The Science of Learning Blog

August 18, 2020

Reading Mastery: Where Pedagogy Meets the Science of Reading

BY Martha Burns, PhD

Most of us are familiar with the phrases “use it or lose it” and “practice makes perfect” (or the more accurate alternative, “practice makes permanent”). With respect to literacy skills, we recognize, and research supports, that those adages apply to all educational levels. 

Preschool children who are frequently read to at home or in day care generally learn to read more easily than those who have not had the same experience. Elementary students who have opportunities to practice reading outside the classroom progress more rapidly through the early reading curriculum than those who only read during instructional periods. And secondary students who read for pleasure tend to be more fluent readers and learn more effectively from both speech and print.

group of teens standing in front of blue lockers

But some students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, those from homes where English is not the primary language, or those who are slower to develop reading skills because of dyslexia or other learning challenges, don’t get this extra reading practice. What’s the best way educators can help all students master reading? Here’s what the science of reading tells us.

The True Meaning of Reading Fluency

In his new book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine...for Now, cognitive neuroscientist and reading expert Stanislas Dehaene explains why learning to read is so effortful. In terms of sheer mental operation, it takes years of practice to develop reading skills that are both accurate and automatic. In the early grades, students are taught to pay attention to every letter of every word, gradually learning to accurately recognize the sounds associated with each letter and store the unique spellings of irregular words. This decoding is necessarily slow and effortful at first, requiring all of a student’s attention.

To become a fluent reader, who is able to “read to learn,” decoding must evolve to automatic and unconscious reading. We often measure this ability as reading fluency, but fluency is not only defined by speed. The student must also comprehend and consolidate.

Comprehension is attributing meaning to what is read, but we may not retain it overnight or learn from it. Consolidation occurs when we integrate what we have read with what we already know, most significantly in long-term memory. Comprehension occurs during reading; consolidation occurs largely during sleep. Comprehension is understanding the meaning of the sentence, “The boy is the fastest runner in the school.” Consolidation is applying the meaning to background knowledge: How was running speed measured? Who made the claim? Where was the running measured? Does it matter?

In short, mastering reading fluency requires speed; comprehension within a readily understandable grammatical context; and consolidation, which includes relating each sentence to prior passages as well as predicting likely upcoming information. Reading is a complex process—no wonder we need a lot of practice to master it!

Why Students Struggle with Reading

Dehaene provides an example to illustrate how insufficient attentional resources can significantly deter reading fluency and consolidation when the decoding process is slow and effortful. In How We Learn, Dehaene states:

Imagine if you had to solve a math problem, but your reading had remained at the beginner’s level: “A dryver leevz Bawstin att too oh clok and heds four Noo Yiorque too hunjred myels ahwey. Hee ar eye-vz at ate oh clok. Wat waz hiz avrij speed?” I think you get my point: it is practically impossible to do both things [calculating the answer and reading at the beginning level] at the same time. The difficulty of reading destroys any capacity for arithmetic reflection. To progress, it is essential that the mental tools most useful to us, such as reading or arithmetic, become second nature—that they operate unconsciously and effortlessly. (Dehaene, 2020, page 223)

Now, imagine that you are pretty good at computing averages and that this passage was read aloud to you. The content would be more readily available than through the tedious decoding in Dehaene’s example above. You could easily determine that the driver traveled 200 miles in 6 hours; you would quickly divide 200 by 6 to determine the average speed as 33.3 miles per hour. You would be able to get the answer because your attention and thought would be free to perform the calculation, unencumbered by the act of reading itself. 

Similarly, students who put all their energy into decoding don’t have the mental resources needed for comprehension, which keeps fluency out of reach. What can bridge the gap between effortful decoding and effortless fluency is the practice of reading aloud.

The Importance of Oral Reading

Researchers have recognized for over 20 years (Rasinski, 2003) that an effective way to enhance reading fluency (including speed, comprehension, and consolidation) is through guided oral reading practice. For primary and secondary readers who struggle to read, one of the best ways to practice oral reading incorporates these four steps:

  1. Assisted oral reading in which the student can first follow along as they hear a text read aloud,
  2. Practicing reading the passage aloud with cues provided if they struggle with a word or misread it,
  3. Answering comprehension questions, and, if desired,
  4. Rereading the text out loud again until it is completed fluently and effortlessly.

However, providing sufficient assisted oral reading practice in the classroom is time-consuming for teachers, especially when students need that time for direct phonics instruction. Additionally, when struggling students perform oral reading in front of their peers, it can be embarrassing and demoralizing.

An Elegant Solution

Fortunately, neuroscience-designed software provides a solution. Technological advances now enable multifaceted, individualized reading programs to provide direct reading instruction plus ample assisted oral reading practice sessions adapted to each student’s current level. 

For instance, the Fast ForWord Reading and Literacy programs do just that. Students at any age and reading level can receive direct instruction of phonological awareness, decoding, and vocabulary comprehension--standard foundational reading skills. What the Fast ForWord programs include that other reading interventions do not is a virtual 1:1 reading tutor to assist oral reading practice. This component of the programs is called Reading Assistant Plus.

In Reading Assistant Plus, students first listen to selections read aloud, then, in the socially safe environment of their own tablet or computer, read aloud while the advanced speech recognition technology cues and corrects as needed. Students can practice and record each passage until their oral reading is fluent and less effortful, finishing with comprehension questions.

This technology frees the teacher to devote classroom time to other instructional needs, especially important during implementation of COVID-related distancing guidelines and hybrid instructional practices.

The Takeaways

  • Research on the science of reading tells us that students need ample practice to elevate decoding to an automatic and effortless process we recognize as reading fluency.
  • For students to master reading, fluency must comprise speed and comprehension.
  • Oral reading is an important practice to advance reading from decoding to fluency.
  • Software informed by the science of reading, such as the Fast ForWord product, provides efficient and effective use of time, benefitting educators and students alike.

Dr. Martha S. Burns is the Director of Neuroscience Education at Scientific Learning and serves on the Faculty of Northwestern University, in the area of cognitive and communication neuroscience. She has authored over 100 book chapters and articles and three books, with a forthcoming book in October 2020.

Are you an educator interested in your students working on Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant Plus? Learn more by requesting free samples.

Are you a parent interested in your child working on Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant Plus? Learn more by getting in touch with a certified provider.

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