What is the Science of Reading? I'm sure you have heard about this “new reading movement sweeping the nation” and are wondering if it really is the right way to teach students how to read. Spoiler alert: It IS NOT just an education buzzword or trend, and it's not new at all. I am going to share everything you need to know about the Science of Reading and why it is the way to teach reading effectively.
My Journey with the Science of Reading
I first heard the term “Science of Reading” about 3 years ago and had no clue what it meant. So of course, I went straight to looking up exactly what it was. At first glance, I realized I had already been teaching according to most of the Science of Reading pillars without even realizing it. When I was in college, we were taught the balanced literacy approach to teaching reading. However, I disagreed with just using these “reading strategies” to teach reading. It just never sat right with me or made sense when kids were more than capable of sounding out words.
Fast forward to my first teaching job in Kindergarten, I really struggled with teaching reading. A fellow teacher showed me all about phonemic awareness and how to teach it, so I started doing that. I focused on phonics with a mix of sight words rather than using cueing strategies and saw my students become successful and confident readers. I continued using this method of focusing on phonics and phonemic awareness for the next few years until I took an extended maternity leave.
Now, I have learned so much more about the Science of Reading and how teachers incorporate it into their classrooms. Even though I was already doing a lot of what the research suggests, there were still areas that I would change or add if I went back to the classroom today. I want to share more about the Science of Reading so that more teachers are able to incorporate it into their own classrooms.
What is the Science of Reading?
The Science of Reading is a “comprehensive body of research that encompasses years of scientific knowledge… This conclusive, empirically supported research provides us with the information we need to gain a deeper understanding of how we learn to read, what skills are involved, how they work together, and which parts of the brain are responsible for reading development. From this research, we can identify an evidence-based best practice approach for teaching foundational literacy skills called Structured Literacy.” (IMSE Journal, 2021)
Basically, the Science of Reading is brain-based research that shows us how we learn to read. You may also hear it called “structured literacy” as opposed to “balanced literacy” that many of us were taught in our education programs. This research has been around for decades; however, many teachers are just now hearing about it now.
Understanding Brain-Based Reading Instruction
This illustration of Scarborough’s Reading Rope was what really helped this brain-based research “click” for me. It focuses on two areas- language comprehension and word recognition that tie together to form skilled reading. Essentially, decoding plus comprehension equals skilled reading.
Language Comprehension includes:
- Background Knowledge: facts or concepts about a specific topic. For example, a student may have experienced a rainy day. When reading a book about weather, they are able to use that background knowledge to comprehend new information about water. (Great Minds: Examining Scarborough's Rope: Background Knowledge, 2022)
- Vocabulary Knowledge: learning and understanding new words. For example, a student is reading about butterflies and learns the new word “metamorphosis”. (Great Minds: Examining Scarborough's Rope: Vocabulary Knowledge, 2022)
- Language Structures: syntax, which refers to the grammatical rules of a language, and semantics, how word choice develops meaning. For example, the two phrases “Let's eat Grandma!” and “Let's eat, Grandma!” have two very different meanings. (Great Minds: Examining Scarborough's Rope: Language Structures, 2022)
- Verbal Reasoning: the ability to think about a text and infer meaning from what is stated, both explicitly and implicitly. (Great Minds: Examining Scarborough's Rope: Verbal Reasoning, 2022)
- Literacy Knowledge: understanding the purposes, features, and conventions of texts. This skill starts with print concepts, like reading from left to right, and continues through their lifetime, learning about different genres, text features, etc. (Great Minds: Examining Scarborough's Rope: Literacy Knowledge, 2022)
With Language Comprehension, each skill becomes increasingly strategic. As a Kindergarten or First Grade teacher, you will heavily focus on background knowledge and vocabulary knowledge. Teachers will focus more on language structures and verbal reasoning in the later grades.
Word Recognition includes:
- Phonological Awareness: understanding of syllables, phonemes, etc. For example, identifying how many phonemes are in a word.
- Decoding: spelling-sound correspondences, alphabetic principles. For example, reading and spelling CVC words.
- Sight Recognition: “Sight words” are any words that students have memorized by sight and therefore don’t need to decode. For example, when you look at a sign, you instantly know what it says. Those words are orthographically mapped and stored in your brain. This is different from just memorizing sight words using flashcards.
Word recognition is going to cover your whole phonics instruction block. These skills are so important to develop starting in Kindergarten to help students learn how to read.
That seems like a lot to cover, but I'm sure if you think about your reading instruction, you are already teaching most of those concepts! The part that I really want you to focus on is the five pillars of the Science of Reading.
The Five Pillars of Literacy
This National Reading Panel report identifies these five foundational components of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Furthermore, they go on to explain that these areas are vital to reading instruction and all instruction must be done explicitly. When thinking about your reading instruction, are you incorporating all 5 daily?
Why does the Science of Reading matter?
The Science of Reading is not just a curriculum, it is a body of research that is proven to help children read. In the United States, 65% of children in fourth grade scored “below proficient,” which means that they are not reading at grade level. That means that how we are currently teaching reading is not working. Shifting to a structured literacy approach with systematic and explicit instruction will benefit ALL learners, even those with dyslexia or other learning disabilities.
Want to Learn More about the Science of Reading?
I'm going to dive more into the Science of Reading over the next few weeks to break down everything for you by starting with small, actionable steps. Make sure to open my weekly emails or subscribe here if you aren't already for more on the Science of Reading this April.