Unpacking the “Science of Reading”


Over the past few months, I have tried to read and understand as much as I can about the “science of reading” from people that are much smarter than me. So admittedly, while I am in no way an expert on the “science of reading,” I have spent quite a bit of time on this blog post getting all my thoughts together with the aim of hopefully helping you save some time unpacking what the “science of reading” entails.

One thing I’ve realized while doing all my reading is just how unclear the conversations can get. Everyone has their own personal opinions about what they think is the best way to teach reading, so it’s difficult to navigate through the opinions and read just about the facts. My hope with this post is to try to clear up what people usually mean when they talk about the “science of reading” and share a few of my own thoughts.

Whole language vs. phonics

A little background information is needed to help bring clarity around the “science of reading.” There’s always been a controversy in the reading world in regards to which is the “best” way to teach reading: whole language vs. phonics.

As you know, whole language is a philosophy that focuses on making meaning from real reading and writing experiences. In a whole language approach, phonics rules are only taught in context. For example, you might only teach the different sounds “oo” makes when you’re helping a child read the words “mood” and “book”.

In a phonics-based approach, the different spelling patterns are all taught in a systematic sequence which allows students to master easier ones, before moving on to the more complex patterns.

What exactly IS the “science of reading”?

The “science of reading” should be used to refer to all the research out there that includes all the aspects of reading – decoding, fluency, comprehension, etc. There is SO much more to reading than just phonics!

However, oftentimes, when people refer to the “science of reading,” they’re talking about the importance of explicitly and systematically teaching phonics. One of the many arguments out there right now is that teachers aren’t providing enough phonics instruction, contributing to why we have so many students reading below grade level.

Read the latest white paper from myView Literacy author Dr. Sharon Vaughn on the Science of Reading >

Some proponents of the “science of reading” would state that leveled texts and guided reading should not be used. Rather, students should be immersed in decodable texts that correlate with specific phonics patterns that they’re learning. Decodable texts contain almost only high frequency/sight words and words that can easily be decoded by using the spelling patterns they’ve already learned or are currently learning.

Some also go on to say that children should not be prompted to decode words by using context clues or what makes sense for the sentence. Instead, they need to rely on the explicit phonics instruction that they have had to be able to decode the word. For example, rather than saying “read on in the sentence and think about what would make sense”, experts urge that you say something like “look for spelling patterns or roots/prefixes/suffixes you know to help decode that word”.

I’m fully aware that there are many more theories/thoughts/nuances and I’m sure I’ve missed some important ones, but I hope you were able to find this a little bit helpful!

My own thoughts…

  • As we all know, sometimes in the education field, things have a tendency to come back full circle. I’m nervous that educators are going to latch on to the new research and throw out all their previous reading practices. There are phenomenal reading practices happening in classrooms across the country that ARE good. Let’s not take all this new “science of reading” research and completely overhaul everything we’ve been doing. Let’s view this as a paradigm shift and begin to make shifts and changes to better serve our students.

  • I am excited to hear about how much attention the “science of reading” has been getting. I do think phonics instruction is starting to get the attention it deserves, and educators are getting the knowledge they need to be able to teach phonics to ALL of our students.

  • With all of this new attention to reading, I hope our students with dyslexia and other special needs will get more of the targeted phonics instruction that will allow them to feel more successful with reading.

  • Some people are VERY passionate about their own beliefs, which is fine, however, it’s not ok to shame other educators out there for doing something different. We’re all here to do what we think is best for our students, not to dictate what others are doing. Practice understanding and take the time to learn from each other.

  • Take the time to read the research. There is so much information out there that it can be overwhelming to even know where to begin. And once you do start reading….it’s a rabbit hole!! My suggestion? Find one of your favorite literacy experts and read their thoughts about the “science of reading” and go from there. Also, consider joining one of the many various social media groups discussing the “science of reading”; it’s been invaluable for me!

Phew!! I think that’s it for now, but things are constantly evolving, so there may be another post in the future! I hope you were able to find something in here that was helpful to you!

To learn more about the “science of reading” visit https://www.savvas.com/scienceofreading today!

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Liz Janusz

ELA Instructional Coach