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The Science of Reading Supports a Comprehensive Approach to Early Literacy Instruction... An Overview with Dr. Molly Ness

Categories: Early Literacy, Education & Teaching, Educators, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age

What is the Science of Reading?

“The science of reading is an interdisciplinary body of knowledge about five decades in the making that shows how the brain learns to read. To be proficient readers, children need to be able to lift the words up off the page through decoding, and then have the necessary language skills to understand them,” says Dr. Molly Ness, a reading researcher and Learning Ally’s Vice President of Academic Content. 

Composed of scientific research that has been conducted around the world and across several disciplines, such as education, linguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, the science of reading reveals the skills required to read proficiently and the best practices for teaching those skills effectively. 

Illustration of Scarborough's Reading RopeAs illustrated by Hollis Scarborough’s (2001) reading rope, proficient readers are efficient in two categories of reading skills: word recognition and language comprehension. Word recognition skills, such as phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle, allow readers to instantly recognize words or use decoding for unfamiliar words; language comprehension skills, such as vocabulary and background knowledge, enable readers to make meaning of those words.

Effective Early Literacy Instruction Is Comprehensive

“It’s really important to note that the two processes of decoding or word recognition and language comprehension are not hierarchical; one does not happen after another,” Dr. Ness explains. “In other words, we don’t want to just give young kids in Kindergarten lots and lots of word recognition and ignore or overlook language comprehension because what we know is that these things develop simultaneously. We need to expose kids to all of the comprehension components, as well as laying the foundations in word decoding and word recognition.”

Although it’s not quite clear why early reading instruction often emphasizes word recognition skills over language comprehension skills, research shows that this practice is misguided. “When we look only at word recognition or phonics, we’re really glossing over what the science of reading entails,” Dr. Ness says. “So, while we may have kids who can decode, if we don’t talk about all of the sub-skills in language comprehension, we’re not really going to make a mark when we are trying to improve reading scores, which focus heavily on comprehension.”

The lack of instruction in language comprehension skills can have long-term consequences for students. “Ultimately, as adult proficient readers, we read for the sole purpose of making meaning,” Dr. Ness says. “So, we read for enjoyment; we read for information; we read for entertainment; we read to be a member of a literate society – so, to take a bus schedule or to fill out a voter application; and all of those tasks and foundations lie in the ability to make meaning of what you’re reading. If you are just able to decode the words-  but you don’t have the context to understand them -  you’re not getting to that effective, efficient, purposeful reading for meaning.”

Educators Need Research-Based Curriculum

To help students become proficient readers, educators need research-based curriculum that helps them provide effective reading instruction. Dr. Ness explains that effective reading instruction is explicit, provides teacher modeling, includes a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student, and follows a logical progression of skills. “And it needs to be multi-faceted, meaning it focuses on decoding and word recognition while increasing comprehension and vocabulary and oral language and all of these other things. So, it needs to be wide in its reach and not myopically focused on phonics and decoding just as one foundational skill.”

Because so many reading curriculum programs focus on building word recognition skills and lack instruction in language comprehension, Learning Ally offers a solution to bridge that gap. Excite Reading™, an award-winning supplementary literacy program for grades preK-2, is designed to increase students’ vocabulary and background knowledge through a rich e-library of diverse human-narrated authentic texts.

“Excite Reading™ helps kids who are early in their reading processes by giving them exposure to texts that they will likely not be able to decode on their own,” Dr. Ness explains. “So, these are sophisticated texts that have novel ideas, novel concepts, and vocabulary that is beyond their reading level. And what we know is that when kids are able to listen to the teacher read the text or that when kids listen to an audiobook of that text, we are getting to those parts of the Scarborough reading rope and language comprehension that they will not yet be able to do independently. So, we’re exposing them to vocabulary words; we are giving them rich background knowledge that supports their comprehension.”


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