Science of Reading:
In our daily lives, we rely on the results of scientific research to help us make decisions about what to eat and drink, how to exercise, and how to maintain good health. The best data is gleaned from rigorous experiments that test a practice or a product to determine its efficacy—the ability to produce a desired effect each time it is implemented or used. For example, we see the results of scientific study every day, as COVID-19 tests, treatment strategies, and vaccines are developed and adapted in real time. The results of scientific studies on the coronavirus, and on our efforts to combat it, inform the health community and the public. Over time, research studies will show what practices and therapies are most effective for long-term prevention and eradication of the disease. This scenario is similar to the implementation of reading instruction in our schools: best practices that are proven to work will improve student outcomes.
What is the Science of Reading?
Science of Reading (SOR) is a body of research based on the reading performance of school-aged American children, from various socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and geographic regions, that has been developed—and can be used—to create best practices for reading instruction. Study results can demonstrate which specific instructional practices result in learning and student improvement. This is not new; reading programs and instructional strategies have been studied for almost 200 years in English-speaking countries (Shanahan, 2020), and those that have been proven to work have withstood the test of time. These studies and their results support a rigorous approach to using proven instructional practices, which lies at the heart of the science of reading. Successful programs are shown to be efficacious through “replicable and generalizable” research studies. Programs such as these should then be the standard for assessing new and developing literacy programs (Petscher, et al., 2020).
Evidence-Based, Not Research-Based
In the last few years, popular media has featured poor reading test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and many educators have attributed this failure to ineffective (or missing) phonics instruction in early elementary grades. Some have gone so far as to claim that phonics instruction alone is the science of reading (Hanford, 2018; Goldstein, 2020), but that view reflects a limited and inaccurate understanding of this concept. As state education departments and school districts wrestle with the requirements for the science of reading, they find that definitions and explanations vary. A concise definition from North Carolina Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 illustrates the comprehensiveness and complexity of the reading process and the requirements for the instruction to all students.
“Science of Reading” means evidence-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students. (Senate Bill DRS15180-BN-3)
Note that the definition does not say “research-based.” We all know that there is an abundance of research about reading instruction, but research and its stepsister, theory, are not enough to prove that a method of instruction actually works. Most reading curricula are research-based; few are evidence-based.
Good evidence-based research utilizes a “pre-test—teach—post-test” protocol to determine if students have learned a skill or skillset (such as making inferences or decoding two-syllable words). The before-and-after assessments show how well the protocol worked (against a control group) and how well it improves students’ reading abilities. “If a research study has been well-designed and implemented and there is statistical evidence for improved student outcomes, it provides evidence of effectiveness” (Section 8101(21)(A) of the ESEA).
There is no doubt that this quest for a “silver bullet” in reading instruction is a storied one. The call for evidence-based instruction is not new. The information that follows describes some of the events that have moved the science of reading to our collective attention and explains why science of reading is, and has been, the gold-standard for reading curriculum and instruction.
How Did We Get Here?
In 1986, Gough and Turner developed a theory about reading comprehension based on their research and observation. They proposed that reading is the result of how well a student can decode words and understand the meaning of the words. This “simple view of reading” has been a touchpoint for reading research since then (Pearson, Palincsar, Biancarosa, & Berman, 2020). Although the theory has been accepted and tested for more than thirty years, researchers have determined that this view of reading, while accurate, is too simplistic because reading involves much more than these two systems (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018; Pearson, Palincsar, Biancarosa, & Berman, 2020).
Building on the “simple view of reading,” the “Reading Rope” theory (Scarborough, 2001) expands the view of reading acquisition by parsing the decoding (word recognition) and linguistic (language) comprehension systems. However, this theory is also not broad enough to explain the integrated and complex process of reading, which entails more than two general components.
The Reading Rope. (Scarborough, 2001)
National Momentum Since 2000 Set the Stage for Science of Reading
In the late 1990s, the National Reading Panel (NRP) was created by the U.S. Congress to evaluate existing research and evidence on reading instruction. The results of the panel’s meta-analysis, published as the National Reading Panel Report (2000), proposed that five components are essential for skilled reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. This conclusion was based on the review of hundreds of scientific studies. In addition, the NRP Report came with a recommendation to education leaders: teachers require advanced professional training in order to teach the five components effectively to all students. Currently, thirty-two states require elementary teacher training programs to include the five components recommended by the NRP (NCTQ, 2021).
With the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), accountability in the form of state assessment drove the need for improvements in instruction and teacher training. Alas, state standards and state assessment systems often focused on disparate content, and the new-found focus to align standards and assessment did little to improve results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
By the end of 2010, widespread support from U.S. governors and state education leaders led to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Those standards mandate a set of consistent student standards in English Language Arts (ELA), but they do not mandate a specific curriculum, nor a consistent method of instruction. The CCSS for ELA (and Appendices) align with recommendations of the NRP Report and with theories of the simple view of reading and the Reading Rope. Multi-state assessments such as PARCC and SBAC were then created to evaluate student performance based on the CCSS. Although many states have moved away from CCSS and CCSS-based assessments in recent years, the need to improve teacher training and to use evidence-based reading instruction has grown nationally, as districts struggle to demonstrate student proficiency in reading.
And the Research Continues
More recently, the National Academy of Education published the results of a ten-year research program (The Reading for Understanding Initiative, 2020) that included the implementation of two studies using original reading curriculum (using evidence-based content and instruction) and aligned assessments. The endeavor consisted of multi-year studies of teacher training and student performance. It examined the efficacy of instruction in previously identified systems and components of reading curriculum, and the conclusion of the research expanded the understanding of the reading process, claiming it also includes reader background knowledge as well as other types of knowledge, motivation, and engagement. The results of The Reading for Understanding Initiative will take years to analyze and initiate change, but, so far, the report has found there are specific curricular and instructional protocols that are efficacious and can be implemented immediately to improve teacher expertise.
The Movement to Implement Science of Reading and
Improve District-Wide Achievement
Reading research conducted in recent years has taken on a heightened level of importance. Budgetary and time constraints placed on schools have put pressure on administrators and supervisors looking to improve curriculum and teacher training. Limited resources make it prohibitive to adopt materials or practices that do not help students become proficient readers by grade four.
Science of Reading is fueled by the need to improve district-wide achievement despite limited resources. Currently, there is a strong movement—guided and funded by national and state policy (Gerwertz, 2020)—to improve accountability for student performance. The integrated measures listed here demonstrate such efforts:
- Comprehensively train teachers to use evidence-based instructional practices to teach reading; provide districts with funding and state-level support to improve and maintain teacher quality (CCSSO, 2021; Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015).
- Use formal evaluations to select the highest-quality materials to teach reading to all students.
- Assess students with instruments that align to the curriculum, and use the results to inform instruction (formative assessment); re-assess students to show improvement or progress and to help create actionable plans for intervention or for advancing students (North Carolina Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021).
- Develop reading intervention plans for students who are struggling: identify instructional needs and document student progress (Mississippi Comprehensive Literacy Plan, 2017).
- Establish accredited and licensed educator preparation programs that align with state literacy goals (Texas House Bill 3, 2019 requires teacher candidates to take a science of teaching reading exam).
Such actions as these demonstrate states’ commitment to teacher development, student achievement, and equity. With professional learning, teachers are better equipped to adopt and implement evidence-based practices which are intended to help teachers address the needs of struggling—as well as on-level—readers. This expanded knowledge base of the teacher, coupled with high-quality curricula and assessments, will prevent many reading difficulties and will put students on a path to skilled reading.