What is the Science of Reading?

You may have heard the buzz around the “Science of Reading” lately. New and trendy movements in education take off almost daily, but this one is worth paying attention to. For many years, even the most proactive and conscientious teachers have taught reading using a “Balanced Literacy” approach; that is, using a combination of explicit phonics instruction, and more whole language strategies like using context to “guess” words. But collective research from the last few decades has overwhelmingly shown that those whole language strategies don’t build strong readers able to decode complex texts. This extensive research has been coined the “Science of Reading.” As the name implies, we are all learning that teaching reading is a science, not an art. Students need explicit, systematic language instruction to “crack the code” and make sense of written language.

What’s the Difference Between Science of Reading and Phonics?

Phonics is part of the science of reading. Phonics instruction refers to the specific skills students learn about letter sounds and symbols. The science of reading is more complex that just phonics. It includes everything about how kids learn to read, which does start with systematic and explicit phonics instruction, but it doesn’t end there. In addition to teaching phonics, it also includes vocabulary acquisition, morphology skills (manipulating words), and comprehension strategies.

Science of Reading in the Classroom

So what should a reading lesson look like knowing what we now know? A typical reading lesson used to consist of a specific skill being modeled, perhaps through a read-aloud. Then students would try it out themselves through independent practice. It still works this way, but some of the skills and strategies promoted by Science of Reading research differ. Teachers might still model skills through a read-aloud, and students might still have time to practice those skills independently. But instead of teaching students strategies like using a picture and the first letter of a word to figure out what it says, students learn how to solve the word based on how it’s written. And instead of isolated comprehension strategies like sequencing events or identifying cause and effect, students practice mindful reading, and teachers show them what it looks like.

Shifting Your Practice

It can be difficult to acknowledge that something you’ve been doing for years isn’t best for students. But everyone who teaches reading is in the same boat! We are all constantly learning and growing. Making the shift toward a more structured approach to teaching reading just means that, like the research itself, your teaching practice is evolving.

A classroom that truly embodies the science of reading principles starts with phonics instruction early. It empowers students by helping them crack the reading code by actually learning how to decode words instead of using pictures, sentence structure, or context to guess at them. It also teaches comprehension not through isolated skill practice, but through interacting with text and being metacognitive about one’s reading process. This means students are encouraged to think about what and how they are thinking while they read. 

So given what we know about the science of reading, what makes a good reader? First, it takes knowledge of phonics rules and how to apply them. Next, it takes meaningful vocabulary acquisition. And finally, it takes actively and metacognitively engaging with text in order to make sense of it.

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