV show if you want to get sucked into something.

Well remember how I canceled Peacock like two weeks ago, and I just told you that? And I was like well, I bet I can still watch it with commercials. No, you have to have the paid Peacock to watch this. So I’m gonna have to restart yet another streaming service. I know.

But I really want to watch it. So I probably went back to the free version. No, you can it’s just this show is not available on the free versions. I guess not all shows are. Well I have the free version. Well, maybe it is because I paid for it then I don’t know. I’ll have to go investigate because when I tried and I was logged in and I it was like pay like upgrade your account again. So you can watch this and I was like why? One more streaming service to pay for him.

That’s it for today’s episode. Remember these six myths as you dive into the science of reading. And don’t forget our teacher approved tip to start small to avoid overwhelm while you learn more about SOR.

If you enjoyed this episode we would love if you shared it with a teacher friend who might enjoy it as well. It’s the best way to help our show reach new listeners. And be sure to check out our show notes for links to anything we mentioned in this episode.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever

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