What is the “Science of Reading?”


Have you heard people talking about the “science of reading”?

What’s that all about? 

You might know that it has something to do with phonics.

But this conversation can get a little murky. So in today’s post, I’m going to explain what people usually mean when they talk about the “science of reading,” what excites me and concerns me about this conversation, and the best, science-based practices you can take away and use in your classroom.

Here's an in-depth look at the reading wars and the science of reading you keep hearing about. How did these "wars" start and what does research say about how kids learn to read? This blog post will fill you in on what you need to know and provide some best practices you can take away and use in Kindergarten, first grade and second grade.
Photo Credits: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

The Reading Wars

To understand the “science of reading” and this whole controversy, it’s important to have some background info about the Reading Wars. 

The Reading Wars refer to a long-running controversy over the “best” way to teach reading. It’s a debate about whether phonics or whole language is best. You probably already know what phonics is, but maybe not whole language.

Whole language, if you’re not familiar, is a philosophy that focuses on making meaning from real reading and writing experiences. In a true whole language classroom, phonics are only taught “in context” – so for example, you might only teach the “ea” spelling pattern if you’re helping a child read the word “speak.”

Side note – I don’t think we should polarize reading instruction like this – I’m just presenting the history here.

Anyway, the Reading Wars have been going on for decades. But in 2019, several major news outlets ran stories about how most teachers in the U.S. are teaching reading the “wrong” way. This poured fuel on the fire, and the reading wars were re-ignited.

So what IS the “science of reading”?

As you can imagine, there have been many, many scientific studies done about how children learn to read, reading in the brain, etc.

In reality, the “science of reading” term should be used to refer to a wide body of research that encompasses many, many things – decoding, comprehension, fluency, etc. There is so much more to the science behind reading than just phonics.

But when many people refer to the “science of reading,” they’re often talking about the importance of teaching phonics systematically and explicitly. Many say that teachers aren’t providing strong enough phonics instruction, and that’s the reason why we have so many students reading below grade level in the U.S.

Some proponents of the “science of reading” also state that guided reading and leveled texts should not be used. Instead, students should read decodable (phonics-controlled) texts to practice the phonics patterns they’re learning.

A decodable text typically includes only A) words that students have learned as high frequency / sight words and B) words that students should be able to decode, because they only include phonics patterns that the students have been taught.

This is an example of a decodable or phonics-controlled text. This blog post explains what a decodable text is and discusses the science of reading!

(This is an example of a decodable text from my phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling.)

Some also argue that children should not be prompted to decode words by considering what makes sense or what fits grammatically in a sentence (you may have seen the 3 cueing systems discussed as part of this conversation).

If you’re not familiar with the 3 cueing systems, here’s what they are:

M (Meaning) – Does the word you read make sense in the sentence?

S (Syntax) – Does the word you read fit grammatically in the sentence?

V (Visual) – Does the word you read match the letters/phonics patterns?

So that’s what this whole “science of reading” thing is mostly about! And yes, I know there are more nuances and I’m sure I’ve missed some of them, but I hope that this explanation was at least a little bit helpful.

What excites me about this conversation:

  • I think this movement is a great wake-up call for many. In the U.S., we need to do a better job of teaching phonics to ALL our students! AND we need to do a better job of educating teachers on how to do that. Personally, I had to do a lot of reading and pay for training in this area because I didn’t feel prepared by my college courses.
  • I hope this movement will bring better reading instruction to our students with dyslexia and other special needs! I’ve worked with so many students who have dyslexia or were struggling with reading for a variety of reasons. These students really need explicit, systematic, multi-sensory reading instruction. I hope this conversation results in education better meeting their needs. (And by the way – your non-dyslexic students benefit from systematic, explicit phonics instruction, too!)

What concerns me about this conversation:

  • In education, the pendulum tends to swing to extremes. I would hate to see the “baby tossed out with the bath water,” so to speak. There are many reading practices going on in classrooms that ARE good. Let’s not view this movement as completely overhauling our reading instruction – but rather, as making shifts and changes to better serve our kids.
  • In education, initiatives sometimes become oversimplified (see previous paragraph about the swinging pendulum!). Busy administrators or school leaders, who don’t fully have time to dig into research or understand context (they have a million other things to worry about!) may fail to see the nuances of this conversation. Or their school is struggling, and they believe that one single change (i.e. implementing more phonics instruction) will fix everything. This could lead to schools completely throwing out successful initiatives and focusing too much on rote phonics drills. I’m not saying that this will necessarily happen…but we need to keep a close eye on this.
  • People are attacking each other in this debate. Not cool! It’s one thing to bring awareness and another thing to shame others. No one person has all the answers!! Scientists are still learning how reading and the brain work. When we talk about the science behind reading, the science doesn’t just have to do with phonics! I do not personally use the term “science of reading” in the way that it is often used (to refer to phonics instruction) because the body of scientific studies about reading covers way more than just phonics. Regardless, I think it’s important to realize that we are ALL still learning about teaching reading; no one knows it all. We do NOT need to be attacking each other.
Here's an in-depth look at the reading wars and the science of reading you keep hearing about. How did these "wars" start and what does research say about how kids learn to read? This blog post will fill you in on what you need to know and provide some best practices you can take away and use in Kindergarten, first grade and second grade.
Photo Credits: ucchie79: Shutterstock

 What you can do:

  • Although the science of reading encompasses far more than just phonics (it also includes comprehension, vocabulary, etc.), learning more about teaching phonics is a great place to start. If you don’t know much about teaching phonics or feel deficient in this area, please follow along with me. In the next few months, there are several opportunities for you to learn more.
    • I have a brand new FREE mini audio course on teaching phonics! You can sign up to get that HERE.
    • In September 2020, I’ll be doing some live webinars all about teaching phonics.
    • Join my FREE Facebook group that’s all about teaching phonics in K-2.
    • Last but not least, I’m releasing a brand-new phonics program, complete with videos and resources to help you better understand effective phonics instruction. From Sounds to Spelling will launch in September!
  • Remember that you are likely doing MANY things right in your classroom when it comes to teaching reading. Make whatever changes you need to make, but don’t throw away everything you’re doing to focus solely on phonics instruction.
  • Pay attention to your language when you’re prompting readers. Encourage them to use the print – the letter sounds – when decoding. But when they monitor for meaning or self-correct because something didn’t sound right, praise that! Proficient readers DO naturally pay attention to more than just the letters on the page – they notice when something doesn’t sound right or doesn’t make sense, and then they go back and fix it (hopefully using phonics!).
  • Be the voice of reason at your school. If you notice the pendulum swinging too far in one direction…speak up!

I hope this post was helpful to you in understanding this debate. Stay tuned for more blog posts and resources for teaching phonics!


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9 months ago

Alison, thanks for this excellent explanation. I love how you emphasise that we should not be attacking each other if we have a difference of opinion about “the best way” to teach reading. I am one of those teachers who believes explicit phonics instruction is necessary but am not a proponent of decidable text. I feel children need to be exposed to text which is more meaningful and which have more opportunities for us to include comprehension instruction as kids learn the code. I’m also concerned that there seems to be a limited discussion about teachers reading stories to children… Read more »

9 months ago

I was excited to read the article, knowing that there is growing momentum for bringing more evidence-based practices into typical reading instruction in most of our nation’s schools. You have a wide audience, so I was hopeful this would attract some interest in what the science of reading is and launch people on a journey of learning more about it… sadly, I don’t think you have adequately represented even a small bit of it in this article. You start and stop with phonics instruction. That is the basis of the “reading wars”. Essentially by describing science of reading as more… Read more »


I’m Alison, a literacy specialist and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at my school. I love getting kids excited about reading and writing – and sharing teaching ideas with other teachers!

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