- The science of reading is an extensive body of research that informs effective literacy instruction.
- Understanding how the brain processes and learns to read is crucial to providing targeted, successful interventions.
- The Science of Reading suggests phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction.
Have you ever heard the term “Science of Reading?”. You probably have if you’re a parent or a teacher of preschool or primary grades. But what does it really mean? Is it a reading curriculum? A program of study for future educators? Some new fad in education that will soon pass?
The Science of Reading isn’t any of these things. So why does it get so much attention? Read on to get all the information about what it is and how it can help you with your child’s reading journey.
Parents and teachers know that being an effective reader opens worlds of possibilities. It gives children a personal power they can access throughout life.
According to a UK child development study, people with higher reading and math skills as children end up having higher incomes, better housing, and better jobs in adulthood!
UK “think-and-action” tank LKMco research also found that low reading ability can lead to poorer health and other life outcomes.
Because literacy affects so many aspects of life, most parents are keen to understand better how they can help their children learn to read effectively. Schools also want to help students become strong readers.
There’s been an explosion of research done in the past 40 years. In fact, there’s been more research done on reading and literacy than any other aspect of human learning.
A few decades ago, cognitive scientists compiled the research and identified five components of effective literacy instruction. This research recaps for you what is called the Science of Reading.
What exactly is the "Science of Reading"?
There’s been a long-standing debate about the best way to teach reading.
During the 1800s-1900s, the US and UK saw the preferred approach swing back and forth between phonics and whole language.
In the 1600s, the concept of phonics (teaching letter sounds and patterns before whole words) emerged. This way of teaching reading was dominant in most countries until the 1800s.
In the 1800s, the “whole language” approach rose to prominence. This approach first teaches letters and sight words, focusing on meaning before sound.
In the 1960s, significant advances in brain development research sparked more research about how children learn to read.
In the late 1990s, scientists started synthesizing brain development and literacy research. From this, the US National Reading Panel identified five essential areas of instruction for children learning to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Dr. Louisa Moats, EdD, a widely recognized authority, has studied literacy since the 1970s. In an interview with Collaborative Classroom, she defined the Science of Reading as a consensus among experts about the best ways to teach kids to learn to read. She emphasizes that it’s not a formal philosophy, political agenda, specific instructional program, or even a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, research underscores the need for flexibility from teachers (and parents!) towards each child, depending on their strengths or struggles.
The Brain and Learning to Read – What We Know
To better understand the Science of Reading, knowing about the connection between brain development and learning to read is helpful. Three areas of the brain are involved: the temporal lobe, the frontal lobe, and the angular and supramarginal gyrus. These parts must “learn” to work together for a child to become a successful reader.
Before learning to read, the part of the brain responsible for phonological awareness and decoding sounds (the temporal lobe) is disconnected from the part that processes speech and helps us comprehend (the frontal lobe). When learning to read, the angular and supramarginal gyrus create pathways linking the temporal and frontal lobes. For a simple overview of the process, watch this.
The bottom line is human brains aren’t “hardwired” for reading – they must be taught.
To help this “wiring” along, children need to learn…
- phonemic awareness (sounds words make).
- phonics (connect sounds to symbols).
- fluency (which can be worked on once connections between the visual and auditory parts of the brain are firmly established).
- vocabulary (which happens indirectly throughout life and directly in school).
- comprehension (the final goal of learning to read).
Five Components of Effective Reading Instruction
Phonemic awareness is an important part of “connecting” the visual and auditory parts of a child’s brain. Spoken words have individual sounds (called phonemes). Building phonemic awareness means helping children identify the smallest units of sound they can hear in a word. Reading to your child daily helps them develop this awareness, especially when you read books with repetition, rhythm, and rhyme.
Next comes understanding how these units of sounds work together to create words.
And from there comes more formal learning of “sound categories,” like syllables, rimes, onsets, and words.
Building this awareness isn’t just a “one and done” part of learning but should be taught through preschool. Even then, research has found that continuing to build this skill should be part of more complex reading instruction throughout the primary years.
Phonics teaches letters and letter combinations along with the sounds they make. It’s about connecting the sounds the learner hears with the letters they see on the page. With effective phonics instruction, children can learn to “decode” words, which helps them become more fluent and confident readers.
Phonics is usually taught in Reception and Years 1-2. But just like phonemic awareness, this skill should continue to be built up as part of more complex reading instruction. Students should continue to build on letter-sound relationships and decoding skills in Years 3-5 while the focus shifts towards deeper comprehension.
Children with dyslexia or other reading challenges often need additional instruction around phonemic awareness and phonics. Early and ongoing intervention to help these learners master phonemes and phonics can greatly impact their reading success.
As children get better at decoding words, they must also work on the meaning of words. The more words a reader knows, the easier it becomes to understand what they’re reading. Engaging with a variety of texts and surrounding children with rich language can improve their vocabulary.
Research supports teaching vocabulary in three ways:
- Words from everyday speech – familiar to most students
- High-frequency words (commonly seen throughout various subjects)
- Subject-specific vocabulary words
Again, reading to your child can significantly enhance their vocabulary. Vocabulary can be learned indirectly through everyday experiences. If part of that experience is reading with you, they’ll pick up more words informally. Especially if you talk about the meanings of new words you read with them.
Vocabulary instruction should occur throughout a child’s school experience, not just in early grades. And children should be exposed to new vocabulary in various contexts.
Fluency is reading text accurately, quickly, and with expression. It involves reading aloud with appropriate speed, intonation, and pauses, which allows children to gain meaning from the text.
Achieving reading fluency helps children focus on what they’re reading, instead of just decoding the words. Implementing strategies such as repeated reading, guided oral reading, and displaying good models of fluent reading can help improve fluency.
The ultimate goal of learning to read is comprehension. This means a child understands, interprets, and engages with the information and ideas presented in the text. As parents and teachers help children build phonemic awareness, phonics skills, vocabulary, and fluency, their reading comprehension will improve.
Research also shows that formal instruction in reading comprehension should begin early. This includes strategies, such as making predictions, asking questions, and summarizing.
The Science of Reading gives a clearer picture than has previously existed about the best ways to help children become great readers.
The five components recommended for reading instruction aren’t limited to a specific program, intervention, or product. Instead, they’re a comprehensive approach focused on understanding how children learn to read and employing evidence-based strategies to best meet their needs.
Understanding this can help teachers and parents make informed decisions about the best ways to support each child’s reading journey. It’s a great starting point for homes and classrooms that create strong, engaged readers who benefit from this skill their entire lives!