What is the Science of Reading?

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Jennifer Cole

Jennifer Cole, Content Director, Literacy, Humanities, and Languages

In this episode, Jennifer Cole returns to the Westchester Words podcast to provide a comprehensive overview about the concepts that form the foundations of Science of Reading, an approach to teaching literacy that has come into sharp focus in state legislatures around the country.

Read about legislative proposals states have considered or enacted about Science of Reading in this blog post

Watch Hollis Scarborough, Ph.D., explain the Scarborough Reading Rope in “A Case History of a Twisty Metaphor,” courtesy of The AIM Institute for Learning and Research

Episode Transcript:

[00:07] Nicole Tomassi: Welcome to Westchester Words, Education, Ed.Tech and Publishing. I’m Nicole Tomassi and in this episode, I’ll be speaking with Jennifer Cole,Content Director for Literacy, Humanities, and Languages here at Westchester Education Services. During this episode, you’ll learn more about what the Science of Reading is and equally important, what it isn’t and why it all matters. Jennifer, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to Westchester Words.

[00:31] Jennifer Cole: Thanks, Nicole. It’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:33] Nicole Tomassi: I’m wondering if you could start things off today by explaining for listeners what the Science of Reading is.

[00:40] Jennifer Cole: Yeah. So the Science of Reading, which is a buzz term that I feel like is just everywhere these days in educational publishing and in education in general. It’s a research-based approach to teaching reading. It emphasizes the importance of systematic instruction, explicit instruction in a couple of major areas including phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary fluency, and comprehension. And it links a lot of these things together. So for a visual, my favorite thing to think about is the Scarborough Reading rope. Dr. Hollis Scarborough created this model to show visually the skills and processes that go into reading. So, if you think about a really strong piece of rope, a strong piece of rope has a number of different smaller pieces of intertwined rope that give it its strength. And the Science of Reading to me is really what’s making up this reading rope. Right? So in the reading rope, we have like two main things: word recognition or decoding. And that’s where the phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, those all make up the word recognition portion of it. And then we have language comprehension. So, these are all of your critical thinking skills and your ability to comprehend the text that you are reading, which also includes vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge and literacy. And so when you really have a strong foundation, a strong rope, a strong support, then you’re going to be able to have a stronger mastery of reading. And that is the Science of Reading.

[02:32] Nicole Tomassi: To bring it down to my level, I’m thinking back to when my kids were young and you had flashcards with an image of something that they would relate to, like a ball or an apple, and maybe the word was broken down into the syllables that make up the word apple or maybe said apple or ball. So, is that where we start with the phonics and the literacy awareness?

[02:56] Jennifer Cole: Yeah, sure. So those flashcards are absolutely going to be an element or a teaching tool that teachers are going to use as part of the Science of Reading. So, it starts a lot before that where really young students so, for example, right now I have a three year old and my three year old is just starting to learn about letter sound association. So the idea that a letter represents a sound and when I see this letter, say for example, I see the letter A and it’s going to make that ah sound like an apple. And so then I might see a picture of an apple and it might just be an apple at first. And I might go to get this understanding that sounds make up words and when I combine sounds, apple that I’m making a word and so that’s phonemic awareness. And then you get into phonics, which is combining letters and sounds to make up words apple. And then you start doing it in a print way, right, so you’re increasing your fluency and then you’re also at the same time you’re thinking about vocabulary because the word apple isn’t really going to have any meaning if you don’t understand what is an apple, right? So visual representations of vocabulary, oral acknowledgment of vocabulary, as well as eventually you’ll be able to read definition apple, a common fruit, a terrible definition of an apple,
Nicole Tomassi: That’s okay.

Jennifer Cole: But with all of these things, you’re putting together all of the skills that you need to be able to understand. Not only do I understand, but this is the word apple. A-P-P-L-E spells apple because I’ve broken it down. And that is the Science of Reading. It’s the breaking down and the building up.

[04:40] Nicole Tomassi: Okay, so it’s the individual strands that make up that rope that you referenced before.

[04:46] Jennifer Cole: Yes. So what I was just talking about is just one of the two strands, the other strand being not so much the word recognition, but the language comprehension. The Science of Reading absolutely deals with language comprehension, but right now it’s focusing a lot on phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, as well as comprehension instruction. So, yes, it all goes together and makes up that very strong rope.

[05:14] Nicole Tomassi: Made over years, many, many years.

[05:16] Jennifer Cole: It takes a long time. Yeah, there’s a lot of factors that go into reading, and a lot of states have things like, for example, I live in Ohio, and we have a third-grade reading guarantee which says that students are going to be instructed in such a way that by the end of third grade, they will have reached a specific level of reading. And the Science of Reading is one of the things that supports that language acquisition, that fluency acquisition. So that by the time that my student gets to the end of third grade, I can confidently know because of the way that they’re going to be taught in school, that they will at least be able to read at this level.

[05:55] Nicole Tomassi: So the idea is that by having the phonic awareness and then the phonemic awareness and the fluency and putting all these different concepts that make up that Scarborough rope strand, by putting all that together and having these building blocks and building upon this, over a matter of time, children will attain the literacy levels that are expected. Is that a fair way to look at this?

[06:25] Jennifer Cole: Yeah, that’s definitely a fair way to look at it. The instruction is systematic, it is formulaic. It starts early and it continues most often through early primary grades. So usually by about third grade, there are thresholds that teachers and educators expect to see and then they can provide more specific instruction to students on a needs basis. But yeah, younger kids start early so that they can acquire reading.

[06:59] Nicole Tomassi: Going on a slightly different pathway, there was a significant decrease in the NAEP reading scores nationally in 2022 and for math as well, and certainly a piece of that was due to the pandemic and everything that kind of upset education during those couple of years. Do you think that is also leading to this demand around the country for these literacy programs that are using the concepts of Science of Reading?

[07:24] Jennifer Cole: I think that’s certainly a contributing factor. Reading has always been one of the foremost things in education. Study after study has shown that students who are fluent readers will have more success, period. So, if you have a good reading foundation, you are going to have one of the keys that you need to unlock a successful career and be successful within society. So yeah, I think that decrease in the reading scores certainly contributes to it. I think that also having the research come out and be able to really point to something and say, hey, when we instruct reading in this way, which we’re going to call the Science of Reading, students have more success and they have therefore more long-term success.

[08:15] Nicole Tomassi: Is this just a new name for something that’s already been here?

[08:19] Jennifer Cole: In some ways I think that yes, we are now putting a new label, the Science of Reading, on skills and strategies that have been in place in classrooms for decades. So I’ve been in educational publishing now for close to 25 years. And in my tenure, what I have seen is from the very first reading program that I ever worked on, the very first day that I started, I was working on phonics instruction, and I have worked on program after program where phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension are really the key points within the instruction. So whether it’s called the Science of Reading or whether it’s not, this kind of comprehensive reading instruction has been here for quite a while. I think what we’re going to start to see is a little bit more refinement of it and more emphasis on the need for this deep, especially phonics and phonemic awareness instruction with the younger kids. Whereas a lot of emphasis in the past have been placed on the love of reading. I certainly am an advocate of loving reading. I mean, books are my life, but love is not something that you can force onto a kid and it’s also not something that you can measure. As far as I know, we have yet to come up with a test. There’s no metrics for the love of reading, but it is easy to assess where a student is requiring more instruction about the tenets of the Science of Reading. That’s where I think the pendulum is swinging to, that it is still so important to give students a print rich environment where they can see themselves reflected in the materials that they read, that have wonderful fiction and nonfiction selections with which they can practice. And most classrooms do have all of these things. So if the pendulum is swinging anywhere, I think it’s swinging a little bit away from this idea of kind of like the Cozy Book Nook where a student might just curl up and because they love reading so much, somehow they will just be able to read. I’ve never seen that happen. I would love to, but swinging a little bit more towards the Cozy Book Nook where a student is curled up with a text that they can read because they have been given the foundations to allow them to effectively decode the content of this book.

[10:51] Nicole Tomassi: As you had noted earlier, you’ve spent more than two decades in this profession and working on developing content for reading. And it sounds like a lot of the educational publishers and ed tech companies are already incorporating a lot of these principles in the products that they’re developing. From your vantage point as a professional as well as your vantage point as a parent, what do you think people who are working on these programs should be keeping in mind?

[11:17] Jennifer Cole: Oh, what an interesting question. I think the people who are working on these programs should be keeping in mind that while it does have a new label of the Science of Reading, the foundations of what’s already happening have been happening for a while. So, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re maybe mixing things up or paying a little bit more attention to how we instruct certain skills and strategies, but that overall, the building blocks that go into making up these materials are probably already well known by the folks who are working on them. And then as new materials come out, that it is so important to ensure that it’s not just the systematic practice that gets highlighted, but also that the books really do appeal in some way to students. And there’s a lot of different ways and there’s not one size fits all when it comes to the materials that publishers are providing for students. So again, I’ll go back to it does need to be a print rich environment. Students absolutely need to have materials that are accessible to them at their reading level at the current age. So, age-appropriate phonemic awareness, high interest phonics, fluency readers where kids see themselves, vocabulary, that is both academic vocabulary, but also interest level vocabulary. What are the words, how are the language structures being used to encourage kids to keep reading? So again, this is not love of reading, this is Science of Reading. But putting all these things together as well as that comprehension instruction, allowing students to see themselves and to be able to comprehend the materials that they are reading and then to gain that confidence so that they really do start to embrace their own proficiency in reading, whether or not they like it. I know kids who do not like reading at all. There’s one of them in my house, he does not like to read. He’s really good at it because he had those foundations. So, I would just encourage publishers to keep putting out really meaningful materials that hopefully in some kids are going to spark joy, spark enjoyment, and maybe they’ll get to that love point with reading and for other kids are going to give them the opportunities and the materials that they need to be successful. Because reading is not a natural thing. It is something that we all have to learn, and it has to be instructed. Otherwise, you really don’t learn reading. It’s not breathing, it’s not eating, it’s not sleeping. It is a learned mechanism for success.

[14:07] Nicole Tomassi: I think that’s a great note to end this on. So before we wrap things up, is there anything else you think people need to understand about Science of Reading?

[14:17] Jennifer Cole: It can be really fun. These materials, a lot of times really just they’re visually interesting and it is a lot of fun to work in the reading space. And I’m personally glad that the Science of Reading is the label that we’re using because I think that for a long time, reading had maybe been seen as something more emotional than scientific and it’s not. It is a really scientific process and I was glad when the results of all these studies started coming out. So, I think that folks who are out there who are working within the Science of Reading are doing a really good job. I look forward to working on more content and building upon the libraries of materials that are already out there. And I especially look forward to seeing what the individual states are going to do because it is really kind of neat to see all of these different states now saying, hey, we’ve had a lot of different types of reading programs. We’ve called it a couple of different things. But let’s really prioritize our students and make sure that we’re going to give them the materials that they need to have as much success as possible.

[15:28] Nicole Tomassi: Thank you again for joining me on Westchester Words and making sure that I could comprehend Science of Reading along with everyone else listening in. And I look forward to talking to you again at some point about something in literacy, humanities, and languages.

[15:42] Jennifer Cole: Excellent. Thanks so much for having me and I look forward to next time.

[15:50] Nicole Tomassi: Thank you for listening to this episode of Westchester Words. If you’re looking for previous episodes or want to read additional content that has been shared by some of our guests, please visit our websites, westchesterpublishingservices.com and westchestereducationservices.com for an international perspective check out our sister podcast, Westchester Words UK and International, available on the Westchester Education UK website, westchestereducation.Co.UK or wherever you stream podcasts. We love hearing from our listeners and welcome your emails at Westchester Words at westchestered.svcs.com. Tell us what you enjoy hearing on our podcast or suggest topics that we can cover in future episodes. Speaking of future episodes, I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Westchester Words, when we’ll be having another engaging conversation about a topic of interest to the education, ed tech and publishing communities. Until then, stay safe, be well and stay tuned.

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