The Science of Reading

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Front view of students reading behind books while sitting in a corridor.

Being able to read and comprehend text is so important. It impacts the way students receive all subject areas, not just information taught in reading classes or blocks. Math, science, social studies, and more require students to be able to read. So, how do we get them there, and what exactly is the science of reading?

There is, in fact, a body of research that includes a vast compilation of evidence to support the science of reading. The science of reading has evolved; however, it remains that the science of reading focuses on how students learn to read, what skills are needed to read, and how these two elements can be delivered to students in a way that works together to create a fluent and successful reader.

What are the Foundational Components of Reading Instruction? 

Reading instruction can be broken down into several components. These include: comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. In order to provide students with quality reading instruction that addresses all of these components, educators need to understand them clearly. The following briefly describes each piece and how it works in the reading process.

Fluency

Fluency takes practice. The meaning of being a fluent reader is essentially the ability to read smoothly to read for learning without having to pause to sound out words or problem solve. To develop reading skills that are automatic and accurate, students must practice reading text on their level and also understand how to decode it properly. Additionally, to be fluent, students must be able to understand what they are reading.

Comprehension

To understand and comprehend text, students must have a strong understanding of how to decode text and fluently read the text. If students are reading a text that they are struggling through, they aren’t able to focus on the content of the text; instead, they are focused on working on reading the text.

As young children begin to read texts independently, comprehension is vital paired with phonics instruction and other foundational skills. Once fluency is mastered, comprehension will typically follow. There is, of course, the need for comprehension monitoring and modeling of reading for understanding that should accompany phonics instruction and fluency practice.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary words are those words that are important to understand to comprehend a text effectively. Understanding vocabulary is vital in both oral communication and written communication. Some children begin the student learning reading process with an extensive vocabulary, and others come to the reading process with a lack of exposure to a vast vocabulary. Having been exposed to more words means students have an advantage in comprehension.

A more extensive vocabulary can pay off as students work to process all the elements of reading. Vocabulary is key to understanding text. Readers cannot comprehend what they are reading without knowing word meanings; therefore, vocabulary instruction is a must for the science of reading.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness refers to a student’s understanding of letters, sounds, blending, segmenting, and manipulating these letters and sounds. As students progress from identifying letters and understanding sounds, they can begin to master more complex words that can be broken down and decoded. Phonics programs such as Fundations often help students master phonemic awareness.

A young student holds a picture of an apple, airplane, and the letter A.

How Do We Currently Teach Reading? 

The science of teaching reading includes many essential parts! Teachers must begin in the lower grades with instruction in the above-mentioned areas: phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. This must systematically continue throughout the structured literacy of a child’s educational journey. The knowledge and strategies needed to guide students through this process can be gained in a master’s in reading program.

For example, educators in a reading master’s program will be exposed to the science of reading and gain strategies for teaching students how to decode text, understand text, and read more fluently. Educators who participate in such programs learn enhanced reading skills that allow them to work with groups of students or one-on-one with students experiencing difficulties. Courses offered help teachers increase their understanding of the reading process and increase their capacity to help students learn to read.

Courses offered in reading master’s programs are meant to strengthen reading instruction and often include:

  • Reading Foundations
  • Reading and Writing Content
  • Literacy Assessment
  • Children’s Literature
  • Content Area Instruction
  • Research Methodology
  • Intervention Strategies

These courses help teachers become experts in reading instruction and allow teachers to guide students through the reading process seamlessly by learning science of reading strategies.

How Did COVID Impact Reading for Students? Were Some Students Impacted More?

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted students in all content areas. As we know, reading is vital in all content areas. To learn math, science, and social studies curriculum, students must be able to read and comprehend. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, many students missed reading instruction and did not respond well to virtual instruction.

This left gaps in students’ understanding of reading elements and meant that many students missed out on strong phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency instruction. These gaps will need to be identified by teachers, and students will need to be met where they are in terms of the reading process.

What Needs to Change About Current Reading Instruction?

Often, there are shifts in how instruction is delivered in education. These shifts are often a result of research that shows the need for change. These changes are meant to help students in the learning process and better inform educators about how they can best provide instruction to students. Due to the pandemic, there are changes that have been made and should be made to instructional strategies for reading.

Throughout the years, teachers have been instructed to use whole language instruction, teach students strategies for identifying unknown words (such as using the picture or making a smart prediction), and to use one level of text (such as a basal reader) to teach whole group reading to students. As we now know, students need to be met where they are, and learning to read is a process that can be broken down for students.

Evidence shows that good readers are able to sound out words that can be decoded and, essentially, crack the code of reading and writing. Reading is a science, and students work through the process of learning letters and sounds, sounding out words, then putting those words together to form sentences, and so on.

Considering that learning to read is a process, educators need to be well-versed in this process to serve as a guide to students on their reading journey. Many districts provide educators with professional development to help them become experts on how students learn to read.

This professional development is focused on:

Once teachers have this knowledge, they can begin to change how they instruct their students. Teachers can begin to implement proper guided reading lessons to allow students to navigate the reading process.

Ultimately, understanding how students learn to read is key to planning and delivering reading instruction through science of reading strategies. A shift in thinking and teaching will need to take place to increase reading achievement throughout education.

Do you have a passion for reading and literacy instruction? Check out our reading and literacy graduate programs and advance your career today!

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