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Decoding the Science of Reading

Decoding the science of reading

The findings of over 50 years of brain research informs our understanding of how best to teach reading and writing to our children.

Unlike learning to talk, learning to read is not innate to the human brain. And since our brains are not pre-wired for reading, there is tremendous opportunity in understanding the neural circuitry that happens for a child to turn sounds and symbols into words. For more than 50 years, brain research has informed our understanding of how children best learn to read and write, why some have difficulty, and how we can effectively assess and teach our students. New research about the brain and how it learns is always evolving, and as educators, we are crafting and modifying our instruction accordingly.

It is a common misconception that science-based reading focuses entirely on phonics instruction. Research clearly demonstrates that students require skills in several different domains, including phonics, to read proficiently. In the Lower School, we adhere to the National Reading Panel’s five pillars of reading instruction, each playing a critical role in developing young, skilled readers.

1) Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual speech sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Phonemic awareness forms the building blocks for linking sounds to letters, and it is a critical foundational reading skill because it helps children understand how sounds combine to form words.

Through various instructional activities, students learn to hear, blend, segment, and manipulate those sounds. For instance, in a junior kindergarten class, activities are intentionally planned to target specific skills. As the teacher supports students as they play a sorting game, she may prompt, "Tell me the last sound in the word ‘map’?" or "Let’s stretch the word out so we can hear all the sounds. What sound do you hear at the end?"

In older grades, teachers guide students to manipulate the medial sounds in a word—often in subtle ways throughout the day. For example, as students in a second-grade class transition to recess, their teacher might take that time to prompt them, "Say the word ‘cat.’ Now say cat but change the /a/ to /o/." Practice like this for just five to 10 minutes a day is enough for students to grasp the skills needed to continue building a strong foundation.

2) Phonics

Phonics instruction teaches students that letters represent the sounds of spoken language. Research shows that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is critical to developing proficient readers, and students in our Lower School have ample opportunities to learn and practice phonics. For example, kindergarten teachers lead students through the Orton-Gillingham "Three-Part Drill." During this multisensory lesson, their students orally identify letter-sounds, practice blending three- and four-letter words, and write letter- sounds in sand trays. They then go on to independent practice in decodable texts, where they can apply the phonics skills that they are learning to their reading in context.

By third grade, teachers are explicitly teaching in a few groups while their classmates are independently practicing skills they have already been taught. To support decoding and encoding, teachers provide manipulatives to help students break apart and more easily analyze how multisyllabic words are put together. And charts displayed around the room help students gain a stronger understanding of how vowels work within small parts of words. This level of differentiation and support is no easy feat, and our teachers work to tailor instruction in phonics even as students move through syllabication into more complex word work.

Little boy reading

3) Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read text accurately at an appropriate rate with proper expression. It’s often referred to as a bridge to comprehension because, when a child can read fluently, it frees cognitive resources to attend to meaning. Our youngest learners work to develop fluency at the word level followed by the sentence level. Students learn to “scoop up” words and attend to punctuation as they read. For instance, in first-grade classes, students reread texts, act out their favorite part, and read together as a group or class.

By second grade, many students can read longer texts with confidence. To support comprehension, teachers dedicate time for reading with expression. They share that hearing students giggle as they read because their character is laughing or speaking as a stern parent because this is what the text is telling them to do, brings joy to the learning process. The connection between fluency and comprehension is an important relationship and one that our teachers in older grades work to foster.

4) Vocabulary

As children read more complex texts, they must learn the meaning of new words that may not be a part of their speaking vocabulary. Our teachers use direct and indirect instruction to teach vocabulary. Through indirect instruction, teachers intentionally weave new and interesting words into their classroom instruction and discussions. For instance, first-grade teachers recently read their students a book that allowed them to learn the words nourished, foretold, rally, and stewards. Students had fun trying to incorporate this new vocabulary into conversations with their peers!

In the Lower School, direct vocabulary instruction happens daily as students learn specific words that are important to subject matter content and comprehension. For instance, in fourth grade during social studies instructions, teachers expose students to unfamiliar words like loyalist and patriotism within the context of the American Revolution. Understanding the base word, how students might use it in everyday conversation, practicing how the meaning might slightly change depending on the form of the word, and then inserting the word back into the historical context is one way they explicitly teach vocabulary.

5) Comprehension

We read to understand. To comprehend a text, students must use their background knowledge, decoding skills, vocabulary, and critical thinking strategies. Like the other pillars of literacy instruction, comprehension skills are explicitly modeled, taught, and practiced in junior kindergarten through fourth grade.

For instance, junior kindergarten teachers recently read Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim. The classes discussed the main character’s actions and how they give the reader clues about what emotions she is experiencing during her first day  of school in a new country. They analyzed character traits like brave, playful, and kind. As the teacher reads, students made connections between the text and their own lives and predicted what would happen next in the story.

A favorite learning experience in third grade is the mystery unit. This unit explicitly teaches how to analyze a character, attend to clues that the author includes throughout the book, and synthesize all this information to solve the mystery.

A Multifaceted Journey

Phonemic awareness lays the foundation,  phonics bridges the gap between sounds and letters, fluency paves the way for comprehension, vocabulary enriches understanding, and comprehension brings it all together. By embracing these science-based pillars and tailoring instruction to the individual needs of each student, Country Day teachers empower young learners to unlock the world of literature and knowledge with confidence and proficiency.