For years, research into how students learn to read has progressed without really making its way into the classrooms where that learning is happening. Certainly, we’ve made progress. When my parents learned to read in the 1940s, reading was often taught using a “look and say” method. For example, students were shown the word cat and were simply told the identity of the word, leaving fledgling readers to memorize words or decode for themselves how letters come together to form them.
Teachers offer better guidance these days, but the science of reading has yet to make it into the classroom in an optimal way, largely because those in many higher learning institutions haven’t committed to it as the most effective way to teach reading. Research has not been widely translated into practice.
Yet we’re beginning to see a shift. According to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, 20 states now require teacher candidates to pass a licensure test firmly grounded in the science of reading. Laws have been signed in four states—Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, and Tennessee—requiring elementary schools to incorporate the science of reading into instruction in 2021, and leaders in 18 states have said they will use federal COVID relief funds to revamp their pedagogy or provide the requisite training for new reading teachers.
Building a Network
Teacher preparation programs at many universities do not provide a solid grounding in the science of reading. When I was pursuing my master’s degree, I didn’t receive much training in the science of reading and was instead prepared to teach students with a focus much closer to that of whole language.
When I got into the classroom and started teaching, I found that the instruction I had been taught to provide was not helping my struggling students become proficient readers. This was incredibly distressing, and so I began to dig into the research, which is both compelling and extensive.
With brain imaging technology, modern science can actually show us what happens in students’ brains as they learn to read. In the beginning, students are laying down a network of neural pathways that makes reading even possible at all. When it comes to struggling readers, regardless of the reasons they’re struggling, we’re able to see that when they receive systematic, research-based reading instruction, their brains begin functioning more similarly to those of peers who read more proficiently. The brain literally changes as a student learns to read, building connections to create the reading network in the left hemisphere. Instruction based on the science of reading aligns with the way the brain’s reading network functions and facilitates the formation of the necessary neural pathways.
As teachers, we are helping students build the physical foundations in the brain that enable reading. We have to ensure that those foundations are as strong as possible.
The Simple View
The body of knowledge referred to as the science of reading has been around for longer than many people think. But like all sciences, the science of reading is a work in progress. Researchers are still digging into intriguing and difficult questions about how our brains learn to read and read to learn. There is, however, a vast body of existing research that allows us to draw essential conclusions about what is true and what is not about effective reading instruction.
The Simple View of Reading, first laid out by researchers Philip Gough and William Turner in 1986, predates much of the modern research referred to as the science of reading, and yet it is still an accepted and helpful model because it aligns so well with the evidence.
The Simple View states that proficient reading is the product of two factors: word recognition and language comprehension, which roughly equates to listening comprehension. Students must have the foundational word identification skills to decode words on a page. They need to do that automatically and fluently.
They must also have strong language comprehension skills to be able to understand the words and follow the logical flow of language in order to get meaning from what they are reading. If either component of that model is failing—if students can’t decode or they don’t understand the language of a text—they will struggle.
That’s simple enough, but we can already begin to see how understanding the science of reading can inform personalized instruction. If we can pinpoint which of these two pieces is causing the student to struggle, then it becomes much easier to intervene effectively: Can the student understand a passage when it is read aloud to them but not when they read it silently? If so, the student almost certainly is having trouble decoding, as opposed to having a hard time understanding the language of the text.
Within those two factors of proficient reading—word recognition and language comprehension—are instructional strands that work together like puzzle pieces. For word recognition, the strands comprise phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency.
Phonological awareness is the ability to detect the discrete sounds within words, such as the /k/ sound in cat. Developing those skills may seem simple enough, but it is not intuitive at all. We experience language as a continuous stream of speech, not a series of discrete sounds arranged in a particular order, so children need instruction and practice to learn how to detect the individual sounds, or phonemes, within words. The phonics piece requires students to connect letters with sounds, and then, when they knit those skills together with phonological awareness to begin to recognize words automatically, they become fluent readers.
The process that draws upon phonological awareness and phonics skills to make automatic word recognition possible is called orthographic mapping. Students’ brains isolate the sounds, connect them to letters, and bond them permanently for instant recognition of a given word. Without conscious awareness, proficient readers use the orthographic mapping process when they encounter new words, but that process begins for young learners with explicit instruction with these very simple components.
The instructional strands within the other component of the Simple View, language comprehension, include vocabulary and comprehension, language concepts, and communication. We can offer explicit instruction in the print concepts and rules of our language, such as reading left to right and ending sentences with punctuation, but these strands also include things like vocabulary and background knowledge, which are the essential building blocks of comprehension.
Back in 1988, Donna Recht demonstrated the importance of background knowledge in her famous study colloquially known as the baseball study.
Recht gave students a passage to read about baseball and found that the struggling readers who already knew a lot about baseball had better comprehension of the passage than proficient readers who had little prior knowledge of the sport.
That doesn’t mean that reading teachers need to somehow do the impossible and give their students prior knowledge on all unfamiliar reading topics. It does mean that it’s important for very young children to have conversations with adults about all kinds of things for the purpose of encouraging the development of prior knowledge and fostering a rich vocabulary.
Some people push back on the science of reading because they think it involves too much drilling of isolated skills and not enough actual reading, or that some children do not need extensive, explicit instruction, or that the science of reading is just about phonics. But a closer look reveals that in classrooms where instruction is well-aligned with the science of reading, skills instruction is connected to rich reading experiences, explicit instruction benefits all but is differentiated based on individual needs, and reading instruction goes well beyond a narrow focus on phonics.
In the end, we all want what’s best for the children in our classrooms. We want them to succeed. When we take a step back and consider the evidence, it’s clear that we can facilitate that best by aligning our instruction with what actually happens in our students’ brains as they read.
Julie Christensen is the director of curriculum at nonprofit Waterford.org and a former elementary school teacher and literacy coach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.