Science of Reading is MORE than Systematic Phonics
Last year I moved from fifth grade to kindergarten. Since I had taught kindergarten before (and every grade between the two), I started the year teaching what I knew. But it wasn’t long before I was reading books, research articles and blogs about the Science of Reading. I even listened to some podcasts. And I knew that I had to add my voice into the conversation. In this post, I’m going to continue my exploration of the Science of Reading. You may want to start at the beginning of my journey with these blog posts: What IS Science of Reading Anyway?, What is Science of Reading? , Part 2, and The Knowledge Gap Book Review.
In this post, my journey continues, and I will explain:
How the Reading League Defines Science of Reading
The Reading League is the major organization behind the idea that Reading instruction should be based on Science. In 2021, they published the Science of Reading Defining Guide. You can download a free e-book or purchase a bound copy on their website. According to the Guide, scientific research from varied fields such as linguistics, neuroscience, psychology and education has come together to form a “vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing”. In addition to explaining that instruction should be based on verified Science, the guide also explains:
What the Science of Reading is NOT
- an ideology or philosophy
- a fad, trend, new idea, or pendulum swing
- a political agenda
- a one-size-fits-all approach
- a program of instruction
- a single, specific component of instruction such as phonics
Wait, what? Science of Reading is not just phonics? You could have fooled me! When I searched for “Science of Reading Curriculum”, most of the hits on the first page led to decodables. I checked TPT, and there are even decodables for 4th and 5th graders! (Surely most upper grade students have moved beyond decoding practice???)
My district bought me a Reading Curriculum for kindergarten that calls for 30 minutes of direct instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness each day. The lessons in the upper grades are even longer. This time committment is going to make it difficult to fit in other academic instruction. I am very concerned that teachers, administrators and school districts are jumping on the phonics only bandwagon, and students will be the losers. I lived through the Reading Wars, and I know what it is like to teach 4th and 5th graders who are terrific word callers, but can’t tell you a thing about the text they just read. To be clear, I am in favor of systematic phonics instruction. I am also in favor of pairing it appropriately with systematic instruction in the other pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. And this is exactly what Science tells us we should be doing.
The Simple View of Reading
Two cognitive scientists, Philip Gough and William Tunmer, proposed this idea in 1986, and it has been transformational to the field of reading research. They proposed that “reading was the product of two broad skills: the ability to read the words off the page and the ability to understand the oral language in which the material was written. Both of these skills together were necessary for skilled reading comprehension – neither alone could result in skilled reading.” (Quote from the Reading League.) The Reading League has turned this idea into a simple formula.
WR x LC = RC
WR is Word Recognition.
LC is Language Comprehension.
RC is Reading Comprehension.
As you can see, goal of Reading instruction is comprehension. Reading comprehension is the complex result of two equal components, Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Both are equally important.
Scarbourogh’s Reading Rope
The two components, Word Recognition and Language Comprehension, are more clearly defined when you look at Scarborough’s Reading Rope. In 2001, Dr. Hollis Scarborough created a rope out of pipe cleaners to explore the complex interweavings that lead to skilled reading. As you can see in this graphic, there is a lot more to reading than phonics. Certainly, fluent decoding is necessary. But so is a deep and precise vocabulary. Wide background knowledge is also necessary. Knowledge of language structures is a key component, as is general literacy knowledge. Students also need to understand word parts and syllables, and have a bank of words that they recognize by sight. All of these components have been scientifically studied and are research-based components of reading instruction that leads to skilled reading.
Let me just repeat that. ALL of these components are key to skilled reading.
The Matthew Effect
You’ve heard it said. “First students learn to read, and then they read to learn.” But Scarborough’s Reading Rope makes it clear that all of these components are key for developing skilled readers. We can’t spend 2-3 years “teaching students to read”, and then expect them to read to learn, because knowledge is a component of reading, right from the start. Anyone who has ever taught upper elementary knows that the gap is already too big if we wait until third grade to begin building background knowledge and vocabulary. This was described by reading researcher Keith Stanovich as the Matthew Effect, after the verse in Matthew that states, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Stanovich uses the term Matthew Effect to refer to vocabulary knowledge and the causal relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. He states, “The very children who are reading well and who have good vocabularies will read more, learn more word meanings, and hence read even better. Children with inadequate vocabularies – who read slowly and without enjoyment – read less and as a result have slower development of vocabulary knowledge, which inhibits further growth in reading ability.”
Our Challenge as Teachers
So, when I’m looking my kindergarten students in the eyes this week, I’m going to be thinking about a lot of things. It’s still September, so we have a lot to learn about letters and sounds. We have barely introduced the idea of syllables, so we have lots of work to do with phonemic awarness. And I’m also thinking about content and vocabulary. We are getting ready for the Teddy Bear Picnic, so I have some ideas about teaching my students about bears and hibernation.
Check back next week, and I’ll tell you how I did!