Demystifying the Science of Reading


Do you ever feel confused or overwhelmed by the Science of Reading? If so, it’s not just you! Even for people who know a lot about the Science of Reading (SOR), discussing and implementing it in the real world can feel challenging. This vast collection of thousands of scientific studies is so complex, far-reaching, and multi-faceted, it can seem inscrutable or intimidating. There’s a good reason it can feel that way: these studies are a treasure trove of massive proportions, conducted in many languages, over many decades, seeking to address a vast range of reading-related questions, problems, topics, and hypotheses through evidence-based results. Professionals can spend their lives studying SOR and its myriad takeaways and still struggle with aspects of it! So, if you know what SOR is, but you’re feeling a bit daunted by it, you’re not alone. We’d like to help by demystifying a few aspects of the Science of Reading – and we’ll even debunk a few popular SOR myths.

How does the brain learn to read?

We’re always learning more about how the brain works, including language skills, but from what scientists have been able to observe, reading takes a tremendous level of effort and instantaneous collaboration within the brain. There’s no single part of the brain devoted to reading; rather, many different parts of the brain must learn to work together if reading is to take place. On the left side of the brain, one part (the occipital lobe) works to recognize images that look like letters, while a separate part (the frontal lobe) recognizes speech sounds. That work – the training of coordinating those two parts of the left side of the brain – is accomplished when students learn to connect graphemes with phonemes, letters with sounds. You may know this as “sounding out” words.

In fact, this brain functioning is among the main reasons why three-cueing (using context or imagery to guess words) is an ineffective method used with struggling or weak readers. Asking students to employ cueing as a tool in reading actually requires them to also use parts of the right side of their brain while those two on the left are busy working hard to harmonize. Why add a range of unnecessary difficulties to a task that’s already taxing for any student’s brain? Keeping things left-brained by using a phonics-based curriculum also helps build a more permanent vocabulary, so readers more readily recognize words instantly and spend less energy on decoding. These practices lead directly to better reading, according to decades of research known as SOR.

What’s the Simple View of Reading?

It’s a concept proposed in 1986 by psychologists Philip Gough and William Tunmer that demonstrates how reading comprehension results from decoding. This scientific theory posits that using phonics to decode (“sound out”) written words is required in combination with language comprehension for a reader to derive meaning from a text. Students must understand what words mean before they can understand what they’re reading.

As a concept, the Simple View of Reading was in fact Gough and Tunmer’s response to Ken Goodman (whose work minimized the importance of decoding to reading acquisition, instead promoting guessing or “cueing” as the way to skilled reading). Over the decades since then, rather than working as a useful shortcut, Ken Goodman’s cueing or three-cueing system has been repeatedly shown as an ineffective (and potentially damaging) technique used by poor readers, so Gough and Tunmer were certainly on the right track when they worked to improve upon the approaches available to reading instructors.

Their Simple View of Reading improved the field’s understanding of how decoding and language skills are equally required for literacy, but it was still an oversimplification of an incredibly complex process. Scarborough’s Reading Rope helped illuminate that complexity and support educators in helping students become strong readers.

What is Scarborough’s Reading Rope?

This popular model was developed by Dr. Hollis Scarborough as a tool for explaining the complexity of reading acquisition. A senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, she started using it in workshops, publishing it in 2001.

Composed of lower and upper strands to represent the two areas of learning: word recognition (decoding, sight recognition, and phonological awareness) and language comprehension (vocabulary, background knowledge, verbal reasoning, language structures, and other skills). Interconnected, these strands reinforce each other, their components working concurrently to result in skilled reading. This visual illustration, depicting reading acquisition as a process made of crucial elements woven together, has helped educators with everything from assessment to determining best practices for reading instruction on the pathway to building stronger, more proficient readers.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope also points to the development of the components in Structured Literacy (the instructional approach that aligns to SOR): phonology, phonics, semantics, orthography, morphology, and syntax.

What do the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope have in common?
  • Both focus on the domains of word recognition and language comprehension as necessary for and fundamental to the ability to read.
  • Scarborough’s Reading Rope is essentially an infographic tool that describes, expands upon, and explains in pieces (rope strands) the concepts behind the Simple View of Reading theory.
  • Both originated from and are based upon evidence from the Science of Reading, demonstrating the way human brains learn to read or acquire literacy.
Is SOR just about phonics?

Phonics forms part of the SOR foundation, but part of the reason you may hear about phonics more is because it’s more concrete and perhaps easier to talk about and assess than comprehension. The fact is that phonics and comprehension must both be present, working together, for reading to be successful. A student needs to know not only how words sound but also what they mean in order to decode and comprehend text. Practicing phonics and phonemic awareness helps learners effectively map words into their brain’s lexicon (orthographic mapping). Being able to connect sounds with letters, being able to disassemble a word into its individual sounds, is essential. Because it’s so important to reading acquisition, and perhaps also because it’s often neglected in other approaches to reading instruction, phonics is heavily emphasized in SOR. But SOR isn’t only about phonics; it’s also about vocabulary, background knowledge, the structure of language, and other things related to reasoning and comprehension and brain functions. However, phonics basically underpins them all and reading comprehension starts with phonics.

Is vocabulary instruction part of the Science of Reading?

Vocabulary skills are essential to SOR and to all forms of literacy and language acquisition. Educators should actively integrate vocabulary (teaching students the meanings of words) into every possible aspect of literacy instruction. Scientists keep learning more about the many ways vocabulary instruction helps students become skilled readers. When students see a word, recognize it, and think of its meaning (because they’ve been taught the word’s meaning in a vocabulary lesson) their brains more readily map that word to their permanent lexicon where it’s stored in memory that the student accesses while reading in the future. That’s the definition of vocabulary success!

Which came first: phoneme awareness or reading acquisition?

This question may sound like a classic chicken-or-the-egg debate, but overwhelming evidence shows that phoneme awareness is a prerequisite for literacy. In an alphabetic writing system like the one you’re reading now, decoding skills follow phoneme awareness. Early phoneme awareness consistently predicts future reading success, and students without phoneme awareness are by definition unskilled or poor readers. Research repeatedly shows that children taught phoneme awareness develop decoding skills better, sooner, and faster than students not taught phoneme awareness. Tips to educators: 1) start as early as possible and 2) make phoneme awareness instruction feel natural and fun with poetry, music, and games.

If students are struggling with decoding skills, it’s likely they have difficulties with processing speech sounds; they may have a disorder or some other factor affecting their phonological processing skills. For students, an insufficient connection between phonemes and written letters results in reading problems. But because phonological processing skills can improve, children can be taught to develop an awareness of phonemes in speech. Educators must help students develop these critical knowledge domains. Good instruction can overcome most challenging factors and prevent countless others. Education is the answer to reading acquisition, and it starts with phoneme awareness.

3 SOR Myths Debunked

Let’s debunk a few persistent myths as part of our demystification of SOR! We cite the existing myth and then talk about what the evidence truly demonstrates. It’s understandable to have believed one or all of these myths at some point, so if you have, you’re like everyone else: we don’t know until we know better! And as Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, do better.”

Myth: Kids naturally learn to read and SOR is just a new fad in education.

It’s interesting that this myth persists, because no matter how you look at it, reading is one of the more challenging, difficult functions performed by human brains on any given day. Learning to read is a phenomenal achievement for many reasons, and the Science of Reading (which is not a new fad but has in fact been developed and studied for a long time) helps us understand the process and become better educators. Speech acquisition (learning to understand and use or even create spoken language) does come naturally to humans, so many people assume the same holds true for reading acquisition. But reading is a staggeringly complex skill that, it turns out, is very hard to acquire. Learning to read successfully requires artful instruction by skilled educators who understand how literacy is developed.

“A hallmark of skillful readers is the speed and relative effortlessness with which they typically progress through the words of written text. Laboratory research indicates that, in doing so, they visually process virtually each and every letter of the text… Theory and research affirm that both the speed and effortlessness of these activities are integral to the capacity to read with skillful comprehension. Skillful readers’ speed of fluency enables them to think about whole phrases or sentences at once. The effortlessness of the word recognition process allows skillful readers to focus their active attention on the process of comprehension… Indeed, many of the symptoms that have variously been ascribed to neurological dysfunction or perceptual deficits are now being traced to insufficient familiarity with the visual forms of individual letters and the ordered, letter-by-letter composition of common English spelling patterns.”

~ Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams, Reading Assessment Steering Committee, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Myth: SOR is boring and robotic.

Some educators avoid the Science of Reading because they’re concerned students will lose their love for reading. The problem with this persistent myth is that it prevents so many teachers from getting started on a path to helping students become better readers, who will love reading so much more than if they were struggling to read. SOR is just a body of research on the best ways to learn to read. The love of reading comes from engaging instruction and engaged students. The art of teaching is required. First build a strong skill base, then support readers as they experience success and fall in love with reading.

Structured Literacy is simply an approach to teaching oral and written language. Structured Literacy requires teacher-led instruction, and involves explicit, systematic literacy education, including all the important components of literacy from phonics to reading comprehension. SOR helps enable the Structured Literacy approach and empower educators to teach phonic decoding, phonemic awareness, and other crucial skills for comprehension. The teacher’s responsibility then also includes being present with students and making the process enjoyable, motivating, and successful.

Myth: SOR is a quick fix.

It’s a hard truth, but there is no quick fix. SOR actually does the opposite: points educators and students toward a challenging, interesting journey with many twists and turns. Like learning anything life-changing, or like life itself, the process is its own reward, unique to each individual, and the results are worth the work. Learning to read is difficult for students, testing them on many fronts, and can take a long time, so it also tests their patience. Success may come quickly or may be elusive and some of them will need more help than others. The teacher’s abilities and actions play an integral role in determining each student’s reading success. Effective instruction can improve reading skills in any and every student. Improper instruction achieves the opposite. The vital importance of strong support for teachers in the form of professional development and any other resources students need to succeed as readers cannot be overstated. The solution to any literacy problem and the answer for all struggling readers is in fact a very slow fix: the ongoing active cultivation of knowledgeable educators who understand the Science of Reading and who are skilled in teaching people to read.

Want to help more students become strong readers with the Science of Reading?

Use a Structured Literacy program like S.P.I.R.E.

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