Why the Science of Reading Matters for Teachers: What You Need to Know
The science of reading is a comprehensive body of research that has shown us information about how children learn to read, and independent studies assess the impact of various teaching methods on children’s reading and writing.
If you’re wondering why the science of reading matters for teachers, its importance lies in giving teachers the best knowledge available so we can evaluate and shift our teaching to provide best practices in our profession. Simply put, the more we know, the more kids we can teach to read.
The Importance of Phonemic Awareness
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound. In text, they’re represented through graphemes, also known as sound-spellings or phonics structures. Phonics is the connection of phonemes to our written language, but phonemic awareness is the students’ ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words.
That being said, phonemic awareness applies to sounds and spoken language, but there’s evidence that phonemic awareness is more effective when it includes some phonics and visuals. The ability to identify and work with these phonemes allows students to relate our spoken language to our written one, as well as to break down the language to decode and encode.
The instruction for phonemic awareness has great potential for supporting and educating early readers, but we must be mindful as the research base continues to grow. There are differing views on how to provide this instruction and how much of it needs to be in an effective literacy curriculum. At the end of the day, phonemic awareness is part of the foundation of a strong reader. Literacy instruction needs to include the lessons and practice to ensure all students have developed phonemic awareness.
The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction
Phonics is a pivotal piece of reading instruction. Phonics teaches the code of our language by connecting the sounds in spoken words to the letters and letter patterns that spell those sounds. Phonics not only gives students the ability to decode words, but it also gives them the structures to spell words.
Phonics is most effectively retained when students get to apply their newly learned structures directly to reading and writing. Teaching isolated phonics structures isn’t as effective as allowing children to practice.
In math, we don’t just show kids how to add by writing an additional problem on the board. We explicitly explain how the addition problem works, we might provide manipulatives, give practice sheets requiring drawing and applying the skill, and use games that continue the practice in a fun way.
The same goes for reading. Once we teach students a phonics structure, we help them make the sound. We might have them write the sound-spelling or do a simple practice page, have them use the structure in a text that has previously learned phonics and the new structure, and play card-matching games.
How Vocabulary Instruction Impacts Comprehension
Vocabulary knowledge helps students understand the meaning of words and concepts used in texts. Without a solid vocabulary foundation, students may struggle to comprehend what they’re reading.
Much research is being done on background knowledge, which includes vocabulary. Students enter school with varying levels of background knowledge based on their acquired vocabulary, their experiences, their exposure to knowledge, and more.
One way to combat the inequities and avoid leaving gaps in this background knowledge is by prioritizing direct vocabulary instruction by explicitly teaching new words and concepts. Before reading, during reading, and after reading, teachers should define, utilize, discuss, and review those vocabulary words.
It’s important to remember that vocabulary isn’t just the study of long words, especially when it comes to children. Vocabulary in our classrooms is related to how many words we know the meaning of.
This means that we constantly need to provide opportunities for students to read, listen to, and discuss new words, no matter the size or how easy we think a word is.
Example: “Fit” is a small word, but has multiple meanings, all of which will affect comprehension of text for a student in the following sentences:
1. I will be fit if I jog each day.
2. My cat can fit into the box.
3. This shirt is a fit for me.
4. The kid had a fit when the mom said no.
The Science of Fluency and Reading Rate
For a student to be fluent at any skill level of their reading, that student needs to be able to read the text with good pacing or speed, accuracy, and appropriate expression. When these elements occur and a student reads a text fluently, reading comprehension is possible.
If reading is composed of labored decoding (sounding out words very slowly), incorrect expression, or a majority of errors, reading comprehension will suffer.
If a reader is struggling with reading fluency, the teacher might want to consider some factors.
◊ Is the book composed of structures that the student knows?
◊ Does the text have too many irregular words or sight words?
◊ Does the student need more repetition with certain sound spellings?
◊ Could the student benefit from repeated reading or more direct instruction with fluency?
To improve fluency and reading rate, teachers should provide students with opportunities for repeat reading and various forms of oral practice. Teachers should double-check whether the text is fitting for the skills of the student, and teachers should model and directly teach fluent reading of a text.
The Relationship Between Reading and Writing
Research suggests that integrating reading instruction with writing practice is the most effective method of literacy instruction. Because both reading and writing pull from some of the same cognitive processes, integrating their practice and use reinforces one another. Instead of separating them into blocks, teachers should draw on the relationship between reading and writing to develop students’ skills in both areas.
Basic knowledge of phonics, vocabulary, and language structure forms the foundation for both reading and writing. An integrated approach to education can help deepen students’ connection with the text they’re learning and provide opportunities for writing practice within early years reading programs.
The Impact of Background Knowledge on Reading Comprehension
Background knowledge refers to all the information a student already has about a topic before starting the lesson. It helps children decide the meanings of words and draw conclusions about the text.
Research shows that differences in background knowledge can drastically affect students’ ability to gather implicit and explicit inferences in the text they’re reading, thus impacting their reading comprehension.
Teachers should help build their students’ background knowledge by providing a range of learning experiences like conducting field trips, holding story times, using digital resources, and inviting guest speakers. Classroom discussions are another great way to stimulate the collective knowledge base of your students.
The Importance of Explicit Instruction in Reading Strategies
Explicit instruction teaches students directly, not assuming that kids will just “pick up” skills and information. This means that we ensure that every child gets taught HOW to read while using a thorough scope and sequence to guide our implementation.
By not leaving knowledge to chance or expecting students to just recognize skills and information through deduction or exposure, we’re providing equitable instruction to children. We’re making sure they get all the skills, with no gaps, so they have a full foundation on which to build their literacy proficiency. This explicitness includes modeling new skills, giving students ample practice with feedback, and providing structured opportunities for review and practice.
The Role of Assessment in Steering Reading Instruction
Regular assessments help teachers monitor students’ progress over time and identify the areas where a specific child is falling behind. Teachers can also track progress with assessments to help inform the effectiveness of instruction.
Assessments help gear each educator’s explicit instruction toward the needs of individual students. That being said, educating the needs of each child is an overwhelming feat. Assessments can help teachers place together students who have the same practice needs or targeted skills.
This doesn’t mean that a child gets stuck in a group for a school year. This means that students might move between groups with various peers needing various skill focus so that the teacher can organize small group learning. Small groups can allow for more personalized attention and observation.
Understanding students’ needs allows for collaboration with other teachers and the student’s family to give consistency and support. Additionally, understanding student difficulties can give insight into pervasive disabilities or a greater need for intervention. Identifying that a student is having difficulty is the first step to getting them the help they need to be successful.
Grow as a Better Educator
By understanding the neurological processes that go into reading, educators can better equip themselves to help their students succeed.
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or just starting out in the classroom, the knowledge you gain from studying the science of reading is essential to being the best educator possible.
So let’s continue to learn, grow, and inspire our students to love reading!