The Universal Implications of Science of Reading

David Burns stresses the commonality of learning to read across languages

The body of research known as science of reading (SoR) is widely acknowledged among experts as both theoretically and empirically superior to other conceptions of literacy development (Rayner et al., 2001; Kilpatrick, 2015; Seidenberg, 2017). However, there is still some debate as to whether SoR can be universally applied. That is, can SoR-based theories and research effectively inform instruction in, for example, a dual language classroom or a school with a large percentage of emergent bilinguals?

Guilamo (2021) maintains that “emergent bilinguals and dual language students learn how to read differently than monolingual English-speaking students.” As a result, she urges bilingual and ESL educators to draw from a more eclectic blend of reading research, which incorporates among other things the three-cuing system (MSV) alongside SoR’s more code-centered approach. Although salient differences certainly exist in reading development across different languages, an important question to consider is whether this fact warrants the eclectic mixing of seemingly contradictory theories, or whether SoR has sufficient reach to account for the reading development of all students regardless of context or language. A more extensive dive into the science reveals SoR’s scope to be far more encompassing than critics admit.

Before widening our SoR lens, let’s meet Lilia (pseudonym), a first-grade student in an English–Spanish dual language program. Lilia, having extensive literacy experience in Spanish, her native language, came to kindergarten already reading many open syllables (e.g., ma, se, bi, tu) and quickly progressed to reading CVCV words such as mesa and lava, along with several high-frequency words (e.g., voy, puedo, gusta, etc.). A little more than halfway through first grade, she has now grasped the alphabetic principle and is reading many texts that contain three- and even four-syllable words both fluently and with adequate comprehension. Although her reading is not yet as advanced in English, she has progressed enough to read most one-syllable words with vowel teams (e.g., train, learn) as well as words with the silent -e (e.g., tape). She is currently working on decoding one- and two-syllable words with inflectional endings such as trainer and learned.

During a reading assessment, her teacher observes Lilia reading the sentence “The egg jumped” as “The egg hum-ped.” How might we explain this error?

I have asked hundreds of bilingual and ESL educators across the country this question. They typically comment on how Lilia is using her knowledge of Spanish phonics to decode in English because the letter j is pronounced as /h/ in Spanish. Although this is an accurate analysis of Lilia’s reading behavior, it is nonetheless incomplete.

Here is where drawing from the extensive theoretical and empirical work in SoR proves beneficial. SoR researchers agree that when beginning readers are learning to read, regardless of the language, they are faced with three problems: the availability, consistency, and granularity of spelling–sound correspondences (Ziegler and Goswami, 2005). The availability problem reflects how some phonological units are less psychologically accessible than others to nonreaders. Psychologically speaking, syllables are more available or apparent than onsets and rimes, which in turn are more apparent than phonemes (Stanovich, Cunningham, and Kramer, 1984). Teachers regularly experience this when a beginning reader practices the skill of tracking printed words in a sentence such as “I see the monkey” and the student’s finger ends up where there is no print. This occurs because the word monkey has two syllables, and the student has not yet learned to distinguish between the most prominent oral unit, the syllable, and the most prominent visual unit, the word (Mesmer and Williams, 2015).

The consistency problem refers to the fact that some letter sequences have multiple pronunciations and some sounds have multiple spellings (Seidenberg and McClelland, 1989). However, there are some languages such as Spanish and German that are considered shallow or transparent, which means the grapheme–phoneme mappings are highly consistent. This explains why our bilingual student Lilia frequently reads the -ed ending in jumped as /ĕd/, as if it were one of the more consistent grapheme–phoneme mappings in Spanish, instead of producing the phoneme /t/, which is one of English’s many inconsistent mappings.

The last problem to solve for beginning readers, and perhaps the most overlooked by educators, is that of granularity. To understand this problem, it’s important to recognize that the grain size used by a language’s writing system to facilitate access to its phonological system matters; the bigger the grain size, the more orthographic units a reader will need to learn. This is due to the simple fact that there are more words than there are syllables, more syllables than rimes, more rimes than graphemes, and more graphemes than letters (Ziegler & Goswami, 2005). In English for example, the grain-size with the most consistency is onset and rime (e.g., mind, kind, find). Skilled readers of English come to depend on these consistent rime units to facilitate automatic and effortless word recognition. However, because onset and rime is a relatively large sublexical unit, there is a considerable amount of mappings to learn. Spanish, a more transparent orthography, shows much greater consistency at the letter-sound level, and because there are substantially less letters in comparison to onset and rimes, the task of learning these mappings is considerably easier. Furthermore, due to its simpler syllabic structure, researchers posit that the syllable is the most psychologically salient sublexical unit in Spanish (Alvarez, Carreiras, & Perea, 2004). Equipped with the abovementioned theoretical knowledge, we are now able to analyze Lilia’s reading more comprehensively. In decoding the word jumped as hum-ped, Lilia is not only utilizing her knowledge of letter-sound correspondences in Spanish to decode in English, but she is also utilizing the most prominent sublexical unit in Spanish–the syllable. As a result, she reads the word jumped in English as if she were reading a word like “usted” in Spanish, with an equivalent syllabic structure—”us-ted.” 

The good news for Lilia is that her knowledge that letters and letter patterns represent speech coupled with her advanced word recognition skills in Spanish will aid her substantially as she continues her journey to become biliterate (Koda, 2008). However, it doesn’t follow from this that relying on the three-cuing system approach (i.e., guessing from context) or limiting instruction to only the letter–sound correspondences that are more ambiguous in English will benefit her.

In addition to focusing on specific differences at the letter or grapheme level, teachers should also consider at what grain size students are processing words. In Lilia’s case, some explicit work with onset and rime within one- and two- syllable words with inflectional endings would likely prove beneficial. Ultimately, Lilia stills needs to develop the ability to automatically and effortlessly recognize words, and internalizing the appropriate grain size in which to analyze new words with similar structures, among other things, is key to her progress. It should not be lost on the reader that said work is directly related to the decoding or word-recognition piece in the simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), which is the staple formulation of SoR.

Of course, word recognition is not sufficient. Lilia must also continue to develop language comprehension, the second variable in the simple view. This includes vocabulary knowledge, language structures, cultural and other content knowledge, reading-specific background knowledge, and more (Duke and Cartwright, 2021). Luckily for Lilia, much of the abovementioned knowledge, along with some components under the umbrella of word recognition—e.g., certain aspects of phonological awareness—transfer across languages (Cummins, 2012; Ziegler and Goswami, 2005).

My intent in using Lilia’s reading as an example is to demonstrate that the scientific study of reading among bilinguals and students learning to read in another language is well within the scope of SoR. As such, you may wonder why pockets of opposition to SoR persist, particularly among experts in bilingual/ESL education. It is to this question our attention will now turn.

Toward a Universal Science of Reading
Despite the numerous theories under the SoR umbrella, there exists a consensus among SoR researchers regarding the universal aspects involved in reading. The most important reading universal is often referred to as the language constraint. This states that writing is a notational system for language; that is, there is no writing system used in the world today that bypasses language to represent meaning directly. Therefore, learning to read can be accurately described as learning the hidden connections between a particular language system and the written system of that language (Perfetti, 2003; Perfetti and Harris, 2013).

In Lilia’s reading, the language constraint is evident in her appropriation of the most prominent language unit in Spanish, the syllable, to read words in English, which are most consistently mapped using a different grain size, onset and rime. As Lilia gains experience with English both through acquiring more of the language and attending carefully to print (not guessing from context), her brain will begin to deal more efficiently with the unique demands of the English writing system.

Yet some language researchers and experts in the field of bilingualism and ESL education reject attempts to unify complex phenomena such as language acquisition or reading under general principles or universal theories (Garcia, Flores, and Spotti, 2016). The roots of such opposition can be traced back to postmodernism, a school of thought that critiques scientific universals as attempts to control the narrative and subjugate more local forms of knowing. Foucault (1970), perhaps the best-known postmodernist, wrote frequently about how scientific knowledge, such as that of institutions like modern medicine, should not be given priority over more local forms of knowledge, like that of patients.

Similarly in the field of language planning, Pennycook and Makoni (2005) critique modern linguists’ attempts to extract universal principles and deep structures thought to underlie the human ability to acquire and use language. Instead, they prioritize “everyday understandings of language,” which are inherently more local and contextualized (p. 146).

Historically, however, progress in the quest to acquire scientific knowledge has been achieved not by deconstructing institutional knowledge into more heterogenous or local ways of knowing but rather by unifying explanations of complex phenomena under far-reaching explanatory theories (Deutsch, 2011). Consider for example Aristotle’s heterogenous concept of physics, in which rocks fall to the earth and fire rises to the sky because of each element’s unique “nature.” Galileo, and subsequently Newton, disproved this theory by introducing mathematical laws of nature that hold regardless of the element or its location in the universe; hence, Newton’s universal theory of gravitation.

Of course, the science of reading is quite distinct from physics, and even more distinct from the science of teaching reading (Seidenberg and Kearns, 2020). For the latter, contextual knowledge is imperative. Learning never occurs in a vacuum. As educators, we would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that learning is influenced by a myriad of environmental factors.
However, when we shift our focus to how science explains cognitive processes such as language acquisition or reading, we momentarily shed these local/contextual restraints in service of discovering deeper explanatory principles that hold across all learners. Yes, it is true that our brains are affected, and to a certain degree structured and restructured, through exposure to environmental stimulus; however, our brains are not infinitely malleable (Pinker, 2001). We are all born with certain innate circuitry, or universal constraints, which we employ to interpret the world in which we live. The fact that this innate circuitry is necessarily involved in the process of learning to read implores reading scientists to ask themselves what might unite us on the road to skilled reading development. Educators should ask themselves the same question, and in doing so seriously consider how SoR’s findings may translate into better instructional practices for all learners.

Of course, as Share (2021) reminds us, SoR theories fall well short of providing a complete or universal explanation of reading. Scientists still have much to learn about reading because they still have much to learn about the human brain. Nevertheless, if history is any indication, the trajectory of progress will likely proceed through more local or contextualized theories of reading giving way to more universal ones, not the other way around.

From the instructional perspective, it’s uncontroversial that educators should be attuned to both the sociocultural context and local factors within the learning environment; yet it is just as important to understand what unifies learners. In the case of reading, this appears to be certain cognitive processes and constraints involved in learning to read words automatically and effortlessly in any language. With so much division already present in our world today, it’s nice to know we all still have something in common.

References are available at www.languagemagazine.com/references-david-burns-science-of-reading.

David Burns has worked as an ESL/bilingual teacher and coach in Puerto Rico and in various public schools across the U.S. He currently serves as director of language and literacy development for a national learning organization dedicated to improving academic outcomes for K–12 students.

1 COMMENT

  1. I think it’s important not to leave out the fact that Lilia’s challenge with the word “jumped” also involves English morphology. Had she recognized that in English represents the past-tense morpheme, which is pronounced differently depending on the consonant before it, she might have turned to her developing understanding of spoken English to ask herself, “If I today, then yesterday I . How would I pronounce that?” It seems there is a morphological granularity at play as well in the code of written language, at least in English.

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