For the last 40 years, scientists across a number of disciplines have studied how our brains turn abstract symbols, or letters, into words — in short, how we learn to read.

Different pieces of research, using cleverly designed experiments and high-tech brain imaging, have created a fairly clear picture of how the brain learns to wire itself to recognize words on the page, and have shown how the brains of high-flying readers wire themselves to make the process automatic.

That’s led to a new idea in some education circles: that there’s a scientific way to teach reading — a systematic approach shaped by those brain-science discoveries that would help most students master literacy by the end of third grade. It’s a system that could be especially helpful to those with learning disabilities, like dyslexia. And the implications might be even more important as school districts and parents seek to teach kids at home in the wake of this month’s widespread school closures. (For a list of resources on teaching reading at home, visit st.news/resources). 

Many educators are focusing on teaching reading today because the U.S. has done a poor job of it. More than 60% of fourth graders are not proficient readers, a figure that has hardly budged in 30 years. Students who struggle to read are more likely to drop out of high school, and may have trouble finding a job in an economy where literacy is imperative. It might be harder for struggling readers to obtain political information that is particularly crucial in an election year, or to weed out rumors about a mysterious new virus. 

These “science of reading” advocates say school districts haven’t followed along as the advances unfolded. Rather, they argue, many school districts continue to follow outdated ideas that may actually make reading harder. 

They say that’s why reading scores have hardly changed in 30 years. A few states have shown slight gains, but Washington is not one of them. A national test released last November showed only 35% of Washington fourth graders are reading at grade level.

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The numbers are worse for low-income students and students of color. Many science-of-reading advocates say that’s because parents who can afford it pay for private tutoring when their kids falter in school. It’s one reason why too little attention is being paid to how reading is taught, and is one of the things that exacerbates the learning gap.

In Washington, a new state law requiring all districts to screen young children for reading deficits, starting in 2021-22, is spurring fresh conversations about the need for change. Some districts, including Mercer Island and Mount Vernon, are doing intensive teacher training to educate early-grade teachers on the science of reading. And a group of Washington educators has formed a new training group, ReadWA, to spread the word.

They’re influenced by groups like The Reading League, a nonprofit founded in Syracuse, New York, which works to demonstrate good reading instruction.

Science of reading

Five pillars of reading

In 2000, after years of combing through the research, a national panel of experts released a report on reading instruction that identified the most important skills students needed to acquire and practice to become good readers. The report was meant to settle a debate over how best to teach reading. But today, the issue is as contentious as ever.

The skills and practices identified in the report are sometimes called the five pillars of reading science. They are:

Phonemic awareness, or an awareness of the sounds made by spoken words;

Phonics, or the ability to associate speech sounds with letters and letter combinations.

Fluency, giving students time to practice so they can read without a lot of effort;

Vocabulary, or the ability to understand what many words mean;

Comprehension, the ability to understand what one is reading.

According to surveys done by the National Council of Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that has studied teacher prep programs, phonemic awareness is the least likely skill to be taught in teacher training programs. The council also says many programs don’t adequately cover the importance of fluency.

 “A lot of what we do is introduce people to the idea that there is a scientific, evidence-based way to teach kids to read,” said Heidi Beverine-Curry, a co-founder and vice president of The Reading League, which recently expanded to Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, and aims to form a chapter in every state.

One of the confounding things about reading research: Many scientists have devoted their entire lives to understanding small slivers of the overall puzzle, but few have put it all together in one place, Beverine-Curry says. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to point to individual scientific experiments or specific brain scans that show precisely how the reading brain works.

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Twenty years ago, this updated understanding of how the brain processes text led to the identification of five pillars of good reading instruction, Beverine-Curry said: phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The ideas were captured in the 2000 report by the National Reading Panel.

The five pillars don’t deserve equal attention at every stage and in every grade, Beverine-Curry said. For example, phonological awareness — the ability to focus on and manipulate individual sounds, or phonemes, in a word — lays the foundation for later skills. Beginning readers who are taught to focus on letter-sound relationships are more likely to be successful at reading.

Identifying words that rhyme, and separating a word into syllables, are examples of phonological awareness.

Phonics instruction — the relationship between sounds and letters — is the reading pillar that’s most often given short shrift. To teach it well, teachers should follow a logical sequence that starts with the easiest skills to master, said Seattle’s Jan Hasbrouck, a consultant, author and reading specialist who is writing a book on dyslexia and reading. 

Students learn the most frequently used skills first, and they learn best when lessons are well organized and focus on the intended outcomes, she often tells the teachers she lectures on reading instruction.

These lessons are explicit: A teacher first demonstrates the skill, then helps students practice in small groups and on their own. And lessons are intensive — they are lively and brisk.

Hasbrouck said good reading lessons should give students a chance to say, read and write a word. Some educators have their students with dyslexia write letters in sand or shaving cream, or trace them in the air, but Hasbrouck says research hasn’t shown that these efforts enhance learning.

Hasbrouck, who moved to Seattle recently to be near family, helped form the new Seattle-based nonprofit ReadWA to provide professional development to teachers. She believes Washington teacher education programs are falling short — relying on an idea that took hold in the 1980s that teachers should tell kids to read unfamiliar words by using clues in the text or illustrations. The method is often called whole language, and it discounts the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness, or the ability to break words into their component parts and play with the sounds. 

The number of elementary programs training teachers in science-based reading techniques is on the upswing nationally, claims the nonprofit National Council of Teacher Quality, which released a national survey of more than 1,000 teacher preparation programs in January. However, NCTQ ranked Washington 42nd overall among the states.

Hasbrouck said there are a growing number of teachers who want to learn the science of reading. Aira Jackson, director of English language arts with the state superintendent’s office, agreed, saying she’s seen and heard evidence that Washington educators are reevaluating the way they teach reading.   

She said, “Because there have been so many articles in the past year on the science of reading, it’s causing people to pause and look at the current practice.”