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What is the Science of Reading?

A few years ago, a phrase began circulating throughout schools nationwide with increasing frequency. Known as the Science of Reading, this approach to structured literacy gained quick momentum from several schools and districts. For numerous reasons, it also earned strong praise or censure from education experts. Particularly in light of the recent NAEP results that show a continuing decrease in reading skills across the country, the push to help students certainly feels urgent. The question is, how does our own knowledge of literacy lend itself toward helping students achieve growth? By unpacking the elements that build skills from a very young age, we can better understand how children grow into lifelong readers.

The Components of Literacy

Teachers of reading look at a variety of factors when assessing student progress. The skill of decoding is centered on recognizing and being able to sound out words, while the process of comprehension is more about how students develop an understanding of the content they read. For example, a student who is able to decode words and read aloud with what seems like proficiency may not be moving to the next level of making meaning out of whatever is coming out of their mouths. For that reason, reading intervention programs often differentiate between decoding and comprehension so that students can benefit from targeting the right needs for their growth.

However, when we talk about the Science of Reading, we go deeper than decoding and comprehension to explore five areas of literacy acquisition: phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and oral language comprehension, and text comprehension. Each of these five elements delves into further detail about where students may be struggling. Furthermore, there is an intentional approach behind how students learn. They must develop phonological awareness so they can recognize the sounds that occur in words, and then it is easier to move into phonics, where the sounds are then looked at with corresponding letters. When teachers are aware of how students build their reading skills by looking at these five components, they can more easily identify where kids might be struggling and address concerns with more precision.

More Than Phonics

Phonics is just one part of the Science of Reading, and research supports the view that it holds a pivotal role in how student success in literacy is determined from an early age. When kids are taught to put sounds together to form words, their enhanced ability to decode language can more easily extend to overall comprehension of text. Some of the gains that are seen with growth in reading also extend into writing as well, which only further benefits students as they progress through the early grades and become more skillful in their approach to accessing increasingly complex texts. In addition, it’s important to note that while some students do learn how to read outside of the classroom experience, many need explicit phonics instruction to make progress. 

As a component of the Science of Reading, phonics is one foundational literacy need. However, it is vastly important to note that several for-profit organizations (like education vendors) and media outlets mischaracterize the Science of Reading as being solely a big push toward phonics, when in fact there are several components of literacy that play a key role in this research-based approach. Ultimately, the Science of Reading is not a product anyone can sell to achieve specific results, either in phonics or in any other area of literacy skill-building. Rather, the goal is to help teachers access important information and research that will help move student progress forward in a more systematic way.

Breaking Down Controversy

While the Science of Reading has experienced an enthusiastic response in many quarters, there are also experts who are dubious about the approach. At the center of much of the debate is the aforementioned emphasis on phonics. As this Washington Post article explains, while certain reading experts believe that phonics must first be taught in isolation of other skills as part of a progression, others “see phonics as only one among many dimensions of learning to read — one that gains potency when integrated with meaningfully engaged reading and writing, with vocabulary and language development, with instruction aimed at increasing comprehension and fluency, and so forth.”  In other words, the effectiveness of any approach that is applied to all learners may be called into question when a certain degree of flexibility appears to be missing.

To that end, Dorothy Susskind, an assistant professor in both elementary and secondary education, calls the Science of Reading “a finite game” that overly prescribes how instruction proceeds, whereas a less prescriptive approach espouses “philosophies that encourage teachers to create learning cultures where children read and write freely under the care of a highly skilled teacher-researcher who flexibly employs a myriad of teaching tools.” In her view, much of the creative capacity of teachers as well as their ability to accurately diagnose student needs is curtailed when a sequence of literacy instruction is so specific.

Drowning Out the Noise

As with many hot debates about what course of action is best, there is not any single solution that applies to everyone. Ultimately, schools and districts need to determine the right course for their students, and that can only be accomplished by focusing on measurable, data-driven outcomes that guide progress. Those who take issue with the Science of Reading will usually acknowledge that knowing the five components of what drives early literacy and how students acquire foundational reading skills is important. Instead of letting a national exam like the NAEP drive urgency for literacy, let the genuine desire to ensure that each new group of students has the gift of reading well in hand be the motivator for exploring any method possible to help them.

The Science of Reading presents an appealing opportunity for many schools and students, but it might not be for everyone. Just as important, there is no magic bullet to improving literacy gains. Every approach we try must also come with effort and consistency; otherwise, the results are variable at best and harmful at worst. As this new school year begins, putting aside differences and controversy is paramount to making sure that all students, no matter what they come to school being able to accomplish, leave classrooms with a strong foundation in reading. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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