What is the science of reading?

  • 25 May, 2019
  • 24 Comments

Teacher question: 

I keep hearing that teachers don’t know the science of reading. But all the teachers that I talk to say that they teach phonics. What’s really going on?

 

Shanahan response: 

I suspect that both the critics and the teachers are telling you the truth.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a national education inspectorate that monitors classroom trends in the U.S. We all guess what may be happening based on our own narrow experiences. That means you could visit classrooms in your community, and I could in mine, and we might see very different patterns of teaching

But there is more to it than that kind of variation.

However, before we go there, we need to clarify one important point: The “science of reading” includes more than phonics and phonological awareness.

Phonics is certainly an important part of the science of reading, but it’s not the whole thing.

Any real “science of reading” would include all the methods or approaches that have been found, through research, to give kids a learning advantage in reading.

That means oral reading fluency instruction should be part of the science of reading. And, vocabulary and morphology teaching, too. There are also a number of instructional approaches that have been found to boost reading comprehension by teaching thinking strategies or enhancing written language performance (e.g., cohesion, sentence combining/reducing). And, guiding kids to write about text is scientific, as well. 

Any science of reading would concern itself with the amount of reading instruction provided and there are quality factors that need to be included. For instance, kids learn more when teachers provide clear purposes for the lessons, when there is plenty of interaction among teachers and students, and when teachers explain themselves clearly. Those are just examples, of course; there is even more.

But, with that said, back to your original question.

A reason for the seeming discrepancies in what you’re hearing about teaching has to do with the lack of precision in how we talk about these things. What is phonics instruction and what is a sufficient amount of phonics teaching? How many minutes a day do your teachers teach phonics?

Most primary teachers when asked if they teach phonics are, in my experience, likely to say, “Yes.” However, when I visit some of those classrooms, what they mean by phonics is pretty pale and thin; often no more than marking up a worksheet. Bloodless teaching not likely to help kids to figure out the decoding system.

When teaching the simple sound-symbol correspondences, teachers should make sure the kids can hear those sounds and distinguish them from other sounds; they should make sure kids can recognize these letters within words; they should make sure the kids can sound out unknown words or even nonsense words using those correspondences; and they should be able to read and write words with those elements, too.

Showing kids a spelling pattern and its pronunciation is a necessary step, but it’s not sufficient, if the goal is enabling kids to read and spell. Phonics teaching should provide opportunities to decode and spell words, to sort words, to recognize misspellings, and to gain proficiency in using all this information.

Although the numbers of phonics skills to be taught is usually pretty limited, the amount of phonics instruction kids should be receiving is considerable. Experts usually recommend 20-30 minutes or so of daily phonics instruction in grades K-2 (in other words, about 200 hours of such teaching). That means there is a need for thoroughness and depth; we want mastery, not familiarization.

The teacher who I mentioned earlier, the one who may be doing no more than having kids mark up the daily phonics worksheet, can honestly say she is “teaching phonics,” since those lessons are being dispensed.

But she, if probed, may also honestly admit that she knows nothing of the science of reading (in this case, the nature of the orthographic-phonemic aspects of the English language and the research on effective decoding instruction).

She may even complain, again quite rightly, that she received inadequate preparation at her local university. Her reading class was instructed by someone who thought guessing the words based on the pictures or on context were good ways of reading words (they are not; good readers don’t do it that way), or perhaps they had a philosophy that scorned the value of explicit phonics instruction, despite the research. 

And, the parents?

Those who see their children guessing words and struggling to read, grumble about the injustice of it all. They want more phonics. And, the reading community is as frustrated with those parents as the parents are with them.

Many reading professors simply can’t understand why these moms and dads demand phonics so vociferously when there are other aspects of reading science that are important.

The parents can’t understand why their kids’ teachers don’t know how to teach decoding and providing terrific classroom libraries and free time to read really don’t help those kids who simply can’t read the words. (And, telling them to look at the pictures and guess borders on cruelty).

Now multiply this through the entire system. What I just described about phonics may be true in Mrs. Jones’ first-grade class, but not in Mrs. Smith’s down the hall. It might describe phonics instruction in one school, while in others it is the fluency, or vocabulary, or comprehension instruction that is so strenuously grounded in an ignorance of the knowledge of a science of reading.

We need a substantial commitment to all those things found to benefit kids learning—not just to the ones we may like best.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sasha Borenstein
May 26, 2019 01:37 PM

Thank you for this clear and truthful article. I am heartened by the growing number of people speaking about the broad scope of literacy and the need for direct instruction. I am always interested in the application of research in the classroom and welcome more information on all aspects of literacy.

Jennifer Throndsen
May 26, 2019 02:29 PM

What a beautiful weaving of our current reality and what we know about the science of reading. We need to learn to live in a space where one can admit to what they know and don’t know about teaching reading. There is no shame in not knowing what one has not been taught, but to perpetuate poor instruction for the sake of self-protection is not the answer. Thank you for providing clear examples of what needs to be taught and how it needs to be taught. I am hopeful that the barrage of conversations around this topic nationally can support local change.

J
May 26, 2019 02:49 PM

Love your perspective!

Gayle Greenwald
May 26, 2019 03:50 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, Thank you for this post. Coincidentally, I also just read a letter posted on the Reading Recovery Facebook page signed by educators I have revered and followed for years, including you. I am so disturbed to witness the ongoing controversy between reading philosophies. I believe the letter was intended to communicate a very real concern to PBS and others who seem to be espousing one side over the other. I am not sure that is how it is being received. Both sides are participating in this. As a reading specialist, I am finding this controversy confusing and disturbing. Your blog post today would have been a wonderful addition to that letter. I was taught that balance is what we use for all children, but the way we use these “ingredients” depends on the needs of the child. I believe that is what you are saying, and I hope you will share these thoughts widely, not just with those who already look forward to your posts every day.

Timothy Shanahan
May 26, 2019 04:32 PM

Gayle
I didn’t sign that letter both because I’d rather speak for myself and because the response ignored the major points of the PBS piece and the justified complaints of the parents. The letter was right to contradict the unchallenged misinformation and hyperbole evident throughout the report.

Thanks

Tim

Harriett
May 26, 2019 06:57 PM

You make a lot of good points, including this one: "The parents can’t understand why their kids’ teachers don’t know how to teach decoding and providing terrific classroom libraries and free time to read really don’t help those kids who simply can’t read the words. (And, telling them to look at the pictures and guess borders on cruelty)." Because there is still so much confusion and controversy within the teaching profession (the reading research community seems to be closer to agreement than the teacher-training institutions), the parents of dyslexic children are taking the reins from teachers and beginning to drive the conversation. I was at a workshop on dyslexia recently with both parents and practitioners present, and I had lunch at a table with a group of very angrily animated parents, who basically said, "Enough already--we know what needs to be done in the classroom, why aren't teachers doing it!"

Tim Shanahan
May 26, 2019 07:27 PM

Harriet—
Your letter sums up my concerns about my colleagues positions. They aren’t hearing those moms or feeling their pain.

Tim

Gayle Greenwald
May 26, 2019 11:54 PM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan, I see that you did not sign the letter, and I apologize for thinking you did. Your response to my comment is so on target and aligned to my beliefs. How do we make this unnecessary, and distracting, situation better? What can we do?

Sam Bommarito
May 27, 2019 12:54 AM

Following your recommendations on how to allot time would go a LONG WAY to improving literacy instruction. Some NOT ALL of the folks taking on the science of reading mantel have a marked tendency to focus solely on phonics and to claim ONLY synthetic phonics works. You’ve said multiple times the the important part is SYSTEMATIC instruction. There is and should be a place or analytic phonics approaches and most importantly time must be allocated for all the components of literacy instruction (and I
I’ve gone on record saying your recommendations about time just make sense.) My addition is that measures of READING (as opposed to decoding) be used to evaluate programs-methods. Programs-methods need to show gains OVER TIME in reading comprehension. If they can’t do that don’t use them, find something that does.

Debbie Meyer
May 27, 2019 02:08 AM

What many teachers lack the knowledge of is the fidelity to a system needed for many kids to achieve mastery of the code.

Cindy Matthews
May 27, 2019 11:04 AM

In over 30 years of teaching readers, the best approach I have found entails the use of Fundations as Tier 1 phonics instruction for 30 minutes a day then an additional 20-30 minutes of reading workshop including shared, interactive,and independent reading during which the teacher confers with readers one on one or in small strategy groups using the Fountas and pinnell model which was developed out of Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery work.

Mary Beth
May 27, 2019 12:28 PM

Our entire school district is just finishing year 2 of have a professional development based on the simple view of reading. At first, there were tears of frustration and guilt because we were teaching kids in ways that we now know are not affective. This work has been game changing for all of us, But most importantly game changing for the kids sitting in our seats now and for years to come.

Susan Vincent
May 27, 2019 02:17 PM

Dr. Shanahan, I hopefully began reading this post, then was disappointed to read your use of the Science of Reading talking point that those who argue against their stance promote “looking at the picture and guessing” as their main instructional strategy. It is not, although I read it daily on twitter. Anyone who has studied Clay would understand when that prompt might be used. Eyes on text is the goal for all of us. Your influence could possibly keep this dialogue grounded in truth, so please avoid the talking points of either side.

Harriett
May 27, 2019 03:02 PM

Susan, the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessments levels A-D include words and spelling patterns not generally covered in a kindergarten classroom, so the only way students can be expected to "read" these words is by "looking at the picture and guessing". This guessing (what Ken Goodman called the psycholinguistic guessing game) is built into the F & P philosophy and a big step backward for districts using this assessment. At our district, our previous assessments that came as a result of the NRP findings asked kindergarteners to read text appropriate for an emergent reader. As you know, F & P is based on the work of Marie Clay, and Tim has already written about how the Three-Cueing System is not supported by the science of reading. And the beat goes on . . .

Kristen Koeller
May 27, 2019 03:22 PM

In addition to what teachers DO NOT learn in teacher preparation programs about the science of reading, teachers traditionally use the ELA curriculum adopted by their school district to teach literacy skills. This curriculum is often published by a "big box" publisher and while it represents all the Big 5 components from the NRP report, it frames this instruction through the lens of balanced literacy. How can we also influence these humongous publishers? When will they begin to publish material that is actually based on the science of teaching reading?

Tim Shanahan
May 28, 2019 01:47 AM

Susan
I’m not giving anyone’s talking point. I’ve probably got a better notion of what goes on in schools than most. I too frequently run into the idea that the first thing you do to figure out a word is to use context—words or pictures, rather than looking carefully at the word.
Tim

Scott Baird
May 28, 2019 02:57 PM

https://youtu.be/j2xs4OtRVp0

Reid Lyon in 7 minutes what reading consists of

Darla O'Leary
May 28, 2019 04:11 PM

Thank you for your Words of Wisdom, Timothy Shanahan!

Jo-Anne Gross
May 28, 2019 06:29 PM

Talking about the research, it’s application, the road to comprehension
by opening the door to fluent pronunciation with the explicit systematic sound instruction.

Thank You indeed Shanahan!

Janet Erickson
May 28, 2019 09:11 PM

"The teacher who I mentioned earlier, the one who may be doing no more than having kids mark up the daily phonics worksheet, can honestly say she is “teaching phonics,” since those lessons are being dispensed."

It only counts as teaching if someone is learning.

Thanks for all your timely and research-proven suggestions.

Stefan Meyer
May 29, 2019 01:26 PM

The science of reading, yes, but, what's the form and the policy of pedagogy? Is she transmissive (teaching interestingly but pale things), generative (integrating interests and experiences of the students) or even transformative (overcoming prejudices, dialogical, justice)?

Let me inform you about a case study of Daniela Schlienger (2018): How the literacy of thirteen 4 to 6-year-old kindergarten children develops in a self-designed learning environment about the zoo? Accompanied by the teacher and the leading figure ‘Globi’, the kindergarten children of this case study set up their own zoo for ten weeks and developed the theme-specific roles. This resulted in animal enclosures, an office, the restaurant and the animal care room. ‘The magic machine’ provided the ‘discovery cards’ with which the children made syllable combinations and new words of their generative words. While playing, the children tested the written language with all its characteristics. They also had important conversations about language. This action research project mixed elements of the role-play and process support according to Vygotsky combined with elements of Paulo Freire's alphabetisation method. Tests, observations and flexible interviews proved that the children have great individual and social resources with which they make decisive progress in literacy (intentional reading and writing, conversation about language, metacognition, morphology). It also became clear that process support in the mode of role-play can provide significant impulses for literacy in the project theme and the free play. The views on literacy and the competences of the teachers have also been dynamized.
In the follow-up survey eight months later, the 1st class teacher mentioned the following observations: The project-children showed conspicuous interest in books and were very motivated to learn to read. They could hardly wait to finally go to the library and borrow books. She noticed that the project-children could write much faster than the children of another kindergarten and had no trouble with the letter forms.

Keywords
Problem-posing education, project method, linguistic and generative elements of alphabetization, imaginative teaching, free play, critical method


Stefan Meyer
May 29, 2019 01:26 PM

The science of reading, yes, but, what's the form and the policy of pedagogy? Is she transmissive (teaching interestingly but pale things), generative (integrating interests and experiences of the students) or even transformative (overcoming prejudices, dialogical, justice)?

Let me inform you about a case study of Daniela Schlienger (2018): How the literacy of thirteen 4 to 6-year-old kindergarten children develops in a self-designed learning environment about the zoo? Accompanied by the teacher and the leading figure ‘Globi’, the kindergarten children of this case study set up their own zoo for ten weeks and developed the theme-specific roles. This resulted in animal enclosures, an office, the restaurant and the animal care room. ‘The magic machine’ provided the ‘discovery cards’ with which the children made syllable combinations and new words of their generative words. While playing, the children tested the written language with all its characteristics. They also had important conversations about language. This action research project mixed elements of the role-play and process support according to Vygotsky combined with elements of Paulo Freire's alphabetisation method. Tests, observations and flexible interviews proved that the children have great individual and social resources with which they make decisive progress in literacy (intentional reading and writing, conversation about language, metacognition, morphology). It also became clear that process support in the mode of role-play can provide significant impulses for literacy in the project theme and the free play. The views on literacy and the competences of the teachers have also been dynamized.
In the follow-up survey eight months later, the 1st class teacher mentioned the following observations: The project-children showed conspicuous interest in books and were very motivated to learn to read. They could hardly wait to finally go to the library and borrow books. She noticed that the project-children could write much faster than the children of another kindergarten and had no trouble with the letter forms.

Keywords
Problem-posing education, project method, linguistic and generative elements of alphabetization, imaginative teaching, free play, critical method


Tim Shanahan
May 30, 2019 01:13 PM

Stefan—
That’s marvelous. Now show me how to do that on scale with 26,000 teachers and 437,000 kids. And show me that the approach works better than general practice in such context. I’m not rejecting your hopes, just pointing out that there is a great deal of work to do before I’d ever promote such an approach. This case study seems to have affirmed that a really good teacher can perform magic...it doesn’t even show that another teacher can follow this model to success,

Good luck.
Tim

Sheena Mellott
Jun 03, 2019 09:40 PM

As I read the post, I was actually nodding my head in agreement and embracing the text to self strategy. Unfortunately, without a cohesive decision on instruction that is clearly mapped out, teacher’s ideas of “good reading instruction” varies...quite a lot. What do we do? How do we fix this? (Those questions may be rhetorical but in reality, I’d love to know how we can improve reading instruction.)

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What is the science of reading?

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One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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