Starting with the Science of Reading: Everything Administrators Need to Know to Support Teachers

Savvas Insights Team


As school administrators, especially in PreK-5 schools, you have most likely been hearing about the Science of Reading from the educational stakeholders in your sphere, including your state department of education, district administrators, teachers on your campus, and even parents. You may also be responsible for implementing Science of Reading-based instruction into your reading curriculum — moving away from other methods of teaching reading that have been used for many years.

An administrator’s role in fostering effective literacy instruction is vital, so understanding the Science of Reading and knowing what to look for in effective evidence-based instruction can significantly affect how you support teachers and students in their journey towards proficient literacy. But how do you know what to look for, and where do you start?

In this blog post, we’ll inform you on what every administrator should know about the Science of Reading and discuss three high-leverage instructional shifts you can use to support your teachers while adopting a more effective way of teaching foundational reading that will lead to increased student achievement.

Science of Reading: What Does the Research Say?

The Science of Reading, while not new in the educational landscape, has recently garnered significant media attention as many grapple with the reality that a large percentage of students are not reading proficiently. However, the Science of Reading is not just the newest educational buzzword; it is decades of cognitive research that provides insight and guidance on how children’s brains learn to read.

The significant body of research encompassing the Science of Reading clearly indicates that students need systematic, explicit instruction in the following critical elements of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each of these elements mean:

  • Phonological awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the sounds in spoken language. It can be taught at multiple levels including word, syllable, onset and rime, and phoneme. Students are taught skills such as counting, categorizing, rhyming, blending, segmenting, and manipulating (adding, deleting, and substituting).
  • Phonics is the ability to associate the sounds of spoken language with the letters of written text. Letter-sound correspondences, decoding, and encoding are skills that students learn and practice as they grow in their phonics abilities.
  • Fluency is the ability to read words at an appropriate speed, accurately, and with expression. These three components of fluency are often known as rate, accuracy, and prosody. Strong fluency requires that students are able to read with automaticity.
  • Vocabulary is the knowledge of the meaning of words and the ability to apply that knowledge to text. Vocabulary is often deeply intertwined with background knowledge. Content vocabulary is specific to a subject area, whereas academic vocabulary is used across multiple subject areas.
  • Reading comprehension is the ability to read, process, and understand the meaning of written text. A common formula for comprehension is: Word Reading + Vocabulary + Background Knowledge = Reading Comprehension. Comprehension is a skill that grows throughout a person’s lifetime.

As an administrator and an instructional leader it is important that you have a working knowledge of these critical elements of reading instruction and use that knowledge to foster your ability to have conversations with teachers about best practices. If you would like a more in-depth and accessible look at the fundamentals of these critical elements as they relate to the Science of Reading, we suggest our Science of Reading Simplified eBook.

Teachers and administrators collaborating together

Connecting the Science of Reading and Your Classrooms

The role of an instructional leader is to ensure all students have access to high-quality, evidence-based literacy instruction in the classroom. Let’s explore some classroom observation “look-fors” and small, high-leverage instructional changes your teachers can make with your support to provide instruction aligned with the Science of Reading in grades K-2.

What You Should Be Observing in a Classroom Aligned to Science of Reading

When you walk into a K-2 classroom, there are certain key elements to look for that indicate whether or not the literacy instruction happening is aligned with the Science of Reading. While the following list is not exhaustive, it offers some key elements to look for in effective Science of Reading-based instruction in the classroom:

  • Evidence of foundational literacy skills instruction, such as print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency.
  • Evidence of systematic instruction. For instruction to be systematic, it must be based on a carefully planned sequence of lessons that build from easy to more difficult tasks and break learning into small, manageable pieces. Here are examples of how phonological awareness and phonics skills should progress in a Science of Reading-based scope and sequence:
    • Phonological awareness skills progress from basic to most advanced, e.g., word awareness, rhyme and alliteration, syllable awareness, onset and rime manipulation, and finally phonemic awareness (includes a subset of specific skills).
    • Phonics skills are similarly sequenced from basic to most advanced. Note that there is not one “best” sequence, however, a sequence similar to the progression below is generally accepted by most experts:
    • High-utility single consonants (continuant)
    • Short vowels
    • Blends and digraphs
    • Vowel consonant e
    • Less common consonants (qu, x)
    • Vowel teams
    • Vowel-r
    • Advanced consonant patterns
    • Multisyllabic words
  • Evidence of explicit instruction. Explicit instruction is direct, breaks learning into smaller parts, provides modeling, scaffolding, and feedback. For example:
    • At the beginning of a lesson, the teacher clearly tells the students the objective of the lesson and/or which skill(s) they will be learning.
    • Gradual release model is being used: I do, we do, you do.
    • Teacher provides immediate corrective feedback if students display difficulty with the skill. It is essential that feedback is not delayed to another time or day.

To help you focus your observation and identify these key elements, we suggest trying our Science of Reading Classroom Observation Checklist.

What You Should NOT Be Observing in a Classroom Aligned to Science of Reading

The instructional practices you should NOT be observing are equally important to the practices you should be observing. The following are examples of teaching practices that are not aligned with the Science of Reading and that you should encourage your teachers to avoid:

  • The Three-Cueing System: This system relies on students being taught to read unknown words using cues based on semantics (word meaning and sentence context), syntax (grammatical structure), and graphophonic (letters and sounds). In a classroom setting, the cues might sound something like the following: Skip the word and come back to it. Look at the picture to work out the word. Try a word that makes sense in this sentence. Look at the first letter. These types of prompts can make students guess, which should be avoided.
  • Rote Memorization of High Frequency Words: In a classroom setting, this might look like high frequency words are being practiced strictly with flashcards with no explicit instruction around temporary or permanently irregular high frequency words such as was or of.
  • Indiscriminate Use of Leveled Readers for Reading Practice: These texts are considered non-controlled, meaning they do not reinforce or focus on a specific phonics skill that has been explicitly taught and could reinforce bad habits such as guessing words. Note that if a teacher is utilizing leveled readers during your observation, pay attention to how they are being used. Leveled readers being used for read-alouds, echo reading, knowledge building or print concept instruction can still be useful for language comprehension.

Banner for downloading letter cards for phonics practice

3 High-Leverage Action Steps: Moving Teachers Toward Evidence-Based Literacy Practices

When working to improve literacy instructional practices, helping teachers identify small, high-leverage action steps can be beneficial. If you are seeing one or more of the “avoid” strategies being utilized in classrooms on your campus, there are ways you can support teachers and help them move toward instructional practices aligned with the Science of Reading. These instructional shifts are a starting point for positively impacting literacy outcomes for your students.

Action Step #1

Instead of teaching reading with the cueing system, teachers can prompt students to decode words using letter sound correspondences and blending. In a classroom setting, it can sound like the following: Look at the word. Point to each letter and make the sound. Stretch your sounds as you read. Sometimes we have to be flexible, try a different sound for that letter. Let’s break that word up into syllables or parts. While this change in teacher prompting can be a high-leverage instructional change, keep in mind it will be most impactful when used as part of a systematic and explicit literacy curriculum.

Action Step #2

Instead of teaching students to strictly memorize high frequency words, teachers can promote orthographic mapping to help students cement letter-sound connections during spelling, pronunciation, and when they are establishing word meanings. In a classroom setting, it can sound like the following: Say the word. Let’s tap out the sounds. Now let’s write the letters that spell those sounds. This instructional strategy is especially effective and important for helping students read and spell irregular words such as was or of. It could sound like the following: Let’s tap out the sounds in the word of. How many sounds do you hear? We hear two sounds /u/ and /v/. In this word, the /u/ sound is spelled with an o and the /v/ sound is spelled with an f. Both of the letters are making unexpected sounds, so we have to learn them by heart.

Action Step #3

Instead of using leveled readers or non-controlled text during reading practice, teachers can utilize decodable readers that focus on specific phonics skills and high-frequency words that have been explicitly taught. The focus of controlled text is more the decodability and less about the subject matter or in-depth comprehension instruction. Students are able to practice decoding words in context and working toward fluency, which is another key instructional piece aligned with the Science of Reading. In decodable readers, pictures can support the story but not necessarily specific words.

These are just three examples of high-leverage instructional shifts you can support with your teachers. Depending on the outcome of your literacy-based classroom observations, you might feel inclined to pursue professional development opportunities or explore new curriculum.

Over 60 percent of states have passed laws or policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. Check your state’s guidelines and remember that high-quality reading instruction starts with evidence-based instructional practices and high-quality curriculum aligned with the Science of Reading.

As an administrator, your staff relies on you for support and guidance so they can then support and guide the students in their classrooms in building essential literacy skills. Making big changes like switching to the Science of Reading can be a challenge, but it doesn't have to be accomplished overnight. Helping educators to make a few high-impact changes, like the ones listed above, can be a great way to get started! Plus, you can always rely on Savvas Learning Company for rich insights, helpful tips, and proven programs to make the transition easier for you and your team.