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Written by
Voyager Sopris Learning
Supported with input from
Dr. Louisa Moats
Updated on August 10, 2023
Quick Takeaway
The science of reading (SOR) is a fascinating multidisciplinary field exploring how our brains decode and comprehend written language. It emphasizes the importance of phonics and phonological awareness in early literacy development, and the role of our visual system in processing text. As individuals progress from initial stages to analyzing complex texts, they may encounter reading challenges, addressed through targeted interventions. The joy and satisfaction derived from reading not only fosters lifelong learning but also enhances empathy, critical thinking, and provides a means for relaxation.

In a world where words shape our thoughts, communication, and understanding, the science of reading (SOR) holds profound significance. Reading is not just a basic skill; it is a gateway to knowledge, exploration, and intellectual growth. Have you ever wondered about the intricate processes that occur within our minds when we read? 

The science of reading is a multidisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, and education to unravel the mysteries behind this complex cognitive process. It seeks to understand how our brains decode written symbols, comprehend textual information, and extract meaning from the written word. 

In our podcast with Dr. Anita Archer and Dr. Louisa Moats, “Why the ‘Science of Reading’ Needs the ‘The Science of Teaching’—A Conversation Between 2 Literacy Leaders,” Dr. Moats shared, “The body of work referred to as the ‘science of reading’ is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, not a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages.”

This large pool of reading research has changed the way educators approach reading comprehension and language comprehension, from a neurological basis of reading, to how we decode words, literacy milestones, and instruction and intervention to produce lovers of reading and lifelong learning.

The Neurological Basis of Reading

The science of reading has been associated with what is commonly referred to as the “reading wars” in education. Many educators have entered the battle to argue what is the best approach to literacy instruction, but an evidence-based body of research is supporting the science of reading behind the Simple View of Reading.

Dr. Katie Jenner, the secretary of education for the Indiana Department of Education, explains the Simple View of Reading (SVR) View of Reading (SVR) as “reading comprehension [that] is conceptualized as the product of two component skills: decoding and linguistic comprehension.” However, she goes on to say: “This does NOT mean that reading is a simple process, only that two main components (decoding and linguistic comprehension) contribute the most to overall reading comprehension.”

Reading may seem like a simple act of deciphering letters and words on a page, but beneath its surface lies a remarkable orchestration of neurological processes. The ability to read relies on a complex network of brain regions working together in harmony.

Understanding the neurological basis of reading provides insight into how our brains decode written language and comprehend its meaning. One crucial region involved in reading is the visual cortex, located at the back of the brain. When we look at a word, our eyes capture the visual information, and the visual cortex processes the shape and arrangement of the letters. This initial visual processing sets the stage for further analysis.

Neuroscience and the role of neural pathways in reading comprehension is a key element of reading science and ultimately reading success. Concepts like the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope Reading Rope make good contributions to the literacy instruction conversation, and the amount of research-based information in support of the science of reading cannot be ignored and should be implemented into how we approach reading instruction. 

Phonics and Phonological Awareness

Phonics and phonological awareness are essential components of reading development, particularly during the early stages of literacy acquisition. These two interrelated concepts involve understanding the relationship between sounds and letters, enabling individuals to decode and read words accurately.

Effective phonics instruction and phonological awareness instruction often involve a combination of activities, including auditory and oral exercises, wordplay, phonemic awareness games, and explicit teaching of phonetic rules. By engaging students in interactive and multisensory activities, educators can foster a deep understanding of the sound-symbol relationship, leading to improved reading and literacy skills.

Early reading skills from identifying letter-sound relationships and understanding graphemes to word recognition like sight words are all founded in strong phonics skills and phonological awareness. As students’ awareness and skills build, a stronger understanding of the alphabetic principle develops, which leads to better reading comprehension and language processing.

Phonics - Toy Letters

The Visual Aspect of Reading

When we read, our eyes effortlessly scan the words on a page, allowing us to extract meaning from written text. The visual aspect of reading plays a vital role in our ability to process and comprehend written language. It involves a complex interplay of eye movements, visual processing, and visual attention. 

Eye movements are a key component of the visual aspect of reading. As we read, our eyes move in a series of rapid and precise jumps called saccades. These saccades help us navigate from one word to the next, ensuring a smooth progression across the text. In between saccades, our eyes briefly pause on words, fixating on specific points to gather visual information.

Eye movements impact reading speed, and the way our eyes process text impacts reading comprehension. Language comprehension and reading success ultimately begin with neuroscience. Therefore, using a body of research that focuses on the science of reading is now becoming an integral part of the “science of teaching.”

Reading Comprehension and Language Processing

Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. It goes beyond the mere recognition of words and involves the active construction of meaning from the text. Reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process that relies on various language-processing skills and strategies. 

Language processing is the ability to understand and manipulate the linguistic information presented in written text. It involves integrating knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and discourse structures to derive meaning from the words and sentences we read. 

At the most basic level, reading comprehension involves decoding individual words and understanding their meanings. This requires a robust vocabulary and knowledge of word meanings, allowing readers to connect the words they encounter to their mental representations. Additionally, readers must grasp the grammatical structure of sentences and use syntactic cues to interpret relationships between words.

Literacy Instruction Strategies

Literacy instruction strategies for effective reading comprehension and language processing regularly include explicit instruction and activities that allow students to interact with the reading in a variety of ways. Whether through activities like orthographic mapping, systems like cueing, or simply more exposure and practice with oral language, students can begin to comprehend and process both spoken language and written language better to understand the world.

  • Activating Prior Knowledge: By starting reading instruction with an activation of prior knowledge, students are able to recall relevant information, experiences, or concepts related to the subject matter, which sets a more solid foundation for understanding and retention. 

  • Previewing and Predicting: Previewing and predicting are key steps in teaching reading because they help set expectations and prime the mind for what is ahead.

  • Making Connections: Making connections includes personal connections, such as relating the content to readers’ own lives, or intertextual connections, where they draw parallels between the current text and other works they have encountered.

  • Visualizing: The strategy of visualizing taps into the power of imagination and engages multiple senses in the reading process.

  • Monitoring Comprehension: Successful readers continuously monitor their understanding as they progress through the text. If comprehension breaks down, they may reread a passage, seek clarification, or employ other strategies to overcome difficulties and maintain comprehension. 

  • Asking Questions: Questioning is an effective strategy for promoting critical thinking and deeper understanding. Readers can generate questions as they read, focusing on the main idea, supporting details, author’s purpose, or potential implications of the information. 

  • Summarizing: Summarizing helps readers extract the most important information, identify the underlying structure of the text, and retain the key points. 

  • Recognizing Text Structure: Understanding the organization and structure of a text can aid comprehension. Skilled readers pay attention to headings, subheadings, and other textual cues in complex texts that signal the organization of the information.

Reading Development and Literacy Milestones

Child reading on a stack of books

Reading development is a complex and multifaceted process that unfolds over time as individuals acquire the necessary skills and strategies to become proficient readers. It involves a progression of milestones and stages, each building upon the previous, leading to increased reading proficiency and literacy.

There is a general breakdown of literacy milestones that should be achieved in each stage a person goes through:

  • Birth to Kindergarten: Emergent reading skills, such as phonological awareness and a basic ability to hear and make sounds.

  • Elementary School: Early reading skills, such as decoding, cueing, and orthographic mapping.

  • Intermediate and Middle School: Transitional reading skills, such as critical thinking and deeper connections to curriculum.

  • High School and Beyond: Proficient reading skills, such as the ability to fluently read and analyze complex texts.

While these are the hopeful and projected milestones for learners to meet during their academic journey, many students may lack foundational skills that prevent them from moving on to more complex texts and analysis. When students are behind grade-level expectations, whether due to reading disorders or insufficient instruction, intervention may be a necessary step to take.

Only 51 percent of higher-education teaching-preparation programs include the science of reading. Administrators can support educators as they teach students by offering professional development and resources to help them understand all the science of reading pedagogy has to offer, especially when it comes to reading disorders and interventions.

Reading Disorders and Interventions

Reading is a fundamental skill that opens doors to knowledge, communication, and personal growth. However, some individuals may struggle with reading due to reading disorders, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that affect the acquisition and development of foundational reading skills. 

In an interview with Dr. Moats about why every educator needs to understand the science of reading, she argues, “The solution to reading problems, no matter what their origin, is instruction by a well-informed teacher who knows how to help kids overcome those disadvantages.”

Understanding and supporting individuals who have dyslexia or other reading disorders is pivotal for a learner’s reading journey. While some educators will follow a balanced literacy approach when it comes to struggling readers, there are a number of effective interventions used to address reading difficulties, especially in early literacy instruction.

Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction focuses on teaching the relationship between letters and sounds. It helps individuals with reading difficulties develop phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words) and phonics skills (the ability to associate sounds with corresponding letters or letter combinations). These are literacy skills that can make a difference in early reading instruction.

Multisensory Structured Language Programs

These programs employ a multisensory approach that integrates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile modalities to teach reading skills. Examples of multisensory structured language programs include Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading System, and Lindamood-Bell programs, and these programs are often highly structured, sequential, and individualized to meet the specific needs of learners with reading difficulties. 

Reading Fluency Practice

Fluency, which refers to the ability to read with accuracy, speed, and expression, plays a crucial role in reading comprehension. Individuals with reading difficulties may benefit from interventions that target fluency development. 

Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary knowledge is vital for reading comprehension. Individuals with reading difficulties may benefit from explicit vocabulary instruction that focuses on teaching word meanings, word relationships, and strategies for determining the meaning of unfamiliar words. 

Reading Comprehension Strategies

Interventions that target reading comprehension difficulties aim to improve the understanding and interpretation of a text. These interventions teach explicit strategies such as activating prior knowledge, making predictions, asking questions, summarizing, visualizing, and monitoring comprehension.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology tools can offer valuable support to individuals with reading difficulties. Text-to-speech software, speech-recognition software, and audiobooks can assist with decoding and reading comprehension.

Individualized Instruction and Support

Tailoring instruction to the specific needs of individuals with reading difficulties is crucial. Such individualized plans ensure the interventions are aligned with the unique needs and strengths of each learner.

Girl sitting on floor reading a book

The Endless Possibilities: Embracing the Science of Reading

The science of reading research has shown that “learning to read is not the natural, easy process that some have suggested. Learning to read is a relatively lengthy process that begins early in development, before children enter formal schooling.” Both evidence and experts encourage educators to embrace the science of reading in literacy instruction and intervention.

To hear more about the science of reading, visit our new science of reading page or listen to our podcast episode, “The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement.”

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