I had the pleasure of attending the Plain Talk About Literacy and Learning conference in New Orleans, where I witnessed literacy heroes present on current research. What I learned there and what I continue to learn through my own exploration has expanded my understanding of the science of reading and how to teach children to read.
Disclaimer: I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but the science of reading is new to me. I am just scratching at the surface of the different research and practices that are out there. As I learn, I write things down to help me process. The posts that I will be sharing are reflective of the current stage of my learning, and I admit I have a long way to go. I will probably come back and reread my posts along the way and perhaps cringe when I do so, because while my understanding is expanding, it is still so limited. However, I think it’s important that I share along the way in order to serve as an example of how we all need to be open to continuous learning as educators, and to show that it’s okay to not be an expert right away. It’s also okay to challenge the way you’ve always done something in the past. And by the way, if you’re ever following along and thinking, Oh no, girlfriend. You’ve got this all wrong, please reach out to me and teach me! 🙂
A Little Background
In college, I was trained in teaching children how to read using a systematic approach that was rooted in linguistic knowledge. However, once I began teaching, I did not have the opportunity to apply what I had learned because, well, I’ve never taught below second grade! My experience teaching is mainly in second and third grade and I consider myself to be an effective teacher of reading at this level. I have tested and refined my practice around close reading, comprehension, word study, writing, and guided reading. These are some of the areas I feel make up a large part of literacy in the upper grades. In my experience, by third grade, most children have enough of an understanding of HOW to read, so we begin to shift the main focus on reading to make meaning. (Of course this is not everyone). Reading instruction at this level looks completely different from reading instruction in Kindergarten and first grade, where students are being taught how to read. Personally, I feel like these are two completely different worlds. It’s baffling to think that a teacher who has only taught in fifth grade can be moved down to Kindergarten the next year, or vise versa. As my friend Brittany jokingly suggested in New Orleans, maybe there should be two different teaching credentials for elementary—one for primary and one for upper.
The Science of Reading
There is a systematic and research-driven method for teaching children how to read. When children are not taught each component of early literacy in an explicit way, gaps can form and it can be difficult to detect and remedy later down the line. There are crucial times in a child’s development to learn specific skills that help lay the foundation for proficient reading, beginning in as early as preschool.
Early literacy begins with phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is commonly used interchangeably with phonemic awareness, but there is a slight difference between the two. Think of phonological awareness as the main category. What falls under this main category is a subcategory called phonemic awareness. Both of these are awarenesses developed through listening and speaking, not by reading or writing. They are auditory, not print. But I’ll go into this deeper during another post.
Experts such as Louisa Moats have helped to pave the way for what we understand to be the science of reading, or how humans learn to read. Her work is grounded in linguistic theory around how our brains process sound naturally and well before we begin to learn to read. We learn to listen and to speak naturally, but reading and writing is a man-made practice that involves explicit instruction. We move from speech to print. However, children are not naturally aware that their spoken words are made up of individual phonemes. This is discovered. Therefore, it’s key for educators to deliver systematic and explicit instruction in order to help students develop their awareness, so that when it comes time to introduce print, children can anchor the print to the already memorized (or “mapped”) phoneme sequences. This is a concept known as orthographic mapping. More on this in a follow-up post.
The research done in this area debunk the idea that children learn to read naturally through metacognitive strategies—an educational philosophy known as the whole language approach. Whole language proponents believe that when surrounded by rich enough text, students don’t need explicit and systematic lessons breaking down the reading code. Instead they believe that students will store entire words in their memory and be able to recognize them on sight. In order for this to be accurate, humans would have to use their visual memory to store printed words. However, it has been proven that this is not the way we process and store words. Instead, we store letter strings in our long-term memory by way of orthographic mapping.
If we used our visual memory to store words, it would be challenging to read different variations of the same word automatically. For instance, the same word can be written in all caps, a mix of upper and lowercase letters, in different fonts, or, of course, in different handwritings.
This same word is not challenging to read in all its forms because even though the visual appearance is varied, the letter strings are not. And our brains store letter strings in long-term memory by bonding them to the phonemes that we already have awareness of and have stored in our memory.
The role that visual memory DOES play in reading relates to alphabet recognition and the area of reading comprehension that relates to visualizing text as you are reading as a means for processing.
From Research to Practice
I will attempt to bridge the research to real-life practices in the classroom in an effort to speed up the “research to practice pipeline.”
Since we know that we learn print through sounds, it’s important that teachers help students develop a solid awareness of sounds. Click here to read my next post on the implementation and use of a sound wall instead of a word wall in order to place the emphasis on PHONEMES and not print.