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Science of Reading

Edwords (ěd · words) n. 1. PreK-12 glossary breaking through buzzwords to solve the challenge of a common definition. 2. Renaissance® resource to help educators take part in discussion, debate, and meaningful discourse. 3. Educators’ jargon buster.

What is the Science of Reading?

The Reading League (2021) provides the following definition:

“The Science of Reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.

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.”

Why is the Science of Reading so important?

For decades, research has been conducted in multiple languages, which has resulted in thousands of studies to support the science behind reading.

Through these studies, the evidence is clear that the Science of Reading is the most effective method of:

  • Informing educators of how proficient reading and writing can be developed
  • Assessing and teaching reading
  • Improving student outcomes through scientifically-backed prevention and intervention of reading and writing issues

The Science of Reading explained: What does the research say?

According to Whitman and Goldberg (2008), reading is probably the hardest thing that we teach students to do.

For confirmation, ask any teacher working in the primary grades. Nothing prepares humans to naturally absorb language through vision (Dehaene, 2009). Yet we seek to support young learners in the ability to do just that—to look at a symbol (whether a letter or a word) and associate its sound and meaning.

The phrase “the Science of Reading” has flourished in the past few years, driven substantially by the work of education journalist Emily Hanford with American Public Media. Her reporting on early-grade reading began in 2018 with a blog and podcast asking, “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?”

One month later, she followed this with another blog and podcast for parents, advising “What to do if your child’s school isn’t teaching reading right.” Hanford was very much alarmed by the apparent disconnect between what research so clearly documents should be done around reading instruction—particularly in early-grade classrooms—and the approaches she observed in practice or pre-service teacher training.

For an overview of Hanford’s reporting on the Science of Reading, check out her keynote address at EdPalooza 2020.

Why instruction must be explicit and systematic

Almost any discussion of the Science of Reading will include the words “explicit” and “systematic” in reference to phonics instruction. These terms refer to how letter/sound associations must be taught—in a clear, logical sequence.

An excellent research summary on phonics instruction is provided by Britain’s Education Endowment Foundation, which notes the research base for phonics as having “very extensive evidence,” its highest rating.

What are the 10 components of the Science of Reading?

There is universal agreement on the need for phonics instruction as well as other “foundational reading skills” (e.g., print concepts, phonemic awareness, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) that begin the process in the earliest grades and lay a solid foundation for continued growth.

In addition, several states also include oral language, with some also noting the role of background knowledge (see, e.g., SCORE 2020).

  1. Foundational reading skills: Typically referred to collectively as decoding, these foundational skills help early learners to understand how sounds, letters, and words work in language.
  2. Knowledge-based competencies: Rooted in language comprehension, background knowledge prepares students to derive meaning from text. These skills can be developed over a lifetime.

#1 Print concepts

Print concepts refer to the ability to read left to right and top to bottom on a page—as well as knowing how to hold a book, knowing the front of the book from the back, and knowing which way to turn the pages.

#2: Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is the awareness of words, syllables, and sounds.

In kindergarten, for example, a student should be able to clap twice to demonstrate the number of syllables in the word “brother” (bro-ther), and three times for the word “grandmother” (grand-mo-ther).

#3: Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness refers to the identification of individual sounds and the ability to manipulate these sounds. In kindergarten, for example, a student should be able to identify the three sounds in the word “hat”: h/a/t.

#4: Phonics

Phonics refers to linking sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes) in order to read and spell words.

#5: Spelling

Spelling is using knowledge of sounds and letters to correctly write words.

#6: Fluency

Fluency is reading text at an appropriate pace, with accuracy and with proper expression.

#7: Vocabulary

Readers vastly comprehend words, their meanings, and how to use them in context.

#8: Oral language skills

Oral language is developed through listening and speaking as a way to express knowledge, ideas, and feelings.

#9: Reading comprehension skills

Readers comprehend the meaning of text because they can decode words while understanding the meaning of those words.

#10: Background knowledge

Readers gather understanding of the world, accumulate facts, and build skills to support background knowledge. Using this background knowledge, they can make sense of the information they encounter through reading.

How can the Science of Reading be applied to the classroom?

The best way to apply the Science of Reading to the classroom is to take action early. Help students develop foundational reading skills that are necessary to become a proficient reader, starting in kindergarten.

Start in early elementary

Early elementary, or grades K–3, is when reading instruction focuses heavily on decoding as well as language and vocabulary skills. It is necessary for students to be able to read the words on the page. Explicit and systematic phonics instruction that focuses on the sounds associated with the letters is best practice and should start in kindergarten.

Make sure students are being read to and are reading often

Reading individually, or being read to, helps students to develop word knowledge and increases decoding ability, vocabulary, word knowledge, and comprehension.

The more students are exposed to reading, the more skilled they become. As students develop as readers, they enjoy reading more, are more motivated to read, and continually hone their reading skills.

Provide the right instruction at the right time

Teaching reading is complex and requires thoughtful planning by the teacher to focus on the right skills students need in order to be successful readers—as well as knowing when and how to teach these skills.

The Science of Reading highlights the importance of foundational skills like phonemic awareness, phonics, language, and vocabulary. These are the building blocks for successful reading, meaning that more emphasis should be placed on these skills in grades K–3 to ensure a strong foundation for reading.

Use evidence-based practices

The best practice for teaching foundational skills is to be explicit and systematic in your teaching. This is sometimes called, I do (the teacher models the skill), We do (the teacher and student perform the skill together), You do (the student performs the skill independently with corrective feedback from teacher). 

This gives the student the greatest chance of learning the skill correctly and in a shorter amount of time. 

We might hear of other strategies that encourage students to guess or to use cues to help them figure out the right answer. This is not an efficient or effective practice, and it should be avoided because it is not considered to be evidence-based.

Learn more about the Science of Reading with Renaissance

Mark Seidenberg, author of Language at the Speed of Sight, has compiled an excellent list of resources for learning more about the Science of Reading. We also invite you to explore the following Renaissance programs:

boy reading


Dehaene S. (2009). Reading in the brain. New York: Penguin.

Pimentel S. (2018). Why doesn’t every teacher know the research on reading instruction? Education Week. Retrieved from:

Seidenberg M. (n.d.) Connecting the Science of Reading and educational practices. Retrieved from:

Seidenberg, M. (2012). The Science of Reading and its educational implications. Language Learning and Development, 9(4)(331) . Retrieved from: .

State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). (2020). If we know better, we must do better: Applying the Science of Reading in Tennessee. Retrieved from:

The Reading League. (2021). Science of Reading: Defining guide. Retrieved from: .

Whitman A. & Goldberg J. (2008). Ready to read? Neuroscience research sheds light on brain correlates of reading. The DANA Foundation.

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