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The Science of Reading, For Everyone

We recently launched our Spring into Literacy Symposium, a virtual event featuring literacy experts, educators, and thought leaders discussing the Science of Reading, blended learning, social and emotional learning, and equity. Our first session, called “The Science of Reading for Everyone,” is now available to view on demand.

The panel, featuring Dr. Tim Shanahan, Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, Dr. Jana Echevarria, and Dr. Devin Kearns and moderated by Marisa Russo, covered how the Science of Reading can provide equity for all students, including English Learners and students with dyslexia or other learning challenges. You can watch the session in full here. Below, we’ve summarized a few key learnings from the panel interview (along with some exciting developments in the area of dyslexia research!) that you can read and share with your colleagues.

For a refresher on the Science of Reading, see:

How does the Science of Reading support English Learners?

Dr. Jana Echevarria: English learners (ELs) learn in very much the same way that English speakers do — but they need something more. First, from research we can identify strategies teachers employ to make instruction understandable. These include providing visual supports and scaffolded verbal supports, such as prompting them and restating to model correct grammar. We should also be pulling in their background: What do they already know, and how are their lived experiences relevant to the text?

We also know that ELs need dedicated time with explicit instruction about how English works.

They need opportunities to speak, listen, and practice the functional ways we use language — such as the difference between discussing and debating, or how to ask a question.

Marissa Russo: I think it’s also important to remember that for English Learners, some sounds can’t be heard, they can only be seen! As an English Learner myself in early primary grades, I simply couldn’t pronounce “Th. I said “t” every time and couldn’t hear the difference. Finally, a speech teacher pulled me aside and showed me the position of her tongue and teeth to make a “Th” sound — and for me, it clicked.

How does the Science of Reading support students with dyslexia and other learning challenges?

Dr. Jan Hasbrouck: Much of the brain-based research and instructional research considered central to the Science of Reading has developed out of special education research. We know that children’s brains learn to read largely the same way — but what they need in terms of dosage and content varies. We’ve found that when we take the systematic, explicit instruction that we’ve been studying for decades in special education and implement it (in the proper dosage) with neurotypical students, they thrive.

This is quite exciting: We know that children with dyslexia are born with these neural differences, or a “dyslexic brain.” Researchers are now saying that because we have gathered so much information about the early indicators of dyslexia, and there’s a solid body of effective instructional techniques, there’s growing evidence that when 3–4 year-olds receive age-appropriate instructional practices, these learners never develop the characteristics of dyslexia.

In other words, researchers believe that with systematic, explicit, multimodal, sequential instruction early on, we can actually prevent — or help students overcome — dyslexia.

We can help re-wire the brain to be better at reading and writing.

How do we tackle learning loss with the Science of Reading?

Dr. Jan Hasbrouck: We can’t make up time. But we can take all the knowledge we have about what works and implement those practices intentionally. 4th and 5th grade teachers should leverage early-grade educators who are familiar with informal diagnostic assessments for phonics and phonemic awareness. We also need to help teachers understand the developmental sequence that must happen for their students.

If your 4th grader is struggling because they haven’t developed the foundational ability to decode words, putting them in a program to build fluency because you want them to sound like a 4th grader isn’t going to work.

You can’t skip the foundational pieces. Instead, we need to identify them and spend whatever time we have to fill the gaps. The challenge is to find the materials that address 2nd grade skills in a way that’s appropriate for a 4th grader.

Dr. Jana Echevarria: Pulling the lens back, consider social and emotional learning as well. As we’re teaching some of those literacy skills, how can we bring their background into the text? Can we link some of the things they’ve been doing outside of school during remote learning, like problem-solving?

It’s so important to acknowledge and weave in what they accomplished during remote learning, and not treat that as an entirely separate part of their lives.

What are some key indicators to help teachers understand when they have been successful in implementing the Science of Reading?

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: The same measures you use to target your instruction are the methods you should use to gauge success.

Dr. Devin Kearns: In a qualitative way, when we’re successful, we’ll see kids with some interest in picking up a book! Of course, those moments are not data-based, but wanting to read and reading with confidence are so telling. It’s not adequate for us to use that as data, and it shouldn’t take the place of progress monitoring and assessment, but it’s worth noting: you’ll see success in student data, and you’ll see happier kids.

What’s the future of the Science of Reading?

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: I think we’ll see research shifting to upper grades. What do intermediate and middle school students need in terms of reading? For a long time, there’s been little research on what older students need to decode.

Now, we’re seeing increased attention to thresholds of decoding ability that are necessary for students to make any real progress with reading.

These should lead to some interventions. There’s also more research on the language side of reading. For example, we know that dyslexic students struggle with phonological aspects, but there’s research that shows that even when they achieve adequate levels of decoding, these students still struggle with comprehension.

Dr. Devin Kearns: I’d like to see us enrich our understanding of decoding. You all know that decoding is about the connection between letters and sounds, but it’s also true that meaning is part of the process of decoding. We’re not talking about “whole language” here, but there is a lot of information about how we get from letters to meaning, and sometimes it works a bit differently than we think. For example, you may have seen a student trying to sound out a word, struggling, and then instantly gets it, like a lightbulb turned on. In those instances, clearly, the student is making a connection between what they sounded out that wasn’t quite right, and the correct word in their mind.

They’re still decoding, and that decoding was meaningful.

My hope is that as we learn more about the science, and as we move past the simplest part of the “simple view”, we’ll begin to uncover the role of meaning in decoding.

Dr. Jana Echevarria: I’d like to see a lot more research done with English learners. Given the demographics in our country, it’s amazing how they tend to be left out of the conversation. There are gaps we need to identify — the example that Devin just gave, where learners can draw meaning from hearing or seeing a word, is meaningless to an English learner who doesn’t have that word to draw upon. We need research on how best to teach foundational skills in the upper grades and in secondary since newcomer students arrive at all grade levels. There are rich research opportunities awaiting with the Science of Reading and English learners.

Watch the full recording of the session and register to view more literacy webinars on demand with our Spring into Literacy Symposium here.

For more on the Science of Reading, see:

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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