3 Things You Should Know About the Science of Reading

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Teaching reading is rocket science.

Louisa Moats

Yeah, no kidding…the “correct way” to teach reading has long been debated, and it seems like it is becoming a hot topic in the educational community once again. When I was in college, I was once told that education is like a pendulum, swinging from one line of thought, or extreme, to the other. For me, I have often found that somewhere in the middle lies the sweet spot…except when it comes to reading instruction.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be asked to assist with a science of reading conference. In doing so, I collaborated with colleagues who are well-versed in reading instruction, read several books about the subject, and presented my findings to educators across the district. I am here to share my takeaways from the experience.

If I were to sum up what I have learned it’s that the process of learning how to read is a complicated one. It heavily relies on explicit phonics instruction but also depends on language comprehension, which includes vocabulary.

The science of reading, like the process of reading itself, is vast and lengthy. Several books are dedicated to this very subject, which I will reference later. What I would like to discuss are three important things you should know when it comes to this topic.

1. The 5 Components

We can’t have a discussion about the science of reading without first identifying its components. The five parts of the science of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. While some components lend themselves to specific grade levels, all of them to some extent can and should be part of every elementary grade. If you are wondering what that looks like, stay tuned for a future post about what the science of reading is like in a real-life classroom. In that post, I will talk about both primary and upper grades. For now, let’s first define each component.

The images above are taken from our CVC line of printables and our line of phonics worksheet packets.

  • Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic awareness is the ability to separate and manipulate sounds. These sounds, or phonemes, are used to create morphemes or units of meaning. An example of a student who is phonemically aware is one who can separate the word “cat” into three sounds and then blend them back together. See examples: printables and Nearpod games.
  • Phonics: Phonics are sets of rules that dictate which letters and letter combinations relate to specific sounds. This is the key to learning how to decode. Luckily for you, I have created a ton of phonics printables and online games for your literacy centers.
  • Fluency: Fluency refers to the ability to read smoothly and accurately. This often includes expressive reading and phrasing. Although students are often timed when reading, it is not necessary to read quickly to be a fluent reader. In fact, students that read too quickly sometimes struggle with comprehension. The key here is practice. I will share specific fluency strategies in a future post, so check back in about a month.
  • Vocabulary: I happen to love teaching vocabulary, specifically academic vocabulary! The beauty of vocabulary instruction is that it can quickly and easily be incorporated into any lesson. Vocabulary can be classified into three categories: conversational (tier 1), academic (tier 2), and content-specific (tier 3). In my humble opinion, I believe that vocabulary should not be restricted to memorized definitions and set vocabulary lists. Rather, true mastery relies on an authentic use of language in everyday contexts. More on this in a few months…I could talk about this for days!
  • Comprehension: Last but not least is comprehension. Please do not wait to teach comprehension strategies until after a student is fully decoding. Both language and reading comprehension should be targeted alongside phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Graphic organizers, peer discussions, and “thinking out loud” are all examples of successful strategies that target comprehension.

2. Research-Based

Something else that is important to know is that the science of reading is research-based. It is based on decades of research into how the brain acquires the ability to read. (It is not natural, like speech.) This is not a reading fad or a new theory that will die out; that is what makes it different than other ideas in the “Reading Wars”.

It is also important to note that the science of reading is not a specific curriculum or a set of materials. It is evidence-based strategies that can be used with several different resources and curriculums. In fact, I am going to write about this very topic in my next blog post. I will teach you quick, efficient strategies based on the science of reading. The best part? These strategies can quickly be added to any lesson in any subject using any curriculum.

If you are new to the science of reading and looking to learn more, check out these books:

3. Not Only for Primary Grades

One common misconception is that the science of reading is only for students in grades K-2. However, this is far from the truth. Obviously, if a student is not decoding in the upper grades, that is a “stop everything and intervene” situation. Having said that, phonemic awareness and phonics still have a place in an upper elementary classroom with students who are at grade level. The instruction and content look different, but it should still exist. Root words, prefixes, suffixes, and multi-syllable words are examples of word work that require explicit instruction in grades 4-6.

Fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension should make up the majority of an upper-grade instructional day. It is important to remember that literacy is not just language arts but science and social studies, as well. Math can even be included, especially when it comes to math vocabulary!

There you have it…everything you need to know to at least get a feel for the science of reading. I will be digging deep into this topic over the next several months, so don’t feel like you need to be an expert at this (yet).

Next time, I will show you what the science of reading looks like in a real-life primary-grade classroom, as well as an upper-grade classroom. The blog will post on September 16, and the podcast episode will go live on September 17. Until then, check out these other blog posts about reading instruction:

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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