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What is the Science of Reading

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

from Timothy Shanahan - Reading Rockets

May 29, 2019

Teacher question: I keep hearing that teachers don’t know the science of reading. But all the teachers that I talk to say that they teach phonics. What’s really going on?

Shanahan's response: 

I suspect that both the critics and the teachers are telling you the truth.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a national education inspectorate that monitors classroom trends in the U.S. We all guess what may be happening based on our own narrow experiences. That means you could visit classrooms in your community, and I could in mine, and we might see very different patterns of teaching

But there is more to it than that kind of variation.

However, before we go there, we need to clarify one important point: The “science of reading” includes more than phonics and phonological awareness.

Phonics is certainly an important part of the science of reading, but it’s not the whole thing.

Any real “science of reading” would include all the methods or approaches that have been found, through research, to give kids a learning advantage in reading.

That means oral reading fluency instruction should be part of the science of reading. And, vocabulary and morphology teaching, too. There are also a number of instructional approaches that have been found to boost reading comprehension by teaching thinking strategies or enhancing written language performance (e.g., cohesion, sentence combining/reducing). And, guiding kids to write about text is scientific, as well. 

Any science of reading would concern itself with the amount of reading instruction provided and there are quality factors that need to be included. For instance, kids learn more when teachers provide clear purposes for the lessons, when there is plenty of interaction among teachers and students, and when teachers explain themselves clearly. Those are just examples, of course; there is even more.

But, with that said, back to your original question.

A reason for the seeming discrepancies in what you’re hearing about teaching has to do with the lack of precision in how we talk about these things. What is phonics instruction and what is a sufficient amount of phonics teaching? How many minutes a day do your teachers teach phonics?

Most primary teachers when asked if they teach phonics are, in my experience, likely to say, “Yes.” However, when I visit some of those classrooms, what they mean by phonics is pretty pale and thin; often no more than marking up a worksheet. Bloodless teaching not likely to help kids to figure out the decoding system.

When teaching the simple sound-symbol correspondences, teachers should make sure the kids can hear those sounds and distinguish them from other sounds; they should make sure kids can recognize these letters within words; they should make sure the kids can sound out unknown words or even nonsense words using those correspondences; and they should be able to read and write words with those elements, too.

Showing kids a spelling pattern and its pronunciation is a necessary step, but it’s not sufficient, if the goal is enabling kids to read and spell. Phonics teaching should provide opportunities to decode and spell words, to sort words, to recognize misspellings, and to gain proficiency in using all this information.

Although the numbers of phonics skills to be taught is usually pretty limited, the amount of phonics instruction kids should be receiving is considerable. Experts usually recommend 20-30 minutes or so of daily phonics instruction in grades K-2 (in other words, about 200 hours of such teaching). That means there is a need for thoroughness and depth; we want mastery, not familiarization.

The teacher who I mentioned earlier, the one who may be doing no more than having kids mark up the daily phonics worksheet, can honestly say she is “teaching phonics,” since those lessons are being dispensed.

But she, if probed, may also honestly admit that she knows nothing of the science of reading (in this case, the nature of the orthographic-phonemic aspects of the English language and the research on effective decoding instruction).

She may even complain, again quite rightly, that she received inadequate preparation at her local university. Her reading class was instructed by someone who thought guessing the words based on the pictures or on context were good ways of reading words (they are not; good readers don’t do it that way), or perhaps they had a philosophy that scorned the value of explicit phonics instruction, despite the research. 

And, the parents?

Those who see their children guessing words and struggling to read, grumble about the injustice of it all. They want more phonics. And, the reading community is as frustrated with those parents as the parents are with them.

Many reading professors simply can’t understand why these moms and dads demand phonics so vociferously when there are other aspects of reading science that are important.

The parents can’t understand why their kids’ teachers don’t know how to teach decoding and providing terrific classroom libraries and free time to read really don’t help those kids who simply can’t read the words. (And, telling them to look at the pictures and guess borders on cruelty).

Now multiply this through the entire system. What I just described about phonics may be true in Mrs. Jones’ first-grade class, but not in Mrs. Smith’s down the hall. It might describe phonics instruction in one school, while in others it is the fluency, or vocabulary, or comprehension instruction that is so strenuously grounded in an ignorance of the knowledge of a science of reading.

We need a substantial commitment to all those things found to benefit kids learning — not just to the ones we may like best.

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