What is the Science of Reading, anyway?

Watching students learn to read? Magic. Knowing how they get there? Science. Read on to find out how that science works.

By èAV Staff | March 15, 2022

An overview of the Science of Reading

The Science of Reading refers to the wealth of research on how students best learn to read. At its heart is what experts Philip Gough and Bill Tunmer proposed as the Simple View of Reading.

When presented with a passage of text, how do you extract meaning from it? According to the Simple View, you need to do two fundamental things:

1. Convert written words into speech (decoding)
2. Understand that speech (decoding language comprehension)


The Simple View points out that when children first learn to read, they already understand a lot of spoken language. But written words and letters are as strange to them as:

If you can’t decode the symbols in a sentence,you can’t read it—even if you know the language in which it’s written.

The best way to help students begin to read for themselves is to get them started on decoding, so it’s important to teach them that words are made up of sounds (phonemes), and then teach them what sounds the letters stand for. Unfortunately, the English system of writing does not make this easy. With at least six possible sounds for the letter “e,” kids can’t just learn that “e” makes the /e/ sound — though that’s a good start. They have to learn each specific pattern.

We know everyone is born with the language part of the brain — the speech and meaning parts.

Additionally, everyone is born with the visual part of their brain. We easily recognize shapes, objects, places, and faces. However, no one is born with the connections between vision and speech, and these are the connections that enable reading. Instead, you have to build the visual word form area of your brain one connection at a time. For example, to learn that “sh stands for the /sh/ sound at the start of “ship,” a tiny part of your brain gets rewired. Scientists have recently begun to understand how that works, and it turns out it’s a lot like building a muscle. This muscle is called the visual word form area, and it’s the seat of reading.

What does this all mean for teaching and learning to read?

On average, it takes a child two to three years to learn to decode English. It is the toughest alphabetic writing system in the world.

But, like a muscle, you can grow your brain with practice. Heikki Lyytinen, a Scandinavian neuroscientist, showed that the visual word form area begins to appear in the brain scans of non-readers after as little as five hours of training in decoding. Teachers need to help students practice deliberately, focusing on their weakest skills and working hard to improve them.

Language comprehension Literacy instruction

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