What science tells us about reading

Reading is a complex process that enables us to translate symbols on a page into words, sentences and paragraphs that hold meaning. This is not a natural process that occurs in human development such as speech, but a skill that needs to be taught. While about 40% of children may figure out how to read with partial or no reading instruction, 60% are at risk of failing to become fluent readers if reading instruction is not systematic and explicit. It is estimated that if systematic phonics instruction was implemented in all classrooms, the percentage of struggling readers would drop to 5%.

How we read

Contemporary reading science supports two theoretical frameworks for understanding how we read:

1. The ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tumner 1986) concluded that reading comprehension is a combination of two mutually dependent and important processes: being able to decode words and being able to understand words. A deficit in either process would impede the development of a good reader (resulting in a reader with good decoding skills and poor comprehension; or a reader with good language comprehension but poor decoding skills). Conclusion: Both processes need to be taught explicitly and in tandem.

2. The ‘Dual Route’ theory, developed in 2001, shows that as we read, we recognize words that are already stored in our long-term memory but when we encounter new words, we revert to the sounding out (phonological) strategy.  As children develop their reading, they access more and more words automatically. This aligns with cognitive load theory, which proposes that there is a limit to how much information the working memory can hold at any one time. Good readers who have automatic recognition of words stored in long term memory can attend to comprehension, whilst poor readers who struggle with decoding and comprehension might experience cognitive overload. The process of transferring knowledge from short term memory to long term memory is one of repeated practice and rehearsal. Whether automatic word recognition is a process of retrieving whole words from long term memory or, a lightening-speed process of mapping sounds/letters, is unclear at present.

Components of learning to read

Within the two larger processes of decoding and comprehension, students need to develop specific skills to become fluent readers. These are: phonemic awareness, phonics (letter/sound recognition), reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. All these elements need to be present in a good systematic phonics program.

Systematic phonics instruction

There are different approaches to teaching reading and teaching phonics. With many students failing to learn to read in English speaking countries, three different governments set up inquiries to establish which method was most effective to teach reading: National Reading Panel (2000, USA); National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy (2005, Australia); Rose Report (2006, UK). All three concluded that the most effective way to teach reading was with explicit, systematic phonics.

English is a rich and wonderful language that has a complex written code (the alphabetic or phonic code). This is a result of historic ‘borrowing’ of words from other languages that have kept the spelling conventions of those languages. Teaching reading with systematic phonics ensures that all students learn this written code in a systematic way starting from simple and advancing to complex. Students also learn the underlying reading skills that will help them become good decoders and encoders (spellers) of the English alphabetic code. This, of course, needs to take place alongside a language-rich and knowledge-based curriculum that will enable students to comprehend texts of increasing complexity.

Reading skills taught with explicit systematic phonics


Students learning to read with explicit systematic phonics are encouraged to sound out letter/s in words and push the sounds together into words. This is called ‘blending’. Each letter is sounded out separately and blended from left to right, throughout the word. This is the most reliable strategy to read a new word.


Students learn that spelling is the reverse activity of blending. When spelling, they learn to isolate each sound in the word and represent it with a spelling. This is called ‘segmenting’.

Phoneme Manipulation

Students learn to identify and isolate phonemes in words and to manipulate them by deleting, adding or swapping sounds in the words. This skill helps the reader to self-correct when making errors in reading.


The English Alphabetic Code

The English language is difficult to learn to read and spell because it has a complex alphabetic code. While it may take students only months learning to read with a simple code such as Spanish, it will take most students learning to read English two to three years.

An Understanding of the English Alphabetic Code:

1. There are approximately 44 sounds (phonemes) in the English Alphabetic Code (this depends on pronunciation of the speaker). These sounds are represented by 26 letters of the alphabet in various combinations.

2. Sounds (phonemes) can be spelled by one to four letters:
– one letter, e.g. the letter <b> in the word ‘b a t’
– two letters, e.g the letters <sh> in the word ‘sh i p’
– three letters, e.g. the letters <igh> in the word ‘n igh t’
– four letters, e.g. the letters <ough> in the word ‘th ough

3. Sounds can be represented by more than one spelling (grapheme), e.g. the sound /ae/ can be spelled: ai as in ‘rain’; ay as in ‘play’, a as in ‘acorn’; ea as in ‘great’ etc.

4. Spellings can represent more than one sound, e.g. the letters <ea> can spell the sounds; /ae/ as in ‘great’; /ee/ as in ‘meat’ and /e/ as in ‘head’

The role of decodable books in learning to read

Once students have been taught letter/sound correspondences they can practice this new knowledge within controlled decodable texts. This means that students can sound out words that they can’t yet read. Decodable books help to establish good, reliable blending strategies.

Kathleen Rastle, Ann Castles and Kate Nation concluded in End the Reading Wars, 2018:

“Decodable books are texts written for children that consist primarily of words that they can read correctly using the grapheme-phoneme correspondences that they have learned (with the exception of a few unavoidable irregular words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’). These kinds of books provide children with an opportunity to practice what they have been taught explicitly in the classroom and to allow them to experience success in reading independently very early in reading instruction, albeit with a rather restricted word set. These books also allow teachers to effectively structure and sequence children’s exposure to grapheme-phoneme correspondences in text. Evidence suggests that phonics teaching is more effective when children are given immediate opportunities to apply what they have learned to their reading (Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994); so, for these reasons, we believe that there is a good argument for using decodable readers in the very early stages of reading instruction.”