Schools are on the right path with the science of reading, but students will need plenty of ongoing support to continue that trend beyond phonics.

The science of reading, beyond phonics

Schools are on the right path with the science of reading, but students will need plenty of ongoing support to continue that trend

Key points:

Schools across the country have been shifting their reading strategies to incorporate knowledge and best practices they have learned from the science of reading. More than 30 states have written legislation that requires schools to utilize scientifically researched instructional strategies.

The largest change most states will see as a result is a dramatic increase in explicit phonics instruction. As a result, an increasing number of students will be able to access grade-level texts.

I predict this will be reflected in summative and benchmark scores. However, picking words off the page is only a portion of what is measured in benchmark assessments. If we wish to see continued success, we will need to use everything the science of reading has taught us and provide students with a healthy diet of explicit literacy instruction that includes foundational skills like decoding, in addition to building content knowledge and higher-order comprehension strategies.

While I do believe that there will be some adjustment to find the right mix, I don’t think improved literacy results from aligning instruction to the science of reading will be cyclical or short-lived. Schools are on the right track; they just need to find the correct balance between instruction and reading experiences.

Combining phonics and background knowledge

The science of reading is not a program, curriculum, nor something you can purchase. It’s a collection of scientific research from a variety of fields—including cognitive psychology, education, and neuroscience—that helps us understand how we acquire written language.

Instruction aligned to the science of reading is sequential and explicit. Currently, it may seem like the science of reading is focused solely on phonics. Perhaps that is an over-correction in response to several popular reading programs that place too small an emphasis on phonics. However, the science of reading includes a lot of research about the importance of skills like background knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts of print.

In fact, background knowledge can even make phonics instruction more effective. If a student is spending 80 percent of their mental energy trying to figure out what the words on the page mean, they only have 20 percent left to decode. The more background knowledge they have, the more vocabulary they bring to bear on the assignment, and the more they are able to focus on applying their phonics skills.

Background knowledge and vocabulary also allow students to self-check as they read. If a student decodes the word “cake,” but they’ve never encountered it before, they have no way to know if they actually applied their decoding skills correctly. If they were at a birthday party a few days ago and know what cake is, they have immediate confirmation that they got the word correct when they decode it.

The need for authentic texts

To be truly skilled readers, students need diverse experiences and a varied vocabulary. I live in Connecticut, and if a teacher here asked students to read about college football on an assessment, they wouldn’t do as well as students from Texas, where college football is a lot more relevant. Reading a variety of texts on subjects they are already interested in will help students expand their background knowledge and vocabulary naturally over time by adding to what they already know and get excited about.

Instructional material for student reading is often very didactic. Its purpose is to be used by a teacher to give examples of different elements of writing, and it’s usually highly patterned to make those elements, like a main idea or a conclusion, relatively easy to pick out. Text in the real world isn’t structured the same way. It’s messier, and not laid out in the same way every time. To improve their reading and comprehension skills, students need access to authentic texts whose main purpose is to entertain and inform.

Libraries that are designed to be enjoyed—whether they’re traditional libraries, digital libraries, or classroom libraries—motivate students to read. When I was in school, one of my teachers flagged me as a reluctant, struggling reader. Every time the moment came to pick up our copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins, I appeared, at best, distracted, and at worst, like I would much rather be anywhere else. However, when we started the next book, a fantasy novel, I finished it independently that same day. Access to books students enjoy can be the difference between them doing everything in their power to avoid reading and them sitting at their desks during recess because they can’t put their books down.

Ideally, a teacher provides explicit instruction, models the new skill, does it with their students, and then sends students off to practice the new skill in something similar to a real-world context. If students don’t have engaging material to read, they’ll only practice their new reading skills when they’re told to, and that’s not enough.

Reading as a steppingstone to higher literacy skills

A good library will offer students not just texts they’re eager to read, but writing that exposes them to things outside their typical experience. This helps expand background knowledge and generate engagement. These days, digital libraries offer a supportive reading experience by providing features such as the ability to hear a fluent reader reading aloud. Many of them offer a glossary, so students can look up unfamiliar words as they read, growing their vocabulary naturally from in-context examples. Once a student finishes reading an article on axolotls, for example, they can move on to another article about reptiles and see many of the same vocabulary words in slightly different contexts.

Unfortunately, instead of receiving accessible texts with scaffolds to support them, what struggling or disinterested students often receive are watered-down texts at a lower difficulty level. Reading a book for younger children can make an already discouraged student feel even worse, and those simpler texts won’t push them to develop their comprehension skills at the appropriate level, which they need to do if they are going to catch up.

My hope for the future is that educators won’t let the pendulum swing too far in the direction of phonics. Students are finally getting the kind of explicit instruction in reading that they need and deserve, but they also need lots of opportunity—and motivation!—to practice this foundational academic skill along the way. Whether you graduated from teacher prep in 1950 or 2023, one universal truth all teachers know is that students become good readers by reading, and great readers by enjoying authentic, engaging texts.

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