Science of Reading

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10 Big Ideas to Jump-Start Your Understanding of the Science of Reading

The Science of Reading refers to the findings from peer-reviewed research about how the brain processes print in order to make meaning from text. These findings apply to all students, not merely students with dyslexia, and they provide insights about how to design and deliver reading instruction. While the Science of Reading is becoming an oft-quoted phrase, we offer up 10 big ideas for you to start building your own knowledge.

The discussion of what to teach and how to teach reading has been mired in decades of hostility, turf-wars, and disagreements. The science of reading and potential dyslexia laws has led to a resurgence of these debates. However, we are at a time where there has been a convergence of many ideas that a decade ago were lightning rods (e.g., explicit instruction, progress monitoring, decodable text to name a few). With science comes better understanding, converging evidence, and innovation in practices. We all evolve.

Improved outcomes for students start with your own professional learning and not with a new resource from a publisher, an assessment tool, or a curriculum committee. Professional learning is building your own thinking so that you are better equipped to ask the right questions with your colleagues, analyze the effectiveness of practices in your system openly, and determine where the system needs to improve. This allows you to evaluate what we are doing well as a system and where we are falling short.

Whether you are a veteran teacher or new to the field, you may be thinking the Science of Reading is overwhelming, so "how do I know where to start?" It can be challenging to sift through many resources when you have limited time. Books and scientific articles are critical, but sometimes you want your knowledge in bite-sized doses. This document is intended to pique your interest, choose media that is easiest for you (articles, videos, or books), and get you started. While these resources are in a particular order, select where you are in your learning and start there. Bite off a little at a time.

Challenge your thinking. Talk to your colleagues. Get involved. Enjoy the ride.

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Big Idea #1. Ground yourself in the Science of Reading (SOR)... Start with 15 minutes or less.

Start here with any of these quick overviews of the Science of Reading:

Quick read summarizing the issues, causes, and solutions, click here for the Narrowing the Third Grade Reading Gap: Embracing the Science of Reading by the EAB (25-minutes).

Big Idea #2. Make the connections between word recognition and language comprehension. It is the foundation.

There are several theoretical models to understand reading comprehension. The simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) is foundational and has been empirically tested over decades. The big idea is that both listening comprehension and word recognition skills are critical to reading comprehension. Why is this important to consider?

  1. Both skills are essential for reading comprehension. Comprehension will suffer from weak decoding skills, despite good listening comprehension. Comprehension will suffer from weak listening comprehension even with strong decoding.
  2. Together, both skills predict reading comprehension better than either alone. These skills predict reading comprehension so well that there is little improvement in the prediction of reading comprehension after these skills are statistically analyzed. This means we have to pay "instructional attention" to both.
  3. The Simple View of Reading provides a foundation to consider how to use diagnostic assessments.
  4. It helps understand dyslexia and language disabilities. Dyslexia is typically poor decoding, but good listening comprehension), language disabilities (good decoding, poor comprehension, and language-based learning disabilities (poor decoding and poor comprehension).
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Article on the Simple View of Reading by Linda Farrell, Michael Hunter, Marcia Davidson, Tina Osenga
Video - Simple View of Reading Linda Farrell (11:04)

Quick video on the importance of understanding the Simple View of Reading

Researchers have suggested various models based on the simple view of reading. Spend your time looking for convergence and repeated ideas.

Big Idea #3: Start with knowing how the brain learns print then think about how instructional practices align.

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It is simply not true that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read…when it comes to reading, we all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence.” (2009, p. 218) Stanislas Dehaene

We are born with the anatomical structures for language, but we were not born with these structures for reading. We hijack the language areas of the brain for learning to read. Learning letters and sounds forms new pathways rewiring the brain for reading. Conversely, systems do not become rewired if they are not activated. The big idea is that how the brain processes and understands print has far-reaching implications on how we teach reading.

Article: Dyslexia and the Brain: What does research tell us. Hudson, High Olaiba

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Easy read. Start here. Click here for a primer article on how reading develops in the brain. See pages 30-31 in particular(15-minute read)

Big Idea #4: Understand a broader perspective on how reading is taught.

Must read investigative reporting on reading practices in the United States

A series of articles and podcasts by investigative report Emily Hanford from APM Reports has placed increased pressure on prevailing views of teaching beginning reading and alignment with the science of reading. We have highlighted three of our favorites. See AMP Reports for a complete list.

For a summary of Emily Hanford's research, click this keynote (57:53) Discovering the Science of Reading: A Reporter’s Story, address at the PATTAN Symposium 2020.

Big Idea #5: Understand how the science of reading relates to "structured literacy."

Is structured literacy the same thing as the science of reading?

The science of reading refers to the research findings that explain how a child's brain acquires and processes written information. Structured literacy is an instructional approach for teaching reading that is based on the science of reading.

Structured literacy involves the explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of multiple linguistic components, such as phonemes, letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, sentence structure and vocabulary that are required for text comprehension. As a result of the science of reading findings, structured literacy avoids assuming a child will identify or discover patterns in words to efficiently read and spell.

Structured literacy has been shown in the research to be effective for all students, not merely students with learning disabilities. It calls for all educators to specifically teach language components in core instruction and intensify along the tiers of instruction if needed. If you teach reading, you are undoubtedly teaching language.

While the big ideas or elements of structured literacy are becoming more well accepted, what varies among general education instruction is the depth of the linguistic concepts covered, the explicitness, and the cumulative review. This depth, explicitness and cumulative review are referred to principles of instruction; they guide HOW the linguistic components are taught, and they are a cornerstone of structured literacy.

Our challenge is not whether the linguistic components are critical to teaching reading. Our challenge is the explicitness of our teaching. Our challenge is the depth of knowledge in linguistics and language for all who provide instruction in general education and special education.

  • Explicit instruction means skills and concepts are taught directly and not inferred. It involves a high degree of student-teacher interaction with carefully chosen examples and non-examples. Feedback is prompt and corrective so that students are successful.

  • Systematic, sequential, and cumulative involves instructional design in a logical order that includes practicing what has been specifically taught and reviewing previously learned skills.

Start here:

Increase your understanding of Structured Literacy

From the front lines: Listen to instructional leaders and their journey of aligning instruction with science in practical and thoughtful ways.

Further Resources

Big Idea #6: Sharpen up your foundational skills with guidance documents that are critical for understanding instructional practices in reading.

There are many cumulative reports urging practice changes in how we teach reading and respond when children are struggling. These seminal documents support the explicit and systematic teaching of reading. Look for alignment.

START HERE: Michigan's General Education Leadership Network (GELN) daily instruction practices in critical grade bands. Pay close attention to the structures of language embedded in these resources and how they support structured literacy practices. Several key aspects of the SOR are included in these practices.

Curriculum resources

How can you review current instructional resources and understand if they are explicit, systematic and cumulative? Check out these resources.

Big Idea #7: Learn why the Dyslexia Movement is targeting classroom instruction.

Almost every state is experienced specific laws aimed at improving screening, instruction, and intervention for students who have Dyslexia. In 2018, 42 states had dyslexia-specific laws and many other under consideration. Dyslexia laws often go beyond special education (IDEA) requirements and are largely aimed at general education for improved instruction. Parents across the county are driving advocacy efforts to reshape core instruction and access to better-matched instruction. These laws cover issues like:

  • A universal definition and understanding of “dyslexia” in the state education code

  • Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia

  • Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia

  • Mandatory dyslexia remediation programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations

  • Access to appropriate “assistive technologies” in the public school setting for students with dyslexia

In Michigan, there have been a series of bills proposed by the legislature over the years to specifically address dyslexia (2019, 2020), and most recently in April 2021, four bills were introduced by the Senate. The bills are going through revision Senate Bill 383, SB 380, SB 381, and SB 382.

Key aspects of Senate Bill 380 include instructional resources used to address decoding and word recognition must include a code-emphasis approach and intervention must address structured language and literacy components (phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, morphology) within an explicit and systematic instructional framework.

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Big Idea #8: Learn more about phonological awareness instruction and its relationship to learning to read.

Phonological and phonemic awareness has been one of the most researched predictors of beginning reading skills over several decades. It is well accepted as a necessary skill in learning to read. Explicit, systematic instruction early in development allow children to more easily learn letters, learn letter-sound correspondence, and spell. The challenge to address is not whether phonemic awareness is important, but how explicit and systematic is our instruction in beginning reading.

There are several phonemic awareness tasks across multiple linguistic levels (see graphics below for various representations).

An overview article on the basics of phonemic awareness and phonology. Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

Here are several presentations of phonological awareness

Big Idea #9: Make Connections between Phonology, Orthography and Meaning.

What is the relationship between phonology and orthography? It might surprise teachers to think about these as starting from very different points. Oral language starts with larger linguistic units (like sentences) in order to get to the smallest unit of sound the phoneme. In learning to read or written language, we teach smaller units first (i.e, letter names and sounds) and connect with larger units (letter patterns) in our advanced spelling system (see graphic below). Understanding exactly how the English writing system works permits teachers to make sense of this for students and allows better diagnostic teaching. English is a "speech-to-print" system so we have to understand the connections between phonology and English orthographic in order to provide instruction and remediation. Strong phonemic awareness facilitates the mapping of sounds onto graphemes and facilitates the building of a large sight vocabulary.

  • Overview of the connection between phonology and orthography Video by the PATTAN with Dr. Tolman (24:04 minutes)
  • Nell Duke Phonics Faux Pas (article)

What is orthographic mapping?

There is much attention on the process of orthographic mapping. This is a concept that is not new (Ehri, Share). Orthographic mapping is the process readers use to store written words or letter strings for immediate, effortless retrieval. It is the means by which readers turn the unfamiliar written words into familiar, instantaneously accessible sight words. Sight words and word parts (strings) are anchored in LTM by the pronunciation, letter sequence, and the meaning not whole word or visually. It is being talked about because of its influence on how we teach sight words and the importance of advanced phonemic awareness that is both directly taught and deepened from reading.

Here are some quick hitters to get you started:

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Big Idea #10: You are not alone on this journey. Connect and ask questions of others!

Here are some of my favorite Facebook groups that are talking about SOR:

Important Websites:

Are you hearing conflicting accounts from different researchers about what constitutes reading research what does not? Check out this new website proposal a universal definition. Check out Universal definition of the Science of Reading (SOR).

Check out The Reading League and its journal for one-stop learning. The Reading League website for information, podcasts, conferences, live webinars, and essential reading on the latest science and application in the classroom. TRL is focused on the mission to advance awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-based reading instruction.

The Consortium on Reaching Excellence is Education (CORE) provides many excellent resources and free professional learning opportunities. Oakland Schools offers regular training and support in reading strategies based on the materials from CORE.

National Center on Improving Literacy: “a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the United States Department of Education. Our Mission is to increase access to, and use of, evidence-based approaches to screen, identify, and teach students with literacy-related disabilities, including dyslexia.”