What is “The Science of Reading”?

The Science of Reading is the culmination of an extensive body of scientifically-based research that spans more than 50 years. It illuminates how the brain learns to read and the best practices for instruction. The research stems from thousands of studies in multiple disciplines, such as cognitive psychology, communication sciences, developmental psychology, education, linguistics, neuroscience, and school psychology. The findings provide information needed to gain a deeper understanding of how we learn to read, what skills are involved, how they work together, which parts of the brain are responsible for reading development, and why some students experience more difficulty than others. The cumulative research of over five decades supports evidence-based best practices for the systematic and explicit instruction of foundational literacy skills.

Bingo Bang-O, What’s the Lang-O?

It is widely known that education is full of a bunch of confusing lingo, complex jargon, and ever-changing acronyms that make our heads spin! Terms that describe early foundational skills are especially confusing because they have similar sounds and meaning that all fit into the same puzzle. As educators work diligently toward improvements in the teaching of reading, it's helpful to know and use the same language. Before we dive into what the research says, let’s explore some key terms.

The Language of Literacy Glossary:

  • Phoneme - smallest unit of sound in speech.
    • ‘phon’ = sound ‘eme’ = unit
  • Grapheme - a letter or letter string that represents one sound (phoneme).
    • ‘graph’ = write ‘eme’ = unit
    • The word ‘night’ consists of three sounds (phonemes): /n/ /ī/ /t/ and is written using three graphemes: ‘n’ – ‘igh’ – ‘t’.
  • Phonological awareness - having an awareness of the sound properties of words (can be done with your eyes shut). This is an umbrella term for sound (phonemic) awareness, rhyming, alliteration, and syllables.
    • ‘phon’ = sound ‘log’ = word/study ‘ic’ = like/of/relating to ‘al’ = action/process
    • Phonological awareness skills include:
      • Identifying the individual words in a sentence spoken aloud
      • Identifying and generating rhyming words
      • Separating and combining words into onset and rime
      • Separating and blending words into syllables
  • Phonemic awareness - a category of phonological awareness that is being aware of the individual sounds within words.
    • ‘phon’ = sound ‘ne’ = in/on ‘ic’ = like/of/relating to
    • Phonemic awareness skills include:
      • Hearing the word purple and naming the initial sound - /p/
      • Hearing the word cat and segmenting it into these three sounds: /c/ /a/ /t/
      • Hearing the word ran, substituting the /p/ sound for the /r/ sound to get pan
  • Phonics - systematic instruction that involves teaching children the sound to symbol correspondence to help them read, write, and spell.
  • Grapheme-phoneme correspondences - aka 'letter-sound correspondences' are the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds (phonemes) they represent.
  • Morphemes - smallest unit of meaning in language. For example, the word ‘dog’ is one morpheme and ‘dogs’ is two morphemes (the ‘s’ indicates there is more than one).
    • ‘morph’ = shape/form ‘eme’ = unit
  • Morphology - the study of the internal structure of words.
    • ‘morph’ = shape/form ‘ology’ = the study of something
  • Orthography - the correct spelling of words.
    • ‘ortho’ = correct/straight ‘graph’ = writing ‘y’ = full of
  • Orthographic mapping - the mental process we use to store words for automatic retrieval; it involves the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. It explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print.
  • Decoding - when you translate printed letters or words into sounds to read.
  • Encoding - when you translate spoken words or phonemes into sounds to spell.

Other Important Terms:

  • Schwa - the most common vowel sound, an unstressed vowel that sounds like /ih/ or /uh/.
  • *Blends - aka ‘consonant clusters’ are two or more consonants (graphemes) that each have their own individual sound (phoneme) but are pronounced quickly, so they ‘blend’ together.
  • Digraph - two letters (graphemes) that represent one sound (phoneme). There can be vowel digraphs (two vowels) or consonant digraphs (two consonants).
    • A split digraph is when a vowel digraph is split by a consonant (a_e, e_e, i_e, o_e and u_e), for example; cake, bike, hope, eve, and cute.
  • Trigraph - three letters (graphemes) that represent one sound (phoneme).
  • Vowel Team - two or more vowels that form a grapheme to represent one phoneme (sound).
  • Diphthong - two vowels that form a grapheme, but the first vowel phoneme glides into the the second vowel phoneme to produce a unique sound.
  • R-controlled vowel - a vowel followed by an ‘r’ has their sound altered.
  • Blending - fluently merging together segmented phonemes/graphemes in the word in order to create the whole word.
  • Segmenting - breaking down words into their individual phonemes/graphemes.
  • Manipulating - adding, deleting, or substituting phonemes/graphemes to make new words.
  • Syllable - a single, unbroken unit of sound in a spoken (or written) word, having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, and forms the whole or a part of a word.
  • Homonyms - two or more words having the same spelling AND/OR pronunciation but different meanings and origins.
    • Homonyms can refer to both homophones and homographs.
      • Homograph - words that are spelled the same but sound different.
        • ‘homo’ = same ‘graph’ = write
      • Homophone - words that sound the same but are spelled differently.
        • ‘homo’ = same ‘phon’ = sound

What Did the Research Find?

The extensive research examined by the National Reading Panel is supported by the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NELP). NELP confirms that alphabet knowledge, oral language, and phonological awareness provide the foundation for reading success. With a strong foundation, other essential reading skills such as fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary become more accessible for students to acquire.

Phonemic awareness is essential to reading and the National Reading Panel confirmed that:

  • Phonemic awareness can be taught. Children learn to hear, think about, and work with the sounds they hear in words.
  • Phonemic awareness is required for reading. It enables children to read words rapidly and accurately, freeing up brain space for comprehension.
  • Phonemic awareness helps children learn to spell. Students learn to connect sounds to letters in predictable patterns.

The report of the National Reading Panel confirmed the benefits of phonics instruction and clearly found that:

  • Students who receive explicit phonics instruction become better readers than students who do not receive phonics instruction, or who receive spotty phonics instruction.
  • The most effective phonics instruction is:
    • Systematic - it teaches a clearly defined sequence of the major sound-spelling relationships of consonants and vowels.
    • Explicit - the teacher provides precise and direct instruction.
  • Systematic phonics instruction has the greatest benefits when it begins in kindergarten or first grade.
  • Systematic phonics instruction improves reading comprehension, as the ability to read words accurately and quickly is correlated to reading comprehension.
  • All students, regardless of their backgrounds, make greater gains in their reading when they receive systematic phonics instruction. Even students who learn phonics quickly and easily gain vocabulary, increase their reading fluency and build critical thinking skills when they receive systematic phonics instruction.

The National Reading Panel identified vocabulary instruction as an essential skill that students need to improve reading performance (NICHHD, 2000).

  • Research conducted after the NRP report confirms that expanding the size and depth of a student’s vocabulary is linked to higher levels of reading comprehension (Adolf & Perfetti, 2014; Kamil et al., 2008; Rasinski et al., 2011).

Who Benefits from Explicit and Systematic Instruction?

Overwhelming evidence has shown that explicit and systematic phonics instruction can benefit all learners, not just the struggling ones. Some learners can acquire the necessary decoding skills easily and independently, but they are typically already equipped with experiences, background knowledge, and vocabulary acquisition to help them do so.

What Do the Experts Say?

  • “A significant proportion, close to 40%, of children manage to learn to read without explicit and systematic phonics instruction (or with phonics instruction of variable impact) due to a confluence of biological and environmental advantages. The remaining 60% of children taught in this way are highly vulnerable to falling behind as readers. And the proportion of vulnerability increases with the level of disadvantage.
  • “Systematic, explicit phonics instruction helps children to make the neurological connections between the areas of the brain that are devoted to visual (writing), phonological (sound), and semantic (meaning) processing. Some children form these neurological connections quickly, while others require more intensive instruction and repeated exposures. A very small number of fortunate children are able to make the connections on their own, without explicit teaching.
  • “Explicit instruction is helpful not only when discovery is impossible, but when discovery may be inaccurate, inadequate, incomplete, or inefficient.”
  • “Although it is possible for kids to read without the help of phonics, the research is overwhelming that they do better in learning to read when they receive such teaching (Adams, 1991; Bond & Dykstra, 1965; Chall, 1968; NELP, 2008; NICHD, 2000). In such cases, teaching usually provides a boost—and according to dozens of experimental studies in this case, this boost improves students’ abilities to read words, to read fluently, to comprehend what they are reading, and so on. And, while phonics may only be helpful rather than essential for most kids, there are a group of kids for whom phonics seems to be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, we can’t easily identify who can thrive without phonics and who can’t—just like we can’t tell which kids will get the measles or other horrible diseases. Phonics is essential to some, useful to most, and does no harm to anyone, and that’s why it is so valuable.”
  • What's the Take Away?

    While the SOR research confirms that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is beneficial for all learners, that is only one component of becoming a proficient reader. Often the term ‘SOR’ gets roped in with being solely focused and consumed on teaching phonics, but that is far from what the research states. A deeper dive into the research will illuminate the multi-faceted components that work together to develop reading skills. The literature and interpretation of its findings do have a strong emphasis on the importance of teaching phonics, because without building that solid foundation first, other reading skills of fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary are much harder to acquire.

    Vocabulary development is another essential factor in reading success. As texts increase in complexity, students need strategies to continue to expand their oral and written vocabulary abilities (Kamil et al., 2008; Loftus-Rattan & Coyne, 2013). The most efficient method to develop vocabulary is to understand that every word in English is composed of both units of sound (phonemes) and units of meaning (morphemes). In robust readers, the brain uses two pathways to derive meaning: the lexical and the phonological routes (Dehaene, 2009.) The lexical zones of the brain (the middle temporal lobe) are where words are understood if the word’s spelling does not reflect its pronunciation and where the brain stores the meaning of prefixes, base words, and suffixes (Dehaene, 2009; Diggory, 1992).

    Conclusive research reported explicit vocabulary instruction in the early grades results in children learning more words (Graves & Silverman, 2011, citing Beck & McKeown, 2007). Morphology instruction can begin from a young age and is an effective tool for vocabulary development. When students are presented with explicit instruction in the morphemes of words, they are then able to use this information to deconstruct a word using the lexical encoding, as well as the phonemic encoding, resulting in a deeper comprehension of a text.

    Want to know more? Check out these resources: