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The Faculty

Using the “Science of Reading” as a Roadmap to Student Success

What are the essential elements of good reading instruction?

Photo Credit: The Conversation

In recent months, the “science of reading” has returned to center stage for the educators of young children. For most, we understand that the reading proficiency of fourth-graders is one of the strongest indicators of student success in middle and high school, as well as in college and career. Literacy matters, as does how we teach children to attain those literacy skills.

Of course, decades of scientific evidence has also made clear that high-quality teachers are a top predictor of how well students achieve academically. These teachers understand not only the subjects they teach but how children learn — the learning process. As a result, parents want exemplary teachers for their children, and teachers seek the pre-service education, professional development, and ongoing support they need to be qualified to produce optimal learning outcomes in their students.

Nowhere is this more important than in reading. Those fourth graders who are not proficient readers face serious challenges in learning other school subjects, including math, social studies, and science.

And the problem affects too many students. For decades now, national data has shown that nearly two-thirds of all fourth-grade students do not read at or above grade level. These data provide an early warning signal that goals for high classroom achievement in the later grades are in serious jeopardy.

But there is something that can be done to remedy this problem. Our renewed focus on the “science of reading” gives teachers a clear roadmap of how to provide children with the skills they need to be adept readers. By encouraging schools and teachers to use reading instruction methods grounded in scientifically proven approaches, educators can help virtually all children become successful readers and lifelong learners.

What are the essential elements of good reading instruction?

Good reading instruction teaches children the five basic components of reading — skills that they need to not only read but to speak and communicate. Those components are:

  • Learning how individual sounds make up words, known as phonemic awareness. Children should be able to identify these sounds when hearing teachers say them and be able to segment words into their individual sounds, or phonemes.
  • Understanding the relationship between the sounds of letters — phonemes — and how they are written as letters — graphemes — is critical to being able to read. Learning the connection between phonemes and graphemes is the goal of phonics.
  • Becoming skilled in reading text accurately and quickly — or fluency.
  • Understanding the words one reads — vocabulary — is important for reading words and making sense of what one reads.
  • Developing the ability to understand and gain meaning from what they have read –comprehension — is the goal of reading instruction: reading for meaning.

So what we must do to ensure that reading instruction incorporates these essential elements? What can we do to make sure our elementary school classrooms — whether in person or virtually — embody the science of reading that we know is so important?

  1. First, schools must employ a comprehensive reading program grounded in evidence-based reading research, with all components of the program carefully aligned so that instruction is seamlessly organized.
  2. Second, schools should use instructional materials that provide highly explicit and systematic instruction in the five components of reading instruction. We should not leave it to chance that children will learn these, incidentally.
  3. Third, schools must provide high-quality in-service education and ongoing staff development for teachers to enable them to understand the science behind reading instruction and how that should be translated into their practice.
  4. Fourth, we should allow adequate classroom time for reading instruction. The time allocated should enable all children to reach grade-level performance standards. That means that children who are behind need extra instructional time.
  5. Fifth, every school should have a system for regularly evaluating student progress throughout the school year, using classroom-based instructional assessments to determine whether goals are being met in a timely fashion and, if not, what remedies we should incorporate into the instructional program.
  6. Sixth, data from classroom assessments should determine where help is needed at a classroom, school, and district level. Data remains an important diagnostic tool, despite recent assaults on testing and assessments.
  7. And seventh, immediate intervention should be provided when student progress is not at the desired levels. That intervention should be developed based on the assessment of students’ skills and should be tailored to their needs.

These approaches work. They have worked in schools and classrooms throughout the nation for generations. They can produce the most extraordinary results in student learning and make those results ordinary, expected, and predictable. The evidence about how students learn to read bears this out. Our struggle remains in that far too few classrooms are using these approaches and far too few education schools are preparing teacher candidates in science. This research only needs to be put to work to provide every child with a good start in reading.



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Patrick Riccards

Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator