Over the course of the past two years or so, the phrases “science of reading research” and just “science of reading” have been popping up in social media, staff meetings, and classrooms across America. But what does it mean? Read on to get the basics of the Science of Reading and how it can impact your teaching practice.
What is the Science of Reading?
The Science of Reading is not a curriculum! It’s a huge body of specialized research that has taken place over the past couple of decades. It’s not just research as in writing a term paper. The science of reading research has been conducted across many, many disciplines. Neuroscientists, linguists, and psychologists (among other fields) have contributed to the science of reading. They extensively tested and studied to help us understand how the brain works in relation to reading.
This is a super exciting time in literacy history for many reasons. First, we have solid evidence that shows what happens in the brain as we learn to read. The research has identified what areas of the brain we use to perform essential reading functions. Research has also documented what happens with struggling readers’ brains, as well as provided evidence that appropriate interventions can rewire the brain for literacy!
It’s also exciting because we have definitive proof of best practices for reading instruction. Science shows us, using brain scans, retinal imaging, and other high-tech methods, exactly what we need to do to wire our brains for reading. All of this evidence combined gives us, as educators, a fantastic picture of best practices when it comes to reading instruction and intervention.
Brains and Reading
One interesting fact to note: our brains are NOT wired to learn to read. In the grand scheme of human history, writing is a very new invention. The earliest known writing, cuneiform, was invented in about 3400 B.C., and you can read about that here. But modern humans have been on the planet for over 300,000 years!
So in 300,000 years of existence, we have been writing (and therefore reading) for about 5,000 years. In contrast, humans have been speaking and listening with grammatical rules for over 100,000 years. This very small period of writing and reading means that human evolution hasn’t had enough time to naturally wire our brains to read. In fact, science shows that our brains rewires circuits developed for other things just so we can read!
What the Science of Reading Research Says
You could spend days, weeks, and months reading everything there is to read about the science of reading. So many disciplines have conducted research and testing, which has produced valid, substantial data. This section consists of just an overview of the science of reading research that highlights the most important factors.
Key Concept 1
Every brain uses the same areas within the brain for reading and writing. The image below shows the left hemisphere of the brain, where the major pathways form to allow reading and writing to happen. There isn’t just one small space in the brain reserved for reading; it’s a series of connections that put together everything needed to read effectively.
Key Concept 2
Multiple processes happen within the brain to allow reading to occur. Neural pathways, created by exposure to reading instruction and practice, connect all four areas in the brain. The brain identifies words by their visual forms (like looking at a picture). Our brains also analyze them for how they sound (pronunciation and articulation). Words are processed letter by letter to determine the corresponding sound(s). Finally, our brains translate the sounds and visuals into comprehensible language.
Key Concept 3
We have the power to create these neural pathways at any time. People of many ages (preschooler, school-age, college and adult) have learned to read fluently. There isn’t a set window that closes. However, the ability to read fluently diminishes with age, and that’s why early intervention (think kindergarten through second grade) are critical.
Key Concept 4
Retinal tracking research shows that people read every letter of every word. This is critical information because it tells us that strategies like using picture clues are not effective methods of teaching humans to read. I’ll have more on teaching strategies in another blog post coming soon!
The Importance of Science of Reading Research
As just these few key concepts have shown, some of the most popular methods of teaching reading aren’t as effective as once thought. Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming Science of Reading blog series, which will dive in-depth into these key concepts (plus many more).
To wrap things up, here’s a Science of Reading Infographic that I created to go right along with this blog post. It’s a short and sweet summary of everything discussed here.
I’m so glad you’re diving into the Science of Reading research! Have a question or something I can focus on in a future post? Drop a comment below!