The Science of Reading is a dynamically-evolving field of study, encompassing a wide range of research with the focus on understanding how humans learn to read and write. Exploring the cognitive, psychological, and linguistic processes involved in reading and writing, researchers are developing more effective approaches to teaching and learning these skills. This body of scientifically-based research, conducted over the last five decades across the world, is derived from studies in multiple languages and within inter-disciplinary fields, such as linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and educational research. As a science-based approach not limited to native-language speakers, the evidence informs how proficient reading and writing skills develop and can be applied in second-language programs, such as ESL courses.
One of the main findings of this body of research is that learning to read is not a single, unified process, but rather a complex and dynamic set of skills and strategies that include phonological awareness, decoding, comprehension, and fluency. When these skills and applied teaching strategies are understood, researchers are better able to evaluate and improve teaching methods and curricular materials. Instead of a “one size fits all” method, the science can be highly individualized, where different readers and writers may have discrete needs and preferences, lending itself to varied approaches to learning.
Because reading is a complex process with many different components and stages, for young children, the learning process is long and gradual, requiring patience and the right support from parents and teachers. Long before a child’s first primary steps toward learning to read, the influence of reading aloud to very young children cannot be underestimated. Exploring text and images, pointing to words and pictures as they are read, begins the process of understanding language through text. For the young mind, phonemic awareness is the first step that leads toward an understanding of the association with the text, the concept of word, and comprehension.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize the individual sounds that make up words. Through picture books, games, and activities such as rhyming, sound matching, and songs, a child develops an awareness of text to sound and conceptual associations working in tandem toward a cohesive comprehension. In the case of teaching young language learners, the physical milieu is no less important. When reading to children, having them physically close allows students to hear and feel the resonance of the teacher’s voice with sounds they would otherwise not be exposed to or have the opportunity to imitate. Encouraging students to imitate these new sounds is necessary to expand their vocal repertoire in the new language. In the earliest stages of language acquisition, if children cannot hear and sense how the sounds are produced, they won’t be able to phonemically individuate, replicate, and associate the sounds to text.
The letter/sound connection is the first step in understanding how text is coded and how the teacher or parent translates text as spoken sounds associated with letters that make up words. Activities using magnetic letters, letter tracing, and primary ABC writing practice are strategies to lead young students toward phonemic awareness. In ESL courses, educators have the dual charge of teaching phonetic associations as well as the vocabulary associated with those sounds, e.g., CAT, DOG, and RUN. It is vitally important that teachers plan early by introducing a phonetically-associated vocabulary base that will eventually become the foundation for future spelling practice.
For the second-language learner, the leap from ABCs and phonetic associations to reading short CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words must be taught with deliberate and varied practice. Instructors may have students whose native-language orthographies define the concept of word very differently, e.g, syllabaries and hieroglyphics. In English, segmenting and blending are important skills that can be taught with worksheets and task cards. Once students are comfortable with sounding out letters to form words and understand their meaning, it’s time to begin putting the words into a context in sentences.
When you begin putting words in context and ask students to derive meaning, it is inevitable that you will encounter sight words. Sometimes called ‘popcorn’ words, they are commonly used words that children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, such as the, is, and of. For example, teaching “A cat on a mat.” necessitates introducing children to sight words that give context and meaning. Because of the frequency of sight words in the English language, once introduced, they become an integral part of the next steps in reading fluency.
As you move from the ABCs through emergent reader activities, you’ll want to have reading goals in place. As a teacher, it is important to be able to recognize when a student has a command of the sounds of the alphabet, achieves the concept of word, is displaying rudimentary reading ability, and finally, capable of decoding and deriving meaning from connected text. These concepts must be developed in this order and practiced to achieve reading fluency. The habits that you build into the children’s learning activities will help them to acquire new words more quickly, build on their knowledge base to infer meaning, and progress more confidently in their studies.
The last step is to help the child develop fluency. This is the ability to read words quickly and accurately while maintaining a collective and concurring comprehension. Children can practice fluency through their own reading time, reading aloud, choral reading, and reading to a partner. Nurturing fluency must be just as deliberate as early CVC word practice. Silent e, digraphs, diphthongs, and categories of words that change with grammar, like pronouns and verbs, must be explicitly taught. The cumulative effect is a fluency that pushes students toward increasingly complex texts and greater academic achievement.
If you are interested in a more detailed discussion on teaching children to read, check out Teaching Sight Words in the ESL Classroom and Teaching CVC Words – How, When, and What. Looking for classroom materials aligned to the science of reading? See the full lineup of phonics-based learning materials from Kinney Brothers Publishing.
In the video below, Prof. Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist, discusses how the brain learns to read at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). The main body of his presentation occurs in the first 18 minutes of the video with a discussion towards the end. I recommend jumping 2:55 where he begins discussing how the brain processes reading as a function.
In summary, and to quote The Reading League website, “this research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.” I highly recommend downloading their free ebook to learn more about the science of reading.