Reading Time: 5 minutes

As we realize the importance of a strong foundation in literacy for our students’ academic success, honing our approach to teaching literacy has become a priority for many schools across the region. The timing is just right—today we stand to benefit from a wealth of research on how humans actually learn to read, and how they can be taught to read more effectively, at every age level. This research is now widely referred to as the Science of Reading.

Read on to find out more about this science and how it can help us improve our efforts to support students’ literacy development.

Why Do Some Students Find Learning to Read in English So Hard?

The short and simple answer is: The English language is a bit unusual. There are so many “rules” that no one quite understands, and there is a long list of words that break those rules! Here are a few examples:

  • The alphabet has 26 letters, but a bunch of those letters have more than one sound.
  • We spell and pronounce some words the same, but they have different meanings.
  • We spell some words the same, but they are pronounced differently.

It’s no wonder learning to read in English can be so tough—even for native English speakers. 

What the Science of Reading Tells Us

The Science of Reading is really just decades of evidence-based research from a variety of fields that focus on how our human brains learn to read. And make no mistake about it—learning to read requires our brains to work hard!

Human Brains Are Not Naturally Wired to Pick Up on Reading

When toddlers learn to talk, they pick up sounds and words organically through exposure. We all learned to speak because we heard other people talking around us and, even more importantly, talking to us.

Reading research challenges the misconception that humans learn to read the same way they learn to talk. Reading may be automatic for you and me now, but learning to read once required our brains to work very hard.

Learning to Read Requires More Than Being Surrounded by Books

Although it can certainly be helpful, surrounding children with books, reading aloud to them, and reading with them is simply not enough for most of them to learn how to read. Reading research indicates that, except for a minority of gifted students, systematic and explicit instruction is necessary to learn how to read.

Reading Is a Complex Task for the Human Brain

To read a single word, our brains have to:

  • Recognize the letters in the word
  • Know the sounds the letters make in the word
  • Put the letters/sounds together to form the word
  • Make sense of the meaning of the word

That process can only happen when different regions of the brain work together to make sense of the sounds we hear, connect them to words on a page, and use our prior knowledge and context clues to understand their intended meaning. The image below highlights the four parts of the brain that are involved in reading.

When we read a new word, it gets stored permanently in our brains through a process called orthographic mapping. The ultimate goal is to map thousands of words over time so reading words—and understanding them—happens automatically. But for beginning readers in our classrooms, we have to teach the skills that lead to orthographic mapping explicitly and systematically. 

Infographic displaying four sections of the brain: Context & Meaning Processors, Phonics, Phonological Processor, and Orthographic Processor.

Reading Instruction Should Be Systematic and Explicit

When you’re teaching your students to read, the curriculum should start with the basics and build from there. Emerging readers must master their sounds before letters, letters and sounds before words, words before sentences, and sentences before passages.

When students learn to read methodically, the concepts build on one another, so they can master each skill and gain confidence before moving on.

Reading science has shown that students of all reading levels—whether they are on, below, or above grade-level proficiency—develop the ability to read faster when provided with systematic and explicit instruction.

Empathy and Understanding Is Key to Supporting English Learners

If learning to read can be a complex process for native speakers, it can be even more challenging for non-native learners. The rich diversity of our region means that, for most schools, the majority of our classrooms comprise English Learners.

No matter a student’s background, there are specific strategies you can use to educate multilingual students and help them advance more quickly toward becoming skilled, confident, and fluent readers.

Below are five tips—inspired by this article—that can help.

1. Recognize that a pronunciation error doesn’t have to be a reading error.

Focusing more on student pronunciation than comprehension can skew our understanding of what students know. If they read a word and their dialect or primary language makes it sound different than what you expect, you don’t want to discredit their understanding. This can lower their confidence and impact how you view and teach them, which leads to my next tip.

2. Recognize that language doesn’t determine intelligence.

Avoid equating your students’ dialect with their intelligence or ability to understand what you teach them. Instead, allow your students to be themselves in the classroom without being subjected to any bias we might develop based on their speech. Other methods of evaluating prosody and pronunciation include strategies such as asking students to pretend to be a teacher or a professional speaker when reading a passage.

3. Allow students to contextualize.

Multilingual learners need to build context before reading a story. That’s why contextualizing is crucial to building comprehension and confidence. For example, if your student is reading a story about a girl walking to school on the sidewalk and the word “sidewalk” isn’t in their vocabulary, they might spend more time confused by the word than focusing on the story.

However, taking a few moments before reading to build context about the setting can reduce confusion and allow students to understand the events. Giving multilingual learners time and space to process their learning and build knowledge in these areas can increase their reading comprehension, confidence, and enjoyment.

4. Provide opportunities for discourse.

Before students learn to read and write, they learn to listen and speak, and that’s equally important in a school setting. If you want your students to read, you must allow them and encourage them to speak—in small groups, in front of the class, and one on one. The more practice, the better.

Try incorporating academic discourse throughout the school day by using learning tools such as sentence frames with students. Over time, multilingual learners will begin to understand letter-sound patterns and connect what they hear to what they see on paper.

5. Allow productive struggle.

Interrupting a student while they’re reading aloud breaks their thought process. No one can practice and process simultaneously, and this is particularly true of multilingual learners. So, the next time your students read aloud, resist the urge to correct mistakes the moment they happen. Instead, allow them to complete the sentence first because emerging readers need to practice, but they also need to build their confidence.

When students become low-level readers, it may be because they’re constantly interrupted, and they need more reading practice to become fluent. Allow productive struggle and encourage consistent practice, which will ultimately lead to stronger and more confident readers.

Understanding the Science of Reading and its implications within the classroom is a sizable undertaking, but you are not going through it alone. In fact, most educators across the world are now learning new information that was not covered during their time in college or in their training.

To learn more, check out Curriculum Associates’ free webinar series—Science of Reading: Putting Research into Action. Also, keep an eye out for our next article, which will dive into tips and strategies to implement the Science of Reading in your literacy classroom!