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The Science of Reading
What is it? What does it mean? And what does it mean for your teaching?
I’m Kevin Carlson, and this is Teachers Talk Shop.
This whole conversation about the Science of Reading really is about what materials and what practices meet the needs of as many students as possible.
Wiley Blevins is the author of numerous best-selling books about phonics and reading, and recently he recorded a presentation about how to know whether or not the materials and practices that teachers use align with the Science of Reading. Now, here’s Wiley.
Recently, there's been a national conversation about how we best teach young learners to read. This conversation has been couched under the umbrella: the Science of Reading. We certainly have a large body of information about how to teach children to read. This information has come from educational researchers, cognitive scientists who do brain research, linguists, school practitioners like yourself, and so on. So all of these sciences have come together to show us how best to get children to the fastest and smartest start to learning how to read. During this conversation, a lot of districts around the country have been looking at the materials they use to teach children to read, to see if they are aligned to the Science of Reading. So today I'd like to talk a little bit about what we mean by the Science of Reading, and how we know whether or not the materials we are using are actually aligned to this body of knowledge. There are a lot of terms you're going to hear in this conversation. For example, you might be hearing about Scarborough's Reading Rope, which plays an important role in our conversation today. He says that skilled reading requires decoding, plus language comprehension. When we look at the decoding piece, we're really talking about foundational skills like phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, and phonics.
When we talk about language comprehension, we're really talking about the role that vocabulary and content, or background knowledge, plays. We're going to explore both today.
I'd like to start with the area of decoding and how you can tell whether or not your instructional materials, where you're teaching these foundational skills, where you're teaching children how to decode or sound out words, are actually aligned to the Science of Reading. And there are really four guideposts that we use. The first guidepost is related to scope and sequence. The second aspect or the second guidepost is that the instruction needs to be systematic and explicit, and that gets to our third guidepost: daily application to reading and writing. The fourth guidepost is assessment.
Now that you have an overview, it’s time to dig a little deeper.
Coming up, more from Wiley about those first three guideposts, after the break.
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We know that in order to effectively teach phonics, we need a clearly defined scope and sequence. This is a scope and sequence that goes from easier to more complex skills. Confusing letters and sounds are separated, and so on. This scope and sequence really provides the spine on which all of the instruction rests. It is really a roadmap for you as teachers. What to teach. When to teach. How much focus to give each of these skills. Having a defined scope and sequence really allows you to determine whether or not children are where they need to be in terms of building their phonics knowledge.
But having a scope and sequence isn't enough because what can happen if you have a scope and sequence is you can just treat it as a way of marching through skills, exposing children to skill after skill after skill. And that's not going to be effective. A really smart, effective, impactful scope and sequence has a built-in review and repetition cycle. Once we introduce a new skill for most of our students, it takes a significant amount of time to get to mastery and we have to get to mastery so that they can then transfer those skills to all reading and writing situations. So for me, when I introduce a phonics skill, I want to make sure in the instruction for the next at least four to six weeks, there is consistent review and repetition activities. So in the blending work that I'm doing, in dictation and the stories, the decodable texts that children are reading, all of that is absolutely essential.
The second aspect or the second guidepost is that the instruction needs to be systematic and explicit. We hear these terms all the time. Certainly systematic is related to having a scope and sequence. We teach those skills as a system. We go from easier to more complex. But teaching as a system means that we have really rich, impactful conversations with our students about how that system works. So great phonics instruction is engaging. It's thought provoking. Children are making observations about words and thinking and talking about how words work. They're engaged in activities like wordbuilding, where they're playing with letters and sounds and developing and deepening their understanding of how English words work. If we're doing word sorts, they're talking about what they notice, what they observe about these words that will help them when they read and write. When we talk about explicit, we're really talking about the initial introduction of these phonics skills. We explicitly state the sound-spelling connection. We explicitly state that the Sss sound, for example, is represented by the letter S. That is what is aligned to the Science of Reading. An explicit introduction to the skill where the teacher is modeling how to sound out words with that skill and then giving children direct opportunities, guided practice opportunities to apply that skill in words and also in connected text. When you look through the lessons, you'll also see opportunities for them to apply it in writing through dictation, which has guided spelling, and through the reading of connected text, what you'd call decodable text or accountable text where a high percentage of the words are decodable, based on the phonics skills students have learned.
And that gets to our third guidepost: daily application to reading and writing. During the initial part of the phonics lesson, you absolutely will be having children sound out words in isolation, but that needs to directly be followed up by having them sound out words in connected text, decodable text, like I said before, where a high percentage of the words can be sounded out based on the phonics skills that children have learned. These texts can also have some high-frequency words like the word "the," the most common word in the English language. Having these high-frequency words in there allows the text to be natural-sounding and comprehensible. And this text might even have a few story words, some really interesting engaging words, so that the stories really excite children and stories that children want to read and reread to develop fluency. So, for example, if we are working on the phonics skill short u and we have a story about an animal getting stuck in the mud, we might choose to have the story about an elephant. It's a story where really interesting children love reading about elephants. It can make the story really funny. The elephant is stuck in the mud where "it" "is" "stuck" "in" "mud." All decodable, a high percentage of decodable words, but the word "the" is a sight word, the most common word in English. And the word "elephant" would be your story word.
Now it's not enough just to read these stories. The most impactful instruction has students write about these stories as follow-up. When we ask children to write about the decodable stories that we have them read, it requires them to use words with the new skill in writing. That's putting all of their learning to the forefront and really forcing them to think about how to use that new phonics skills to communicate their ideas. So if it's fiction, we could be writing a retelling. If it's informational, maybe we're listing some facts that we've learned. But this kind of reading, writing, follow-up practice, this application should be an enormous part of a phonics lesson. We teach the skill in isolation and then we immediately go to application, and that should be at least half of the lesson. Writing gives us a really great insight into where children are in terms of their reading progress because we know writing lags behind reading. So if children are starting to apply those skills to writing, then we know that they can use those skills in reading.
So, let’s recap. In order to align with the Science of Reading, instruction and materials need to meet 4 guideposts. The first guidepost: instruction needs a clearly defined scope and sequence. The second guidepost: instruction needs to be systematic and explicit. The third guidepost: instruction needs to include daily application to reading and writing. That brings us to Wiley’s fourth guidepost. And that’s coming up, after the break.
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The fourth guide post is assessment. So assessment needs to inform instruction. We know that. When it comes to phonics, there's some very specific kinds of assessments that are required and some very specific ways to look at those assessments. The first thing I want to talk about is how we look at those assessments. Any phonics assessment that we do must be viewed through two lenses: the lens of accuracy, and the lens of automaticity. Certainly if we give children a list of words to read with the phonics skills that we have taught, we want them to accurately be able to read those words.
But the automaticity, the speed, the fluency with which they can read those words is another key indicator. So, for example, I can have children read a list of 10 words and get them all right. I can have other children come over, read the same list of of 10 words and get them all right. If one student is able to read them in 10 seconds and the other student takes a minute, it gives me the type of information I need to know what to do next instructionally. So looking at the assessment information through these two lenses is critical.
We also need two types of assessments. Comprehensive phonics assessment and cumulative phonics assessment. Let me talk about each of those. A comprehensive phonics assessment is really a survey of all the skills that you would learn in a phonics continuum, starting with just identifying letter sounds, going to reading short vowel words, long vowel words, complex words, multisyllabic words, and so on. Giving a comprehensive phonics assessment is absolutely essential at the beginning of a school year. It's great to give mid-year and at the end of the year because you can then determine which students know the skills from the previously taught grade or grades. That really helps you in terms of determining the types of instruction some of your students might need during small-group time and allows you to make sure that you're plugging in any holes, any skill deficits that your students might have so that you build the strongest foundation possible.
The second kind of assessment is even more critical. And it's a cumulative assessment. It's the kind of assessment that's missing from most instruction but is so critical for phonics instructional success. The cumulative assessment is an assessment that looks at the target skills and previously taught skills. I like to go back at least five or six weeks. So every week I'm pulling a few students and having them read a list of words with the skill from this particular week and the previous five to six weeks. Over time, I'm revisiting these assessments and these students. So I will have an assessment from one week, maybe a couple weeks later I'll assess these students again. And those skills are still on the assessment and a few weeks later and so on. Why is this so critical? It helps me determine whether or not students get to mastery of skills. So if they have some checks for accuracy on week one, when I assess and then week three, those checks for accuracy start to not be there. That tells me that the learning is beginning to decay. Decayed learning is one of the most critical issues in phonics instruction. If we don't hold on to a skill long enough, often that learning begins to decay or slip away. These quick assessments every few weeks with with my students really alerts me to these issues so that I can fix that before they become serious reading problems.
The same thing with mastery is if all of a sudden these checks appear more and the checks for automaticity appear more, I know children have mastered them. They can transfer those skills and so on. So when we look at the decoding piece of the Reading Rope, we know that we need a clearly defined scope and sequence. We need to have instruction that is systematic and explicit. We need daily application to reading and writing because it's in the application where the learning sticks, and we need both comprehensive and cumulative assessments. And we need to also look beyond those assessments: data from student reading and writing to inform our instruction, both whole group and small group.
Now let's look at the language comprehension piece of the reading rope. This is where we're talking about vocabulary and content or background knowledge. Certainly in order for us to comprehend what we read, we need to know the meanings of the majority of the words in the text that we are reading. We also better comprehend text when we have a lot of content knowledge about the topic we're reading about. In this conversation about the Science of Reading, you'll probably hear a lot about the Baseball Study. There was a study where they had the participants read an article about baseball. The participants who came to that text with a lot of background knowledge comprehended it better, more deeply, had a more nuanced understanding. Those who didn't have that content knowledge didn't do as well.
It would be no different than if I gave you and your doctor an article from a medical journal. You both would get something from that article, but your doctor would get a more nuanced understanding, a deeper understanding, would notice connections among ideas, and so on that you would not. What this means for us and what we're teaching beginning learners is that we need to spend equal amounts of time on decoding and language comprehension, vocabulary building, and background knowledge. We can do that through, for example, the read-alouds that we provide children. So while they're reading these very simple decodable stories, every day we should be reading aloud to them. Maybe read fiction in the morning, informational texts in the afternoon, and lots of texts around the same topic so that children have exposures to the same words and the same ideas in slightly different ways so it deepens their understanding of these words. This has to be an essential and critical part of early reading instruction. This is building that deep knowledge core so that when children progress through the grades and encounter more complex texts, they will have the decoding foundation as well as the vocabulary and the content knowledge to handle those more complex texts. And that's what we need to do as educators.
Coming up after the break, Wiley’s final thoughts about the Science of Reading.
Interested in learning more? Benchmark Education is releasing Wiley’s new professional development book on phonics in September 2020, titled Meaningful Phonics: Fine-Tuning the Powerful Practices That Maximize Student Learning. This book simplifies the complexity of phonics and helps educators take their foundational skills instruction to the next level.
Go to www.benchmarkeducation.com/PDessentials to purchase your copy today.
So this whole conversation about the Science of Reading is really important to us, not only our knowledge about how we teach children to read, but our evaluation of the materials we use to teach those children. And it's not that these materials are all bad, and no child has ever learned using them. Or these materials are all good, and all children learn reading them. The conversation really is about what materials and what practices meet the needs of the majority of students, as many students as possible and as efficient and as effective as possible. We have a very short timeframe in order to build that foundation. We want to do it rapidly, and we want to do it well.
I always say that teaching reading is one of the best gifts we can give a child. It's a gift that once is given it can never be taken away, and it will forever transform that child's life. I consider it an honor to be able to do that every year, to teach children to read. But I also think it's an enormous responsibility to do it right and to do it well. And I thank you all for the conversations you're having now around the Science of Reading to do it right and to do it well.
Thank you, Wiley.
If you want more information about scope and sequence, systematic instruction, daily application of reading and writing, and assessment, please check out the first 3 episodes of this podcast.
We are shifting our focus for the next several episodes and turning to an issue all you teachers are dealing with daily: distance learning. Some call it remote learning or online classrooms. But whatever you call it, schools, administrators, teachers, and students—and parents—have had to adapt, radically and quickly. We’ll be exploring several aspects of this new reality of your teaching life in the weeks to come. One thing is certain: We’re all learning together.
For the TeachersTalkShop podcast, I’m Kevin Carlson.
Thank you for listening.