What IS Science of Reading, part 2

In last week’s blog post, I explored that question through my own experience as a teacher who remembers the first Reading Wars. As the Reading Wars heat up again, I think that was a worthwhile place to start. One of the lessons I learned as a survivor of the first Reading Wars is that reading instruction is complex and nuanced. I’m going to continue to look at the current debate through that lens. In this blog post we are going to flesh out our definition of Science of Reading and start to think about how it looks in the classroom.

Click to jump directly to these sections of the blog post.

So, what is Science of Reading?

I’ve been falling down many, many rabbit holes over the past few months, trying to get a concrete definition that answers that question. The best definition I’ve found is this one from Maria Murray, one of the founders of The Reading League. The Reading League seems to be the driving force behind bringing Science of Reading into the forefront of education, in part because of their partnership with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

The science of reading is a body of empirical research derived from multiple disciplines—cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and education. Taken together, the findings from thousands of research studies over the last 40 years have reached a consensus on how the brain learns to read and write, and why some students struggle. The science of reading provides knowledge about the most effective ways to assess and teach reading so we can prevent most reading difficulties, and remediate them when they occur. The science of reading informs instructional approaches that best advantage all learners in all areas of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, spelling, and language comprehension)

Maria Murray in the American Educator, Summer 2020 edition

What I love about this definition is that it focuses on two things – empirically valid research AND all areas of reading. The first time a teacher colleague mentioned Science of Reading to me, she told me it was systematic phonics instruction. And I heard that over and over. Many teacher blogs that I have read over the past few months equate Science of Reading with phonics. And that is certainly part of it. But, in my reading of this definition, systematic phonics instruction is one fifth of the definition of successful reading instruction.

It’s also important to note that Maria Murray’s definition includes education research, and specifically calls out “effective ways to assess and teach reading”. That part of the definition is missing from much of the research that I have been reading lately, and the lack is addressed beautifully in a blog post by Timothy Shanahan. He makes the point that just understanding the way the brain works is not enough. We have to know which instructional methodologies are effective in helping kids’ brains learn the complex skills of reading. Knowledge of the brain does not necessarily equate to knowledge of effective instruction.

I’m reminded of a training I attended about 15 years ago for a computerized reading program that my district was adopting. It was wildly expensive, and we were all hopeful that it would help solve problems for our struggling readers. We were really kind of desperate – struggling with low scores, low morale, and no clear direction forward. So, I went to this training with hope in my heart. The trainer began the training by showing us brain scans of kids using the program, and comparing them to brain scans of kids who were not using the program. The trainer told us that the brain scans were scientific evidence that the computer progam worked. I was starting to feel skeptical. Did those brightly colored scans actually show competent readers at work? What about the brain scans equaled proficient reading? But, I was the only skeptic, and our staff enthusiastically bought into the program. We started putting our highest needs kids on the program for an hour a day, often taking them out of math, science and social studies instruction to make that happen. Kids sat at those computers performing repetitive tasks meant to train their brains. It’s quite possible that those tasks were causing their brains to light up and look like the brain scans we had seen in the training. It’s quite possible that proficient readers’ brains light up in those same ways. But those tasks did not help our students learn to read. Scores plummeted, and after a painful year, the expensive program went away.

That’s why we have to bring a healthy skepticism to anyone who tells us their program is based on Science of Reading. We need to be able to see the research, and then make sure that it is based on strong science of the brain AND research into effective instruction.

Science of Reading and the National Reading Panel

If you have been in education as long as I have, you probably remember the National Reading Panel report that came out in 2000. If not, here is a brief overview. In 1997, Congress wanted a report on the state of scientifically valid research about effective reading instruction. So, they convened a panel of 14 experts (Timothy Shanahan was one). The experts represented scientists, reading teachers, administrator, parents and professors, and they also gathered insights and information from the general public in several town hall meetings. For three years they met to review the available research and draw conclusions about what effective reading instruction looks like. Their conclusions are generally summed up as the Five Pillars of Reading Instruction.

The Five Pillars of reading instruction as identified by the National Reading Panel in 2000 are:

  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

You probably notice a strong correlation between the five pillars and the definition of Science of Reading from Maria Murray. And that makes perfect sense. Although Science is always growing and expanding, it is logical that an analysis of scientifically valid reading instruction in 2000 would have crossover with the same analysis 20 years later. As a teacher in the classroom, trying to use research based, effective instruction, those crossover areas seem to me to be especially fruitful avenues of exploration. In other words, if research from 20 years ago has been strenghthed and confirmed by more recent research, I can feel comfortable using that research in my classroom. And you can too!

The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View of Reading has come up in source after source. Basically, the Simple View of Reading states that reading copmrehension depends on two things: word recognition and language comprehension. This approach to reading is well studied and replicated over time (to read one study, published by the NIH, click here). And I think we can all agree that reading comprehension is the goal of effective reading instruction. As a teacher in the trenches, I can appreciate a simple definition that translates easily into instructional goals.

Word Recognition

Word recognition is a pretty complex set of brain processes, and of course, we want word recognition to be automatic and accurate. Building those neural pathways involves developing proficient phonemic awareness, knowledge of letters and their sounds, and understanding of syllables and other meaningful word parts such as prefixes and suffixes. (For more information, check out this study from the Journal of Scientific Studies of Reading.) What’s interesting is that teachers have observed all of these processes in proficient readers for years, leading us to focus instruction on sight words, a practice that may not be backed up by science. The good news is that all of these processes have research based instructional strategies that will help us build those neural pathways in our students’ brains. More on that in future posts. 🙂

Language Comprehension

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that vocabulary and background knowledge or content are frequent topics for me, so this aspect of the Simple View of Reading is right up my alley! Language Comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, complex sentence patterns, and recognition of text devices such as symbolism, similes, and imagery. The Simple View of Reading also acknowledges that metacognitive skills such as monitoring comprehension are important aspects of reading instruction.  

From Theory to the Classroom

If you, like me, have spent years developing a balanced approach to literacy instruction, this should be good news. Contrary to popular opinion, the work you have been doing has NOT been harming children. You did the best you could with what you had, and much of the instruction you have used may follow best practices based on science, even if you were not aware of the science.

In future blog posts, we will explore each topic in depth, and build an understanding of what science can tell us, and what science cannot yet tell us. We will keep in mind that the science needs to cover both the brain processes and instructional practices. The first Reading Wars taught me that reading instruction is complex and nuanced. The Simple View of Reading may be our target, but our road has some bends and bumps in it, and the map is not completely filled in. So pack your skepticism, lace up your boots and let’s take the next step on our journey of discovering the Science of Reading.

For more on this topic, be sure to check out these blog posts:

  1. What is Science of Reading, Anyway – part 1
  2. Why Teach Vocabulary? There is Already Plenty to Teach….

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