A white paper by Laura Stewart, author and national director for The Reading League
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Delivering on the promise of education starts with the mastery of the most fundamental foundational skill—the ability to read. Not only is reading critical to the success of further education, but it also is an expected accomplishment in order to thrive in contemporary society. Of equal importance, leading a literate life can bring immense joy and beauty to a human being’s life.
Yet many children today are not learning to read. Currently in the United States, only about one-third of our fourth graders are reading at grade level with accuracy, fluency, and understanding (NCES, 2019). This number is unchanged in eighth and twelfth grades and has been relatively flat over time. In international comparisons, 15-year-olds in the United States rank 24th out of the 72 participating countries in overall literacy, lowest among English-speaking countries (OECD, 2015).
These figures are alarming, especially in an era when the literacy skills required to function in the world have never been more important. The promise of literacy for all seems out of reach for many of our youngest citizens.
“The attainment of reading skill has fascinated psychologists and invited more study than any other aspect of human cognition due to its social importance and complexity.”
—Moats and Tolman, 2009, p. 31
It doesn’t have to be this way. While many factors contribute to low reading achievement, nearly everyone can learn to read with evidence-based instruction.
Why? Because reading is a learned skill—like riding a bike or playing a musical instrument. There are accepted principles of instruction to guide teaching so that students become successful in this most important endeavor. We know a great deal about learning to read.
The past 40 years has yielded tremendous, interdisciplinary insights into the process of learning to read, gathered from developmental psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, developmental linguistics, and educational intervention research. Indeed, this is the most studied aspect of human learning. Dozens of journals publish empirical research on reading. Major research syntheses from English-speaking countries have been consistent in the findings on learning to read and teaching reading (NICHD 2000; Rowe & National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005; Rose, 2006; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). Because of its volume, nature, and consistency, current research around reading embodies what is considered the science of reading.
If the evidence is overwhelming and compelling, why are so many children failing to learn to read? Despite a preponderance of evidence about what constitutes good reading instruction, these false theories persist:
First words, first steps, and learning to read are milestone moments. Of these milestones, most children naturally learn to speak and walk as part of the human experience. But when it comes to reading, “human beings were never born to read” (Wolf, 2018). While some children seem to effortlessly begin reading, the majority of people need to be taught. Reading and writing are recent inventions in the grand scope of humanity. Although spoken language is “hard wired” inside the human brain and the brain is fully adapted for language processing, the written code has not been around long enough for humans to have developed a “reading brain” (Wolf, 2007; Dehaene, 2009). Rather, the neural circuitry that is necessary to read is created primarily through instruction.
“Within his brain, the child is literally building the neural circuitry that links the sounds of spoken words, the phonemes, to the print code, the letters that represent those sounds.”
—Shaywitz, 2003, p. 177
The past three decades have produced exciting evidence about what happens in the brain during reading and what needs to take place instructionally in order to wire the brain to be able to read. Through the advancement of fMRI technology, researchers have compared the neural systems of fluent readers to the neural systems of struggling readers. These studies reveal what needs to happen to build efficient neural connections for reading.
Three primary regions of the brain are associated with reading (Sandak, Mencl, Frost, & Pugh, 2004; Houde, Rossi, Lubin, & Joliot, 2010). The phonological processor, toward the front of the brain on the left side, is the part of the brain that handles spoken language. Virtually everyone is born with this language area intact; children learn to speak and to understand speech just by being immersed in language. The orthographic processor, toward the back of the brain on the left side, is the part of the brain that deals with visual images. Most everyone also has the visual part of the brain intact; children easily recognize images, such as objects and faces. But no one is born with the neural system connecting vision and speech, the phonological assembly region of the brain, and this is the system that enables reading. This system must be built through successful instructional experiences (American Psychological Association, 2014; Hruby & Goswami, 2011; Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2004; Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2008). Clearly, then, one of the first “calls to action” with a beginning reader is to develop the connection between phonology and orthography (print and sound)—the essential alphabetic principle.
Brain imaging studies have taken place throughout the United States, and the images are consistent again and again; therefore, what has to take place instructionally is consistent as well. As cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene states, “It simply is not true that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read. … When it comes to reading, all [children] have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence” (2009).
“…the potential of neuroscience to help expand our understanding of reading processes, their development, and their occasional dysfunction is profound.”
—Hruby & Goswami, 2011, p. 170
Knowing the regions of the reading brain is helpful in understanding neural activity during the act of reading. It’s also helpful to explore the theoretical underpinnings of the science of reading. Researchers have developed the following frameworks to describe how children learn to read:The Simple View of Reading
When thinking about the essential skills and capabilities necessary to “build the reading brain,” Gough and Tunmer’s model known as the Simple View of Reading is helpful in framing the essential equation. The premise is that strong reading comprehension results only when both decoding (defined here as word recognition) and language comprehension (sometimes referred to as listening comprehension or linguistic comprehension) are strong. In other words, children need to learn essential skills to get the text off the page while also developing their understanding of the world and of literacy. It is important to note that the formula for the Simple View is deliberately multiplicative, not additive. Although reading is inherently complex, this model is helpful in that the essential subskills of reading can be assigned to the domains on the left side of the equation.
Hollis Scarborough’s “rope model” provides a vivid and elegant visual metaphor of the word recognition and language comprehension subskills that combine as skilled reading is accomplished. The subskills are like strands in a rope that become more intertwined and integrated as reading skills develop.
Both the Simple View and the Rope Model are helpful in understanding what essential elements need to be taught and developed as children learn to read. A key question emerges: What should be emphasized instructionally? To determine the answer, one must consider brain-energy allocation. For readers to be able to navigate through text and utilize language comprehension strategies, a level of automaticity in word recognition needs to be secured. Therefore the goal is to develop that strong and stable neural system early on, through instruction, to allow for instant retrieval of words; or in other words, to access words from memory by sight. “Sight word reading” is not limited to high-frequency or non-decodable words; this simply refers to the automatic retrieval of words without conscious attention. When words are recognized instantaneously, readers can focus their attention on constructing the meaning of text.Phases of Word-Reading Development
The central focus of this model is that to be able to recognize words “by sight” during fluent reading, a reader must master phoneme-grapheme mapping, or the alphabetic principle. This understanding progresses in phases, each supported by specific instruction. The phases are not stages, as they are part of a predictable developmental continuum.
"Word recognition is the foundation of reading; all other processes are dependent on it."
—Snowling & Hulme, 2011
Orthographic mapping is the name given to the process of effortless retrieval of words inherent in skilled reading and described by the Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Rope, and the Phases of Word-Reading Development.
The orthographic mapping process essentially explains how a reader develops a sight vocabulary; readers move from letter-sound knowledge to phonic decoding to orthographic mapping. This is not a visual process; we don’t store and retrieve words visually. Every step in word-reading development requires deep, secure phonologic integration. Orthographic mapping is a natural outcome of effective reading instruction, and, once in place, readers rapidly accelerate their acquisition of sight words.
“Orthographic mapping is the process readers use to store written words for immediate, effortless retrieval. It is a means by which readers turn unfamiliar written words into familiar, instantaneously accessible sight words.”
—Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 81
Considering the significant evidence on how humans develop as readers, many researchers have sought to answer the question “What needs to be taught?” The National Reading Panel (NRP) was convened to review scientific studies of effective reading instruction and answer this question. In the Report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000), the panel identified the five components of reading that are essential and effective when taught thoroughly and skillfully:
Although they were not reported by the NRP, written expression (or composition) and oral language (speaking and listening) are also considered essential components for literacy. Since the report of the NRP, none of its findings have been refuted and the evidence has been corroborated and expanded upon.
It is important to recognize that instructional emphasis differs depending on the child’s development. Although all these elements are essential, in the prealphabetic phase, alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and oral language are emphasized. In the partial alphabetic and full alphabetic phases, phonological awareness, phonics, word recognition, and spelling should be emphasized in order to secure the neural connections and free up brain energy for deeper comprehension. Vocabulary and comprehension are taught in all phases, beginning with reading aloud to children until they can accurately read substantive text by themselves. Reading with fluency, expanding vocabulary, and deciphering ever-more-complex words through advanced phonemic awareness and phonics are emphasized in the consolidated alphabetic phase and beyond, throughout the elementary years.
“How do children learn to read?…The answer is the same for all children. Cultural, economic, and educational circumstances obviously affect children’s progress, but what they need to learn does not change.”
—Seidenberg, 2017, p. 101
Because reading is not a natural process, as educators consider the importance of developing the essential neural system for reading through instruction focused on the skills and subskills involved in effective reading, these key evidence-based principles of instruction are essential:
We have a long way to go to improve literacy outcomes for all children, but the time is rife with potential. We can stop doing what doesn’t work, and we can dismiss outdated practices based on misconceptions about the process of reading. Instead we can be guided by the evidence.
But we can’t teach what we don’t know. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 37 percent of elementary and special education programs appear to be teaching scientifically based reading methods to preservice teachers. And yet research has proven that it is a knowledgeable teacher who makes the difference in student achievement: “Teacher knowledge and instructional expertise have been found in correlational and pre- and post-test students to be related to student reading achievement” (Lyon & Weiser, 2009, p. 475). Supporting teachers in preservice and in-service professional development around the science of reading is critical.
We know a great deal about how the brain develops as we learn to read. We know what instructional practices are effective for all children. And we are secure in the knowledge that “A large body of research evidence shows that with appropriate, intensive instruction, all but the most severe reading disabilities can be ameliorated in the early grades and students can get on track toward academic success” (Moats, 2011).
Right now many of our nation’s children are not proficient readers. We can change that and deliver on the promise of literacy for all.
Laura Stewart is the national director for The Reading League. Laura has been in education for more than 25 years, working as a classroom teacher, building and district administrator, adjunct professor, director of numerous professional development initiatives, and as chief academic officer for professional development for the Highlights Education Group. She presents throughout the United States and internationally and is the author of 12 children’s books, numerous teacher’s guides, journal articles, and dozens of training workshops. Laura is co-author of the book The Everything Guide to Informational Literature, K–2: Best Texts, Best Practices (Corwin Press, 2014).
The Reading League is a nonprofit organization with the mission of advancing the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-based reading instruction. By leveraging the existing research in ways that inspire educators to refine their literacy instruction, The Reading League bridges the gap between research and classroom practice. This results in improved literacy outcomes for students. Learn more, follow, and join The Reading League at thereadingleague.org.