If you’re an educator or administrator who needs to implement the Science of Reading (SOR) in your school or district, maybe you’re not sure where or how to get started. What’s the best place to begin? We’re here to help. It’s an important question and one we’re often asked. We’ll start by letting you know SOR isn’t a one-time quick fix or a product you can purchase, because it isn’t a method, program, curriculum, or philosophy of teaching. It’s an expansive set of scientific research on how humans learn to read, conducted over decades, covering thousands of studies across many disciplines and languages. So how can educators take advantage of the powerful insights gained from this research? By taking small steps and making simple changes.
Build Phonemic Awareness.
As little as 6 minutes a day spent on phonemic awareness activities is enough to make a big difference, according to the research. Insufficient phonemic awareness commonly leads to reading difficulties, so be sure not to skip this essential step! Make sure your teachers are utilizing a strong phonics curriculum. Pro tip: instruction should always follow a clear scope and sequence, with each skill building upon the last. Even if your options are limited, simply counting the sounds in words, identifying the first and last sounds in words, clapping on syllables, or playing phonemic awareness games like Simon Says, I Spy, or rhyming games are all effective ways to get kids listening for different speech sounds.
Don’t ask students to guess or figure out words in context; instead, ask students to process sounds from left to right for every letter of each word. When you’re asking students to sound things out, make sure they’re already familiar with any irregular words in the text that may not follow the usual phonetic patterns they know. Many schools still use the Balanced Literacy approach, which asks students to figure out new words by reading ahead in the text or by using pictures, also called cueing or three-cueing, but SOR shows this is an ineffective, potentially damaging strategy used by struggling readers. “The three-cueing system is the way poor readers read,” says David Kilpatrick, SUNY professor of psychology and author of a book on reading difficulties, adding that the cueing method can actually prevent children from becoming skilled readers. If you simply replace cueing with a strong phonics curriculum, you’re already on the right track.
Use Decodable Texts.
Predictable texts can reinforce bad habits and lead to reading failure, so try to avoid them. Instead, build a strong phonics foundation with decodable books, packed with words and sounds students have learned and can decode. Explicit instruction in foundational skills and new vocabulary, with guided and independent practice, should be followed by decodable texts, which allow students to apply their new phonics skills. Acting as a bridge from decoding to fluency and comprehension, decodable readers also build confidence.
Systematically Instruct Explicitly.
Structured Literacy, instruction aligned with SOR, employs a systematic and explicit phonics approach. What’s one basic thing you can always be doing to implement SOR? Maintain a set scope and sequence within a strong phonics curriculum. Students do best when given consistent cumulative reviews of the phonograms they’ve previously mastered.
Based on SOR, the 2000 National Reading Panel Report requires students to receive explicit instruction in the essential components of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Strengthen Background Knowledge.
Structured Literacy identifies the background knowledge that a student brings to a text as an important component of overall reading comprehension. While you’re teaching new vocabulary words, support reading comprehension by connecting those new words with pertinent concepts. Reading aloud and having conversations is a meaningful way to fortify vocabulary with background knowledge (sometimes called topical knowledge or domain-specific knowledge).
The more students know about any subject, idea, or topic, the better they’ll be able to read about it, understand what they’re reading, and ultimately retain any new information they glean from the text as a result. Tip: Small nuggets of relevant background knowledge can be enough to start building on, like talking about places on a map, reading a picture book, or discussing a poem.
Educate Yourself About SOR.
Whether you already know a little or a lot, learn more. Educate yourself about the Science of Reading as much as you can. Do the homework. Immerse yourself in an open-minded exploration and in-depth study of SOR. Look for consistent evidence based on research across the disciplines of developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and reading education. Try not to feel overwhelmed by the volume of information. Remind yourself that helping students learn to read is a powerful gift. Share what you learn with fellow educators.
Invest in Teachers.
Support any new implementation with substantial professional development. Any program will perform better when confident, knowledgeable teachers deploy it. To get the best results for each and every one of your students, give your teachers whatever resources they need to implement SOR in their classrooms. For teachers who’ve been trained to use the Balanced Literacy approach, recognize that the transition is difficult, and help them stay open-minded to SOR. If you’re already doing professional development, talk to your teachers about anything additional they need or any areas where their support can be improved.
Support Auditory Processing.
Q: What’s the fastest thing the brain does? A: Processing speech sounds!
For students who struggle with auditory processing, phonics can be especially challenging. If students can’t decipher small sound changes by the time educators start teaching phonics, their auditory processing hasn’t been fully developed (they may have suffered ear infections, have a disorder, or be a non-native speaker) and they’ll need help succeeding with phonics. Provide technology that supports auditory processing to help a wide range of struggling students better learn to read. Make sure teachers are educated about the vital importance of auditory processing and about enabling students to learn information in a multisensory way.
Develop Working Memory.
More complex than simple memorization, which files memories in the primitive hippocampus, working memory (a specialized kind of short-term memory) enables the brain to retain information related to a specific activity or task, so the info can be quickly accessed and worked with. A higher-order skill, working memory accesses the pre-frontal cortex, a more recently developed part of the brain used for executive functions. Students with developmental language problems can often display underdeveloped phonological working memory. Take steps to provide tools and programs educators can utilize to intentionally develop students’ working memory. For example, using tactile and kinesthetic instructional strategies strengthens working memory by building motor pathways in students’ brains, ultimately helping to improve their language skills.
Bonus Tips: Go Beyond Basic SOR
Want to go beyond the basics? The Science of Reading encompasses additional critical reading components and cognitive skills like auditory processing and working memory.
These are just a few of the initial steps you can take to bring the Science of Reading to your school or district, helping more students become successful readers.