What is the Science of Reading?

Part 1 of the Science of Reading Simplified Series

In this first installment of our seven-part blog series, the Science of Reading Simplified, we make the key terms and research associated with the Science of Reading more accessible and show how it can help educators lead students to reading proficiency.

Savvas Insights Team

Science of Reading Simplified

Science of Reading Simplified: Introduction


More and more states are enacting legislation requiring elementary school teachers to use classroom techniques grounded in the Science of Reading — the large body of research on how children learn to read. However, more than half of the 722 educators who participated in a recent nationwide Savvas poll said they had not been trained in the Science of Reading nor were they expecting to be in the near future, as required by many new state laws.

The Science of Reading SimplifiedWhile there’s no substitute for comprehensive professional development to train teachers on how to implement the Science of Reading in the classroom, Savvas Insights, in collaboration with literacy expert and Savvas author Sharon Vaughn, is here to help break down the fundamentals. Through a series of blogs, we’re going to simplify the Science of Reading to give educators a better understanding of this scientifically based practice that has revolutionized how children are taught to read — based on what we know about how they learn to read.

“The Science of Reading is a guide that informs our decision making,” Sharon said. “We don’t teach the Science of Reading. We teach children. And we use the Science of Reading as a resource to guide our decisions.”

In each of the articles in this series, we’ll clearly define common terms and explain the research. We’ll take a deep dive into the critical elements of reading, make suggestions on what administrators should look for in Science of Reading-based resources, provide teaching strategies to use in the classroom, and make suggestions for parents and guardians on how they can support their child’s reading at home.

“Explicit instruction is the secret sauce of achieving success in teaching reading.”

“Learning more about the Science of Reading is a great opportunity for us to understand what we know about our profession,” said Sharon, a former classroom teacher who has worked with educators from around the world in her research. “What the Science of Reading does is tell us that we know about how to implement explicit practices around the components of reading, and how to make it more difficult or easy based on the range of needs in our classroom. The more responsively we can teach, the more likely we are to support that range of learners.”

The Science of Reading Explained

Research gathered over the past 40 years has provided valuable insights into how children learn to read. This evidence-based body of knowledge is referred to as the Science of Reading. The results of this research indicate that students need systematic, explicit instruction in the following critical elements of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. And that when students are directly taught these foundational skills while they are learning to read, they will have a better chance at becoming successful readers.

“Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about the critical elements that develop reading, sustain it, enhance it, and allow literacy to be accessible to all learners, not just those students who acquire it without a lot of instruction,” said Sharon, who believes that when teachers understand the science and the research, they will be better equipped to teach a wider range of student needs — leading more students down the path to proficiency.

elementary age girl student learning in classroom

The research shows that students are more successful readers when they are taught to understand the relationship between the sounds of spoken language, and the letters, groups of letters, or syllables of written language. This way, they can decode, or sound out, a word when they get stuck, rather than guessing by using context or visual cues from pictures or illustrations. Many educators agree that, in order for young learners to be successful readers, teachers must leverage those foundational elements in early reading instruction.

The Importance of Systematic, Explicit Instruction Paired with Practice

Science of Reading research has established that when foundational skills are delivered in a systematic and explicit manner, the result is greater reading proficiency. But in some traditional early reading instruction, teachers will use vague instruction by, for example, teaching a short phonics lesson during a read-aloud by stopping on a word in the story, but then promptly moving on. In explicit instruction, the teacher uses direct and focused routines to break down broader ideas into smaller, more manageable units (such as the sound that a letter makes in a word) that students can use to build a solid foundation for more complex ideas.

teacher teaching word sounds to a class of elementary age students

“Explicit instruction is the secret sauce of achieving success in teaching reading,” said Sharon.

However, she noted that while it’s important for teachers to stay diligent in the explicitness of their instruction, they also need to find ways to transition the work they’re doing over to the students so that the learners are doing most of the work through practice. If teachers are doing all the work during reading, including the practice, this denies the student the opportunity to do that heavy lifting, which is necessary for becoming a better reader.

“Practice is the critical feature of getting better at anything, and certainly getting better at reading,” she said.

What Should Not Be Present in Early Reading Instruction

When planning your early reading instruction, it’s just as important to know what not to do. Letting students practice guessing words when learning to read doesn’t give students the long-term tools they need to read successfully.

“We don’t teach the Science of Reading. We teach children. We use the Science of Reading as a resource to guide our decisions.”

For example, if a student is reading a word like dad in a sentence, the student could say the word father, based on a picture. While the words may have the same meaning, the student is not learning to read the correct word.

“The reason guessing does not contribute to students reading words is that they are not using the tools of the alphabetic principle to show them how to recover,” Sharon explained, referring to the concept that letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of spoken language.

Students can get confused if they are guessing words most of the time, and they risk becoming weaker readers. In order to become a strong reader, you want to take out the guessing and bring in the knowledge of the ways in which the sounds of our language map to print.

An Accordion of Needs

A first-grade teacher has the challenge of coming into a classroom where some students are reading above grade level. Some may not know all their letters. Some may know some but not all of their high-frequency, or sight, words. And some may even come from a home where English is not the primary language spoken. This teacher must now provide instruction that’s challenging enough to meet the needs of the advanced student or basic enough to meet the needs of the student who needs more support.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Sharon. “This accordion of needs starts widening so that the lens you need as a teacher requires variation in instructional practices, variation in the level of words, and also an understanding of how these foundational skills of phonemic awareness and phonics need to be made a little more difficult and a little easier based on the needs of these learners.”

teacher teaching phonics to a class of elementary age students

By understanding the Science of Reading, educators now have another tool in their toolbox to be able to teach a wide range of needs — more knowledge leads to more informed decisions. Understanding the Science of Reading means that educators understand more about the science behind their practice, which can empower them and enhance their craft.

“If we think about the Science of Reading as a way to sharpen our tools and enrich what we know, I think it can be very exciting,” Sharon said.


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About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.