Let’s get straight to the point. The Science of Reading is just that: settled science—conclusive, research-proven ideas about how to teach reading drawn from developmental and educational psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience on reading (Seidenberg, n.d). As such, the Science of Reading is not an ideology, philosophy, program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction (Moats, 2019), and this research has important implications for helping children to succeed in reading.
Following the research on reading instruction
According to Whitman and Goldberg (2008), reading is probably the hardest thing that we teach people to do. For confirmation, ask any teacher working in the primary grades. Nothing prepares humans to naturally absorb language through vision (Dehaene, 2009). Yet we seek to support young learners in the ability to do just that—to look at a symbol (whether a letter or a word) and associate its sound and meaning.
The phrase “the Science of Reading” has flourished in the past few years, driven substantially by the work of education journalist Emily Hanford with American Public Media. Her reporting on early-grade reading began in 2018 with a blog and podcast asking, “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” One month later, she followed this with another blog and podcast for parents, advising “What to do if your child’s school isn’t teaching reading right.” Hanford was very much alarmed by the apparent disconnect between what research so clearly documents should be done around reading instruction—particularly in early-grade classrooms—and the approaches she observed in practice or in pre-service teacher training.
For an overview of Hanford’s reporting on the Science of Reading over the past 3 years, check out her recent keynote address at EdPalooza 2020.
Why instruction must be explicit and systematic
Almost any discussion of the Science of Reading will include the words “explicit” and “systematic” in reference to phonics instruction. Explicit describes what emergent readers must master—a very specific list of skills related to letter/sound associations. Systematic refers to how these letter/sound associations must be taught—in a clear, logical sequence. An excellent research summary on phonics instruction is provided by Britain’s Education Endowment Foundation, which notes the research base for phonics as having “very extensive evidence,” its highest rating.
There is universal agreement on the need for phonics instruction as well as other “foundational reading skills” (e.g., print concepts, phonemic awareness, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) that begin the process in the earliest grades and lay a solid foundation for continued growth. In addition, a number of states also include oral language, with some also noting the role of background knowledge (see, e.g., SCORE 2020).
In this final point, Susan Pimentel (2018) refers to the research on the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension as “some of the most profoundly important, yet under-recognized, reading research.” Louisa Moats (2019) also speaks to this point, noting that “reading science has not neglected the importance of language comprehension and the challenges of reading comprehension.” She adds that “while this aspect of reading is more difficult to research than foundational reading skills, we can hang our hat on certain robust findings,” which “include the critical importance of building vocabulary and background knowledge for text reading, and the value of a content-rich curriculum.”
Mark Seidenberg, author of Language at the Speed of Sight, has compiled an excellent list of resources for learning more about the Science of Reading. We also invite you to explore the following Renaissance programs:
Dehaene S. (2009). Reading in the brain. New York: Penguin.
Moats L. (2019). Of ‘hard words’ and straw men: Let’s understand what reading science is really about. EDVIEW360 blog.
Pimentel S. (2018). Why doesn’t every teacher know the research on reading instruction? Education Week. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-why-doesnt-every-teacher-know-the-research-on-reading-instruction/2018/10.
Seidenberg M. (n.d.) Connecting the Science of Reading and educational practices. Retrieved from: https://seidenbergreading.net/science-of-reading/.
State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). (2020). If we know better, we must do better: Applying the Science of Reading in Tennessee. Retrieved from: https://tnscore.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Science-of-Reading-2020.pdf.
Whitman A. & Goldberg J. (2008). Ready to read? Neuroscience research sheds light on brain correlates of reading. The DANA Foundation.