Your Questions about the Science of Reading, Answered by Experts

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
6 min readOct 4, 2021


We recently held a webinar on the Science of Reading with Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Dr. Jan Hasbrouck. Attendees brought thoughtful questions to the event that are applicable to classrooms everywhere, so we wanted to be sure we captured at least a few of those questions and the experts’ answers. If you’d like to view the full webinar, watch the recording below. Or, keep reading for a few key questions asked during the event and the corresponding, summarized answers the experts provided.

Why are we hearing so much about the Science of Reading now? Is it just a fad?

National literacy levels have languished for some time now. The Science of Reading isn’t a fad — it’s a response to the need to boost literacy performance across the country. Educators and parents recognize this need, and they’re looking to science to solve it. What specifically started this conversation about the “Science of Reading” as a specific phrase was some reporting by education journalist Emily Hanford, which looked at instructional gaps and an overall disconnect between research and the classroom.

This body of research is ever-changing, growing, and complicated. Every teacher wants to live by that research, but situating research in the complex, nuanced realities of diverse classrooms is a challenge! We’re all reaching for the simplest way to do what’s right and to follow the research. However, the Science of Reading isn’t a single program or set of programs, it’s a body of research that can (and should) inform an instructional approach.

Is the Science of Reading only about phonics?

The Science of Reading is so much more than phonics. It’s what we’re still learning about how brains become reading brains, how we get every student to a level of skillful reading, how we connect students with reading and help them understand what they’re reading, and how we get them reading fluidly and with joy. This question brings us back to Emily Hanford’s work: In looking to identify what’s holding us back from better literacy achievement as a nation, she noted a significant gap in attention to and prioritization of phonics. Phonics — and all other elements — need to be delivered at the right time, at the right intensity, and on top of the appropriate foundational knowledge. For more on the many foundational skills that play a role in the Science of Reading, check out these blogs by Dr. Jan Hasbrouck:

Does the cueing system follow the Science of Reading?

When educators listen to students read, they’re going to find that students make mistakes. There is science behind the approach of evaluating those mistakes to see how similar they are to the actual pronunciation of the word and to whether the word that the student substituted for the print word is syntactically correct. But there isn’t science behind teaching students to try to figure out words by using semantic or syntactic cues — in fact, it’s become clear that when a student isn’t able to decode, they fall back on that “meaningful guessing”, whether they have been taught it or not. Students are going to engage in guessing naturally, but the ones who struggle to read are going to do it often. Teaching students to read leading with strategies that struggling readers fall back on isn’t an approach that’s going to empower learners in the long run.

Teachers sometimes worry that they aren’t covering early literacy curriculum fast enough during the school year. Is there research that one scope and sequence is better than others?

There’s no specific sequence that research strongly indicates is superior to others. The National Reading Panel once reviewed 38 studies of phonics instruction which looked at 19 different sequences of instruction, and all of them were beneficial to children! There isn’t a magic order that must be followed precisely. There are some specific details teachers should consider: For example, if you are going to teach letters that are either confusable by their visual pattern or by their sound, don’t teach those together. Just separate them a bit to minimize confusion. Another example: There are studies that suggest it’s important to teach kids the short or unstressed vowels before you teach the long vowels.

How much time should be spent on each foundational element of literacy?

As much time as needed — which is exactly why this is so complicated. Each child is a unique learner, and while each student’s brain will go through a similar process to become a skillful reader and the foundational elements they need will be largely the same, some students will progress in their reading ability much faster than others. Consider dyslexia, for example: even dyslexia exists on a spectrum, and children with dyslexia will need varying amounts of time dedicated to things like phoneme awareness. In short, every element is essential, and mastery for every student is essential, which is why practices like differentiation and collecting and evaluating data on student progress are so important for educators, whenever possible to implement.

For new, early readers, should teachers be asking comprehension questions when students read decodables?

Since decodable texts are usually simple, it will likely be difficult to come up with intriguing comprehension questions. However, teachers can always ask comprehension questions, simply because even from the beginning, students need to understand that they’re reading for a purpose, and that purpose is to comprehend! Reading isn’t just about sounding out a word and moving on to decode the next one — it’s about understanding each word. In the early stages of reading, automaticity of decoding is what’s critical. But we still can empower our students to connect their flourishing decoding skills with newfound comprehension skills from the start.

Where does vocabulary instruction fit into the Science of Reading? What about the difference between vocabulary and morphology?

If the end goal of all literacy instruction is comprehension (with joy and motivation!) then of course vocabulary plays a huge role in this goal. We’re learning more about how vocabulary instruction contributes to the development of sight words — if students map a word to their memory more readily if they recognize the word and it has some meaning for them. Vocabulary is absolutely essential and should be integrated into everything we do.

It’s important to teach the meaning of words (vocabulary) and the meanings of parts of words (morphology), which helps in decoding. Vocabulary skills — like using dictionaries, figuring out words from context — are all important. The issue is real estate: we only have so much space and time. In the primary grades, we include vocabulary, but we’re not going to put the same emphasis on it as we will later on. As phonics instruction diminishes, or once students have mastered those decoding skills, we can dedicate more time to things like vocabulary. From second and third grade on through high school (and frankly, the rest of your life!) students should be working on vocabulary. In fact, the impact of vocabulary on reading ability increases as students get older. We might even think of expanding the emphasis on vocabulary to an emphasis on language — inclusive of things like listening comprehension and syntax. The predictive ability of those elements on comprehension is very strong.

What does the Science of Reading indicate about supporting emergent bilingual students?

On the one hand, you could argue that all young readers need many of the same things: phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency, for example. These foundational elements have a payoff for English Learners and bilingual students. However, it’s of course important to scaffold instruction in terms of how those elements are delivered in instruction. When it comes to teaching vocabulary and other elements of oral English, the payoff is even greater for English Learners because they may not have as much exposure to oral English as students whose first language is English, and that bank of oral language exposure and knowledge feeds reading ability. Some researchers suggest blocking time during the day to specifically work on oral language skills with English Learners.



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