Now is the time to expand the narrative for early reading

The value of systematically and explicitly teaching phonics is well-documented as an effective way to help students develop foundational reading skills—skills that are essential to becoming a proficient and successful reader. Emily Hanford’s educational reporting and recent podcasts (Sold A Story) have made the scientific findings about early reading instruction more accessible, relevant, and compelling.

Most of the discussion on the “science of reading” has focused on: (1) the foundational reading skills that children must learn and (2) how ineffective teaching methods are leaving so many children and teachers behind. Most educators believe that all children can learn to read if they have access to an education that enables this. Clearly, learning foundational skills through explicit and systematic instruction is an important starting point for early readers. However, some students will continue to struggle even with this important beginning.

Now, a group of educators, researchers and scholars are expanding the discussion of reading science and pedagogy. These kinds of discussions can rapidly advance the science of reading as well as meeting the needs of practitioners on the front lines. This invitation is clearly stated in the “Defining Guide” for the “Science of Reading” from The Reading League that encourages the inclusion of other bodies of research into our consideration of the science of reading.

This is a timely opportunity to include other factors in the learning journey to reap the full investment in helping students develop phonics knowledge and skills.

What is missing?

Effective readers go beyond simple decoding skills to automatically and effortlessly recognize words, which enables fluency, and ultimately increases reading comprehension. This important transition, from phonics to fluency, doesn’t happen for many children. They are left behind because they either have gaps in decoding skills or they cannot automatically apply their decoding knowledge to new content and contexts.

These students may have learned the “rules” but have not learned to use the letter-sound relationships in a way that results in automatic word recognition. Without automatic word recognition, these children cannot reach fluency. To reach all children requires that educators better understand how children learn and how to make learning stick.

Importantly, decades of work from learning science can inform reading research and help students and teachers break through this roadblock. The book, Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel (2014) uses storytelling to bridge the gap between findings from the science of learning and its application to education.

Leverage the science of learning to make reading stick

Explicit instruction is not enough for all children to become fluent readers. For many students, more structured practice is needed to ensure that their knowledge of phonics can be retrieved and automatically used—essential elements of fluency.

Learning science provides over fifty years of robust research on the learning principles that promote acquisition of complex skills. These principles, essential for development of fluent behaviors, have been applied across cognitive, perceptual, motor, verbal and reading disciplines. They ensure learners acquire and use foundational knowledge to become fluent in many complex skills such as language development, sports, music, reading, and even flying an airplane.

Expanding the “science of reading”

Many educators assume that automaticity in reading is a developmental outcome of the acquisition of basic skills. However, research from learning science suggests another view. Multiple studies show that the development of automaticity and fluency requires a learning framework that incorporates both explicit and procedural learning (learning by doing).

  • Initially, learners need to learn basic knowledge. Beginning readers must understand the alphabetic principle and how letters link to the sounds of the language. Explicit and systematic instruction is effective.
  • Readers need structured practice that allows them to derive the regularities and irregularities of the system. This “procedural learning” is critical to retrieval and development of automaticity.

A new picture of practice

Research on motor, perceptual and cognitive learning suggests that explicit and procedural learning paradigms require different forms of instruction and practice (Wulf & Shea, 2002; Brown, et al, 2012; and Ashby and Maddox, 2011). Neuroscience and neuroimaging research also support the existence and impact of these contrasting systems (Ashby and Maddox, 2011).

To reach all children, we should integrate findings from learning science into reading pedagogy to address the fluency barrier that impacts so many students. Teacher-led, systematic, explicit instruction is an important beginning step. However, it should be paired very early with appropriate learner-driven systematic, structured practice that enables the transition from phonics to fluency. It is the “learning-by-doing” or procedural learning that supports automaticity and fluency. This practice is based on the principles of learning.

Next Steps

It is worth repeating that procedural learning accounts for much of what children learn about perceiving and using letter-sound relationships.Few would argue with the view that “better outcomes are achieved when phonics instruction is accompanied by rich and varied opportunities to practice and receive feedback on applying their newly acquired word analysis skills…”However, the nature of practice that supports such learning is not often articulated or rationalized.

Just as beginning readers need systematic and explicit phonics instruction, many students also require systematic structured practice to “make learning stick” and prepare them for increasingly complex texts on their way to fluency and comprehension. Students learn to derive and internalize the regularities and irregularities of the grapho-phonemic and orthographic systems resulting in flexible and automatic word recognition.

Leveraging well-established learning principles in structured practice will maximize the impact of explicit instruction by ensuring that students achieve automaticity and fluency.

Providing structured practice opportunities (learner-driven) as well as explicit instruction (teacher-driven) are needed to ensure all children develop and use foundational knowledge and skills.

Activating these learning processes to enhance phonics instruction and prepare students for fluency should be the next step in literacy development. What we’re doing now is not working for many children, and now is the time to expand our thinking and our practice.