The Science of Reading
Introduction-Tier 1 Instruction Matters
Creating inclusive classrooms should be a priority for all schools. Tier 1 instruction (instruction in the general education classroom) plays a significant role in a child's ability to become a successful reader. It is the responsibility of school districts to support a teacher's ability to create learning environments that help all students succeed, especially those students who have been historically marginalized and those students who have learning differences. When instruction does not align with the cognitive science, students will fall behind, especially our most vulnerable students as the data consistently shows. The Science of Reading is a term used to describe the vast amount of research that explains the cognitive processes involved in reading. Understanding the science will lead to stronger pedagogy, empowering teachers to empower students.
What is the Science of Reading?
Reading is a complex cognitive task. How does our brain learn to read? How can schools use the knowledge gained from cognitive science to better inform literacy instruction to meet the needs of diverse students?
The Simple View of Reading
The Simple View formula presented by Gough and Tunmer in 1986 is:
Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)
The Simple View formula and supporting studies show that a student’s reading comprehension (RC) score can be predicted if decoding (D) skills and language comprehension (LC) abilities are known. Notice that D and LC are not added together to predict RC. They are multiplied. In the Simple View formula, the values of D and LC must be between 0 and 1 (or 0% and 100%). A score of 0 means no skill or ability at all and 1 indicates perfection. (Source: Reading Rockets).
Scarborough's Reading Rope
How do children learn to read?
(Image Used With Permission)
- The Reading Rope consists of lower and upper strand that woven together help a child comprehend the text they are reading.
- The Lower Strand is Decoding- the word-recognition strands (phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words) work together as the reader becomes accurate, fluent, and increasingly automatic with repetition and practice. This is when students "lift" words off the page without effort.
- The Upper Strand is Language-comprehension- strands (background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge) reinforce the word recognition strand, The strands weave together with the word-recognition strands to produce a skilled reader.
- This does not happen overnight; it requires instruction and practice over time.
Structured Literacy explicitly teaches systematic word identification/decoding strategies. Structured literacy is diagnostic based on formal and informal assessments. Content is taught to mastery so children can recognize words with automaticity to free up working memory to allow the student to focus on the meaning of text. This is not memorizing sight words visually.
Structured literacy "is an approach to reading instruction that can be beneficial not only for students with reading disabilities, but also for other at-risk students including English learners and struggling adolescents" (Baker et al., 2014; Gersten et al., 2008; Kamil et al., 2008; Vaughn et al., 2006).
How do students learn to read words fluently?
Hint: It is more than memorizing sight words!
Orthographic Mapping is an essential process to understand the shifts needed in early literacy instruction. Learn more!
The Simple View of Reading and Dyslexia
Decoding issues are the earliest warning signs of dyslexia in students.
Speaking is natural, reading is not. Yet, many practices teachers were taught to use for early literacy reinforce the belief that exposure to text and high interest books will suffice to help students become proficient readers. Misconceptions about early literacy can have devastating effects on dyslexic students despite the best intentions.
Dyslexia falls on the lower end of the literacy continuum. These students struggle with word-level reading, which can impact comprehension and make reading feel exhausting. Many dyslexic students will not be officially identified, which becomes an equity issue (wealthier families can afford testing and private interventions). Therefore, it is extremely important that Tier 1 instruction aligns with the evidence about how a child's brain learns to read.
Students with dyslexia often struggle with phonemic awareness, phonological processing, and/or rapid automatized naming. These deficits make learning to decode words challenging. Early screening can help identify students at risk of developing reading challenges and can allow teachers to provide appropriate support and interventions.
If Tier 1 general education instruction included a structured literacy component, that is diagnostic and prescriptive (also called responsive), most students can go on to recognize words with automaticity allowing them to be fluent readers. Dyslexic students will need more practice and repetition for orthographic mapping to occur to achieve fluency, but if they are provided a strong foundation in the Tier 1 setting, interventions will be more effective. Kilpatrick on RTI Research
Tier 1 Practices Should Be Inclusive And Equitable
For more information on Nancy Young's Ladder of Reading and the supporting statistics please visit her website.
"Numerous studies have indicated that students who receive early systematic phonics instruction have better reading comprehension at the end of the second and third grades (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998; NICHD, 2000).
This is because they can accurately read the words, and being able to read the words provides the oral language system with the input needed for comprehension.
Poor word reading means that the oral language system often receives inadequate input for comprehension."
- David A. Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties states
Oral Language Comprehension
The Simple View of Reading also recognizes the importance of oral language comprehension. It is important to provide students with a content rich curriculum that exposes them to vocabulary and syntax to help students comprehend what they are reading. When a student is able to decode fluently, they can then map those words to their oral language vocabulary to derive meaning. In the early grades, it is important to expose students to a rich language environment that helps students learn about the world around them and to expose them to new vocabulary, syntax and the pragmatics of language. This is why read alouds are very important.
Students who struggle with oral language comprehension can include emergent bi-lingual students, students with developmental language disorders, and students on the autism spectrum to name a few. Students with dyslexia can also struggle with vocabulary and background knowledge if their decoding challenges are not remediated in early elementary grades, these challenges can often be found in dyslexic students in later grades.
The importance of oral language comprehension and why some students struggle.
Early literacy practices taught to teachers gave the impression that learning to read is similar to learning to speak.
Many teacher preparation programs focused on exposure to text and guided reading questions and reading comprehension skills as the primary method of teaching reading.
Balanced literacy implementation varies from school to school. Teachers may teach phonics instruction, but then go to use three-cueing or MSV strategies that focus on meaning first, syntax, and visual cues. This can interfere with orthographic mapping (the way the children sound out words and map to their oral language vocabulary leading to the word being stored in long-term memory).
Many K-3 teachers include phonics, but challenges include a poor sequence, no explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, inadequate explicit instruction, weak progress monitoring, lack of decodable books for young readers to practice.
Teachers were taught to assess and remedy reading challenges through the three-cueing model or MSV strategy in running records (examples include: when a child misreads a word did they use pictures to determine meaning? Was the child paying attention to syntax? Did the child pay attention to visual cues like print?). These methods are time consuming and reinforce what struggling readers do, use compensatory strategies to decode words and derive meaning from words they cannot sound out.
Many elementary schools do not build enough content knowledge. Poor test scores led to the belief that more skills-based instruction would improve reading scores. This is why PD in scientifically-based reading instruction is necessary.
Struggling readers in middle school and high school are misunderstood. Their challenges may be blamed on poverty, family, or lack of engagement (reluctant readers). Implicit biases related to race is a challenge.
Many popular early literacy curriculum market themselves as responsive; however, they do not align with scientifically based reading instruction, leading many students to require intervention.
Most teachers were never taught about dyslexia in the context of their literacy program. Some well-known literacy professionals even deny dyslexia exists and are asked to speak at literacy conferences. Prominent Literacy Expert Denies Dyslexia
Literacy and Equity
It is important to disrupt practices that perpetuate biases, racism, and discrimination. Making the shift to scientifically-based reading instruction is an extremely important component to dismantle frameworks that perpetuate bias. Literacy is the gateway to equity. The choices schools make regarding literacy practices (despite the greatest intentions) can have serious consequences for students, especially those who have been marginalized (Black, Brown, Indigenous students and students born with learning differences).
Dr. Sonja Santelises "Leadership and Equity: Addressing Educational Redlining"
Resources Exploring Race and Equity Issues
Resources for Schools on Scientifically-Based Reading Practices
(Click pictures below to access curated lists of resources)