This article assumes the reader is familiar with the Science of Reading. Frequently Asked Questions are embedded throughout the article to guide newcomers.
By Rebecca Honig, Chief Content and Curriculum Officer
When I was in third or maybe fourth grade, I had my friend Nikki over for a sleepover. After hours of racing around the neighborhood on bikes and making keychains out of lanyards and lip syncing to Whitney Houston, she enthusiastically offered up an idea for our next activity.
“Let’s read our chapter books!!” she said with joy.
The second Nikki’s suggestion hit my ears, all the air rushed out of me. I deflated like a balloon after a run in with a thumb tack. It took everything in me to resist shouting, “Get out of my house – and never come back!!!”
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Nikki didn’t know what I’d been hiding from my classmates for years. She had no idea that, while she and everyone else in my grade were reading chapter books, I had not yet successfully made my way through a single picture book.
I’d spend countless hours in the car fumbling over the words in “Dick and Jane Go Go Go.” I’d be able to read a word one day, but the next day, it was as if I was seeing it for the first time. Reading felt like Blackjack. Winning was only possible if I had some streak of luck – really good luck.
At the time, my solution was to have my parents read the same book to me, again and again, until I memorized it. Then, I’d bring that book into school and ask my teacher with great emphasis, “Can I read this to the class?” And the teacher always said yes.
I was a fantastic fake reader.
I performed each book like a play for my classmates, “reading” with enthusiasm and giving each character a different voice. Occasionally, I’d even pause and pretend to sound out a word or two — just to further sell that I was “reading”.
I had them all fooled.
All except the teacher, who sent me to reading recovery classes and threatened to hold me back another year if I did not make progress.
So I did what anyone at my age would do. I asked Santa if I could learn to read for Christmas. I dictated notes for the tooth fairy, instructing her to leave me some basic literacy skills in exchange for my teeth.
Never, not once ever, did it occur to me that there was some pathway, some method, for learning how to read. To me, reading was pure magic.
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That feeling lasted well after those elementary school years. I did learn to read and write (and quite well, too). But I still felt that this learning was simply a stroke of luck. All of that changed when I started graduate school.
Discovering ‘The Code’: Phonics at last
While pursuing my masters in education at Bank Street, I signed up to receive training in an Orton-Gillingham-based approach to literacy education called Preventing Academic Failure (or PAF for short). It’s an approach that advocates for literacy to be taught through explicit and systematic instruction to develop proficient readers.
It was through this training that I understood the “predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).” I uncovered exactly how the roughly 44 English phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet. I mastered letter-sound correspondence.
It was the first time in my life that I was really and truly introduced to phonics.
Put another way, I finally learned “The Code.” And it completely changed my long-held feelings about reading.
Simon and The Code
As part of the training, I had the opportunity to put my newfound understanding of The Code into practice. I was assigned to work with a first grade student using this approach in foundational skills instruction. Simon was 7, and he was a struggling reader — just like I had been.
I met with him every day for 30 minutes, following a systematic routine with explicit instruction, just as I was trained. First, we’d review the sounds he’d previously learned, always in multisensory ways. Then, I’d introduce him to a new sound — in the same way, every single time. He’d write each sound in the air, or watch in a mirror as he felt and tasted it in his mouth. After that, he’d move on to writing each sound down. Finally, we’d do word study, combining and arranging all the sounds he’d learned so far into different words.
I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. The whole process felt rote, like it was sucking the passion out of learning to read. I half-expected that the next time Simon saw me enter the room, he’d roll his eyes and give me a “Ugh, not you again” face.
What is the science of reading?
The “science of reading” refers to knowledge gleaned from linguistics, cognitive science, education psychology, and neuroscience about how children learn to read.
Written language is much newer than spoken language in the span of human history. As a result, we have not evolved to naturally translate a code of written symbols into sound and meaning – otherwise called “reading”. Therefore, it is important to study and identify the most effective practices leading to reading proficiency.
The science of reading is not a specific curriculum or teaching technique. Rather, it is a set of guiding principles for literacy instruction.
Learn more about why teachers, school leaders, and district leaders can trust using the science of reading to inform literacy instruction.
And yet, each and every day, Simon was excited, engaged, and focused during our meetings.
But that’s not all. This process was actually working for Simon.
One of the best and most memorable days of my life came when Simon had collected enough sounds to take on his first controlled reader. It’s a book that only contains sounds a student has learned, so it’s actually decodable — a powerful tool for building towards proficient reading.
Simon got two pages into this book when he suddenly paused mid-sentence. Looking up at me, he exclaimed, “I’m reading this! I’m really, really reading this!!”
And he was. We both cried with joy.
A direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics
Some kids may learn to read in that “magical” way, where the ability seems to land in their lap. But for kids like Simon and me – and the 25 million children in US schools who can not read proficiently – learning to read requires so much more than natural ability.
According to research, a big part of that “more” is phonics – a direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics instruction, like the PAF program I studied.
Why is such a structured approach so important for reading? When educators teach reading and language abilities in carefully scoped and sequenced ways, kids’ brains can better organize the information. This organization allows kids to then quickly retrieve what they know.
Think of it this way: imagine you need to locate a specific pair of socks. Having your socks strewn about the house makes it hard, not to mention frustrating, to find the ones you need. On the other hand, when your socks are carefully sorted, organized and stored, you can easily find the socks you seek, no problem.
Why does the science of reading matter for literacy?
Once children learn how to read, they then read to learn. From kindergarten through the university level, academic success depends on reading ability. Therefore it becomes imperative that all American students become skilled readers in our elementary schools.
Most children depend on their teachers’ instructional approaches to develop foundational literacy skills. But recent scientific studies have shown that many past assumptions about how reading works are not true and have little effect on literacy skill development.
Now more than ever, it is essential that educators apply proven methods to reading instruction – and not solely use personal experience, past assumptions, or non-evidence-based practices. By doing so, teachers best position all students to achieve positive educational outcomes.
Learn more about these recently debunked assumptions and what science now tells us about reading
We also want phonics organized and tidy in kids’ brains to help them retrieve existing knowledge and learn to read most effectively. This means we need to teach them phonics through an organized and structured approach.
The Orton-Approach to phonics instruction is a powerful resource in an educator’s toolkit to build student literacy skills. Each step of the process is carefully laid out and includes:
To see the Orton-Approach in action, watch this sample lesson demonstrating each step. You can also see how this instructor further breaks down a typical lesson taught with this method.
Breakdown of a Typical Lesson
In sum, a direct concept, systematic, multisensory approach to phonics instructions is proven to help students learn to read. And the news gets even better: instructional practices based on the science of reading benefit all children, not just children with dyslexia, English learners, or those from a particular socioeconomic group1. By utilizing these principles in literacy instruction, educators give every student the chance to thrive in their reading journey.
But maximizing a student’s reading potential takes more than just using these principles to teach all the aspects of literacy development. So much of language comprehension and development – both written and oral – occurs outside the classroom, too. Families play a huge role in student learning and literacy beyond school walls. So how do parents get involved in a kid’s phonics learning?
The critical role of parents in literacy preparation
As a family engagement specialist, I am often curious about the role that parents and caregivers can play in developing proficient readers. I and many educators recognized how powerful engaged families are and the benefits they enable, including boosted reading scores, graduation rates, and social-emotional wellbeing.
And I get giddy with excitement when I think about parents and The Code.
Why? Parents are extremely well positioned to unlock The Code with their kids.
Specifically, families can help their children to build phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, which prepare kids to be ready for phonics instructions.
Building phonological awareness at home
Phonological awareness is defined as the ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language. Before children can begin sounding out words in print and learning the rules of the sound-symbol correspondence, they first need to understand that spoken language is made up of sounds. They need to hear language – even play with language – to really build the awareness that sounds combine together in a specific order to make words.
Parents can help children build phonological awareness right from the start. Daily, language-rich exchanges effectively develop kids’ phonological awareness. And because oral language builds phonological awareness, these exchanges can easily be injected into families’ daily routines – no extra work or resources necessary.
What are the key components of the science of reading?
Although a strong reader makes it appear effortless, reading is a complex process involving interconnected skills. The simple view of reading2 organizes all skills for successful reading into two components: word recognition and language comprehension.
Think of these components as multipliers for reading. If students underperform in one of them, their potential reading comprehension is also limited.
Researchers further break down these two components into five fundamental skills: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Learn more about each of these crucial skills in literacy instruction.
Here are a few simple ways for families to help kids develop this important aspect of literacy:
- Singing at bedtime or as families clean up a room not only helps these moments go smoothly, it also builds phonological awareness.
- How about rhyming with daily actions? As parents turn off the light, they can build phonological awareness just by rhyming with the word ‘light’… think ‘flight,’ ‘sight,’ ‘might,’ and more.
- While waiting in line at the store, families and kids can clap out the words they hear in a sentence. Words in a compound word (tooth/paste) or the syllables in a word (mo/ther) are also great candidates for this exercise.
- And of course, families can read books aloud to their kids, playing with words as they do.
Building phonemic awareness at home
Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. Simply put, it’s identifying and manipulating the individual sounds in words, called phonemes.
Phonemes are the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word that make a difference in the word’s meaning. For example, changing the first phoneme in the word ‘hat’ from /h/ to /p/ changes the word from ‘hat’ to ‘pat’, thereby changing its meaning.
Parents can specifically expand kids’ phonemic awareness, too. These activities need no additional time or resources to practice at home:
- In the morning, families can challenge kids to take a step every time they say a word that starts with a specific sound, like /t/.
- They can challenge their child to call out words that start with the first sound in their name. For example, ‘Riki’ leads to ‘rrrr…rabbit’ which leads to ‘rrrr…ravioli’!
- Parents can talk like robots as they walk with their kids in the park or around their neighborhood. They can call out things they see in a robot voice, saying each sound like it’s separate, such as “I see a /d/o/g/!”
- Families can turn a game of toss into an opportunity to build phonemic awareness by breaking words into isolated sounds with each pass of the ball.
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These activities are merely the tip of the iceberg. Watch our webinar Sparking Family Literacy Moments for more inspiration on building phonological and phonemic awareness at home.
Parents have so much opportunity to help children specifically develop these critical aspects to literacy development. All it takes is a little creativity.
Parents catalyze phonics instruction, too!
Both phonological and phonemic awareness underpin a student’s success in learning phonics – the actual association of sounds with their written representation via letters. The good news is, parents continue to be invaluable partners to educators when it comes to phonics instruction.
For any school or program utilizing a direct concept, systematic approach to phonics, kids learn and practice both sounds and letters in a routine way. For example, each time kids learn a new sound, they might write it in the sky with their finger as they say it.
Kids become masters of these learning routines. As a result, kids can easily transfer them to their home routines with their parents and caregivers. This also gives kids a chance to experience mastery of their skills by showing their grownups how to, say, write sounds in the sky with their fingers too.
Better still, direct concept, systematic approaches to phonics tend to use easy-to-make tools to reinforce learning. Parents can access or create tools like word and letter cards to continue phonics instructions at home, just as they might help students practice math with math flashcards.
How does the science of reading impact literacy instruction?
A key tenant of the science of reading is that literacy instructional practices must be both systematic and explicit.
Systematic means teaching follows a predefined scope and sequence with frequent reviews. Systematic instruction has a logical and specific plan for what should be covered and in what order.
Explicit means the instructor shows students what they need to know, giving them guided practice (with feedback) and independent practice with each skill. Explicit phonics instruction goes beyond text exposure and ensures all students have what they need to learn.
Learn more about how systematic and explicit reading instruction enables stronger reading skills in all students.
Creative phonics instruction at home
Kids can also explore this summative aspect of literacy in entirely new ways at home without commonly used instructional tools. For example, they can:
- Build words out of letters they cut from a magazine or find on street signs.
- Practice writing letters and making their sounds as they use a finger to “write” them on a rug or a parents’ arm at bedtime.
- Write words on a steamy bathroom mirror as they watch their mouth form each sound.
Bringing phonics into the home environment not only builds upon learning happening in the classroom, but it also helps kids connect it to a familiar, meaningful and comfortable context. This empowers kids to then discover the power of their burgeoning skills in real-world ways, such as:
- Helping write out grocery lists using sounds and letters they’ve learned.
- Labeling items around the house.
- Writing notes to slip under a loved one’s pillow.
Where can I learn more about the science of reading?
For more information about the science of reading, explore resources such as:
- Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, an article by Louisa Moats
- How the Brain Learns to Read, a talk by Stanislas Dehaene
- What is the Science of Reading, a website from RISE Arkansas.
Contact us to learn how right-sized family engagement can improve student literacy.
And of course, kids can read books. They may start first by sharing decodable readers they bring home from school – but eventually they begin pulling a book off the shelf and snuggling with a grownup to share the story.
The parent voice is magical!
Speaking of books – no matter what letters and sounds a child is working on mastering, parents and caregivers still play a critical role in helping their child develop a love of literacy.
By reading aloud to their child, telling family stories, and even singing to their kids, families help children discover the power that language offers. Whether written or oral, language brings people together, conveys information, and even unlocks new and fantastical worlds.
And that is the true magic of reading.
1Dykstra, S. (2013). The Impact of Scientifically-based Reading Instruction on Different Groups and Different Levels of Performance. Educational Philosophy. Literate Nation, San Francisco, CA.
2Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.