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5 Things to Know About the Science of Reading


The Science of Reading

The Science of Reading is the hot "buzz term" in the field of education right now, but what exactly is it and what do you need to know about it?


Here are five key things to note about the Science of Reading.


The science of reading is not new


The Science of Reading is in fact the culmination of over five decades of #research from around the world.


The Science of Reading refers to a body of research from the fields of #education, #cognitivepsychology, #developmentalpsychology, and #neuroscience, that explains how individuals learn how to read, and best practices for reading instruction.


Thanks to advances in technology over the past decades, and a greater understanding of neurobiology, researchers can see what is happening in the brains of typical and struggling readers. We now have an even better understanding of how reading develops in the brain, and the skills that contribute to proficient reading.


the science of reading is not just about reading


Reading is one of four domains of language; listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all interconnected. We know that a strong oral language foundation is needed in order to become skilled readers and writers. We know that reading and writing go hand in hand, but that reading always comes first.


The key difference though is that listening and speaking are “hard-wired” into the brain, which means that most individuals will naturally learn to listen and speak. They do not need to be taught these skills.


On the other hand, reading and writing are not naturally occurring developments. If we go back in time, this key difference makes a lot of sense. That's because reading and writing are actually relatively new inventions in the history of mankind. It wasn’t until about 5,500 years ago that human civilization decided that a few random marks on a page would carry meaning. Because of this, it in fact takes a number of different parts of our brain working together to allow us to read and write.


"Reading and writing are acquired skills for which the human brain is not yet fully evolved." – Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman (1989)

many students are not benefitting from the science of reading


It is sad, but true, that many classrooms around the world are not utilizing the Science of Reading. Because of this, it’s no surprise that over 2/3rd of 4th graders in the US are not reading at a proficient level, as based on the NAEP from 2022.


The root cause of this unfortunate disconnect goes back to the “Reading Wars” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which all started with an education student named Marie Clay from New Zealand. This one person made erroneous conclusions after observing first grade classrooms. She took these inaccurate ideas and developed an intervention program called Reading Recovery, which became a keystone product of the Whole Language approach.


The Whole Language approach is based on the premise that learning to read English comes naturally to humans, in the same way that learning to speak does. We know this isn’t true.


While this approach has long since been discredited, Marie Clay’s ideas were picked up by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who brought the cueing method to the US. Another woman named Lucy Calkins belatedly found out about the Whole Language approach and the cueing method, and brought it first to writing instruction, and then to reading. Their publisher Heinemann ramped up the marketing, and this scientifically discredited method spread like wildfire around the world.


We have known for decades that this approach is not based on scientific evidence. Despite this, and in large part thanks to those four women, generations of teachers have not learned best practices and generations of students have not been taught to read.


the simple view of reading


Not only has the Science of Reading given us huge insights into how typical and struggling readers learn to read, and how we need to teach them, but it has given us a few key models to help solidify all of this great research.


The Simple View of Reading is, well, the simplest. We need to be able to decode the words on the page. We need to be able to understand what those words mean. When we can do both of these, we can understand what we are reading, which really is the ultimate goal of reading.


As we may remember from those math classes back in school, whenever we multiply by zero, the answer is always zero. So, if a reader is struggling to break apart and read the word OR if the reader is struggling with the meaning of those words and chunks of language, then you’re going to have a struggling reader.


scarborough's reading rope


Scarborough’s Reading Rope is another helpful model from the Science of Reading. The Reading Rope takes that Simple View of Reading and peels apart the different strands of skills that are required to become a proficient reader.


The top strands are all of the different sets of skills needed to fully understand the language of the text being read. The bottom strands show the skills that help us decode, or break apart and read, the words on the page. As these skills become more and more tightly woven together, we move towards being skilled, automatic readers who can understand any text.


What’s important to note here is that these skills are not taught in isolation, but are in fact taught simultaneously, allowing learners to build all of the required skills as they move through the elementary years.


Take a moment to reflect


Are your students benefiting from the decades of research and evidence that have proven what effective instruction is? Do you need help improving your Language Arts program? Reach out now to make sure you're on the right track.


Want to learn more about how far many classrooms have drifted from the Science of Reading? Listen to "Sold a Story" by American Public Media.

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