By Rebecca Honig, chief content & curriculum officer
This article assumes the reader is familiar with basic concepts about the science of reading for parents and educators. Frequently Asked Questions are embedded throughout the article to guide newcomers.
Educators today increasingly recognize the importance of the science of reading in literacy development. Teachers are hungry for effective reading instruction and practices to integrate into their classrooms that reflect the core tenets of the science of reading. District administrators are exploring professional development and more to spread its adoption among their schools.
But one topic I don’t see taking center stage is how to adapt the science of reading for parents, caregivers, and guardians. Educators already know that family engagement is essential for student success, including in their reading journeys. How can educators help bring the science of reading home to their families to maximize benefits for students’ literacy development?
To understand this critical connection, I want to take you back through my personal reading journey — as a student, then an educator, and finally a family engagement specialist — to highlight the direct, positive impact that both successful literacy instruction and family engagement have.
A fantastic fake reader
When I was in third or maybe fourth grade, I had my friend Nikki over for a sleepover. After hours of racing around the neighborhood on bikes and making keychains out of lanyards and lip-syncing to Whitney Houston, she enthusiastically offered up an idea for our next activity.
“Let’s read our chapter books!!” she said with joy.
The second Nikki’s suggestion hit my ears, all the air rushed out of me. I deflated like a balloon after a run-in with a thumb tack. It took everything in me to resist shouting, “Get out of my house – and never come back!!!”
Nikki didn’t know what I’d been hiding from my classmates for years. She had no idea that, while she and everyone else in my grade enjoyed chapter books during classroom reading time, I had not yet successfully made my way through a single picture book.
I’d spend countless hours in the car fumbling over the words in “Dick and Jane Go Go Go.” I’d be able to read a word one day, but the next day, it was as if I was seeing it for the first time. Reading felt like Blackjack. Winning was only possible if I had some streak of luck – really good luck.
At the time, my solution was to have my parents read the same book to me, again and again, until through rote memorization I knew every sentence by heart. Then, I’d bring that book into school and ask my teacher with great emphasis, “Can I read this to the class?” And the teacher always said yes.
I was a fantastic fake reader.
I performed each book like a play for my classmates, “reading” with enthusiasm and giving each character a different voice. Occasionally, I’d even pause and pretend to sound out a word or two — just to further sell that I was “reading”.
I had them all fooled.
All except the teacher, who sent me to reading recovery classes and threatened to hold me back another year if I did not make progress with these essential skills.
So I did what anyone at my age would do. I asked Santa if I could learn to read for Christmas. I dictated notes for the tooth fairy, instructing her to leave me literacy tips and tricks in exchange for my teeth.
Never, not once ever, did it occur to me that there was some pathway, some method, for learning how to read. To me, reading was pure magic.
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That feeling lasted well after those elementary school years. I did learn to read and write (and quite well, too). But I still felt that this learning was simply a stroke of luck. All of that changed when I started graduate school and I finally discovered a critical component to the science of reading.
Discovering ‘the code’: phonics at last
While pursuing my master’s degree in education at Bank Street, I signed up for a training focused on an Orton-Gillingham-based approach to teaching reading called Preventing Academic Failure (or PAF for short). It’s a method that advocates for literacy to be taught through explicit and systematic direct instruction to develop proficient readers.
It was through this training that I understood the “predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).” I uncovered exactly how the roughly 44 English phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet, and that awareness of sounds associated with combinations of letters forms the foundation for reading. I mastered letter-sound correspondence.
It was the first time in my life that I was really and truly introduced to phonics.
Put another way, I finally learned “The Code.” And it completely changed my long-held feelings about my reading experience.
Simon and The Code
As part of the training, I had the opportunity to put my newfound understanding of The Code into practice. I was assigned to work with a first-grade student one-on-one, using this approach to provide effective reading instruction. Simon was 7, and he was a struggling reader — just like I had been.
I met with him every day for 30 minutes, following a systematic routine with explicit instruction in phonics, just as I was trained. First, we’d review the letter names and sounds he’d previously learned, always in multisensory ways. Then, I’d introduce him to a new sequence of letters and their sounds — in the same way, every single time. He’d write each sound in the air, or watch in a mirror as he felt and tasted it in his mouth. After that, he’d move on to writing down each sound combination and its letters. Finally, we’d do a word study, combining and arranging all the sounds he’d learned so far into different words.
I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. The whole process felt rote, like it was sucking the passion out of learning to read. I half-expected that the next time Simon saw me enter the room, he’d roll his eyes and give me the “Ugh, not you again” face. I was not convinced that these would be effective strategies that would truly help Simon become a skilled reader.
What is the science of reading?
The “science of reading” refers to knowledge gleaned from linguistics, cognitive science, educational psychology, and neuroscience about how children learn to read.
Written language is much newer than spoken language in the span of human history. As a result, we have not evolved to naturally translate a code of written symbols into sound and meaning – otherwise called “reading”. Therefore, it is important to study and identify the most effective practices leading to reading proficiency.
The science of reading is not a specific curriculum or teaching technique. Rather, it is a set of guiding principles for literacy instruction.
Learn more about why teachers, school leaders, and district leaders can trust using the science of reading to inform literacy instruction.
And yet, each and every day, Simon was excited, engaged, and focused during our meetings.
But that’s not all. This process was indeed working for Simon.
One of the best and most memorable days of my life came when Simon had collected enough sounds to take on his first controlled reader. It’s a book that only contains sounds a student has learned — and these decodable texts are powerful for helping students become proficient readers.
Simon got two pages into this decodable book when he suddenly paused mid-sentence. Looking up at me, he exclaimed, “I’m reading this! I’m really, really reading this!!”
And he was. We both cried with joy.
A direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics
Some kids may learn to read in that “magical” way, where by way of a mysterious natural process they go straight to skilled reading. But for kids like Simon and me – and the 25 million children in US schools who struggle with reading ability – learning to read requires much more than purely inherent ability.
According to research, a big part of that “more” is phonics – a direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics instruction, like the PAF program I studied.
Why is such a structured approach so important for reading? When educators teach reading and oral language skills in carefully scoped-and-sequenced ways, kids’ brains can better organize the information. This organization allows kids to then quickly retrieve what they know.
Think of it this way: imagine you need to locate a specific pair of socks. Having your socks strewn about the house makes it hard, not to mention frustrating, to find the ones you need. On the other hand, when your socks are carefully sorted and organized in your drawers, you can easily find the pair you seek with no problem.
We also want phonics organized and tidy in kids’ brains to help them retrieve existing knowledge about letter names, sounds, and combinations. When we teach phonics through an organized and structured approach, kids learn to read most effectively.
Why does the science of reading matter for literacy?
Once children learn how to read, they then read to learn. From kindergarten through the university level, academic success depends on reading ability. Therefore it becomes imperative that all American students become skilled readers in our elementary schools.
Most children depend on their teachers’ instructional approaches to develop foundational literacy skills. But recent scientific studies have shown that many past assumptions about how reading works are not true and have little effect on literacy skill development.
Now more than ever, it is essential that educators apply proven methods to reading instruction – and not solely use personal experience, past assumptions, or non-evidence-based practices. By doing so, teachers best position all students to achieve positive educational outcomes.
Learn more about these recently debunked assumptions and what brain science now tells us about reading
The Orton-Approach to effective reading instruction is a powerful multisensory teaching resource in an educator’s toolkit to build student literacy skills. Each step of the process is carefully laid out and includes:
- Reviewing previously learned sounds;
- Blending of learned sounds;
- Teaching a new sound;
- Writing letters that make the new sound;
- Writing words that include new and previously learned sounds;
- Reading text that includes previously learned and new sounds.
To see the Orton-Approach in action, watch this sample lesson demonstrating each step. You can also see how this instructor further breaks down a typical lesson taught with this method.
In sum, a direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics instructions is proven to help students learn to read. And the news gets even better: instructional practices based on the science of reading benefit all children, not just children with dyslexia, English learners, or students from a particular socioeconomic group.1 By utilizing these principles in literacy instruction, educators give every student the chance to thrive in their reading journey.
Adapting the science of reading for parents and caregivers
Maximizing a student’s reading potential takes more than shifting instructional practices in the classroom for literacy development. So much of both written and oral language comprehension and development occurs outside the classroom, too. A simple story shared between a parent and child impacts literacy development more than you’d think.
Today, as a family engagement specialist, I am often curious about the role that parents and caregivers can play in developing proficient and independent reading skills. I and many educators recognized how powerful engaged families are and the benefits they confer to students, including boosted reading scores, graduation rates, and social-emotional well-being.
And I get giddy with excitement when I think about families and The Code.
Why? Families are extremely well positioned to unlock The Code with their kids. And this is where educators have the opportunity to adapt the science of reading for parents and caregivers at home.
More specifically, families can help their children to build phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, which prepare kids to be ready for phonics instructions.
Building phonological awareness at home
Phonological awareness is defined as the ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language. Before children can begin sounding out words in print and learning the rules of the sound-symbol correspondence, they first need to understand that spoken language is made up of sounds. They need to hear language – even play with language – to really build the awareness that sounds combine together in a specific order to make words.
Parents can help children build phonological awareness skills right from the start. Daily, language-rich exchanges effectively develop kids’ phonological awareness. And because oral language comprehension builds phonological awareness, these exchanges can easily be injected into families’ daily routines – no extra work or resources necessary.
What are the key components of the science of reading?
Although strong active readers make it appear effortless, reading is a complex process involving interconnected skills.
The simple view of reading2 organizes five fundamental skills (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) for successful reading into two main components (word recognition and language comprehension).
Think of these components as multipliers for reading. If students underperform in one of them, their potential reading comprehension is also limited.
Learn more about each of these crucial skills in literacy instruction.
Here are a few simple ways for families to help kids develop this important aspect of literacy and begin their journey toward becoming fluent readers:
- Singing at bedtime or as families clean up a room not only helps these moments go smoothly, but it also builds phonological awareness.
- How about rhyming with daily actions? As parents turn off the light, they can build phonological awareness just by rhyming with the word ‘light’… think ‘flight,’ ‘sight,’ ‘might,’ and more.
- While waiting in line at the store, families and kids can clap out the words they hear in a sentence. Words in a compound word (tooth/paste) or the syllables in a word (mo/ther) are also great candidates for this exercise.
- And of course, families can read a favorite book aloud to their kids, playing with words and letter names as they do.
Building phonemic awareness at home
Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. Simply put, it’s identifying and manipulating the individual sounds in words, called phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word that make a difference in the word’s meaning. For example, changing the first phoneme in the word ‘hat’ from /h/ to /p/ changes the word from ‘hat’ to ‘pat’, thereby changing its meaning.
Parents can specifically expand kids’ phonemic awareness, too. These activities need no additional time or resources to practice at home:
- In the morning, families can challenge kids to take a step every time they say a word that starts with a specific sound, like /t/.
- They can challenge their child to call out words that start with the first sound in their name. For example, ‘Riki’ leads to ‘rrrr…rabbit’ which leads to ‘rrrr…ravioli’!
- Parents can talk like robots as they walk with their kids in the park or around their neighborhood. They can call out things they see in a robot voice, saying each sound like it’s separate, such as “I see a /d/o/g/!”
- Families can turn a game of toss into an opportunity to build phonemic awareness by breaking words into isolated sounds with each pass of the ball.
These effective strategies for at-home reading practice are merely the tip of the iceberg. Watch our webinar for more inspiration on building phonological and phonemic awareness at home.
Parents have so many opportunities to engage in their children’s learning experience — specifically to develop these critical aspects of literacy development. All it takes is a little creativity.
Parents catalyze phonics instruction, too!
Both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness underpin a student’s success in learning phonics – the actual association of sounds with their written representation via letters. The good news is that parents continue to be invaluable partners to educators when it comes to broader instruction in phonics.
For any reading program utilizing a direct concept, systematic approach to phonics, kids learn and practice both sounds and letters in a routine way. For example, each time kids learn a new sound, they might write it in the sky with their fingers as they say it aloud.
Kids become masters of these learning routines. As a result, kids can easily transfer them to their home routines with their parents and caregivers. This also gives kids a chance to experience mastery of their skills by showing their grownups how to, say, write sounds in the sky with their fingers too.
Better still, direct concept, systematic approaches to phonics tend to use easy-to-make tools to reinforce learning. Parents can access or create tools like word and letter cards to continue phonics instructions at home, just as they might help students practice math with math flashcards.
How does the science of reading impact literacy instruction?
A key tenet of the science of reading is that effective reading instruction must be both systematic and explicit.
Systematic means teaching follows a predefined scope and sequence with frequent reviews. Systematic instruction has a logical and specific plan for what should be covered and in what order.
Explicit means the instructor shows students what they need to know, giving them guided practice (with feedback) and independent practice with each skill. Explicit phonics instruction goes beyond text exposure and ensures all students have what they need to learn.
Learn more about how systematic and explicit reading instruction enables stronger reading skills in all students.
Creative phonics instruction at home
Kids can also explore this summative aspect of literacy in entirely new ways at home without commonly used instructional tools. Take a look at these family-friendly literacy tips that fit well into routines even on busy school nights:
- Parents can build words out of letters they cut from a magazine or find on street signs.
- Families can help students practice writing letters and making their sounds as they use a finger to “write” them on a rug or a parent’s arm at bedtime.
- Adults can also guide children to write words on a steamy bathroom mirror as they watch their mouths form each sound.
Bringing phonics into the home environment not only builds upon learning happening in the classroom, but it also helps kids connect it to a familiar, meaningful, and comfortable context. This balanced literacy development between school and home empowers kids to then discover the power of their burgeoning skills in real-world ways, such as:
- Helping write out grocery lists using sounds and letters they’ve learned.
- Labeling items around the house.
- Writing their parent letters or short notes to slip under a pillow before bedtime.
Where can I learn more about the science of reading?
Explore further resources about the science of reading:
And of course, kids can read books. They may start first by sharing decodable readers they bring home from school – but eventually, they begin pulling their favorite book off the shelf and snuggling with a grownup to read them the story.
The parent voice in the science of reading is magical!
Speaking of books – no matter what letters and sounds a child is working on mastering, parents and caregivers still play a critical role in helping their child develop a love of literacy.
By reading aloud to their child, telling family stories, and even singing to their kids, families help children discover the power that language offers. Whether written or oral, language brings people together, conveys information, and even unlocks new and fantastical worlds.
And that is the true magic of reading.
1Dykstra, S. (2013). The Impact of Scientifically-based Reading Instruction on Different Groups and Different Levels of Performance. Educational Philosophy. Literate Nation, San Francisco, CA.
2Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.