Over the past decade, teachers have noticed something strange happening in schools across the United States: an alarming number of students are struggling to read. Many are reading well below grade level. Some can barely read at all. Why is this happening?

In 2018, American Public Media aired the radio documentary, Hard Words: Why Aren't Kids Being Taught to Read? by education journalist Emily Hanford, sparking a national conversation on reading and literacy.

Hanford's investigation highlighted the shortcomings of prevailing teaching methods, particularly those based on whole language or balanced literacy. These approaches focus on learning to read through exposure to complete words and texts, with less focus on phonics.

Since the time Hanford’s controversial report was published, many schools have started to drop their balanced literacy curricula in favor of programs rooted in phonics and other research-backed concepts, sometimes called the “science of reading.”

But what is that? The name makes it sound like a specific program or methodology, but that’s not the case. Rather, the science of reading refers to the body of research that defines the most effective, evidence-based methods of teaching children how to read. This decades-long research was conducted by experts across multiple disciplines, including developmental psychology, educational psychology, neurology, and linguistics.

Science of reading - an umbrella term for the body of research across multiple disciplines that defines the most effective, evidence-based methods of learning how to read

At the center of the science of reading lies the human brain. As children, we learn how to talk by listening to spoken language. It comes naturally because our brains have evolved to form specialized areas for speech processing and comprehension.

Reading is a different story. In the grand scheme of human history, written language is relatively new, and consequently, our brains aren’t hardwired to process it like speech. We have to learn how to associate sounds with letters, and then we can use those letters to form words. That requires explicit, systematic instruction, especially from a young age.

Proponents of balanced literacy and whole language instruction may argue that learning the individual sounds of letters isn’t necessary to build reading skills; students can decipher words as they read based on memorizing their appearance. But the science of reading doesn’t support that idea.

Like we mentioned above, there isn’t one singular methodology or approach tied to the science of reading. Different models have emerged from years of research, all of which identify the skills needed to build strong reading skills, with phonics serving as the foundation. Today, let’s take a look at three of these established frameworks.

The Five Pillars of Reading Instruction

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP), a US government body appointed by Congress, released their famous report, Teaching Children to Read. In their findings, the NRP identified five key “pillars” that effective reading instruction programs shared: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Phonemic Awareness: The ability to identify and manipulate the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) in spoken language. For example, the word “bat” can be broken down into individual phonemes: /b/, /a/, /t/. Children need to obtain this skill in order for the rest to follow.

Phonics: The relationship between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Here, children discover how letters or letter patterns represent specific sounds in words. With an understanding of phonics, children can learn how to sound out unfamiliar words to determine meaning.

Vocabulary: The collection of words a person knows and understands. A strong vocabulary is essential for reading comprehension. Effective vocabulary instruction should explicitly teach word meanings, word relationships, and strategies for figuring out the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Fluency: The ability to read with accuracy, speed, and expression. Fluent readers can read words automatically, allowing them to focus on comprehension. Practicing reading aloud, using strategies like repeated reading, or modeling fluent reading can help build stronger fluency skills.

Comprehension: The ability to draw meaning from text. Comprehension involves understanding the main ideas, making inferences, and visualizing the text. Techniques like predicting, summarizing, and asking questions support deeper understanding and critical thinking.

Gough and Tunmer's Simple View of Reading (SVR)

The simple view of reading (SVR), proposed by psychologists Dr. Philip Gough and Dr. William Tunmer in 1986, is a theory that breaks down reading into two essential components: decoding and language comprehension. It’s usually represented as a short equation:

Reading Comprehension = Decoding × Language Comprehension

When reading, children need to recognize the letters in a word and connect them to their corresponding sounds. That is decoding, or the process of applying letter-sound knowledge to read and pronounce words accurately.

Language comprehension involves understanding and making sense of text. It encompasses various skills like knowing the meanings of words, understanding sentence structure and grammar, having background knowledge about a topic, and being able to think critically and draw conclusions from the text.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Developed by psychologist Dr. Hollis Scarborough in 2001, the Reading Rope model acts as a visual metaphor for Gough and Tunmer's simple view of reading. Different strands, or skills, are woven together to form one rope, emphasizing that reading is not a single skill but a combination of interconnected abilities.

There are two main strands: word recognition and language comprehension. Both strands are further broken down into several other smaller strands.

Word Recognition

This strand defines the skills required to recognize and decode printed words. It includes:

  • Phonological Awareness: The ability to identify and manipulate units of sound in spoken words. This includes skills such as recognizing rhymes, segmenting sounds, and blending sounds together.
    • Though they sound similar, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness (one of the pillars) are not the same. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness.
  • Decoding: The ability to convert written words into spoken language, as mentioned in the previous section.
  • Sight Word Recognition: The ability to quickly recognize and read high-frequency words that don’t necessarily follow regular phonetic patterns. These are words that students should know instantly upon seeing them.

Language Comprehension

This strand outlines the skills and knowledge needed to understand and derive meaning from text. It includes:

  • Vocabulary: The knowledge and understanding of words, their meanings, and their usage. Strong vocabulary skills are needed to better understand concepts and express ideas effectively.
  • Background Knowledge: The relevant knowledge and experiences a reader brings to the text. Prior knowledge about a topic can help students draw connections, understand context, and make inferences while reading.
  • Verbal Reasoning: The ability to think critically, analyze information, draw conclusions, and make inferences based on the text. Verbal reasoning involves using language skills to understand and interpret the author's message.

Trusting the Science

With the research to back it up, the science of reading provides a solid foundation for impactful literacy instruction. As more schools continue to implement these principles, we’re hopeful that all students will reach their full potential through literacy, fostering a love for reading along the way.

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