What is the Science of Reading and Why Does It Matter?

Regardless of the educators with whom you teach or the school in which you are employed, you likely heard the term science of reading (SoR). If you have listened to the newly released podcast, Sold the Story, one might think SoR is synonymous with the three cueing system, it is not. Generally speaking, SoR is any literacy instructional practice that is based on quantitative empirical evidence of accelerating student learning, particularly those students who struggle and perform below grade level expectations. SoR is much more than the three cueing system and teaching phonics. As Duke, Ward, & Pearson have pointed out, it includes comprehension (The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction, The Reading Teacher, 2021). 

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One could argue SoR has been around since Jeanne Chall, a Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer, and literacy researcher for over 50 years who believed in the importance of direct, systematic instruction. According to Timothy Shanahan (What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction?, Reading Research Quarterly, 2020), SoR can be traced back even further to more than 200 years. Certainly, SoR was reinvigorated with the National Reading Panel (1997) report which identified evidence supporting the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension (Shanahan was a member of the panel). Presently, academic articles and professional books continue to be published on the topic (e.g. Shifting the Balance). (For resources on evidence-based literacy strategies, check out my resource page.)

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Some recommend schools’ leadership teams to become familiar with the research by asking the following questions when determining if the initiative they are exploring has strong scientific results. 

  1. What was the research question of the study? Were the authors trying to solve the same problem we are?
  2. What were the results of the study? Were they reported in effect sizes? If not, how were they reported? Did the treatment benefit the sample studied? In your opinion, were the benefits substantial? Why?
  3. Compare and contrast the sample studied with your own student population. Has this treatment benefited other students in previous studies?
  4. Is this treatment practical for your faculty? Do you have access to trainers/external experts? Do you have sufficient time in your PD schedule to learn this treatment?

There are reliable sources that have done the legwork to distinguish best-practices in literacy instruction; many have been studied multiple times and peer-reviewed. Here are just three:

Why it matters

As mentioned in a previous blog (Perfect Match: Literacy Strategies and Social-Emotional Learning), there is a national crisis; students are not increasing reading proficiency, gaps are widening and overall scores are on the decline. Adhering to evidence-based SoR with social-emotional learning strategies will accelerate students’ achievement and simultaneously build student’s competence in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

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