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The Science of Reading

Susan Lambert shares her opinions on key points in the reading education debate

Does reading really matter that much now that we’re in the digital age?

Yes! In fact, in the digital age, when we encounter so many different texts and messages every day, our critical and analytical abilities may even matter more than ever. Without a rich vocabulary and background knowledge that we can apply and utilize, we will get tripped up in the digital age. We won’t know how to analyze and critique information without that background knowledge to guide us. So it’s absolutely important that we help students build that knowledge so that they are prepared to unpack and understand the many pieces of content that bombard us each day.

Reading consists of two different things: decoding and comprehending. Because so much digital content is text-based, decoding is still an essential skill. Text is prevalent on television and social media and in electronic games. And of course we still need to decode in order to vote or take a driver’s test. So this aspect of reading is critical in a digital age. But comprehension, which relies on background knowledge and vocabulary, is still essential, too.

And this isn’t a brand-new discussion. Historically, each time there has been a new innovation (for example, television), people have questioned what might die off as a result. As television became popular, people predicted it would kill reading, but it didn’t. Even though there is a television set in almost every household, people are still reading, because it gives us something that television does not. (And in fact, people are reading more than before—a 2017 NEA study found that the number of poetry readers grew by 5% between 2012 and 2017 [Iyengar, 2018].) Reading makes us more active in the creation process; we bring ourselves differently to texts, which ask for a different kind of focus and engagement. This digital transformation is the same: reading practices may shift, but they won’t disappear.

For years, phonics (or, more recently, synthetic phonics) has been promoted as the key to reading. What’s your opinion?

There’s actually a clear amount of research demonstrating that systematic phonics instruction is the key to reading. The National Reading Panel says that in order to read, students need systematic and explicit phonics instruction. It isn’t enough just to put books around kids and expect that they will learn to read. That’s because to be a reader, one has to lift the word off the page. And this ability to decode text isn’t natural. But even though learning to read is not a natural process, there are lots of things we can do to equip kids to read. While we know that reading is not an easy process, the simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) highlights that reading requires skills in two major areas: readers must convert written words into speech (decode), and they must understand that speech (comprehend). As language comprehension and word recognition begin to mesh, reading becomes increasingly strategic and automatic, eventually leading to skilled reading. Phonological awareness instruction has been shown to improve reading outcomes for students, especially when phonological awareness is practiced with decoding (Torgesen, Wagner, and Rashotte, 1994; Troia, 1999). Providing simultaneous instruction in phonological awareness and phonics has a stronger impact on the early literacy skills of struggling students than instruction in one of the domains alone (Haskell, Foorman, and Swank, 1992; Torgesen, Wagner, and Rashotte, 1994).

What about free voluntary reading? Can kids teach themselves to read if they have access to materials that really interest them?

Reading (and learning to read) is not a natural process; it can and must be taught explicitly. As Dr. Carolyn Strom, professor of early childhood literacy and innovation at NYU, said in a recent episode of our Science of Reading podcast, “Our brains are not wired to read. We have to do a neurological backflip to teach our brains to read.” Students need both the ability to decode written words and an understanding of what the words mean, and the National Reading Panel highlighted that kids need explicit instruction in the learning-to-read process or they will never make progress in their literacy.

In the early grades students still have so much to discover about the world. In many cases, they have not yet encountered some of the topics that will most captivate their interest and attention. That’s one reason that knowledge-rich curricula are so critical: by helping kids learn about the world, we can spark their curiosity, instilling them with intrinsic motivation to explore and read more, and we can give them the background knowledge and vocabulary that are so crucial for reading comprehension.

This approach of combining explicit, systematic foundational skills with rich vocabulary and knowledge is the best way to build confident and capable readers. That’s what gets them motivated and energized to explore more about the topics they want to know better.

How can we close the reading achievement gap?

People have been trying for decades. Every teacher I know wants to help kids achieve success. And yet all too often, they’ve devoted significant amounts of their personal time and resources to figuring out what works. We started the Science of Reading podcast to help streamline that effort, to provide a central place with reliable information that helps all teachers understand what research says students need to learn in order to read in the early grades. So that’s part of the first thing we need to do: continue to help teachers access research- and evidence-based information about what kids need.

We also need to support schools and help them focus that effort. It’s critical that schools have access to strong curriculum based on the science of reading. Educators need to have access to programs that combine effective and systematic instruction (Bodrova and Leong, 2006; de Graaff et al., 2009) with the background knowledge and vocabulary that will support later reading comprehension (Dickinson, Golinkoff, and Hirsch-Pasek, 2010; Kintsch, 1994; Neuman and Celano, 2006; Scarborough, Neuman, and Dickinson, 2009).

Finally, we need to help schools to stick with that implementation and make needed adjustments rather than throwing things out and starting over. Implementation science shows that it takes at least three years to see meaningful impact from a change; despite how frustrating the process can be, we need patience in order to see the results and impact of implementation. We just recorded a podcast with Jack Silva, the assistant superintendent of schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who helps with the district’s educational programming and curriculum development. He shared that it has taken his team the past five years to implement changes, because they have taken their time, remained patient, and worked with each affected member of the community in order to make the implementation as smooth as possible. Time and patience seem to be the key ingredients for implementation. Laurence Holt, author of The Science of Reading Primers (Part One and Part Two), says something similar on another upcoming podcast: learning to read is “actually the biggest chunk of learning that [kids are] going to do for years. It takes multiple years. It’s a big undertaking. They’re going to need time; they’re going to need a lot of support… It’s no wonder that it takes a while.”

So there are really the three big things: we’ve got to help teachers understand the science of reading, support schools and help focus that effort, and allow schools adequate time for implementation and change.

What new methodologies are there to help dyslexic learners overcome reading difficulties?

The brains of children with dyslexia are wired differently, but intensive reading intervention can rewire them.

Children with dyslexia need to learn to read the same way as other kids learn. They just need more time, repetition, and practice to help them build the connections between print and sound in their brains. Therefore, it’s critical to screen students for dyslexia and related reading difficulties early using a strong observational assessment tool.

Then we need to provide them with strong instruction in science of reading practices (especially phonological awareness and phonics) in early grades and introduce carefully planned (systematic) instruction in key domains (phonology, sound–symbol association, morphology, syntax, semantics) to help make the learning stick, important steps in all students’ reading development. These are not necessarily new methodologies, but they are necessary steps for kids to become proficient readers.

It’s crucial to screen all kids for risk factors of dyslexia early so that these types of instruction targeting the most critical skills can be implemented sooner rather than later. We screen and provide strong instruction based on that screening to ensure that students who display some symptoms of dyslexia aren’t overidentified as dyslexic. By screening early, teachers can provide students with dyslexia the support they need, close knowledge gaps, prevent further difficulty, and determine the appropriate instruction to meet each student’s needs.

How can educators make the most of mother-tongue literacy when teaching English learners to read in English?

Educators and researchers have learned that good reading instruction can support English learners (ELs) in numerous ways. First, instruction should provide students systematic, explicit, and comprehensive instruction in the code of the English language.

Using a sound-first approach is particularly supportive of ELs, as it lets them focus first on the sounds in words and then make the translation to how those sounds are represented in the English alphabet.

Offering explicit grammar lessons is also consistent with the best thinking about how to build the foundational language skills needed to learn a second language.

In addition (and if teachers are working with students who are not literate in their first language), teachers can take other steps alongside language supports and scaffolding. First, teachers can provide work on English phonemes that are not present in the students’ native language, as well as extra practice in reading words, then sentences, and eventually stories. Just as reading aloud benefits native English speakers, the same goes for EL students.

As teachers support English learners (ELs) in their language acquisition, they must also make content comprehensible for students.

Research has shown that EL students are at an advantage when they are learning to read in their second language if they are already literate in their first language. If a student is literate in their first language, teachers can focus on differences between that language and English (such as phonemes that do not exist in the student’s native language), with less attention given to elements that will transfer. During vocabulary lessons, however, it’s beneficial for teachers to use cognate words in the student’s first language as synonyms to English words. Building on students’ prior knowledge empowers them to make connections to new concepts and reflect on their own ideas and language use.

However, not all students have the same kind or amount of prior knowledge. Therefore, it’s particularly important that instruction systematically build background knowledge to equip all students with a common knowledge base.

Using visuals to support comprehension also helps students master new language and vocabulary. ELs further benefit from exposure to rich, knowledge-based text, including text that is read aloud. This text will help students encounter academic and domain vocabulary in context, further enhancing their proficiency in the new language. It’s also important that students engage in conversation with peers so that they have lots of opportunities to apply what they are learning.


Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., Dickinson, D. K., and Neuman, S. B. (2006). “Vygotskian Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Early Literacy.” Handbook of Early Literacy Research, 2, 243–256.

De Graaff, S., Bosman, A. M., Hasselman, F., and Verhoeven, L. (2009). “Benefits of Systematic Phonics Instruction.” Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(4), 318–333.

Dickinson, D. K., Golinkoff, R. M., and HirshPasek, K. (2010). “Speaking Out for Language: Why language is central to reading development.” Educational Researcher, 39(4), 305–310.

Gough, P. G., and Tunmer, W. E. (1986). “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10.

Haskell, D. W., Foorman, B. R., and Swank, P. R. (1992). “Effects of Three Orthographic/ Phonological Units on First-Grade Reading.” Remedial and Special Education, 13, 40–49.

Holt, L. (Not yet published). Science of Reading: The Podcast . Amplify.

Irujo, S. “What Does Research Tell Us About Teaching Reading to English Language Learners?” Language Magazine.

Iyengar, S. (2018). “Taking Note: Poetry Reading Is Up—Federal Survey Results.” National Endowment for the Arts.

Kintsch, W. (1994). “Text Comprehension, Memory, and Learning.” American Psychologist, 49, 294–303.

Neuman, S. B., and Celano, D. (2006). “The Knowledge Gap: Implications of leveling the playing field for low-income and middle-income children.” Reading Research Quarterly, 41(2), 176–201.

Scarborough, H. S., Neuman, S., and Dickinson, D. (2009). “Connecting Early Language and Literacy to Later Reading (Dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice.” Approaching Difficulties in Literacy Development: Assessment, Pedagogy, and Programmes, 23–39.

Silva, Jack. (Not yet published). Science of Reading: The Podcast . Amplify.

Strom, Carolyn. (2020). Science of Reading: The Podcast . Amplify.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., and Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(5), 276–286.

Troia, G. A. (1999). “Phonological Awareness Intervention Research: A critical review of the experimental methodology.” Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 28–52.

Susan Lambert is the VP of early literacy instruction at Amplify and the host of Science of Reading: The Podcast. Her career, including classroom teacher, building administrator and district-level leader, has been focused on creating high-quality learning environments using evidence-based practices.

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