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What is the "Science of Reading"?

If you have seen this term once, you have seen it a hundred times. It’s everywhere, from blogs (even this one!) to books and legislation. If you have an interest in education, it’s frankly impossible to avoid.


So, what is the “science of reading”? It literally refers to the evolving body of research on teaching, brain study, language study, psychology, etc., that tells us the most effective teaching methods based on how people learn. But connotatively, it gets a little murky. As with most educational concepts, we hear it, like it, overuse it, misinterpret it, then abandon it. And the pendulum swings back. But when considering the “science of reading” in its intended form, I would argue this could perhaps stop the pendulum in its tracks.


What makes the “science of reading” unique is that it is grounded in research, not theoretical ideas. And quality research, not one-off studies. This research dates back years, and there are multiple studies done on similar topics to validate the findings.


One of the most thorough and extensive examples of research is from The National Reading Panel. They performed a meta-analysis of tens of thousands of studies on teaching reading and reported their findings in a lengthy document in 2000. Tim Shanahan, one of the panel's esteemed members, wrote a summary (albeit still lengthy) of the report. This report is still relevant today with several studies since validating or clarifying the Panel's findings.


Many reading experts agree on the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies. Scarborough’s Rope (Scarborough, 2001) shows these "pillars" as disaggregated into more discrete skills that weave and integrate as readers become more strategic and automatic with systematic and explicit instruction.


The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) is less detailed (hence the “simple” in the name) but also demonstrates that reading proficiency is a product of BOTH decoding AND language comprehension. You do not have reading proficiency if you have one without the other (0 x 1 = 0).


These five pillars must be included in a comprehensive and effective reading curriculum, and building these pillars atop a strong foundation is necessary. This foundation is background knowledge, which greatly impacts reading comprehension. As students come from various experiences and backgrounds, a common knowledge set must be built within the classroom with a strategic sequence of topics and content-rich materials.


The science of reading should not be interpreted as a strategy or practice but rather as the information we need to inform our strategies and practice. When we use this perspective, we stop the swing. Science does not operate on a pendulum, but theory does. And theory leads to fads, which are defined by their short-lived bursts.


The 70s never expected the bellbottoms to return, but they have made several resurgences...


Many experienced educators will argue that they used to teach the way the “science of reading” now deems effective. They understandably scoff at being asked to make major shifts only to return to a former style. But there is a difference this time around. We will now confidently say, “I am using these practices because they are research-based. And I will not abandon them for the next fad.”


We must use research as our instructional north star to make this change last. We must vow to use vetted and quality resources in our schools and stick to research-based practices. All professional development, PLC time, resources, materials, and efforts should all focus on what has been proven effective.


It won’t be easy, but it’s courageous and best for kids.



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