What Is the Science of Reading? Top 5 Questions

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Science of Reading hero

The importance of reading to the academic, social and emotional development, and well-being of our children cannot be overestimated. With that in mind, it is imperative that we use the evidence from science to shape professional development and instructional practice. The robust evidence for early reading is often referred to as the science of reading. It could also be called the sciences of reading as it embodies research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and the learning sciences.

We are fortunate to have a robust body of research to inform how we teach reading. Our responses to these top five questions give you a starting place to understand and apply the science of reading in your classroom, school, district, or state. Our “why” is clear—we must teach our children to read confidently and capably so that they will have access to knowledge about the world and their individual and collective importance for creating a better future.

1. What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is a body of academic research that draws from fields like cognitive psychology, educational psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics in order to shed light on how humans learn to read. Reading science has shown that our brains are not wired to read and write—rather, building a reading brain requires explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction.

The science of reading is all about evidence from the accumulation of research on reading acquisition and instruction that has been conducted using gold-standard methodologies used to identify effective practices.

The science of reading is informed by the simple view of reading proposed by psychologists Philip Gough and William Tunmer in 1986. The theory established that one must be able to both decode text and comprehend text in order to read. Psychologist Hollis Scarborough extended this idea by creating the reading rope, which unpacks the two strands even further and shows how they intertwine over time—illustrating that skilled reading requires increasingly automatic word recognition and increasingly strategic language comprehension.

2. What are the most important new developments in reading science research?

The groundbreaking 2000 report by the National Reading Panel was essential in determining the key components of effective literacy instruction, including the five “pillars” of reading:

In addition, over the last 20 years, the science of reading has shown numerous other factors are essential to literacy. More recent evidence from neuroscience research has confirmed decades of previous research on reading instruction and acquisition, including insights related to the brain activity of skilled and developing readers, the process the brain goes through as we learn to read, including how the brain reorganizes itself, and the neurological basis of reading difficulties.

Research studies conducted in classroom and laboratory settings have demonstrated the importance of comprehensive literacy when learning to read, write, and speak effectively. At HMH®, we feel that the essential science-based elements of literacy consisting of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, background knowledge, language, and writing need to be supported by data and integrated with social and emotional learning in any high-quality comprehensive literacy program.

Essential elements of literacy

3. Why is there a heightened interest in reading science at this time?

While at first it might feel that the conversation around reading science materialized overnight, the recent attention is a result of the convergence of years of activity and interest by concerned parents, policy makers, pundits, and professionals. Much of the demand for instruction based in the science of reading is coming from policy makers at the state and local levels, who are responding to pressure from parents (mostly of students with dyslexia) who have been advocating that school districts adequately meet the needs of their children.

Decoding Dyslexia, an organization comprised of caregivers of children with dyslexia, with chapters across the United States, has helped to push policies forward and to influence the passing of key legislation, based on the science of reading, at the state and local levels. Decoding Dyslexia and other advocacy groups are informed by pundits and professionals who have been moving the conversation toward the need for evidence-based materials. Additionally, there are growing and enthusiastic social media groups sharing this body of research—raising even greater attention about the need to teach reading through this evidence-based framework.

4. What are we beginning to learn about the science of teaching reading remotely?

Whether teaching reading in person or remotely, teachers must adhere to research-based principles based on the science of reading. As the mode of delivery of instruction shifts from the classroom to remote learning, several factors play critical roles in effective implementation of remote-reading instruction:

  • Teachers will need to adapt whole-class, small-group, and one-on-one classroom routines by considering the use of synchronous and/or asynchronous digital platforms to teach new content, to read books aloud with the class, or to reinforce essential reading skills.
  • Students need abundant supplemental opportunities to practice reading skills at home on asynchronous online applications and offline activities.
  • Teachers can leverage the benefits of digital reading, including access to e-books across genres, reading logs, and online quizzes that allow for teachers to monitor students’ progress remotely, and accessibility supports that provide scaffolds for students with disabilities.
  • Teachers need to establish new ways to connect with and motivate students in a remote learning environment.
  • Most importantly, to ensure a successful remote-learning experience, it is critical to engage and support caregivers who are supervising students’ at-home learning. Teaching reading remotely is a collaborative effort that includes the teacher, student, and family. The ultimate goal remains the same—no matter the mode of instruction, we want all students to experience the joy of reading.

5. What systems need to be in place so that all children learn to read and love to read?

Learning, including learning to read and loving to read, requires a connected approach, where school leaders, teachers, families, and communities work together. At HMH, we have developed an evidence-based Connected Learning Model, a dynamic system of support, where all children learn to read and love to read.

The Connected Learning Model emphasizes the need to:

  • Notice, empathize, and support reading instruction through social and emotional learning
  • Identify learner needs through assessment and use data to drive instructional decision-making and accelerate learning
  • Use data to inform decision-making to support growth and differentiate reading instruction across students’ interests and abilities to inform whole-group, small-group, and individual instruction and practice opportunities
  • Implement research-based instructional materials and science of learning instructional strategies designed to support students across a range of abilities
  • Support student learning, including learning to read, by providing educators with reflective, research-based professional learning, with a focus on how to ensure social and emotional well-being and meaningful student learning informed by reading science
  • Foster a mindset and culture of growth across students, educators, and families that values everyone’s contributions
  • Build trust and empathize with families through open communication, positive relationships, and support of the learning that is happening at home and in the community, including opportunities to learn to read and to love reading
Connected learning


HMH core, intervention, and supplemental programs are rooted in the science of reading. Find out more about our evidence-based approach to teaching a child to read.

Explore what the brain reveals about literacy development in the intermediate and middle grades in this webinar hosted by Dr. Shane Templeton, professor of literacy studies at the University of Nevada, in Reno.

Get our free Science of Reading eBook today.

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