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The Reading Wars And The Science Of Reading

Brittany Cufaude

Brittany Cufaude

The Reading Wars And The Science Of Reading

What you need to know and how it impacts readers, classrooms, and leadership.

Here we go again, right?  Reading research has been at the forefront of educational “battles” for close to 100 years.  So what is different now?

Why does the battle wage on?

In 2019 Reading data highlighted that two out of three children did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).  This coupled with new reading research has many states looking at new legislation that will address this concern.  Likely this will lead to state funding specifically for teacher professional learning around how to teach reading and resources to support student reading achievement. 

Some background for the different reading “camps”:

Throughout the years there have been many different philosophies about reading instruction.  Big picture, they fall into three different camps: 

  1. Whole Word (Whole Language)
    1. Whole Group–Three Cueing Systems–Use cues while they are reading: Does it sound right, look right, and make sense in context?
    2. Small-Group Text–Leveled Text with repeated words, predictable sentence structure, lots of pictures
      1. Teacher Prompting ex: “What would come after the word animal? Reference picture of a bird”
  2. Explicit, Systematic Phonics Instruction at the  Phoneme Level
    1. Whole Group-Direct instruction around the letter patterns and words.  Taught “the code”
    2. Small-Group Text–Decodables with HFW; sounds students know and are a repetition of certain sounds students are working on
    3. Teacher Prompting ex: “Sound out this word using syllables or understand the rule of a_e etc…”
  3. And a nuanced or hybrid version:
    1. Explicit Systematic Phonics Instruction with word chunks (Word Family)-Same as above, but focused on explicitly teaching word chunks in addition to phonemes.

What the “Science of Reading” Uncovers:

A bevy of new research shows that reading is not a natural process and reading instruction and learning cannot be a guessing game.  The science shows language is a code with combinations of letters predictably representing certain sounds (phonemes).  When we teach explicit, systematic phonics and word study, we are teaching students how to CRACK the code.  This is a reliable way to make sure they are learning how to read (decode) printed words. 

If you are a TK-5 teacher or a 6-12 teacher who works with students who struggle with reading, these are some terms you must know:

  1. Phoneme: the smallest unit of sound (English is 42-46 depending on the linguist you reference.)
  2. Grapheme: a letter or written representation of a phoneme
  3. Grapheme-Phoneme-Correspondence (GPC): the goal of phonics instruction! To explicitly teach the relationship between what we can hear in our oral language and what we can read in printed text.
  4. Morpheme: the smallest unit of meaning in a word
  5. Decode: to use accurate GPCs (also called sound-spelling correspondences), to read printed text
  6. Automaticity: to decode rapidly and automatically enough that the brain can attend to other cognitive functions while reading text
  7. Fluency and Prosody: to read text smoothly according to the text’s tone, mood, punctuation, etc.

“Science of Reading” Key Components:

  1. Phonological Awareness – Four Levels:
    1. Word
    2. Syllable
    3. Onset-rhyme
    4. Phoneme
      1. Phonemic Awareness: The ability to detect, identify, and manipulate phonemes in spoken words (sounds letters name and how to segment them and blend them together)
  2. Teach the VC and CVC pattern-Phonics
  3. Once mastered, the brain links this “sequence” to the pattern or word–this is called orthographic mapping.
  4. Teach Sight and High-Frequency Words
  5. Practice putting it all together- AutomaticityFluency, and Prosody 

Decoding AND Reading Comprehension

One thing everyone CAN agree on is that the main goal of reading is to understand or comprehend a text.  In 1986 some widely accepted research was done that states what we need: “The Simple View of Reading”.  It highlights a formula that breaks down the two basic components:

Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC)=Reading Comprehension (RC)

We have to teach students to decode as soon as possible, AND we have to provide students with strong content knowledge in many domains in order for them to develop adequate language comprehension abilities.  We need to do BOTH.

There are five essential components of reading:   

  • Phonological Awareness
    • Phonemic Awareness 
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Thus, our reading instruction must be more than Decoding!  A quote that drives home this importance:  “Decoding instruction should be explicit, systematic, and intensive . . . Learning explicit skills out of context such as with a word list is important, but children should have many opportunities to apply their skills in context,” (while reading and writing  (Spear-Swerling, 2011).  And, just as critically, when young readers make it into the upper-grades, middle school, and high school, we must continue to support them in building decoding automaticity if we expect them to participate meaningfully in academic tasks. 

Can we wave the reading white flag and let the battle end already!?

It is critical to make sure that the reading war pendulum stops swinging to and fro.  Being locked in this debate has had profoundly negative impacts on young readers.  For folks who have argued on either side exclusively, we may have failed our readers.  The science is clear that very few readers will learn to read in the exact same way.  Thus, our classrooms should have elements of great reading instruction, including copious amounts of rich oral language and great interactive read-alouds.  I have listed a few additional, great next steps below. 

So what does this mean for me in my class tomorrow?

No matter which curriculum you are using, it is important to understand the key components needed to grow strong, fluent readers and meaning makers in your classroom. Please do not forget that language is learned through the ears (listening) and speaking.  So, if we teach students to decode without also simultaneously saturating their minds with rich text and complex syntax, the code will fail them even once they become automatic in decoding.  On the other hand, if we do not have an explicit and systematic phonics and word-study program in place, we can guarantee we will produce many readers who struggle and we will certainly fail students with significant reading difficulties such as dyslexia.  

Phonics and word-study instruction should provide students the opportunity to decode and spell words, sort words, recognize misspellings, and gain fluency using predictable patterns in our phonetically-based alphabet. A dear friend of mine and literacy guru, Lauren Greenberg and CORE (Consortium on Reading Excellence in Education) consultant often says, “If we teach struggling adolescent readers open- and closed-syllables, silent e (VC-e), and schwa they would be good to go!” For example, 75% of all syllables in the English language are open or closed.  Understanding that can unlock huge power for our struggling readers as they encounter multisyllabic words!  

Vocabulary instruction is certainly also a crucial component of meaning-making and should be taught in context to support the language comprehension needed to build into the larger reading comprehension.  However, many of our former “spelling” programs were, in fact, vocabulary lists.  If your spelling word lists do not include predictable phonetic patterns or explicitly taught rule breakers, please make sure your learners know it is a vocabulary list.  We will work on explicit vocabulary instruction soon! 

Some possible next steps:

  1. Take a look at your Phonics and Word-Study Instruction:
  • Daily, systematic phonics or word-study instruction (15-20 minutes direct instruction, and more “connected” throughout the day).
    • Who is doing the work in your phonics lessons?  At least 50% of this time is used for students to practice “application” of the phonics pattern using multi-sensory approaches and plenty of manipulatives.
  • Review your scope and sequence (from curriculum or resources) to determine if they:
    • Follow a continuum of skill complexity. 
    • Be mindful of prerequisite skills as well as overdoing it!
    • Include review and repetition cycles that lead to eventual skill mastery and transfer (transfer is very unlikely reflected in a worksheet).
    • If you are a K-2 teacher, I highly recommend Wiley Blevins’ book, A Fresh Look at Phonics.
    • Remember, the Common Core Reading Foundations Standards continue through 5th grade, so explicit word-study programs are part of Tier 1 instruction throughout elementary.
  • Review your curriculum and/or daily instruction routine to make sure they have the following key characteristics:
    • (Phonics) Blending: Direct instruction and blending line practice
    • (Word-Study): Flexible syllable reading and multi-syllabic word analysis
    • Dictation: You say aloud word, students practice writing word with pattern
    • Word Awareness: Also known as word sorts; a place where students can identify common spelling pattern and notice larger chunks of words
    • Sight and High-Frequency Words
    • Reading and Writing practice of phonics and word-study:
      • Reading decodable text/connected text
      • Dictation of phonics pattern
      • Follow-up writing using sentence frames, etc…

2. Read Louisa Moat’s article, “The Missing Foundation in Teacher Education: Knowledge of the Structure of Spoken and Written Language.” 


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