Open book with glasses lying on it

Breaking News: US Supreme Court breaks US Constitution and federal law, and misreads American history in striking down decades of varied approaches to affirmative action. The Court and its right-wing support are racist in their celebrations especially as they illogically label anti-racism as racism.

Update: as of June 28, the only signs on OSU’s off-campus administration in hiding building are for Smashburgers and Chicken Tenders. A security guard tells me that pizza is next. Not one word announced that OSU’s senior administration has relocated secretly to 15 E. 15th Avenue at North High St.

Late and unknowledgeable as always, Gov. DeWine and Ohio school administrators follow behind the US and the world in their sudden discovery of the much touted but little founded marketing term “the science of reading.” Lately, it promotes itself, literally, as SoR.

After years of its dominance, they turn away from Ohio State University’s now exposed profiteering and harmful to children learning to read Reading Recovery and its unaccountable publisher Heineman. Among its many flaws, there is no “reading” to “recovery,” in this road to its creators’ and marketers’ riches. [Among many, see Emily Hanford’s and Christopher Peak’s series of reports for American Public Media 2021-2022; ”The science of reading explained,”; “About the science in ‘The Science of Reading,’” ]

I write as a leading authority on literacy, past and present. First, for at least 150 years, the pendulum of reading instruction—paralleling the history of formal instruction and always confused notions about literacy--swings periodically from the ascendancy of one of the multiple forms of phonetics to one among a number of approaches to phonics.

There is no single phonic or phonetic approach. We are in another period of bait and switch. The governor, his administration, and the media do not know this.

Second, there is no “science of reading.” One of the 21st century’s inheritances is that almost anything purports to be a “science” when it seeks recognition or sales. Watch the ads. SoR is a recent self-promotional marketing slogan for a disconnected set of weak numerical studies. Poorly defined, rarely comparable, much too restricted in time and sample sizes, these researchers do not know the larger fields of literacy, reading, writing, and arithmetic studies. Their understanding of statistics is limited.

Third, no one notices that “SoR” or not, both phonetics and phonics promoters and curriculum sellers claim the evidence of “science,” which they never define. So much of the weight of a non-existent “science.”

Fourth, alarmingly and with lasting harm, from politicians to many professors of “education science,” “reading science,” or “brain science,” and some classroom teachers—with many teachers and parents confused in between—few people understand that actual children are diverse and learn in a changing variety of many ways.

The ethnographic and historical research with observations of young learners at its core and fuller awareness of developmental, home environments including primary language(s), resources, health and welfare is a far better guide than the recent rush of numerical mini-studies, Every child learns at their own pace with a changing variety of so-called “special needs” from autism and dyslexia to second language learning. Phonics allows more room than phonetics but neither by itself serves.

Real children begin to read before most institutional pre-schooling, kindergarten, and first through fourth grades on which studies focus. State comparisons at third grade or studies of first through fourth grades are far too limited to capture child development.

Children employ all these approaches, often in combination and trial and error in different ways: pictures, sounds, letters, syllables, and whole worlds. Most experienced teachers and many parents learn this. The politicians and curriculum marketers do not. Real children have no place in this world. Nor do they vote.

But in red states like Ohio today, the basic question is moot. There is a much greater effort to limit and control children’s reading than to enhance and expand it. From banning hundreds of books which the banners have not read to entire subjects including fact-based, inclusive history and civics, evolution, and climate change, I must ask: why any concern with teaching children to read at all?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor at The Ohio State University . Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. “Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” is in progress.