The Science of Reading
Literacy is a powerful tool for individuals and society
Teaching students to read unlocks their potential for success in school and in life. Children who enjoy reading have better mental wellbeing than their peers who don’t (National Literacy Trust, 2018). Academically, children who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade struggle in every class, and will continue to fall behind, because over 85 percent of the curriculum is taught through reading (The Children’s Reading Foundation, 2023). And, students who read for pleasure have higher average grades than those who don’t read outside the classroom (Whitten, Labb, Sullivan, 2016).
Each year, millions of US students with limited literacy skills continue to leave high school, either as graduates or dropouts, with limited literacy skills, leaving them unprepared for academic or workplace success in the 21st century economy.
As adults, those individuals are likely to find it more challenging to pursue their goals—whether these involve job advancement, purchasing decisions, being an active citizen, or other aspects of their lives (NCES, 2002). For example, people who have higher levels of literacy are more likely to be employed, work more weeks in a year, and earn higher wages than individuals demonstrating lower proficiencies (NCES, 2002). This means that people with more literacy skills can expect their incomes to increase at least two to three times what they were earning at the beginning of their careers (Lal, 2015).
Literate people also live healthier lives (Lal, 2015). In fact, one study found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humor (Rizzolo et al., 2009). Literate people are also more likely to participate in civic activities, and are more likely to vote (NCES, 2002).
What we know about how people learn to read
The Reading League developed a Defining Guide to provide a common understanding of evidence-based assessments and instructional practices. Most importantly, advances in the science of reading from many fields help educators identify how to effectively assess, teach, and improve students’ reading skills.
What happens in the brain when reading
Over the past two decades, research from multiple fields, including neuroscience, communications sciences, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and other sciences have focused on the area of reading development. For example, researchers have identified the areas and networks of the brain that process print, speech sounds, language, and meaning:
- The temporal lobe is responsible for phonological awareness and for decoding and discriminating sounds;
- Broca’s area in the frontal lobe governs speech production and language comprehension; and the angular and supramarginal gyrus link different parts of the brain so that letter shapes can be put together to form words (Edwards, 2016).
The interactions in the brain demonstrate the complexity of acquiring the knowledge, skills, and experiences to become a skilled reader.
The components of skilled reading
Dr. Hollis Scarborough, a leading reading researcher, studied the relationship between early language development and literacy. She created the Reading Rope as a visual metaphor to demonstrate the interaction of the skills needed to become a proficient reader (2001). Scarborough divided the rope into two main strands:
- Language Comprehension: developing and integrating background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge.
- Word Recognition: developing phonological awareness, decoding, and word recognition; which lead to automaticity, accuracy, and fluency when these foundational skills are frequently practiced.
In the science of reading, decoding means translating the written word into spoken sounds by applying knowledge of letter-sound relationships. For example, if students have challenges with decoding, they may have labored oral reading in which “sounding out” the words is their primary strategy. Decoding is part of Scarborough’s Word Recognition strand.
Research finds that decoding abilities are very predictive of reading comprehension, with decoding accounting for substantially more involvement in comprehension than even spoken language comprehension (Shankweiler et al., 1999). In fact, a randomized control study of students aged 7 to 10 showed that an intervention focusing on decoding skills boosted reading comprehension scores (McCandliss et al., 2003; see Foorman et al., 1998 for similar results).
Many struggling readers, especially those in middle school, receive interventions that focus predominantly on comprehension. Decoding is rarely directly measured, much less targeted for intervention (Apfelbaum, Brown, & Zimmermann, n.d.).
Focusing on automatic word recognition
Fluent readers go beyond decoding skills to automatically and effortlessly recognize words (Oslund et al., 2018). They can process large quantities of text quickly, with little conscious processing of letter-to-sound mappings. This mental process is known as automatic word recognition and is also part of the Word Recognition strand.
When word recognition skills become automatic, readers can focus on comprehending, or understanding the meaning of the text. That’s when stories come to life. That’s when students can process ever more complex text. And, that’s when students learn to love reading and begin to thrive in school.
Declarative learning is often highly effective for recognizing simple patterns, where explicit relationships are taught. However, more complex patterns are better learned through non-declarative approaches (Ashby & Maddox, 2005). Research findings suggest that the development of automatic word recognition requires both these learning approaches:
- Explicit instruction about how letters link to the sounds of language.
- Practice opportunities to integrate this information into the cognitive processing system to support automaticity and fluency (Apfelbaum, Brown, & Zimmermann, n.d.).