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How the Science of Reading Shapes Instruction

science of reading

Picture this: A teacher gives a little child, comfy in a bean bag chair, a book that they need to read. The child looks at the book, with diverse characters, rich vocabulary, poetic language, factual historic elements, and descriptive labels for the pictures.

Now, picture this: The child cannot read the words in the book.

Children need to hold those beautiful books, listen to them read aloud by a parent or adult, and explore the pages and the text inside.  The truth to be recognized is that we cannot require a child to read books that they have not been taught the skills to read. 

The information laid out by the science of reading can help guide instruction so children can learn how to read those beautiful books. Children can then enjoy the meaning of the words in books, not just the beauty of the books themselves.


What is the Science of Reading?

The Science of Reading is a wide-ranging body of research on how children learn to read. Over the past few decades, the science of reading has used science-informed evidence about how the brain processes language and text, as well as about the obstacles and nuances involved in literacy, to develop and implement the most effective instruction for all children. Science is never complete, but educators can do better based on what we know now.

The Science of Reading is not a swing of the pendulum, because it is not a method or an opinion on how reading instruction should play out.  It is the knowledge that should inform our decisions moving forward to do the best we possibly can for our students. 

The conclusions of the National Reading Panel were based on a synthesis of research studies that met established criteria that define scientifically based reading research (NICHD, 2000). 

To be described as scientifically based, research findings or conclusions must be drawn from studies that used an experimental design to test the effectiveness of a teaching strategy or set of materials in improving one or more of the essential skills involved in reading. Further, these studies had to use samples of students who represented the larger population, so the findings would be relevant to schools. The studies had to be repeated, or replicated, to build confidence that the findings were solid, and not likely to be mere chance. 

Finally, the research had to be judged as sound and worthwhile by reading experts other than the studies’ authors.

Why is the Science of Reading important?

The information provided in the research and studies is arguably the most important knowledge we have on how to teach based on scientific evidence. 

No matter the feelings of adults, the needy pockets of big publishers, or the soapbox comments made by previous idols, objective information about the best teaching methods is available. 

What educators do next will decide whether we finally change the poor literacy rates of our nation and improve the futures of our children. 

Literacy gives children access to the language of our classrooms and the acquisition of further knowledge. Without literacy, students cannot read math word problems, directions for assignments, science experiments, most books in their library, any of their homework assignments, and so much more. 

Without literacy, there is no equity, as some students will advance and learn more, while some will be blind to the information given in any form of text.

Literacy gives adults access to our entire community. 

If you are illiterate, you cannot obtain a license, you cannot fill out a job application, you cannot read posted signs, you cannot read directions for anything you own, you cannot read a prescription bottle, you cannot read a recipe, you cannot read a bedtime story to your child, and so much more.  

If you are illiterate your future has a very different landscape than that of a person who can read.

In education, particularly in the teaching of reading over the years, the choice of instructional methods has been heavily influenced by many factors, including teachers’ own frontline experiences about what works, politics, economics, and the popular wisdom of the day. 

The pendulum has swung back and forth between holistic, meaning-centered approaches and phonics approaches without much hope of resolving disagreements. 

Meanwhile, substantial scientific evidence has accumulated purporting to shed light on reading acquisition processes and effective instructional approaches. Proponents believe that this research promises to place reading instruction on a more solid footing and end the periodic upheavals and overhauls of reading instructional practices.

Reading: An Educational and Civil Right

Reading is an educational and civil right that should not be withheld based on the opinions of self-proclaimed experts or opinions when the information and research about how best to help students learn to read are readily available. 

That’s why the science of reading, which provides an objective way to improve literacy for all types of students, is so important. It’s not hyperbole to say that literacy is fundamental to the function of our future society and that because the science of reading is key to improving literacy for all students, it too, is of fundamental importance to our future society. 


How does the Science of Reading work?

As previously stated, the Science of Reading is not a program, so it doesn’t necessarily “work.”  The science of reading is the knowledge that can be used to shape and guide our teaching practices.

The Science of Reading dates to the 1980s, and possibly earlier, but much of the data was overlooked in the waging of the reading wars that plagued the educational community, often fueled by politics and company investments.

In 1986, first described by Gough and Tunner, the Simple View of Reading recognized that students needed to be able to decode and understand language to achieve reading comprehension. According to the original theory, an individual’s reading comprehension is the product of her decoding skill and language comprehension.

The Simple View of Reading

In 2000, the National Reading Panel laid out how to teach reading based on the research available. They identified the five components of successful reading instruction called the 5 Pillars. The five pillars are:

    ◊ Phonemic awareness – the ability to identify sounds in spoken words and to manipulate those sounds

    ◊ Phonics – the relationship between the spoken language and the sound-spellings which form our written words

    ◊ Fluency – the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and appropriate expression

    ◊ Vocabulary – the knowledge and collection of word meanings, including their morphology, grammar, structure, and semantics

    ◊ Comprehension – the understanding of what has been read, including the interpretation by the reader

National Reading Panel’s Five Pillars of Literacy

In 2001, Dr. Hollis Scarborough constructed what is now known as Scarborough’s Reading Rope giving a more detailed way to show how complex the skill of reading is by detailing what is needed to reach the goal of comprehension.  First devised out of pipe cleaners, Dr. Scarborough used the diagram to illustrate the complexity of the reading process for parents. In the current model seen, various strands of the rope weave together, depending on one another to construct reading comprehension. Click here to see the original image.


Credit: Jenn Sharek

How can Structured Literacy improve outcomes for all readers?

Although the Science of Reading does not give us a specific roadmap for instruction, it does inform us about the efficacy of structured literacy.  Structured literacy is a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to teaching literacy that is proven effective for all students, including those with learning differences. Structured Literacy, or SL, is based on research from the Science of Reading (SoR). This method of instruction is explicit, sequential, and systematic.

According to researcher Louise Spear-Sterling, “key features of SL approaches include (1) explicit, systematic; and sequential teaching of literacy at multiple levels — phonemes, letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure; (2) cumulative practice and ongoing review; (3) a high level of student-teacher interaction; (4) the use of carefully chosen examples and non-examples; (5) decodable text; and (6) prompt, corrective feedback.”

Structured Literacy teaches children how to decode new words by exposing them to decodable text with ample representations of the phonetic elements they are currently studying. This enables students to focus on code emphasis.

Research from the National Reading panel shows that phonics instruction is not a complete reading program. Instead, it should be used in concert with other pillars of literacy. 

According to a February 2000 report, teachers can use controlled vocabulary texts that allow students to practice decoding and read quality literature to students to help them build a sense of story, develop vocabulary and improve their comprehension. “Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached. 

It is important to evaluate children’s reading competence in many ways, not only by their phonics skills but also by their interest in books and their ability to understand information that is read to them.” Researchers suggest that by emphasizing all processes that help children improve their reading skills, teachers will have the best chance to make every child a reader. (p. 2-97)

Many curriculum companies try to use research to formulate best practices and resources, but others use the term SoR without backing up their claim.  Using resources such as The Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Tool or independent reviews from companies like EdReports can help schools and districts evaluate curriculums better.

Can Structured Literacy support learning differences?

One of the most common reading differences is dyslexia. There is no “solution” or cure for dyslexia, but the Science of Reading and structured literacy strategies can provide a way to support our dyslexic students.  Studies show that in people with dyslexia, areas of the brain that are responsible for reading are under-activated during reading tasks. 

However, using the science of reading, educators can use instruction and intense practice of skills to strengthen areas of the brain that are weaker and apply specific reading strategies to help students grow their reading abilities.

Students with dyslexia tend to be high performing in comprehension and even language skills but struggle to decode words. For instance, intensive phonological awareness instruction can be very helpful for many readers with dyslexia. 

Studies also show that increased spacing can help readers with dyslexia decode words better. Inter-word spacing should be at least 3.5 times the inter-letter spacing. Some dyslexic people also find that larger line spacing that is proportional to inter-word spacing improves readability. 1.5/150% is preferable. Underlining and italics in a text can make the text appear to run together and cause crowding.

The science of reading can also help educators diagnose and treat dyslexia and other literacy-related learning differences by teaching us more about the neuroscience involved in learning to read. By using structured literacy strategies that don’t enable students to use masking and guessing strategies educators can begin to recognize the signs of reading differences earlier. In a way, structured literacy strategies act as universal screening tools.



What is the future of the Science of Reading?

Some of the latest research in the field of reading science is helping educators advance literacy education.

For instance, researchers have concluded that prosodic reading, or reading with expression is an important sign of reading fluency in young readers. Studies show a strong correlation between decoding speeds and prosody that, when taken with the correlation between decoding speed and comprehension, indicates a relationship between prosody and oral reading fluency.

Neurobiologists are also further examining reading as a complex process that begins with the visual recognition of letters and involves all regions of the brain, from phonological to higher-level processes that engage the logical and emotional processing centers of the brain. 

According to researchers “reading involves all cognitive functioning of humans — verbal and non-verbal — such as attention, planning, abstract reasoning, predicting, inhibition, use of strategies, problem-solving, working memory, and long-term storage memory and retrieval of vocabulary and concepts, the procedural skill of retrieval, the use of grammatical knowledge, and the motor mechanism for visual processing, and production.”

Because so many areas of the brain are involved in reading, activation takes place along the neural pathways that connect and coordinate activity in those areas of the brain as well as in those brain structures themselves.

Continued research into the science of reading can have a broad impact on improving literacy rates far into the future. Teachers who are trained based on the science of reading will be able to accommodate the learning differences of many different students, and provide multiple effective strategies that, combined, can help readers of all types master important pillars of literacy including phonemic recognition, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  

Many teachers were trained in methods of reading that were based on opinions and warm and fuzzy ideals about how education wants reading for children to look. According to NCTQ, in 2013, only 35% of higher-education institutes training teachers taught about the way children learn.  

This has increased to 51% in 2021 but consider the number of teachers left without this knowledge.  The lack of exposure to this knowledge has caused anger in some, denial in others, and even the increased spread of misinformation to cling to the failing methods.

Let me ask you this: if your profession was medicine, and you learned about a better way to provide care due to studies and valid research, would you? Or would you continue using the same methods, so that you did not need to change your ways? In medicine, you would be faulted for malpractice if you did not change your practice with the onset of new knowledge. 

Educators have a heavy responsibility to our children and all their futures, including their future education, their livelihood, and even their health.  Educators need to take the knowledge and change to effectively teach as many children to read as possible.

How can I learn more about the Science of Reading?

The science of reading has been around for almost fifty years, yet it is still a comparatively new field of study. As the field of research grows, who knows what insights it will provide that can help improve reading education for students of all kinds? Teachers and other educators who use the newest research on the science of reading to inform their curriculums will see the positive impact a cutting-edge, scientifically-backed literacy strategy can have on their young readers.

By using structured literacy strategies and teaching all five pillars of the science of reading, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, educators can improve outcomes for all readers. In a world where literacy is the key to accessing all important parts of our society, no student should be left behind. 

Teachers whose primary goal is the success of all students should take advantage of the latest research available to provide the best education possible to students.

To learn more about the science of reading and the complex brain processes involved, sign up for the Express Readers Brain Bulletins, which demystify the research and studies about reading and the brain.

Refer to our decodable books guide for a comprehensive look at how to select and use decodable books in the classroom

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