“The thing that surprised me most about my teacher preparation program was that we never talked about how kids learn. Instead, we were taught how to structure a lesson and given tips on classroom management… I assumed that I would eventually learn how the brain worked because I thought that studying education meant studying how learning happens.” — Dr. Michael Mercanti-Anthony, School Principal

The recent focus on the science of reading has revealed that educators also need to know about the science of learning and how children learn. Unfortunately, teachers are not typically taught about the science of learning in their pre-service education or in-service professional development.

The distinction between the benefits the science of reading affords educators and what the science of learning is waiting to afford educators is critically important to student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

How can these learning principles help students and teachers in the classroom now with automatic word recognition and fluency development in reading?

Are your students having difficulty getting to fluency even when they have had explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics?

Teachers and administrators are left wondering why so many of their students can’t move to automatic word recognition, fluency, and comprehension given their systematic early skills development, based on practices from the science of reading. The development of fluency can benefit directly from the science of learning. Robust principles of learning that are effective in the development of motor, perceptual, language, and complex cognitive skills have been translated into the area of reading. In fact, these principles lead directly to a different structure for practice than is often recommended by the science of reading. These principles of learning, embedded into structured practice, have been shown to facilitate learning that not only “sticks”, but creates the neural circuitry for automatic retrieval. “How” students learn is critically important for retention, generalization and automatic skill development. Integrating the principles of learning into instruction and practice could be transformative for the development of reading proficiency.

It’s Time to Learn How We Learn

The science of learning is just as robust as the science of reading. Both represent bodies of research extending over the past 50-60 years. Specific principles of learning have been identified, studied, and proven to help learners retain, generalize, automatically retrieve, and apply information.

The Science of Reading:

  • Emphasizes the role of explicit, teacher-directed instruction to teach symbol-to-sound relationships and orthographic patterns in foundational learning skills.
  • Recognizes the need for multi-tiered support for many struggling students, especially for dyslexic/neurodiverse learners; second language learners; those who come to school less prepared with language and literacy backgrounds; and those who had poor early reading instruction.

The Science of Learning:

  • Reveals that learners often cannot transfer foundational knowledge, gained through explicit instruction, to automatic and fluent behaviors without structured practice that activates long-term memory and automatic retrieval. Without appropriate practice, fluency is compromised, and consequently, so is reading comprehension — and students’ confidence and desire to read is diminished.
  • Brings a framework for learning complex reading skills. This framework acknowledges the value of explicit instruction to teach elemental knowledge (e.g., letter-sound correspondences and patterns) but also addresses the implicit learning processes that support retention, generalization, and automatic retrieval of information. Both systems are essential for students to develop and execute the complex skills required for automaticity and fluency in reading.

The Science of Reading Fluently: What Comes After Systematic Phonics Instruction?

Transitioning Foundational Skills to Fluency

The broad definition of the science of reading (see the Defining Guide, The Reading League) includes multiple aspects of reading and research across many disciplines. However, the primary focus of the science of reading has been on teacher-directed, explicit instruction of foundational literacy skills. While significant gains have been seen in phonics knowledge, the transfer of that knowledge to reading fluency has been difficult to achieve in many circumstances, as have gains in reading comprehension.

Because readers need to uncover subtle, and not so subtle, statistical patterns in the mappings between letters and sounds, practice conditions of high exposure and variability should boost the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of this knowledge. The Varied Practice Model (VPM) is a learning model that provides structured practice with high exposure to carefully controlled contrasts in variable tasks and contexts. This practice leads to better retention, more flexible recall, and automatic retrieval. The VPM emphasizes interleaving content, varying the tasks, assessing with immediate feedback, and incorporating “desirable difficulties” throughout learning. This practice approach has found support in a wide range of training settings, from motor skill learning to concept learning, suggesting that these fundamental learning principles generalize across domains.

WordFlight’s online curriculum consists of 24 structured units organized around the Varied Practice Model so that students encounter the content from multiple perspectives. The
teacher-facilitated instruction provides a wealth of resources, including poems/passages, curriculum packets, and daily lesson plans to reinforce the development of automatic word recognition skills, improve reading fluency, and deepen and extend learning to new contexts that include vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.