What is the Science of Reading? How the Human Brain Learns to Read
This post is Part Two of a three-blog series about the science of reading and balanced literacy. This series explores what the science of reading is, how it differs from balanced literacy, and why these differences matter. In today’s blog, we will dive into the science of reading and how the human brain learns to read.
Every educator wants to see their students succeed, and literacy skills are a cornerstone of that success. But when only 35% of American children are reading proficiently (according to the NAEP National Reading Report Card), we must ask ourselves—how do we better help EVERY student read with confidence?
The solutions can be found in a body of research known as the science of reading.
What is the Science of Reading?
The “science of reading” is far more than just phonics. The term refers to more than five decades of gold-standard research about how we learn to read and how reading is effectively taught. The research spans hundreds of papers, multiple languages, and expert contributions from the fields of education, linguistics, psychology, neurology, and more.
This research has conclusively provided us with a deeper understanding of what skills are involved in learning to read, and how different parts of the brain work together to process written language. This in turn has helped us develop best practices for teaching these skills so every student can learn to read proficiently.
The Simple View of Reading
One of the foundational elements of the science of reading is known as the Simple View of Reading. This theory was proposed by Gough and Tunmer in 1986, and built upon by Hoover and Gough in 1990. The Simple View of Reading posits that both the ability to decode words and comprehend language are required to master reading comprehension.
This theory is typically shown as the following equation: decoding x language comprehension = reading comprehension.
It is important to note that the formula uses a multiplication sign, because inefficiency in one component may lead to overall reading failure (e.g. anything multiplied by zero is zero). Decoding includes the skills around word recognition, automaticity, and fluency, while linguistic comprehension is the understanding of language and sentence structure.
Scarborough’s Reading Rope
Another crucial piece of the science of reading is Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001), which provides insight into how different reading skills work together to create fluency. Literacy expert Dr. Hollis Scarborough proposed a visual metaphor that represented all of the components that make up skilled reading as different “strands” of a rope which are woven together.
In Scarborough's Reading Rope, the strands of language comprehension are: background knowledge like facts and concept, vocabulary, language structures like syntax, verbal reasoning like metaphor, and literacy knowledge like genres. The word recognition strands are: phonological awareness like syllables and phonemes, decoding like letter-sound correspondences, and sight recognition of unfamiliar words. The skills within each strand work together and reinforce each other simultaneously as the student’s reading skills become stronger. Over time, the word recognition strand and the language comprehension strands weave themselves together and reinforce one another, allowing the reader to become fluent.
So How Does the Brain Learn to Read?
While learning to speak is innate—an infant regularly exposed to language will learn to speak it—reading is not. No matter how many books you surround a child with, they will not master reading without instruction. Reading repurposes multiple parts of the brain, including visual processing and language comprehension. Researchers have studied this using MRI scans, and have shown that the same areas of the brain activate no matter what language people read in.
- Temporo-parietal cortex—This connects the areas that understand speech sounds and meaning. This area of the brain lights up as we “sound out” or decode unfamiliar words.
- Inferior frontal cortex—Speech production. This is used in the last step of reading, when we think about pronouncing written words.
- Occipito-temporal cortex—Sight recognition. In learning to read, this area recognizes letters and eventually words by sight.
These areas are connected by “white matter pathways.” The stronger a reader is, the stronger the signals across the pathways. According to Dr. Nadine Gaab, timely intervention and instruction can improve these pathways, improving student’s reading comprehension.
The Essential Components of Reading
In 1997, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to establish aNational Reading Panel to analyze existing literacy research and determine the best way to teach students to read. In its final report (2000), the National Reading Panel concluded there are five essential components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
- Phonemic awareness is an understanding of phonemes, or the smallest units of spoken language which combine to create syllables and words. Phonemic awareness is the ability to isolate, identify, focus on, and manipulate sounds in spoken words.
- Phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds in written language. A student who is strong in phonics is able to sound out and spell different words.
- Fluency is the ability to read quickly and accurately, and comes about when the reader has mastered enough decoding skills to focus on the meaning of the text.
- Vocabulary is the amount of words with which the reader is familiar. The larger a student’s vocabulary is, the easier it is for them to derive meaning from the text.
- Comprehension is the ultimate goal of literacy. It is the reader’s ability to understand and make sense of written text.
These five components are sometimes considered the “five pillars” of reading instruction.
How (and Why) Do We Teach the Science of Reading?
The science of reading is not a literacy method in and of itself. Rather, it is the existing body of knowledge about how we learn to read. This body of evidence proves again and again that nearly every child can learn to read with confidence, given explicit instruction in the components of reading.
Ninety-five percent of students have the cognitive ability to learn to read, when instruction is based on the science of reading. That explicit and direct instruction is crucial for most students. According to a research brief from EAB:
- Thirty percent of students are capable of learning to read, regardless of instructional quality.
- Fifty percent of students are able to learn to read with explicit and direct instruction in foundational skills.
- Fifteen percent of students will learn to read with additional time and support.
- Five percent of students struggle with severe cognitive disabilities that affect their ability to learn to read. x
Over the decades, there have been different approaches to teaching reading. While some, like whole language, missed the mark for many students, others, like Orton Gillingham, have been proven to help students learn to read, even when they struggle with dyslexia.
Orton Gillingham, the Wilson Reading System, and other successful approaches to reading are successful because they teach foundational skills from the science of reading, in an explicit and systematic way. While this is essential for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, evidence-based approaches like these can help all students master reading.
In 2014, the International Dyslexia Association® proposed a new term: Structured Literacy. Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that encompasses the approaches that teach foundational reading skills through explicit instruction—in other words, that align with the science of reading. The science of reading proves that intentional, explicit instruction of the foundational components of reading will help all students learn to read.
According to the IDA, Structured Literacy covers the evidence-based elements:
- Sound-symbol association
But more importantly, these elements are taught in an explicit, systematic, cumulative, diagnostic, and responsive way. When an instructional approach incorporates ALL of this, it will be effective for all students, and lead to a more equitable learning experience.
Literacy is at the heart of educational equity, and every student deserves the chance to become a confident reader. As American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and education expert Robert Pondiscio, points out“ any discussion about ‘equity’ in education that is not first and foremost a discussion about literacy is unserious.”
The next step is ensuring teachers have the knowledge and tools they need to provide that equitable, Structured Literacy instruction to all of their students. We know the ways to effectively teach literacy. The challenge now is to implement them.
Join us for Part Three of this series, where we discuss the differences between the science of reading and balanced literacy.
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