The Science of Reading:
Supporting Families for Student Literacy
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Reading is one of the most important skills that children can learn. In addition to unlocking developmental benefits, reading cultivates joy and imagination — opening up new worlds, ideas, and curiosities. Literacy is a cornerstone to lifelong learning and thriving.
Every child — every person — deserves to read. Yet millions of kids and adults in the United States read at or below a basic level. What stands in the way of building this core ability? How can educators and families together cultivate the foundational literacy skills that create successful readers?
A clue to strong reading skills lies in understanding how humans evolved. At a young age, children learn to speak naturally without anyone explicitly teaching them. But learning to read is different. Because written language is much newer than spoken language in the span of human history, we have not evolved to translate a code of written symbols into sound and meaning. As a result, reading requires active teaching and learning, going beyond exposure to books or trial and error.
For this reason, it is important to study and identify the evidence-based practices for teaching literacy, and determine which lead to skilled reading. This is where the science of reading comes into play.
Family Engagement and the Science of Reading
Family engagement is essential to a child’s literacy development
From the moment they are born, children build early reading skills at home that serve them later in formal classrooms. Families are a child’s first teachers, and they play a critical role in developing these linguistic and cognitive processes.
Using principles gleaned from the science of reading, educators can cultivate collaborative relationships with families that serve the ultimate goal of creating effective readers. Research has shown that learning outcomes improve when educators and families partner.
Reading is essential for academic success
Educators often talk about the importance of shifting mindsets on student literacy from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. This is because success in school and in the world beyond the classroom depends on whether students can become skilled readers.
As early as kindergarten, a child’s reading skills can predict their success in future areas including literacy, math abilities, and more (National Institute for Literacy, 2008). This relationship exists even after controlling for factors such as demographic or socioeconomic status (Claessens et al, 2009). Further, reading ability can impact other non-academic outcomes. As The Annie E. Casey Foundation found in their 2012 report, “One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time — [which is] four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills.”
The urgency for creating strong readers cannot be understated. In 2021, only 33% of twelfth graders performed at or above ‘Proficient’ reading levels on the NAEP reading assessment (Nation’s Report Card 2022). Today, nearly 43% of adults are functionally illiterate which has wide ranging consequences on society beyond the individual level. The National Council for Adult Literacy estimates that illiteracy costs the U.S. economy $225 billion every year.
Understanding the essential components of successful reading instruction is key to supporting students to become proficient readers with fruitful opportunities in their futures. The research insights gained from the science of reading shed light on which evidence-based, educational practices help kids best learn how to read.
Challenges and disparities in reading development
Education research indicates that significant disparities exist among student groups when it comes to reading proficiency. These gaps can be traced along racial, socioeconomic, and even linguistic lines.
For instance, in 2022, only 48% of fourth graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program performed at or above a ‘Basic’ level in fourth-grade reading. NAEP reading scores were also significantly lower than scores from 2019 among Black or African American, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students as compared with White students. Last, among fourth graders who are English Learners, just 33% performed at or above the ‘Basic’ reading level for their grade (Nation’s Report Card 2022). English language learners may also face late-emerging reading difficulties at higher rates than native speakers, especially during the upper elementary and middle school years (Kieffer, 2010).
These gaps are the result of inequitable access to resources that bolster reading skills — and not due to effort, languages spoken, or cultural background. Equity in education is essential to address disadvantages created by these disparities in skilled reading. The science of reading offers the opportunity to create equitable spaces and community partnerships that foster key reading abilities in every student, regardless of circumstance. In fact, research has found that instructional practices based on science of reading strategies benefit all children, not just those with specific literacy challenges or from a particular socioeconomic group.1
By prioritizing equitable and effective strategies for reading instruction, educators move towards a universality of student outcomes — helping every student thrive as a successful reader at every grade level.
1 Dykstra, S. (2013). The Impact of Scientifically-based Reading Instruction on Different Groups and Different Levels of Performance. Educational Philosophy. Literate Nation, San Francisco, CA
The science of reading isn’t a curriculum or even a singular teaching method. Instead, it refers to a collection of research findings that help us understand how children learn to read.
The Reading League defines the science of reading as “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.” The key components that make up the science of reading come from multidisciplinary findings established in study after study for the last five decades, conducted by researchers across the globe and in multiple languages.
Studies included in this body of evidence come from linguistics, cognitive science, education psychology, and neuroscience. This empirical background knowledge helps educators better understand how proficient reading and writing develop in children. Most crucially, it also helps explain why some children have more difficulty than others when learning to read, which in turn helps educators better support these students to develop foundational literacy skills.
It is helpful to think of the science of reading as a set of guiding principles that can inform both policy and practice when it comes to teaching literacy. School districts, community organizations, and their families all benefit from understanding the research and evidence that underpin science of reading strategies.
Reading is a complex process composed of several discrete skills that require attention and instruction. Similarly, science of reading strategies for skilled reading involve much more than reading a decodable book and building phonic skills alone
In their report released in 2000, the National Reading Panel summarized comprehensive research and studies about reading that identified five literary practices as necessary ingredients for student reading success: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Take a look at the table below to explore each of these practices in greater detail and their direct role in reading development.
Essential Skills for Reading
Why It Matters
Recognizing and using sounds in spoken language; includes phonemic awareness
Associating sounds with letters
Decoding words and sentences quickly and naturally
Knowing words and their meanings
Processing and understanding written text
The Simple View of Reading
Another way to understand literacy development is through the simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). This method organizes all these skills for successful reading into two main components: word recognition and language comprehension. Each component acts as a multiplier for the end goal of reading — if just one of these areas is at a low level, the potential outcome of reading comprehension is limited. This is why it is so critical for children to learn all these crucial reading skills, not just any one of them. For instance, if a child cultivates strong decoding skills in reading, it helps them learn more new words which boosts their vocabulary.
Direct, systematic classroom instruction
The science of reading not only informs classroom teachers of the “what” behind literacy development, but it also shows the “how” for effective literacy instruction. Research indicates that reading instruction imparts greatest impact when it is both systematic and explicit, especially when it comes to phonics.
- Systematic instruction follows a predefined scope and sequence to build reading strategies, including frequent reviews of knowledge already gained. There is a logical and specific plan for what should be covered and in what order.
- Explicit instruction is when the instructor shows students what they need to know and gives them both guided practice (with feedback) and independent practice with each skill. For instance, explicit phonics instruction ensures all students have what they need to learn how letters and sounds connect with one another — as opposed to expecting students to deduce letter-sound correspondences from exposure to text alone.
The Orton-Gillingham-based approach is one of the earliest developed examples of “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy.” Each step of the process is carefully laid out and includes:
- Reviewing previously learned sounds, such as each vowel sound;
- Blending of learned sounds, such as combining consonant and vowel 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.
Multisensory literacy approaches
The Orton-Gillingham approach, among others, also advocates for incorporating multisensory teaching methods and classroom activities into literacy instruction — engaging a student’s multiple senses so they experience sounds, letters, and words with their whole body as they learn them. For students with or at risk of dyslexia, research shows that multisensory language instruction combined with other reading interventions can help kids better build their literacy skills (Hall et al, 2022). Multisensory instruction may also benefit other students. However, research still encourages educators to avoid over-emphasizing any one approach to teach skills as complex as reading.
As much as it guides educators’ classroom practices, the science of reading is also informative for parents, caregivers, and guardians. Families are the first teachers in a student’s life, and their direct role in literacy development can catalyze skilled reading. Educators need family engagement when engaging in science of reading strategies with children of all ages, from birth to adolescence and beyond.
Families have innate strengths and assets available to them as they support their children’s literacy development. Through collaborative partnership, educators can highlight these strengths for parents and how their actions directly connect to their child’s learning. But it is also essential that educators hold the family in mind as they offer at-home activities and suggestions — asking themselves questions such as “Do families have what they need to do this activity?” to ensure every family can access the resources offered. Recognizing the realities that parents face helps educators calibrate their support to these crucial partners towards building students’ literacy skills.
From playing with phonics to practicing fluency, here are strengths-based examples of how that educators can collaborate with families to cultivate early reading abilities — even before kids enter a classroom:
Point out the “invisible skills” that lay the foundation for reading
Reading itself requires more than just practicing phonics or building fluency. “Invisible skills” such as persistence, focus, positive sense of self, and much more really form the foundation to reading and other learning skills that serve students their whole lives. Parents are well positioned to support students to cultivate these invisible skills — and may not even realize that they are supporting reading skill development, too!
Educators can help families recognize these connections and ways to practice such skills at home. For example, reading comprehension strategies depend in part on a child’s executive function. Maintaining focus while reading gives students space to understand the text they are exploring. Before picking up a book to read together, educators might encourage parents and kids to practice breathing and stretching first to boost focus.
Emphasize how reading builds whole child development
In turn, literacy skills impact much more than a child’s ability to pick up a book and read it. Books help kids build critical social emotional learning skills such as perspective taking, self-regulation, and relationship building. Reading together also deepens the parent-child bond, and such sensory experiences have an especially positive impact on young children’s cognitive development. Educators can help families understand these benefits and ways that their involvement in student reading unlocks them.
Around the world, nearly two-thirds of adults speak at least two different languages. This bilingualism brings speakers many advantages, both at school and in the working world. Families that speak languages other than English offer as much valuable support to build children’s reading skills as those that speak English fluently.
Educators can encourage multilingual families to practice their home language with their children to boost oral language development and encourage bilingualism. They can even use English language picture books in this practice by making up stories based on the images. Early childhood educators can also incorporate families’ home languages into their classrooms through books, visuals displayed around the classroom, and even audio tools. These are just a few examples of culturally responsive family engagement — a pathway to partnership that cultivates deep trust between families and educators, which unlocks learning benefits.
The most common advice parents hear about literacy is to read a book to their child every night. As the Child Mind Institute summarizes, a daily reading practice has a positive impact on student language skills, vocabulary building, and much more.
While regular reading time is powerful (not to mention a sweet relationship-building moment with their child), parents may not always have time or space available to do this consistently. Fortunately, reading out loud to children isn’t the only way to support them to become skilled readers. Families can still positively impact their child’s literacy development through every day learning moments.
These family-friendly activities cultivate literacy skills by utilizing assets and routines already at a family’s disposal.
In nearly every corner of the globe, storytelling has and continues to be a fundamental part of the human experience. Families can tap into the power of a story with their children, helping them build comprehension, fluency, and even empathy. Of course, families can read out loud from their child’s favorite book, but there are many more ways to use storytelling to build literacy.
For example, parents can share stories from their childhood or from their cultural traditions, or simply make up their own stories. By using silly voices, parents not only captivate children’s imagination, but they also model fluency in reading by correctly intonating certain words and phrases. Last, families can encourage children to tell stories to the adults, expressing curiosity by asking their child questions about characters, fantasy lands, and other details.
Play Word Games
Parents can easily support their child’s phonological and phonemic awareness by getting creative with syllables and sounds through play. For example, 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/. Parents can also turn a game of toss into an opportunity to build phonemic awareness by breaking words into isolated sounds with each pass of the ball. Even rhyming helps! As parents turn off the light, they can build phonological awareness just by rhyming with the word ‘light’… think ‘flight,’ ‘sight,’ ‘might,’ and more.
Model Joy and Curiosity Through Reading
As students move from their elementary schools into adolescence, literacy continues to play an active role in their academics. But reading supports students in so many ways outside of the classroom as well as in the classroom itself. Families can help their students nurture positive relationships with reading — specifically where and how reading can support joy, curiosity, and personal growth.
For example, parents can model curiosity by challenging middle school students to explore new or intriguing words they encounter, even having kids teach the whole family about their newly acquired vocabulary. Families can also support their pre-teen to practice critical thinking and independent exploration — skills essential to secondary school academics — through research using books, news articles, magazines, and other texts to learn more about a subject. Books offer a great opportunity for older students to explore personal interests, too, which is critical on the path to college and career readiness.
Looking for more ways to support families to boost literacy skills?
ParentPowered is an evidence-based family engagement curriculum that provides simple information about child development and ideas for what caregivers can do to support their child’s learning and growth. Here are six sample text message sets from the ParentPowered curricula, all geared towards reading skill development. ParentPowered covers all of these domains at each age level; what’s below is just a sample.
FACT: Babies are social and love interacting with YOU most of all! A great way to interact with your baby is to copy their sounds. It’s a conversation!
TIP: After feeding, spend some time lying next to your baby and copying their sounds. When they coo, coo back. Copy all of your baby’s little sounds!
GROWTH: Keep copying your baby. Now copy your little one’s actions. When they look at you and smile, look at them and smile back!
FACT: Rhyming games are a great way to build your child’s knowledge of sounds. As your child rhymes, they learn that words can share common endings.
TIP: As you give your child’s spoon to eat, say words that rhyme with spoon: moon, soon, cartoon… Can your child say the rhymes, too?
GROWTH: Keep rhyming. Now say words that rhyme with book. Try: look, took, nook… add silly words too (splook, zook). Can your child add a rhyme?
FACT: When children develop a love of books, they are more motivated to someday read. You can build a love of books by snuggling up as you read together.
TIP: Before you start a story, gather pillows in a corner and make a reading next. Snuggle up and get cozy with your child as you read the story together.
GROWTH: Keep snuggling up with books. You’re getting ready 4K! As you read, ask questions about what’s happening. Why did he do that? What do you think will happen
FACT: Reading is about more than building academic skills. It’s an easy and fun way to support kids as they explore their growing interests.
TIP: Plan a trip to the library this week. Before you go, chat with your child about interests. Ask, “What’s something you want to learn more about?”
GROWTH: Keep exploring interests with books! At the library, invite your child to find a few books about their interests. The librarian can help if needed.
FACT: Kids this age are reading longer books with more details. Asking questions about what they’re reading checks their understanding. They’ll grow as readers!
TIP: At bedtime, check in about books. Ask, “What are you reading?” Then try, “Tell me about the story so far?” Ask, “What do you think will happen next?”
GROWTH: Keep checking for understanding. Now, ask your child to read a page or two of their book to you. Ask, “What did you find interesting about that part?”
FACT: When middle schoolers read their writing out loud to you, they hear how their words flow and catch mistakes. It’s a great way to grow writing skills.
TIP: Before your child turns in a writing assignment, ask them to read it out loud to you. Avoid commenting. Just ask them to read slowly so you hear each word.
GROWTH: After your child reads their writing aloud, mention things you liked. Then ask, “Did you catch any mistakes as you read? Notice anything to edit?”
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