By Michelle Rimby


The Science of Reading seems to be everywhere, from literacy research journals to mainstream media outlets. A recent Google search of the science of reading yielded over 4 billion results. Much of what we see and hear focuses on how to support children in their ability to decode words and the importance of systematic phonics instruction. But is that all there is to it? Amanda Goodwin and Robert Jimenez, editors of Reading Research Quarterly (2020) take a deeper dive into the science of reading including what it means and what constitutes a science of reading. Authors from various backgrounds and perspectives contributed to the issue. Although reading researchers defined the science of reading in several ways, a common theme emerged. Contributing authors characterized the science of reading as an approach that prioritizes basic science and experimental work which reflects a broader scope that encompasses more than just phonics.


Given the attention and emphasis on scientific research focused on word-reading skills, it might be tempting for primary-grade teachers to focus solely on supporting children’s decoding skills and later turn to support their comprehension. Adding to this issue is a commonly held belief that reading in the primary grades involves “learning to read” and then focuses on “reading to learn” in the upper elementary grades. This view can be problematic and might further the division between skills that support children to “learn to read” the words on a page and the skills involved in “reading to learn” or how to comprehend ideas in the text. Waiting until children have mastered the code before engaging them in rich language and content learning puts them at a disadvantage. Not only is it critical to support readers in multiple aspects of literacy across grades, but researchers have also argued that literacy learning involves the integration and simultaneous interaction of literacy skills (Hampton & Resnick, 2009; Duke & Cartwright, 2021; Duke, Ward, & Pearson, 2021).


Language comprehension is one equally important component of reading that has received far less attention in the science of reading discourse. Duke and Cartwright (2021) emphasize that research has shown that there is “considerable overlap between word recognition and language comprehension” (p. S28). Furthermore, they call our attention to important factors that have been shown to bridge word recognition and decoding, including vocabulary, reading fluency, and morphological awareness.

    • Vocabulary: The relationship between vocabulary knowledge and decoding can be illustrated through the multiple pronunciations of words in the English language. For example, take the word, excuse meaning to let someone go, or a reason or explanation. Vocabulary knowledge supports readers to know which pronunciation is correct and whether it makes sense in the text.
    • Reading Fluency: Reading fluency is frequently referred to as the bridge between decoding and comprehension. Fluency not only involves accurate decoding, but knowledge about word meanings and how words are represented in sentences also plays a role. Readers need to attend to the written features of the text and how these features contribute to prosody. Therefore, approaches to developing students’ fluency often encompass both language comprehension and word recognition.
    • Morphological Awareness: Morphological awareness is the understanding that words can be broken down into recognizable morphemes, or units of meaning. For example, this awareness supports readers to recognize that despite changes in pronunciation, the words clinic and clinician are related in meaning.


So, what might a more integrated approach to the science of reading look like in classrooms? At Roseville Community Charter School, a team of K-4 classroom teachers, special education teachers, and literacy specialists considered this approach during a recent professional learning session. Our discussion focused on the importance of systematic phonics instruction as a critical component of literacy instruction, yet the discussion expanded to other areas of literacy. To address vocabulary learning, we considered the features of high-quality representations of words (Perfetti, 2007). For readers to comprehend any given text, they need to be able to automatically access the following features about a word:

    • Semantics or meaning of a word
    • Phonology or pronunciation of the word
    • Orthography or spelling of the word
    • Syntax or the word’s function in a sentence (justify-verb, justification-noun)
    • Morphology or the study of the meaningful parts that make up a word

Most importantly, it is the interconnectedness of all these features that allow readers to be able to determine the meaning of a word quickly and accurately in any given context.

Teachers used their curricular resources and readings and discussions from the session to select Tier 2 words and plan lessons that included these features. Based on the instructional routine developed by Beck and her colleagues (2013), the following steps help introduce students to the word, inspired after reading the text, Smart Suckers (Bryner, 2007).

Tier Two consists of high-utility words that are found across a variety of domains. Because these words appear often in written text and across multiple domains, they play an important role in students’ language repertoire so it is important to teach Tier Two words directly. Examples of Tier Two words include, livid, exquisite, and forlorn.

  1. Introduce the word and contextualize it within the story (semantics): In the text, we learn that the work of biologist, Jean Boal inspired other scientists to learn more about what goes on in the minds of cephalopods. That means she made other scientists want to learn more about these creatures.
  2. Have students repeat the word (phonology).
  3. Display the targeted words and point to the word (orthography).
  4. Provide a student-friendly explanation of the word (semantics): If someone or something inspired you to do something new or different, they made you want to do it.
  5. Present examples of the word used in contexts different from the story context (semantics): After reading a book about a famous artist, you might be inspired to take an art class.
  6. Use various forms of the word, including inspires, inspiring (syntax), and compare uninspired and inspired (morphology).
  7. Engage students in a variety of activities that allow them to interact with the words (semantics, phonology, orthography, morphology, and syntax).


Recognizing the complexity of the reading process reminds us of the importance of viewing students as diverse individuals who bring unique cultural practices, cognitive strengths, and literacy experiences to the reading process. Treating students with a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy learning fails to recognize both the complexity of the reading process as well as various instructional contexts and individual learners. Providing equitable opportunities for children is in direct contrast to a narrow approach to instruction that focuses solely on decoding, with less attention to other aspects of how children learn to read. Acknowledging students’ differences and providing them with the individual support they need to engage with text is a critical component to consider as part of the conversations around the Science of Reading.


We’d love to hear from you! How have you been navigating the discussion around the Science of Reading and applying the research to your curriculum? Share you story with us here and we may reach out about including it in an upcoming article!


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Guilford.

Bryner, J. (2007). Smart suckers. Science World, 64(1), 8-10.

Duke, N.K., Ward, A.E., & Pearson, P.D. (2021) The science of reading comprehension instruction. The Reading Teacher, 74(6), 663-672.

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44.

Goodwin, A. & Jimenez, (2020). The science of reading: Supports, critiques, and questions. Reading Research Quarterly, 55, S7-S17.

Hampton, S. & Resnick, L.B. (2008). Reading and writing with understanding: Comprehension in fourth and fifth grades. International Reading Association.

Perfetti, C. (2007). Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11(4), 357-383.