What is the Science Behind Teaching Reading?
Learning how to read is a complex process that looks different for everyone, so it can be hard to determine the best angle to take when instructing students. Along with that, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extensive disruption and unfinished learning for students, and there is an increased need for acceleration in literacy education. While these facts might be daunting, there has been extensive multidisciplinary research done on the science behind teaching reading and, when implemented properly, can empower educators and support students in finding reading success.
For 30 years there have been more than 40 research centers across the United States studying the science behind learning to read. Research has been done on all fronts—including neuroscience, linguistics, child psychology, and medicine—to not only determine how we learn to read, but also the best way to go about teaching students how to read. So, what exactly is the science of teaching reading?
How Do Students Learn How To Read?
It is first important to note that the human brain is not naturally wired to be able to read. Humans have been using oral language for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas written language only came into existence a few thousand years ago. That said, learning how to read is a completely different process than learning how to speak.
Literacy and the Brain
When learning to read, four different areas of the brain are engaged:
- Occipital Lobe—This is the visual cortex of the brain, which is what allows you to process visual stimuli like printed letters and words.
- Temporal Lobe—This area is responsible for recognizing and processing auditory stimuli. This area of the brain is active during phonological processing, which is critical for early readers.
- Parietal Lobe—This area of the brain builds connections between speech and print. It helps produce speech, understands it, and recognizes letters and words that correspond to speech. This is incredibly important when learning sound-letter correspondences.
- Frontal Lobe—This area is primarily responsible for producing speech, developing fluency in a language, and comprehending complex language.
All four of these areas in the brain are activated when reading and learning to read, no matter what language students are engaging with. Neural pathways called “white matter” connect these four areas of the brain, and the stronger the reader is, the stronger the signals are across the pathways. Through timely intervention and instruction, these pathways can be strengthened, improving a student’s literacy skills.
The Science Behind Learning to Read
There are multiple foundational theories that make up the science of reading that have been researched extensively and have shown to be the best ways of teaching students how to read—regardless of background or potential learning disabilities. These concepts include the Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Reading Rope, and the 5 Pillars of Literacy.
The Simple View of Reading
One of the foundational elements of the Science of Reading is called the Simple View of Reading, first proposed by Gough & Tunmer in 1986. This framework states there are two integral processes that go into learning how to read: Word decoding and language comprehension. This theory multiplies a student’s ability to decode words by their language comprehension skills, which means developing one set of skills without sufficiently developing the other could result in overall reading failure.
Decoding is when a student is able to connect words and letters they see on a page to their spoken equivalents, and this will look different depending on the student’s reading level. One’s decoding abilities begin with phonemic awareness—understanding the sound system of a language—and grows into understanding a writing system based on the components of phonology (sound system of a language), orthography (writing system of a language), and morphology (understanding meaningful units of words—e.g. prefixes, roots, etc.).
Language comprehension is the other side of the Simple View of Reading, and it refers to the ability to read and also understand what you are reading (i.e. make meaning out of words). Comprehension is a combination of understanding semantics (the meaning of words and the relationship between words), pragmatics (rules of conversation, e.g. eye contact, taking turns), syntax (relating to grammar, the order and structure of sentences), and discourse (the organization of spoken and written communication).
Similar to the Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Reading Rope is a graphic that shows the process of learning how to read as the tying together of multiple strands. The top segment of Scarborough’s Reading Rope consists of the skills that go into language comprehension, while the bottom segment shows the skills that go into word decoding/recognition.
Along with these two theories, there is also the 5 Pillars of Literacy that represent the different skills that go into learning to read, which are:
- Phonemic awareness
In having a firm grasp on the literacy acquisition process, teachers will be able to effectively support their students in finding reading success.
Empowering Educators to Effectively Teach Students to Read
When educators have an in-depth understanding of the processes involved with literacy acquisition, they are able to make reading success a possibility for all of their students. Ninety-five percent of students can learn how to read when their instruction is based on the science of reading. Ultimately, the focus should begin with educating teachers about exactly how students learn to read. From there, teachers can implement Structured Literacy techniques to support their students.
When educators take a Structured Literacy (SL) approach to teaching, they are directly applying techniques based on the science of reading. Some key components of a structured literacy approach are:
- Explicit: In SL instruction, teachers explain each new concept clearly and directly. Following explicit instruction, students should be provided with various guided practice activities to solidify that information.
- Systematic and cumulative: With an SL approach, teachers introduce concepts in a systematic, stair-step way. This means that each new concept builds on top of previously learned concepts, and students are aware of how each part fits into the whole.
- Hands-on, engaging, multimodal: This refers to teachers providing hands-on learning activities that engage all parts of the brain. Activities like flashcards, letter tiles, or games all go into an SL approach.
- Diagnostic and responsive: Throughout the entire teaching process, educators should monitor student response patterns to adjust pacing, presentation, and the amount of practice given for certain lessons.
Learning how to read might seem complex, but the science of reading provides a high-quality framework to ensure students of all backgrounds and abilities are able to find success in literacy. There are plenty of programs that guide teachers through the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, such as Lexia’s LETRS® Suite or Aspire™ Professional Learning. Regardless of the program, it is imperative teachers integrate evidence-backed educational practices into the classroom. Check out this blog to see the different ways educators can support students in their classroom, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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