Scientifically Based Reading Research and 5 Pillars of Reading

Scientifically Based Reading Research and 5 Pillars of Reading

Scientifically Based Reading Research and 5 Pillars of Reading

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”- Frederick Douglass

As parents, teachers and caregivers, we all trumpet the importance of reading. We are thoroughly convinced of the benefits of reading as conveyed by others or through our engagement with the practice of reading. We find it undeniable that 
  • Reading opens the world to us.
  • It is like an exercise for the brain.
  • It improves our thinking, memory and concentration.
  • It develops imagination and creativity.
  • It develops empathy in us, we learn to understand the perspectives of others.
  • It has an impact on success in school and career.
  • Lastly, it is a pleasurable activity.

Now, there may be many other reasons to believe that reading is an essential skill. We also understand that our children’s early years are critical for lifelong development so we need to embed reading activities during these years.

All of us, have great ideas about how to immerse children in the enjoyable activity of reading using a variety of resources, activities and conversations. We see children engaged in the activity and feel that we have accomplished our goal by initiating children into books, but have we ever been able to measure the outcome? Why is it then even with no dearth of attractive storybooks in the surroundings, few children still struggle to read? Have we ever wondered about the science of reading? What does the research say on how children learn to read? 

As parents, there’s nothing to feel guilty about as most of the schools across the world also have never plunged into this field of study. What they fought is the famous ‘Reading Wars’- advocating the best way to teach reading based on philosophies and beliefs, not Science.

sight words vs phonics - scientifically based reading research

Let’s have a quick brief about these Reading Wars. So, debates about reading go back to the 1800s when Horace Mann, the father of the public-school movement in the United States, condemned the practice of teaching children that letters represent sounds. To him, the letters of the alphabet were "bloodless, ghastly apparitions" and if children focused too much on them it would be difficult for them to comprehend what they were reading. He believed in teaching children to read whole words. This led to the development of the ‘Whole language approach’ which aimed to free children from tedious phonics instruction and lead them to see reading as a process in which children construct their knowledge. For the proponents of this approach learning to read was a natural process and it happens when children are immersed in a print-rich environment. Phonics lessons inhibit children from developing a love of reading by making them focus on the monotonous, dull task of sounding out letters.

On the other side were people who believed in phonics, in teaching children that words are made up of parts and showing them how different letters and their combinations connect to the speech sounds in words.

The Whole language approach was accepted widely owing to its humanistic nature, considering children as actively constructing knowledge but many children still struggled to read.

 In 1997, the US Government formed the National Reading Panel to study the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. In 2000, the panel released a report concluding that explicitly teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters improved reading achievement, deeming phonics lessons essential in helping kids become better readers. No evidence pointed out the success of the whole language approach.

The importance of phonics could not be denied now but the whole language proponents did not shed their belief that reading is a natural process, they continued with their curricula, incorporating a bit of phonics in it. This was called the balanced literacy approach- phonics sprinkled like salt over the whole language approach. So, the reading wars were diffused and Science continued to remain on the sidelines. Hence, many children continue to struggle with reading.

So, what can we do as parents and caregivers to change this status quo? 

We can learn about the science of reading and start conversations about it with teachers and fellow parents.

Dr. Louisa Moats, a renowned literacy expert, says, “Teaching reading IS rocket science.” Reading is a complex process, unlike speaking.

We are born wired to talk. Kids learn to talk when they are surrounded by spoken language. Reading is different as our brains are not hardwired to read. Human beings didn't invent written language until relatively recently in human history, likely no more than 8000 years ago. To be able to read, structures in our brain have to get rewired a bit.

Another important learning from research is that while we use our eyes to read, the starting point for reading is sound. To become a reader a child needs to figure out how the words he/she hears and knows how to say connect to letters on the page. Children have to be explicitly taught how to crack that code.

We are not dismissing the idea of reading as meaning-making as reading comprehension involves more than the identification of sounds and words. Learning to read is a progression from decoding text to fluent reading with inference and comprehension. We need to acknowledge this nuanced approach to teaching how to read.

Also, we need to move past stereotypical critiques of different approaches and using them to shame the proponents, as insulting never helps. We should encourage people to delve deeper into the science of reading and inform their teaching practice.

Let us conclude with a summary of the science of reading.

In 1986, psychologists Philip Gough and William Tunmer developed a scientific theory of reading comprehension called “The Simple View of Reading” that stated

  • Strong reading comprehension happens when both decoding and language comprehension are strong
  • The formula is D x L = RC (Decoding x Language = Reading Comprehension)

In 2001, Hollis Scarborough followed up on this idea with the “Reading Rope,” a model showing that reading happens when word recognition and language comprehension subskills combine.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (US) in its report identified five components essential to reading that needed to be taught skillfully and thoroughly for effective results.

5 Pillars Of Reading

  • Phonemic awareness—the awareness of the smallest units of sound (phonemes) and the ability to manipulate these sounds
  • Phonics—a way of teaching that stresses the recognition of letter-sound correspondences and their use in reading and spelling
  • Fluent text reading—reading with accuracy, at an appropriate speed, and with expression
  • Vocabulary—the understanding of words and meanings
  • Comprehension—understanding the connected text

In the next blog, we will share the practical implications of these findings and concrete strategies we can adopt to help our children read proficiently. Click here to learn the fundamental strategies to teach your child how to read.

Till then, happy learning and teaching!

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