[Originally published April 8, 2020]
If you have been keeping up with education listservs, you’ve most likely seen the recent explosion of articles on the science of reading and the push for teachers to learn more about it. This new iteration of the long-running reading wars was ignited by journalist Emily Hanford, who began arguing in 2018 that reading is being taught the wrong way (see here, here, and here).
Now, states are taking notice and passing new laws to ensure that schools are using research-based reading instruction. Such legislation lands squarely on one side of the reading wars: the side backed by the science of reading. So, what should educators and parents know about the science of reading? Here is a basic summary, plus two important beyond-basic facts to inform educators’ choices of reading programs.
What Is the Science of Reading?
The term “science of reading” refers to the research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have conducted on how we learn to read. This body of knowledge, over twenty years in the making, has helped debunk older methods of reading instruction that were based on tradition and observation, not evidence.
The Phonics Approach...
Based on the science of reading, the 2000 National Reading Panel Report stated that students need explicit instruction in the essential components of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. The key differentiator between the science of reading approach and alternatives is phonics. The phonics approach teaches children to begin reading by manipulating the sounds in words, or “sounding out” words.
...Versus the Balanced Literacy Approach
On the other side of the reading wars is the balanced literacy approach. This strategy evolved from the earlier whole language approach, which assumed that children learn to read if they are given good books and taught cues and strategies to support their reading, such as looking at the pictures or using context. This method has been popular with many educators since they believe it builds a love of books and reading.
Although balanced literacy programs now typically claim to incorporate some phonics, they usually do not align with the more sequential approaches of a phonics-based program. What’s more, including some phonics is not only less effective—it’s not effective at all. As Hanford reports, balanced literacy strategies like “three-cueing” are fundamentally at odds with teaching phonics. “One negates the other,” a literacy coach states. That’s what makes the reading wars a war: there can only be one victor.
So how do teachers choose one method over the other? One influence is how educators were taught to read themselves. A friend recently told me that she was listening to her seven-year-old read. When the child came to a word she didn’t know, she started looking at the pictures to determine what the word was. The child’s mother reacted, “Why aren’t you just sounding it out?” Obviously, she was taught phonics, while her daughter was being taught balanced literacy.
Other influences include the training that educators received and the curriculum that their school district purchases. However, both sources are changing as colleges feel increasing pressure to teach, and schools to use, research-based strategies.
Beyond the Basics of the Science of Reading
But there is more to the reading story. The science of reading comprises a body of knowledge that extends beyond phonics. Reading comprehension is widely understood to be “a complex task which depends on a range of cognitive and linguistic processes” (Nation, 2018). Two critical components of reading that don’t get as much attention as phonics are working memory and auditory processing.
1. Working Memory
Reading scientists have recently included working memory as an important component of how students learn to read.
Working memory is different from simple memorization. When children memorize sight words, as well as the sounds for letters and letter combinations, they use one of the most primitive and, from an evolutionary perspective, oldest parts of the brain: the hippocampus. The hippocampus stores memories and acts like a file clerk accessing different brain regions to retrieve them.
When children learn phonics, on the other hand, they exercise their working memory, which is a higher-order skill. Working memory is one kind of short-term memory that allows our brain to temporarily hold onto and work with information for use in a related task or activity. More complex than simple memorization, working memory involves the pre-frontal cortex, which is a later-maturing, higher-level region in the brain that involves executive functions. Phonological working memory, specifically, is essential for phonics and decoding.
Underdeveloped phonological working memory has been shown to be a factor in children with developmental language problems (Montgomery, et al., 2019). Although it is rarely considered a trainable skill in reading programs, working memory can actually be developed intentionally.
2. Auditory Processing
Phonics is based on the ability to distinguish the internal details of words, to be able to figure out the letters that go along with the phonemes (sounds) heard. For some children, this task is especially difficult when they struggle with auditory processing. Students who cannot decipher small changes in sound will inevitably struggle to learn phonics.
Most reading instruction assumes auditory processing has been fully developed when educators begin to teach phonics. However, this assumption can be wrong. Frequent ear infections or auditory processing disorders can impact a child’s ability to process sounds. English language learners also struggle to distinguish similar-sounding phonemes when their native language has not wired their brains to process such sounds.
Research shows that processing speech sounds is the fastest thing the brain does. Those with lagging auditory processing need a technology that can move just as quickly and train the brain for this cognitive skill before learning phonics, or when re-learning phonics for those in older grades who struggled with phonics the first time around.
What Can Educators Do?
What steps can educators take to ensure they are incorporating research-based reading strategies into their classroom activities?
- Be open-minded to the science of reading, especially if you have been trained to teach using the balanced literacy approach. It is hard to hear that something you’ve believed in and used for years is not the best teaching method for your students. It takes a team focused on a common goal to make crucial changes. As Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
- Do the necessary homework on the science of reading. There are many research studies and articles available about the efficacy of explicit phonics training, as well as other aspects of the science of reading. Schools can begin working on the necessary professional development so teachers are using the best strategies possible. Many colleges of education are also making these changes, so they may be good resources, too. See the list of resources below to get started.
- Implement a phonics-based program that develops crucial reading and learning skills, as well as cognitive skills like working memory and auditory processing that research shows are critical for reading. A good example is Fast ForWord®, a web-based program for grades K-12 that develops the language, reading, and cognitive skills that are foundational for learning—including working memory and auditory processing. A strong foundation gives students the best opportunity to become lifelong learners.
Educators truly care about their students and are invested in those students’ success. With the science of reading clarifying the best approach for reading instruction, I know that teachers and administrators will work as a team to incorporate the best strategies possible for their students to become strong readers.
Barshay, Jill. (2020). Four things you need to know about the new reading wars. The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/four-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-reading-wars/
Goldstein, Dana. (2020). An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/15/us/reading-phonics.html
Hanford, Emily. (2018). At a loss for words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers. APM Reports. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading
Webinar: "Connecting the Sciences of Reading & Learning Building Language, Literacy, and Cognition for All" by Megan Jensen. https://discover.carnegielearning.com/Connecting-the-Sciences-of-Reading-and-Learning.html
Want to learn more about the science of reading? Download the science of reading guide today.