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The Science of Reading: First Steps

The term “science of reading” has become a buzzword recently and there is often confusion over what the term means. Sometimes teachers think this refers to a specific curriculum, program, or method, but the term actually refers to a large body of research on reading. It encompasses thousands of studies on reading. Perhaps my favorite explanation of the science of reading comes from Louisa Moats who explains, 

“First, the body of work referred to as “the science of reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don’t learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students.”

What’s devastating is that this information is not new. In fact, a pivotal report on reading called The National Reading Panel was published back in the year 2000. Instead of fully embracing the research, many professors, departments of education, publishers, and authors ignored it and continued to promote resources and methods that were not aligned with research. Even though there were many reading experts, cognitive scientists, researchers and more who were expressing the science behind reading acquisition, this information was not filtering down to those who needed it most: teachers.

Perhaps a major contributor to why the science of reading is finally gaining so much traction is APM reports reporter: Emily Hanford. If you haven’t listened to her podcasts on reading, I highly recommend them! Start with Hard to Read, then Hard Words, and then At a Loss for Words. I recommend listening to the podcasts over just reading the articles.

My journey to learn about the science of reading began about 3 years ago when my 7 year old son was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and depression (you can read more about it here). As I began to research what dyslexic students need in order to read, it led me to learn what everyone needs in order to read. I was shocked, angered, and disgusted! Why had I never been taught these things? Even worse, I had been taught ineffective methods for teaching reading. I felt guilt over the students I could have helped if I had been taught these things in college! I began to apply the things I was learning with my son and as his reading steadily improved, so did his self-esteem. I witnessed his wounds healing through the power of effective reading instruction. I know that sounds dramatic, but he had literally hit rock bottom and I learned first-hand how the ability to read has such a powerful impact on a child’s life. Please read about his journey with depression and dyslexia here.

It can be overwhelming to overhaul your reading instruction, but you don’t need to do everything at once. Here are 8 simple steps you can take to begin your journey into the science of reading.

1. Learn

Begin to gradually learn all you can about the science of reading. You won’t learn everything at once and that’s okay. It’s a process. I have been steadily studying for 3 years and I am still constantly learning new things! Read books, listen to podcasts, watch webinars, participate in professional development trainings. An easy place to start is with a PD training that I recently created for my master’s program. I feel strongly that every student deserves a teacher knowledgeable about the science of reading, so these are free. You can find them at this website. Please know that this is only meant to be the beginning of your journey...there is so much more to learn! I highly recommend going to this page for a list of some of my favorite, well-respected resources for learning more about the science of reading.

2. Stop using the 3-cueing system

You may not be familiar with this term, but the cute and popular “beanie baby” reading strategies are based on the 3-cueing system. This is when you are asking students to figure out a word by looking at the picture, the first letter of the word, skipping the word and then figuring it out by using context, etc. These are guessing strategies not reading strategies. There is no research to support these. In fact, what the research tells us is that these are things that poor readers do, not good readers. So when we teach our students these strategies, we are literally teaching them to read like a struggling reader and we are inhibiting the process that is necessary for them to store these words in their memory. We want our students to keep their eyes on the words, to process each letter, and to decode from left to right. No guessing!

3. Replace predictable texts with decodable texts

The only way for a brand new reader to “read” a predictable text is by using the 3 cueing strategies described above. This creates ineffective habits that are hard to break and will ultimately lead to reading failure. What happens when there are no more pictures and the sentence structure and vocabulary are more complex? Some time around 3rd or 4th grade the strategies that held these students afloat will fail them.

Replace those repetitive, predictable texts with decodable books that are filled with sounds and words they have been taught and are able to decode. These generally include all the F&P levels A-D. Also, remember that decodable books are like training wheels...they are temporary and you want to get rid of them as soon as you can. Once students have a solid foundation in phonics, you can move to regular trade books.

4. Teach phonics explicitly and systematically

One of the big differences between balanced literacy and structured literacy (instruction aligned with the science of reading) is the approach to phonics instruction. Balanced literacy tends to sprinkle phonics here and there, mostly addressing certain concepts as they come up in the errors students make within the texts they are reading. But there is a lot of research to support a systematic and explicit phonics approach. We want to be proactive and move through a set scope and sequence that leaves nothing to chance. If you don’t have a solid phonics curriculum, make finding (or creating) one a top priority. There is no one correct sequence of skills, but in general, look for a sequence that starts with simple concepts and moves to more complex ones. You can find a sample sequence here. Then make sure to plan your phonics lessons to follow an I do, we do, you do format.

5. Encourage phonemic awareness

One of the most common sources of reading difficulties is poor phonemic awareness. Make sure to spend time on this concept in your classroom! You can embed this practice within your phonics lesson, and you can also spend a few minutes before your lesson on these skills. Research supports about 6 minutes a day on phonemic awareness activities.

6. Build vocabulary and background knowledge

Continue to surround your students with beautiful texts, conversations, and read-alouds. We never want to neglect the language comprehension side of reading instruction. Reading aloud to students is a wonderful way to expose them to grade level content and vocabulary. We can beef up this instruction by explicitly teaching vocabulary words and being intentional about the concepts and subjects we teach in connection with our books.

7. Create a support network

It’s hard to do all these things alone! Reach out to others at your school or district for help and support. Take a quality training together, start a LETRS cohort, or create a science of reading book club. There is also a wonderful online community of educators at various stages of learning.

8. Have grace

It’s easy to become discouraged, defensive, overwhelmed or guilty for the methods you have used in the past. I know because I have been there. But there is an important phrase that is often used in the science of reading community: When we know better, we do better. Try to show compassion for yourself and others! Don’t dwell on past mistakes, but use these feelings to propel yourself forward and do the best you can for your current and future students! They need you.

I wrote my first blog post on the science of reading over two years ago. I was so frustrated with what I had not been taught and wanted to shout what I was learning from the rooftops! I am so excited that the science of reading movement is FINALLY moving forward. Teaching our students to read is one of the most powerful gifts we can give them! Try not to be overwhelmed as you begin to dive into all the resources available. Just put one foot forward at a time and know that you are changing lives with each step you take!


  1. Hi Lindsay, I’m a grade 1 teacher starting this journey on my own and am very overwhelmed but happy to have found your blog and PD! Would you mind sharing what phonics program you use?


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