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What is the Science of Reading?

April 28th, 2022

Science of Reading, Defined

While the research base for effective reading instruction has existed for decades, unproven strategies are still being used in many schools—contributing to glaring inequities that have impacted trajectories and outcomes. 

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of U.S. students were unable to read at grade level. Recent school disruptions have only contributed to the issue. In response, state and local education agencies are prioritizing the “science of reading”.

The science of reading—a term first coined by The Reading League—represents an interdisciplinary body of research about what constitutes scientifically-based reading instruction. 

Drawing from sciences including cognitive psychology, communication, education, and developmental psychology, the science of reading is based upon how we learn to read and the best way to teach it. 

Core Reading Practices: The “Big 5”

In 1999, Congress convened the National Reading Panel to evaluate existing research and determine the most effective, evidence-based methods for teaching students to read. The panel found that effective reading instruction addresses five key areas:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

While the official report was published in 2000, the “big 5” findings are, unfortunately, still not taught in all schools of education. 

Related resource: [Playbook] Tackle Literacy Inequities Using Assessments and the Science of Reading

This disconnect prompted the Reading League to push forward with the science of reading—a reminder of what works, with a focus on application in schools. 

Science of Reading: Major Features

Focused on supporting educators in facilitating effective literacy instruction, the science of reading distills five decades of research into easily implemented strategies. Listed below are its key components. 

Direct and Explicit Instruction: There is a large body of research about effective reading instruction. When reading is directly and explicitly taught it: 

  • Ensures equity:  Everychild utilizing these methods has an equal opportunity to learn to read well.
  • Reduces guessing: To build reading skills, students are told the correct method from the start. Instruction follows a specific sequence of letters, followed by words and sentences. 
  • Prevents assumptions: Teachers assess and address each learner’s specific reading needs and do not assume students’ prior knowledge.
  • Scaffolds learning: easier content is taught before harder content, sounds are taught before stop sounds, and high-frequency words before low frequency. 
  • Separates letters and ideas that are easy to confuse: Examples include b, d, p, q. 
  • Gets children reading connected text as quickly as possible: When students start applying learned skills, they build confidence and purpose for reading.

Instruction that Contains All Five Areas of Reading 

  • Phonemic awareness: Identifying the smallest sounds in words
  • Phonics: Matching sounds with letters to read words
  • Fluency: Reading words accurately, automatically and with prosody
  • Vocabulary: Knowing the meaning of words
  • Comprehension: Understanding what is read 

Universal

  • Used with all students: Every learner has access to effective, high-quality reading instruction from the first day of school.
  • Embedded within Tier 1 core instruction: Not reserved for when students begin struggling to read, which in turn reduces the number who need intervention 
  • Sets a solid foundation for all: Makes reading accessible to every student.

Structured

  • The current term for scientifically-based reading instruction: Evolved from previous efforts, including National Reading Panel findings. 
  • Incorporates all of the above practices to make reading accessible and equitable: An approach that benefits all students.

Not New: History of Reading Research + Major Findings

The science of reading is not an ideology, trend, or program of instruction—it references the history of reading research to define an equitable approach to literacy instruction while challenging approaches that are not aligned with scientific evidence.

history of reading timeline

Major findings of this body of research include: 

  • Phonics is an important part of learning to read in English and other alphabetic languages—those that have both the shapes (letters) and specific sounds that correspond to the shapes. 
  • Sequential instruction is best—there needs to be a scope and sequence, where foundational reading concepts are taught and then built upon. 
  • Direct and systematic instruction works for all students—instead of having students play the “guessing game,” specific concepts or procedures are taught in a highly structured and carefully sequenced manner. 
  • Exposure-based, “whole language” methods do not work well for most students. Because these approaches assume students have already attained foundational skills, they raise issues of equity and efficacy. 

How Does the Science of Reading Improve Instruction?

The science of reading defines what every teacher needs to know and do to facilitate reading success for all students. It is especially effective when paired with a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS)

Related resource: [eBook] Universal Screening for Reading

Applying the science of reading at Tier 1 (universal instruction), Tier 2 (targeted, group interventions) and Tier 3 (intensive, individualized interventions) ensures that all students are set up to build a strong foundation. Through regular progress monitoring, educators can track students’ growth, document improvement, and lead instructional change. 

Help Every Student Achieve their Literacy Potential

Through the science of reading, we can create equitable access to effective literacy instruction for every student–and reading assessments are a critical component to ensure equitable, evidence-based literacy instruction. Our reading measures provide quick, reliable insights into student literacy that accelerate student growth. Learn more about our assessments–and the researchers who developed them–here.

 

 

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Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. By combining comprehensive assessment and MTSS management and collaboration tools, the Illuminate Solution enables educators to accurately assess learning, identify needs, align whole child supports, drive system-level improvements, and equitably accelerate growth for every learner.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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