The Best Way to Learn to Read and Write: The Science-of-Reading v. Play-Based Learning

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To thrive in today’s information age, children must learn to read and write proficiently. However, there is an ongoing debate over the most effective approach to teaching literacy in English-speaking countries. This has lead to what is commonly known as the reading wars. On one side of this debate is Balanced Literacy, with questionable teaching and marketing methods. On the other side is the Science of Reading (SoR). SoR uses methods grounded in extensive research on how children learn to read and write. However, some researchers, parents and teachers are concerned that SoR’s emphasis on academics may negatively impact on other areas of children’s development and learning. Despite these concerns, the SoR camp continues to overlook the importance of play and play-based learning. This article explores the tension between SoR and Play-Based Learning, and whether these approaches to literacy learning can be reconciled.

Welcome to The ‘Reading Wars’

The stakes for children’s literacy are incredibly high. Reading and writing are essential for comprehending information, effective communication, and participation in daily life. Literacy also has significant impacts on educational and career opportunities, health outcomes, and overall well-being. Low literacy levels are associated with higher poverty and incarceration rates, as well as poorer health outcomes. As such, it is crucial to ensure that children learn to read and write proficiently.

Literacy is a highly lucrative industry. There are billions of dollars on the line for authors and copyright holders of literacy teaching methods. As a result, there is fierce competition to persuade schools and policy-makers of the effectiveness of particular approaches. Numbering in the hundreds or thousands, most of these literacy programs use either a Balanced Literacy approach, or the Science-of-Reading (SoR) approach.

Side 1: Balanced Literacy

Balanced Literacy is an approach to teaching reading and writing that employs multiple instructional strategies. It draws heavily from the Whole Language Learning model. It is referred to as ‘balanced’ because it combines explicit instruction with independent learning and social language exploration. Balanced Literacy emphasises children’s love of reading and writing and the social context of language as the foundation for learning literacy.

In summary, Balanced Literacy:

  • is described a ‘holistic’ approach to teaching literacy.
  • uses a combination of rote memorisation and teaching children to guess words based on context clues.
  • emphasises exposing students to a variety of interesting texts to develop reading and writing skills.
  • uses levelled books, shared reading, and reading/writing workshops to teach comprehension and writing skills.
  • includes some phonics instruction, but the emphasis is on constructing meaning from texts rather than technical knowledge.

Proponents of Balanced Literacy argue that learning to read and write is most effective when children experience literacy as ‘meaningful’. They believe that as children grow to love reading, they will ‘naturally’ develop skills through exposure to texts. A common Balanced Literacy method is ‘three cueing’. As illustrated in this video, Balanced Literacy emphasises looking for meaning, rather than explicit letter-sound relationships.

The Problem With Balanced Literacy in Learning to Read and Write

However, critics of Balanced Literacy argue that it often leaves children without the fundamental skills needed to read and write independently. There is mounting evidence that it creates gaps in a child’s literacy learning, as seen in this video:

Side 2: The Science-of-Reading (SoR)

The second main approach to teaching literacy is SoR. Similar to Balanced Literacy, SoR is not a single program, but rather a broad approach. There are many different SoR programs, each drawing from research on how children learn to read and write.

SoR is typically associated with the learning of phonics. However, SoR encompasses many other skills and knowledge. To illustrate the components of a SoR approach, the Reading Rope and the Writing Rope are commonly used. SoR advocates for explicit instruction in all the components of the Reading and Writing Ropes.

Learn to Read and Write: The Reading Rope

The Reading Rope model emphasises a range of skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and elements of comprehension.

Learn to Read and Write - The Writing Rope

The Writing Rope includes skills such as handwriting, spelling, syntax and semantics. It also considers how language can be used to create meaning.

Which approach to learning reading and writing is best?

SoR aligns more closely with research on how children learn to read and write. However, the Balanced Literacy philosophy and techniques have dominated US, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand schools for decades. Despite relatively high literacy levels overall in these countries, a closer look at the data reveals cause for concern.

When assessing literacy on a large scale, researchers typically use five categories of reading. Level 1 (and below) is the lowest level of literacy, and Level 5 (and beyond) is high. These levels allow for comparison of literacy across countries with varying grade-level expectations.

  • Level 1 or lower: corresponds to approximately grades K-5 in the US and K-4 in Australia. This group consists of people who are illiterate or functionally illiterate.
  • Level 2: corresponds to grade levels 6-8 in the US and years 5-6 in Australia. It represents basic literacy sufficient to manage essential everyday tasks.
  • Level 3: approximates expectations for grades 9 – 10 in the US, and years 7 – 9 in Australia. It reflects an intermediate level of literacy.
  • Levels 4 – 5: In the US corresponds to literacy skills that are expected at a senior high school level (approx. grades 10 – 12). These levels encompass proficient as well as more advanced levels of literacy.

International data highlights the vast majority of adults in Australia and the US have literacy levels of three and lower. In total, around half of American and Australian adults have only basic (and lower levels) of literacy proficiency.

What do these literacy skills look like?

The statistics for advanced countries suggest that Balanced Literacy has been unable to ensure equitable access to literacy. These two stories illustrate what these disparities in literacy learning look like:

Learn to read and write: Level 3 literacy samples.

This Level 3 text uses simple vocabulary and short sentences to convey the plot. It is easy to follow and understand, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Learn to read and write: Level 5 literacy sample

This Level 5 text has longer sentences and more advanced vocabulary. It requires the reader to make inferences and understand more abstract concepts, such as symbolism and metaphor.

In Australia and the US, less than 15% of adults would have the ability to write, read, and/ or comprehend this Level 5 text .

What About SoR?

Simply switching from Balanced Literacy to an SoR approach might be a tempting solution. However, the reality is far more complex.

SoR: Problem 1

The first problem with SoR is that it often overlooks importance of emergent literacy learning. Emergent literacy refers to the skills and knowledge that children need before they can learn to read and write. These skills include an oral/ gestural/ visual language, print awareness, phonological awareness, and the structure of narrative language. A solid foundation in these skills is critical for later literacy development. Moreover, gaps in these foundations can have just as significant impacts on literacy learning. Unfortunately, many SoR programs primarily focus on later stages of literacy learning, with minimal attention given to emergent literacy. When emergent literacy is considered, it often reflects only a rudimentary understanding.

It is unclear why SoR advocates focus less on emergent literacy than later stages of literacy development. One possible reason for this is that actively teaching reading and writing is highly visible. However, emergent literacy skills are more subtle and harder to measure. Furthermore, emergent literacy learners are usually young. As a result, emergent literacy teaching is usually coupled with less valued tasks, such as changing nappies/diapers or making sandcastles. This may cause emergent literacy teachers to be viewed as doing inferior or simple work, less worthy of SoR attention. Emergent literacy is also much harder to profit from than teaching later stages of literacy. Nevertheless, research shows that emergent literacy is complex, and neglecting it can have serious consequences for lifelong literacy outcomes.

SoR: Problem 2

SoR faces a second barrier. Specifically, most SoR approaches continue to overlook the importance of play-based learning in both literacy development and child development overall. Play-based learning consists of hands-on, exploratory activities that help children develop language, communication, and critical thinking skills. However, many SoR programs rely on seated academic instruction instead.

This problem is particularly evident in the US, where some jurisdictions have included SoR elements in educational policy. Despite transitioning away from Balanced Literacy, many children still struggle to read and write proficiently. One reason for this may be the practice of introducing SoR and other academic teaching to children at younger ages.

However, study, after study, after study confirms that the early introduction of explicit academic instruction is detrimental to children in almost every way. Early academic instruction impacts not only on child development generally. Ironically it also harms academic outcomes, school engagement, and mental well-being in the long term.
In The Real Wonderland logo. Image of a wild rabbit in a crescent moon, on a brown circle with text.Alice Campbell |

This means that proponents of SoR ostensibly advocate for ‘science-informed practice’, but only when programs can turn a profit or when the work is prestigious. The SoR community largely ignores research about one of the most important stages of literacy development. It also ignores the broader research about children’s development and wellbeing. Further, many SoR programs devalue the work of researchers, parents and educators specialising in emergent literacy teaching. Therefore, at best, the ‘science’ of SoR is selective. This likely creates significant barriers in transitioning from Balanced Literacy to the more effective SoR approach in literacy education.

Play and Literacy

Play is considered one of the most important learning contexts for children. This is because the child’s inner-motivation drives play activities. In turn, this gives rise to the learning of complex skills. Play-based teachers use the power of play to move children toward learning outcomes. This style of teaching involves providing children with resources, prompts, and guidance that allow them to explore, express themselves, and engage in meaningful learning. Play-based learning includes many activities such as pretend play, gross motor activities, construction, and games, among others. In a high-quality play-based learning environment, children choose and influence their learning activities, which are the hallmarks of play.

Play and Emergent Literacy

The relationship between play-based learning and emergent literacy is usually easy to see. Pretend ‘cafes’, ‘flower shops’, and ‘construction sites’ invite children to engage in meaningful use of pretend writing and other texts such as signs, menus and recipes. Building robots or towers with blocks and cardboard boxes supports emergent literacy through language, fine-motor, and hand-eye coordination skills. Mark-making, art, and sensory play develops of writing and decoding skills. Singing songs or creating stories in the sandpit require children to extend their linguistic capabilities. Together, these play experiences establish the conceptual, intellectual, social, and neurological foundations for reading and writing.

Play and Later Literacy Learning

While emergent literacy is the foundation phase of learning to read and write, several subsequent stages are necessary for children to become fully literate. The five stages of literacy development are:

As children transition beyond emergent literacy, academic teaching becomes increasing favoured over play-based learning. It is true that SoR programs often incorporate games to facilitate learning. However, by definition, only games that are open-ended, voluntary, and do not have a pre-determined outcome qualify as ‘play’. In contrast, most games used in academic teaching do not meet the criteria for authentic play. They might be described more accurately as activities that some children might find fun.

Can Literacy Be Learned Through Authentic Play?

Re-Imagining SoR

Research on literacy teaching practices has led to conflicting findings. On the one hand, there is a strong relationship between direct instruction and literacy outcomes. On the other hand, research clearly indicates authentic play is central to literacy development at various ages and stages of learning. The SoR community must reconcile these conflicts to become truly science-informed. Fortunately, SoR could become more closely aligned with the science of child development in a number of ways.


The complexity of play skills, like literacy, increases as children develop. importantly, children learn to use language as a tool to enhance their play, through:

  • developing increasingly elaborate play scripts; and
  • increasingly using language to augment play objects.

This means that, over time, children develop the capacity to play using only language and symbols. Storytelling is central to this process, and to the child’s ability to make sense of language and literacy.

Unfortunately, many Science-of-Reading (SoR) programs fall short in this regard. Instead of authentic play-based storytelling, most SoR ‘play’ consists of structured games designed to drill specific literacy skill-sets. These games may or may not be fun, and are rarely voluntary, meaning they do not meet the definition of authentic play. Importantly, they generally lack the elements of storytelling that enable children to spend the extended time and intellect involved in making sense of language and print. While there are some exceptions

Many Science-of-Reading (SoR) approaches have failed to properly inform educators about how storytelling mediates the relationship between play, language and literacy, and how these interact in a developmental context. At the moment, most teaching considers play as a crude ‘tool’, and its only purpose to ‘make children literate’. However, this ignores the developmental science. For the child, play is the purpose, and literacy functions as the tool for their play. In turn, storytelling provides the bridge that links the two.
In The Real Wonderland logo. Image of a wild rabbit in a crescent moon, on a brown circle with text.Alice Campbell |

If SoR were to place storytelling play at the centre of literacy teaching, it would better align with child development science. This approach is one that recognises the relationships between teaching, human maturation, and literacy development. This approach would allow educators to transform reading and writing into a useful tool that has meaning for the child – not just ‘in the future’, but in the ‘here and now’. It also enables teachers to use developmentally appropriate practices for all children at all stages of literacy learning, not just for emergent literacy learners.

Intentional Teaching

A hallmark of the SoR approach is the use of explicit teaching and instruction in the elements of the Reading and Writing Ropes. This position is well-grounded in research, and directly addresses the flaws in Balanced Literacy. Specifically, Balanced Literacy teaches children to guess, and ‘create their own meaning’ when, in fact, literacy depends on being able to decode, produce and comprehend print according to specific rules. However, most SoR methods rely on ‘seated’, drill-based, or other academic-style teaching practices. This indicates that SoR has generally failed to give adequate attention to children’s developmental needs.

Purposefully-framed play is a highly effective form of play-based teaching, which is strongly compatible with direct instruction. This approach employs intentional teaching, wherein teachers use affordances, interactions, prompts, provocations, or other scaffolding to guide play towards specific learning and developmental explorations. Explicit instruction or guidance from adults is also provided to support the child’s exploration or self-expression during periods of play.

Growing evidence suggests that some of the best literacy outcomes are produced through intentional teaching. This approach deliberately embeds direct and explicit teaching in play. In the emergent literacy phase, purposefully-framed play allows children to experiment with language and print in multiple facets of play. This approach can continue, as children progress to later stages of literacy development. Intentional teaching establishes play scenarios, resources and interactions to guide children’s literacy learning. In this context, direct literacy instruction remains visible but transforms into a tool that enables children to play and learn more deeply

Where to From Here?

SoR represents a valuable (and probably urgently-needed) change in the approach to teaching literacy in many parts of the world. However, it’s essential to recognise that literacy cannot be taught or valued in isolation. All elements of children’s learning are inter-related and occur in the context of human developmental needs.

One of the main issues with SoR is that it focuses narrowly on a limited scope of how children learn to read and write, and fails to reconcile the science of reading with the science of child development. This has created significant barriers to SoR becoming accepted among teachers and parents who value and understand the importance of childhood for human maturation. In particular, the failure of SoR to appreciate the importance of the emergent literacy phase of learning, and play in general, is a major concern.

Ironically, a more informed understanding of play and play-based learning could offer SoR teachers a powerful method for helping children learn to read and write in developmentally appropriate ways (and timeframes). Guided and purposefully-framed play that centres around stories and storytelling, for instance, allows for academic, socioemotional, and cognitive learning to take place in ways that give literacy meaning and purpose.

Ultimately, this would help to foster a love of reading and learning that extends beyond the classroom and into lifelong learning.