The Science of Reading: What Educators Should Know

While “the science of reading” is a phrase that’s heard a lot these days, what that phrase really means isn’t always clear. Understanding what reading research tells us about how children learn to read, and what forms of reading instruction are most effective, is important for improving reading outcomes for all students.

What is “The Science of Reading”?

When we use this phrase, it should be in reference to research findings from the past 40-plus years of high-quality studies on how reading skills develop, what skills and knowledge sources predict reading proficiency (and reading difficulties), and what instructional approaches are most effective. Although research is always evolving and there are questions in need of further exploration, some aspects now have considerable scientific support. For example:

  • In its most essential conceptualization, reading requires (a) the ability to read (i.e., “decode”) words, and (b) the language and knowledge base to understand text. This was originally coined by Gough and Tunmer as “The Simple View of Reading.” Although the relative importance of each element varies by grade level, reading cannot exist without both aspects. If words cannot be decoded, comprehension will not take place. If those words can be decoded but the meanings of the words or what phrases and sentences refer to are unknown, reading comprehension will not occur. The goal of reading is to understand and learn from text, but we need both elements to get there.
  • Phonemic awareness, an individual’s ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of words, is the bedrock of reading. When integrated with early reading instruction, phonemic processing instruction sets the stage for connecting sounds to printed letters and letter combinations. Learning how to segment and blend sounds helps support reading and spelling words.
  • Becoming a proficient reader requires considerable practice. Early on, reading practice is critical for helping students form bonds between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation. As students develop reading skills that allow them to understand and learn from text, reading experience allows them to acquire new knowledge and new vocabulary, which in turn promotes stronger reading over time.
  • For students learning to read, or for those with reading difficulties, having them read orally with a skilled reader present to provide affirmative and corrective feedback is best. This direct support becomes less important as readers develop (a) skills to read with high accuracy, and (b) comprehension skills that enable them to recognize when they make reading errors and are able to correct them.

Some Misinterpretations and Misconceptions of “The Science of Reading”

  • The “Science of Reading” should not be viewed as a faction in the reading wars (i.e., the debate about the extent to which reading instruction should focus on phonics). Nor should the phrase be viewed as “phonics only” or as an opposition to language instruction. It is true that reading research has unequivocally established the importance of phonics instruction for helping all children learn to read. But research has also established the critical importance of language abilities in reading. In short, the science of reading has established that both explicit instruction in how to read words, as well as instruction that strengthens language knowledge and skills, are important.
  • It is not sufficient to refer to the “Five Big Ideas of Reading” as the “Science of Reading." The “Five Big Ideas” usually refers to phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, which were interpreted by readers of the report of the National Reading Panel as five key components of reading. It is true that all five are very important elements of reading development and reading instruction. But they should not be viewed as a prescription for what reading instruction should look like for all students on a daily basis in all grades, or how to equally divide a reading lesson, because some skills are more important for students at a given grade or stage of reading. The five should also not be viewed as discrete categories or separate “skills” because there is a great deal of overlap and inter-dependence among them.

In my upcoming webinar, I will discuss these topics and the research behind them, what is known about the science of reading, and what questions remain.

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Interested in learning more about the science of reading? Register here for Dr. Clemens’ webinar, The Science of Reading: What Educators Should Know,” on July 16 at 12:00 p.m. ET. You can follow Dr. Clemens on Twitter: @DrNathanClemens

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