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Science of Reading: Putting the Systems in Place to Support Literacy Instruction

Science of Reading: Putting the Systems in Place to Support Literacy Instruction

Teachers  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership  |  Science of Reading

Anyone who follows education news and trends across the country will agree that there continues to be no bigger buzzword than “science of reading”. As we noted earlier in the year, over 35 states have committed formally to implementing the science of reading. Let’s look in more detail at what this actually means and some of the systems that will help with successful implementation.

Wait. What Is the Science of Reading Again?

The science of reading is a body of research that includes insights from the disciplines of developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience. This research has identified the methods that best help children learn to read, from the beginning steps in spoken language to being able to successfully decode unfamiliar words.

When people hear “science of reading”, a common misconception is that it simply means we need to go back to teaching reading through phonics. While phonics is a component, there are more elements involved that, together, play a major role in the science of reading approach.

The Big Six of Literacy

  • Oral Language: Includes speaking and listening, providing the foundation for written language
  • Phonological Awareness: An awareness of speech sounds, whereas phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds
  • Phonics: An instructional method that involves systematically matching sounds with the letters that represent the sounds
  • Vocabulary: A student’s internal dictionary; it is comprised of words and their meanings
  • Fluency: The ability to read connected text with accuracy, expression, and at an appropriate rate
  • Comprehension: The complex process and ultimate goal of reading that involves constructing meaning from and interpreting texts

Keeping the Big Six in mind, let’s look at “structured literacy”, where skills are taught in a direct way and a logical order. This approach is distinguished by its systematic, cumulative, and explicit methodology. Why are these tenets necessary in literacy instruction? Research about how the brain processes things when we're reading has found that it is an unnatural process; it does not happen naturally like some other things that we learn. What does this mean, and how does it impact how we teach reading? 

There are three different ways that we represent words in our brains–the meaning, the visual representation, and the sound representation. The brain naturally connects sound and meaning, so it makes sense that speaking becomes a more natural process. On the other hand, the visual representation of words is not naturally connected to the sound or to the meaning. So reading becomes an unnatural process that we have to teach systematically with direct instruction, and that is where the structured literacy approach comes in. 

Structured Literacy

When we talk about “systematic and cumulative” within the methodology, this means the organization of the materials is following a logical order of language. This really comes in with our foundational skills and both the order and way in which we teach different sounds in phonics and phonological awareness, then tying that to the visual representation of those words and sounds. “Diagnostic” refers to the way that teachers understand and are able to react to their students’ learning process–really making sure to constantly and continually assess students to be able to make in-the-moment changes to the way that they are instructing. Finally, “explicit” means that teachers are clear and direct when teaching students new concepts, really making sure to emphasize the new ways that we're learning so that our students can learn the “unnatural process”. 

If you missed it, you can watch our recent webinar to

hear us share about our implementation process.

So How Do We Get This Implementation Off the Ground?

How do teachers digest these research-based concepts and incorporate them effectively into their teaching? It isn’t something that can happen by declaration and be applied overnight. Schools that draft an implementation plan for incorporating the science of reading into literacy instruction have a better chance of seeing results in the classroom and with their students. The “go slow to go fast” axiom fits perfectly here, as does “planning the work and working the plan”. And our Art of Implementing Well Framework can help guide teachers and school leaders in this journey for both the short and long term. Below, you’ll find our recommended approach using these implementation phases:

Science of Reading Implementation Phases

Developing a Shared Vision

When launching any new initiative, it is critical to start by laying a foundation of common understanding and common language, just as we did at the start of this blog by reviewing the fundamentals of the science of reading. It is important that the teachers and leaders are aligned in understanding what they are trying to implement and the language they are using before forging ahead.

There needs to be a collaborative learning process for creating an instructional framework rooted in the science of reading before the work with students can begin. In some cases, teachers, grade levels, or districts may be using some aspects of the science of reading already. It is important to understand the current practices, materials, and assessments in the classroom or district before steamrolling into a new method. This vision could take various forms, such as an instructional framework that is aligned to the science of reading or to any new initiative being pursued. This framework can hold both new instructional practices, materials, and assessments as well as tie in any existing ones that fit and are effective. This collaborative learning renders common understanding and knowledge, which leads to the development of a shared vision.

Understanding the Current State

When we support a school or district with a literacy initiative, there are various ways we recommend they gather information on their current state of literacy instruction. We like to use learning walks where we can see what the curriculum looks like in the classroom and notice different teaching strategies in use. It is valuable to observe Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to see how teachers are able to use that collaborative time with their peers and colleagues to look at different student data. Diagnostic pieces are really important for structured literacy and making sure that teachers are continually assessing students. Next, we use all of that concrete and observational data to conduct a gap analysis. We identify the current state based on all of this data we've collected, then we look at our instructional vision and where we're hoping to go. The gap analysis shows what is missing–what the gaps are–and allows us to identify some high-priority areas that need attention so we can move from our current state to our desired future state. 

“95% of elementary students, regardless of background, are cognitively capable of learning to read when they receive sufficient direct instruction on the foundational skills of reading.”

Planning for Implementation & Aligning Next Steps

With the results of the analysis and shared vision of where we want to go, we are ready to draft an action plan for any high-priority areas and begin planning for implementation. There are various ways to start that alignment process. A district might decide its best move is to adopt high-quality instructional materials aligned to the science of reading, or it might start with training all teachers on the science of reading. Alternatively, they might want to work on small changes to their current curriculum, perhaps pilot some new materials for use in tandem with existing ones. It is key to remember that this planning is an ongoing process. The way that we plan must take into account all of the factors that are impacted by the changes we decide to make.

The steps above are the pieces that we’ve seen work really well with districts that we’ve supported in making changes to literacy instruction. The key is to work through all the steps. Sometimes we believe we can skip steps and assume we know what’s wrong and what we need to do, but often we need to engage in the full process to ensure we get the intended results. And as we work through each step, it’s best to continuously get alignment and clarity across all involved teams. All of this foundational work is needed in order to plan for successful, sustainable implementation.

HQIM guide

Implementing with Integrity

Faithfully going through these phases of implementation allows a school or district to assimilate the existing and known with the new. We often hear the phrase “implementing with fidelity” but we believe “implementing with integrity” better serves our students. A lot of districts struggle with the idea that they have to throw out everything and bring in something entirely new. It’s likely there are pieces from old practice that are going to work and continue to work well, and there are small changes that can be made to make progress toward improved literacy instruction. It doesn't have to be a complete 180.

In addition, making sure that teachers feel supported is crucial when implementing change. They need both training and support to be able to do all of the implementation tasks that are related to their role as teachers. And we need to provide teachers with time. Time to digest what they’re learning in professional development, time to try things out in the classroom, time to gather data and reflect, and time to collaborate with colleagues by level or discipline.


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About Michelle Minnihan & Nick Esposito

Chelle is a former MS teacher and current math nerd with a passion for curriculum design and implementation. She enjoys games and the outdoors! Nick is passionate about supporting the happiness, wellness and purpose of educators. He is a Philadelphia-native who loves writing children’s books and playing ice hockey.

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