If you’re in the field of education, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve probably heard the term “Science of Reading” being tossed about. It may feel like the latest trend or swing of the pendulum, but the Science of Reading has been around for decades. In fact, it’s been more than 20 years since the National Reading Panel’s summary of the research about early reading development and instruction to that point.
The Panel determined back then that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were all essential elements of beginning reading instruction. They also identified methods that had been found to be effective for teaching those elements. Much more research has been accomplished since the NRP’s report was released in 2000, so the findings have become more refined, but the basic conclusions haven’t really changed.
That’s all the science of reading is—it’s the accumulated body of evidence about reading development and instruction. This evidence is not just from education research. It includes findings from psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and other fields, as well. The science of reading “movement” began gaining steam a few years ago, after journalist Emily Hanford published the first in her series of articles and podcasts about reading instruction in the US.
Armed with information from Hanford and spurred on by frustration over stagnant reading scores and anger over startling inequities, educators and parents joined forces to challenge the status quo. Much of the research was not new, but it somehow had never made it into the hands of teachers. One of the targets of the frustration and anger turned out to be teacher preparation programs.
In fact, a Facebook group called “Science of Reading-What I Should Have Learned in College” has well over 100,000 members and has inspired numerous spin-off groups for specific grade levels or states.
As a result of the attention and pressure from traditional and social media, schools and teacher preparation programs have begun re-examining and changing their practices related to reading instruction. The movement has led to the adoption of new curricula and an explosion in professional learning opportunities for educators.
The Science of Reading & COVID-19
The timing of the science of reading movement and the resulting shifts in practice happened to coincide with the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools were shutting down and moving to remote learning. The shift to online instruction forced teachers, many of whom had previously resisted using technology, to learn about new tools and methods and to rely on these for their day-to-day practice.
Ultimately, this leap into remote teaching led many teachers to become more comfortable using technology in their instruction and in their own learning.
In response to the pandemic, many companies made their online materials available for free, and teachers were able to explore new ways of teaching. The online communities that had sprung up in the months before the pandemic to promote the science of reading now became resources for learning about educational technology, as well. This, in turn, made these communities even more influential.
During this period, web-based professional development became the new normal. Webinars and online chats exploded in popularity. One particularly powerful shift was that reading scientists found ways to connect directly with teachers, and teachers began to hear about reading research directly from those who were generating it.
At the University of Florida Literacy Institute, we created a virtual teaching resource hub to make free online reading instruction materials available to teachers. More than half a million users have accessed the site since it launched in March 2020. Our webinar series about teaching reading online has been viewed more than 250,000 times. Education technology made it possible to continue teaching, and in some instances, that teaching was quite effective.
New Times, New Tools
As schools have returned to in-person instruction, many teachers are bringing both educational technology and the science of reading into their classrooms in new ways. To model how to pronounce sounds of letters while wearing masks, teachers demonstrate via video. To model how to use magnetic letters while maintaining social distancing, teachers are making use of document cameras. To allow students to work together on comprehension activities, while their seats are spread apart, teachers are using online collaboration and engagement tools.
Teachers who had previously resisted using digital texts have found that they can be an inexpensive way to provide access to books. Students can use online decodable books to practice their developing word reading skills, and they can use online read-alouds to build oral language and vocabulary. The use of assistive technologies, such as text readers has also become more ubiquitous.
Teachers and parents alike have discovered the power of apps for skill-building. Teachers have figured out how to use learning management systems to enhance their face-to-face instruction. They have also figured out how to leverage video conferencing tools for teaching reading and for communicating with families.
Even familiar tools, such as word processing or presentation applications have been used in new ways. For example, teachers are using Google Slides for small-group instruction, assigning each student a slide to work on, while the teacher monitors them all simultaneously in grid view.
New roles of education technology in many schools were solidified by teachers’ growing comfort with and appreciation for how it could support their students and, in many cases, make their planning and instruction more efficient. Combine this growing comfort with technology with their growing knowledge about the science of reading, and teachers are more ready than ever to try new things.