Where does the Science of Reading go from here?

Where does the Science of Reading go from here?

By Tami Reis-Frankfort 

Tami Reis-Frankfort began teaching in a public school in London, UK and later worked as a support teacher of English Language Learners. She trained in Specific Learning Difficulties (Dyslexia) and for the first time discovered Structured Literacy. This was followed by training in Phono-Graphix and Sounds-Write, both Linguistic Phonics Programs. Tami began to tutor at a Dyslexia Center and there she found she did not have suitable decodable reading materials for her students. In 2004, together with two colleagues, Wendy Tweedie and Clair Baker, she founded Phonics Books Ltd, a specialist publisher of decodable books and resources.


Where does the Science of Reading go from here?

In a recent webinar, Professor Mark Seidenberg discusses the gaps between the research of the Science of Reading and reading instruction in the classroom. 

He begins by celebrating the impact of the Science of Reading movement and how it has made a huge shift towards research-led reading instruction. It has managed to do what many reading specialists have failed to achieve in the past. “It opened the door to change,” he says, “but it is still a work in progress.” Recent legislation across the USA is a positive step but it only stipulates that reading instruction must be science-led—not how to apply this in the classroom.

One of the fundamental aspects in a research-led approach is the flexibility to adapt our teaching as new understanding develops (unlike previous dogmas that were not based on science). The quote from Maya Angelou “We know better—we do better.” is helpful. We now need to look at the application of the Science of Reading in the classroom and how we can improve our practice.

Professor Seidenberg explains that some practices are not based on the science. In order to provide effective reading instruction, we need to align our teaching to the science.

What we understand from the Science of Reading:

  1. Learning to read is not like learning a first spoken language. It needs to be taught explicitly.
  2. As students already know about language when they come to school, there is an emphasis to teach students about print.
  3. Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill
  4. Reading skills are built by components, phonemes, graphemes, phonics, syllables, morphemes, etc.
  5. You can’t harm students by teaching them the foundational skills. Students who don’t need them won’t be harmed.

But is this completely true? Not quite, claims Seidenberg.

  1. There is a great deal of implicit learning: language, reading, spelling, and morphology that students pick up without explicit teaching.
  2. Print is important, but language development has a huge impact on the progress of reading.
  3. Phonemic awareness develops while learning to read. The teaching of phonemic awareness “in the dark” without letters is not based on research. Research shows that phonemic awareness activities which involve pairing sounds with their corresponding letters are more effective for reading. This is because they directly teach students the fundamentals of reading. 
  4. Learning doesn’t happen by components. Students learn other components as they crop up and it is not effective to wait until each component is taught. Too much time is allocated to components, so students don’t get time to put them together and read. E.g., first students must learn their phonemes—next the graphemes, then phonics. This is inefficient teaching, suggests Seidenberg.
  5. Time is short so over-teaching is not a good use of time. Some practices can be plodding with low expectations, e.g., teaching phonemic awareness in 3rd grade. Are we teaching all students as though they might be dyslexic? Is there a fast track for students who can take off with their reading?

Where next? Here is what Seidenberg recommends:

  1. The goal of reading instruction is reading. There is no fixed requirement to learn a certain amount before students can read. The requirement is that students get reading.
  2. Language development is key for reading. Should we start reading instruction earlier than Pre-K (as done in the UK)? Spoken language needs to be sufficiently developed before learning to read. Students need more opportunities to talk and hear.
  3. The goal is to crack the code—not teach the code. We need to teach just enough for the reader to crack the code. It is not necessary to teach all the phonics or all the spelling rules.
  4. Explicit instruction is there to scaffold implicit and statistical learning that students learn implicitly. We don’t need to teach it all. Explicit instruction is slow and inefficient.
  5. What teachers need to know is not the same as what students need to know. There is a whole lot of information that is important for the teacher to understand that students do not need to know about—morphology, syllable types, etc.
  6. Instruction must be equitable, including English language learners and students with different dialects.
  7. Take a developmental approach. What is relevant to teach changes over time?
  8. Components are related—not independent. For example—teach phonics using words.  Learn about the words at the same time or include learning about the world as we learn to read. It is important to teach new words when we learn about new concepts.


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