The Science of Reading: Clearing Up 5 Common Misconceptions
Myths about reading, often rooted in opinions or anecdotal reports, are harmful to children’s literacy education because they take the focus away from growth and improvement. When we are provided with improved knowledge, that’s based on facts and science, no matter our opinions or preferences as adults, we need to shift and improve our instruction to ensure we’re doing the best we can for our students.
As the body of knowledge learned from the science of reading grows, many former experts are standing firm by their opinions. Whether they’re doing this for ego, denial, or financial reasons, their refusal as educators to be changed by knowledge causes just more struggle for kids.
It’s important to remember that the science of reading isn’t covered by a singular book or program. This is an extensive body of research that’s constantly evolving as new developments emerge across the fields of education, neuroscience, psychology, and language learning.
Our guide is going to address some of the most harmful misconceptions that the science of reading throws light on. Staying up to date on the latest research helps educators reflect on their own practice and be knowledgeable when selecting resources and materials.
Misconception #1: Learning to Read Comes Naturally
One of the biggest misconceptions teachers have is that reading naturally comes to children through exposure, such as with speaking. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you’re a parent to a struggling reader or an educator who has been teaching for more than a decade, you’ve probably heard or said the words, “Just read more with them, and when they’re ready, they will learn.”
Regardless of whether students come from monolingual or bilingual households, research on how we learn to read clearly supports the need for formal reading instruction, founded on the alphabetic principle and explicit skills-based instruction. Reading doesn’t come just because a child is surrounded by books.
The brain literally develops and connects with the direct instruction of how to read, as partially shown by its lack of connectivity in illiterate individuals and preliterate children.
Before children learn to read, there’s evidence that the pathways are in place, but they’re not connected until that child is literate. More research is being done, but the fact remains that reading isn’t just acquired through exposure.
With this new understanding, teachers can approach their jobs with more objectivity. It brings up questions about why a student is struggling with a specific task, and what can be done explicitly to make the learning process successful.
Misconception #2: Phonics is the Only Way to Teach Reading
While phonics instruction is an essential tool for early literacy, it’s not the only piece required to develop our students into proficient and strong readers. Phonics is one strand in the woven rope of Scarborough’s Reading Rope.
Phonics is the basis for decoding and the mechanics of turning our written language into words. Without phonics, our written language cannot be deciphered, only memorized. On the other hand, phonics doesn’t attach meaning to the sounds decoded, nor does it automatically incorporate fluency, expression, or even comprehension.
Written language is a code developed by humans, and by teaching phonics, we give our students the key to accessing that code. Whether they understand the words decoded or not isn’t the primary purpose of phonics, which is why effective literacy instruction isn’t solely comprised of phonics instruction.
Phonics is central to reading, but true literacy is developed by much more.
Misconception #3: Reading is a Solo Activity
Early learners benefit from group activities that help build their confidence and make them enthusiastic about reading. They also need more instruction and less solo-reading time to become proficient readers.
Silent reading, or setting aside time for students to silently read in class, is not an evidence-based practice. There’s no evidence to show that this increases proficiency or encourages students to read more. If you’re a struggling reader, being told to read silently doesn’t help you become proficient; it only gives you more alone time to feel confused.
Evidence within the science of reading supports the benefits of collaborative reading experiences, especially since language comprehension and vocabulary are crucial to reading comprehension. When children struggle to read, they still need access to the same information and rich knowledge as their peers to continue to progress in literacy and have access to their textual education.
Early learning and practice of fluency are practiced out loud, as teachers help students become automatic in word recall and find rhythm in their spoken representation of the written words. By incorporating fun activities, such as decodable or skill-appropriate plays, students can enjoy fluency practice differently. Some studies even show that retaining vocabulary can be more effective when words are read aloud.
Comprehension of text needs to be directly taught, and by working in small groups, teachers can provide space for discussions around the explicit skill being taught. In group sessions, teachers can encourage students to either discuss or answer questions about the plot, the characters, the setting, or other story elements. Students can voice opinions to lay the foundation for detailed and thoughtful writing. Overall, small group work in a text can help early learners make mental connections, understand complex ideas, and develop critical thinking skills.
Misconception #4: Reading Speed is the Most Important Skill
Many teachers falsely believe that fluency and speed are the most important skills children must learn. This can be seen through popular forms of assessment that put too much importance on how much time it takes a student to complete a text. That being said, extremely slow reading isn’t the purpose either, as it’s hard to understand the meaning behind the text if the reading is labored or too drawn out.
The major marker of a strong reader is reading comprehension. We need word deciphering skills to converge with language comprehension skills to be proficient readers. Students are successfully literate when they can read the words AND understand those words, all with the increasing complexity of structure and meaning.
Misconception #5: Memorization is the Key to Reading
Memorizing words might help with a handful of the English language, but actual reading comes from decoding a word and attaching meaning. When children memorize, they have the appearance of reading, which can falsely lead adults to believe that a child can read. In reality, if a child sees that word in a text full of words they don’t know, they can only read that word. By giving students access to HOW to read our code, they can unlock all the words in the text, not just the memorized word.
Dr. Martin Kozloff stated that “If a child memorizes 10 words, the child can read only 10 words, but if the child learns the sounds of 10 letters, the child will be able to read 350 three-sound words, 4,320 four-sound words, and 21,650 five-sound words.” That’s a total of 26,320 words!
Very rapid brain responses are directly linked to HOW a child is taught to read. If a child learns to memorize, also known as whole language reading, the part of the brain activated is that of a struggling reader. If a child learns to decode, the part of the brain activated is that of a strong reader.
Teachers need to promote active reading in the classroom, using texts that match their students’ skills. Although repeated readings are effective for some purposes, introducing decodable text that’s new to the child encourages them to use the skills they’ve been taught.
It’s Time to Use Science-Backed Methods
It’s time to set the record straight about the knowledge provided by the science of reading. These five common misconceptions have been debunked, and it’s important to understand the evidence and research in the science behind reading.