The science of reading, structured literacy, balanced literacy: What’s what?
For too many years now, a disconnect has existed in U.S. schools between what decades of reading research and neuroscience tells us and how teachers are trained. Many teachers leave their schools of education woefully unprepared to teach reading based on the research, and school districts throughout the country continue to use approaches to reading instruction that have been proven counterproductive to what we know about how the brain learns to read. Because many universities have not made the shift yet to providing courses designed to teach skills based in the science of reading, too many teachers have not been supported in mastering the key components of how to effectively teach their students to read.
Multidisciplinary research has confirmed that 95 percent or more of students can learn to read when provided with high quality, evidence-aligned instruction. Yet many students today are not learning to read. The 2022 “Nation’s Report Card” found thirty-three percent of fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level and sixty-three percent of fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP Basic level on the reading assessment. And according to EAB’s 2020 “Leading for Literacy,” 60 percent of elementary teachers have never been trained in strategies for teaching the foundational reading skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Every child has the right to read and to read well. John B. King, former US Secretary of Education, and Jacquelyn Davis, fellow at Betherwether.org, write in The74: “The earliest years of a child’s education are critical for gaining functional literacy. From pre-K through third grade, students learn to read, and from grade three forward, they read to learn. Whether it’s science experiments, math word problems or drama scripts, students cannot learn if they cannot read, and 75% percent of children who are behind in third grade will never catch up…The resulting deficit trails students for the remainder of their academic life and beyond: For example, struggling readers are four times more likely to drop out of high school.”
For parents and caregivers, trying to assess what’s going on with reading in their child’s school can feel like navigating a maze with no clues. We’ve written this document to make it easier for you to find your way. And for educators struggling to help more of their students succeed in learning to read, we’ll provide a few stories about districts, schools, and individual teachers implementing the science of reading in their classrooms.
This is the most studied aspect of human learning.
Science of reading
So what is the science of reading? The science of reading is a dynamic body of convergent evidence that informs effective instruction in all areas of literacy development. The research on reading draws from multiple fields including cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, and developmental psychology. The Reading League provides one of the best definitions of the science of reading in their Science of Reading—Defining Guide (available for download here, in English and Spanish).
The Reading League definition
“The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. This research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.”
What is structured literacy and is it related to the science of reading?
You might have heard the term structured literacy used to describe an approach to reading instruction. The term originated with the International Dyslexia Association® (IDA®) in 2016 to differentiate reading instruction and programs that are truly informed by the science of reading from those that are not. A structured literacy approach is grounded in evidence-based instruction—teachers and literacy specialists use a scope and sequence which dictates the order in which concepts and content are taught using explicit and systematic, cumulative instruction.
In addition to the typical broad stroke universal screeners, structured literacy uses ongoing, finer-grained diagnostic assessments to monitor student progress in order to provide additional practice and scaffolding to close gaps quickly when they are identified.
The IDA offers a short primer, a 25-page introductory guide, and an infographic on structured literacy here:
- A short primer with a downloadable pdf
- Structured Literacy: An Introductory Guide
- Infographic—Structured Literacy: An Approach Grounded in the Science of Reading
It’s important to note that the science of reading and structured literacy do not refer to particular programs for students or for teacher professional development. Many well known programs such as Orton-Gillingham method, Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program (LiPS), and others implement structured literacy in their approaches. This is the case as well for specific programs for teacher professional development—for example, the LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) professional learning program, or 95 Percent Group’s teacher professional development. All of the above are informed by research evidence.
IDA’s Structured Literacy: An Introductory Guide explains the terms explicit, systematic, and screening and monitoring (p. 3) in the context of Structured Literacy:
“Explicit” means that the teacher clearly explains and models key skills, with well-chosen examples; children are not expected to develop these skills based mainly on exposure and incidental learning opportunities.
“Systematic” means that there is a planned sequence of instruction, with important prerequisite skills taught before more advanced skills, and with care taken not to introduce skills in a way that is unintentionally confusing. For instance, children are not expected to decode or spell complex words before they have learned to decode and spell simpler words; and teachers avoid introducing highly confusable phonics elements (such as b and p, or multiple short vowel sounds) simultaneously…
Educators screen students and monitor their progress, using data to promptly identify children who need help, as well as to inform core instruction and interventions. For example, if many children in a school or district need intervention for vocabulary weaknesses or decoding problems, this is a sign that core instruction in those areas requires more emphasis or improvement.
What is balanced literacy and is it related to the science of reading and structured literacy?
The term and approach called “balanced literacy” emerged in the 1990s as a response to serious critiques of the whole language approach that was widely adopted in the 1980s and 1990s by school districts across the country. Whole language is a philosophy about teaching reading and writing, with origins that go back several decades. It is still widely in use throughout the US despite strong evidence today that its approach fails far too many students.
Balanced literacy added minimal guidance in phonics to the whole language approach—attempting to ”balance” whole language with phonics. It focuses on components such as reading aloud, whole class shared reading, small group guided reading, and independent reading. Balanced literacy proponents share a belief that reading is a natural process that requires minimal explicit instruction. This is in direct contradiction to what the science of reading has demonstrated.
Senior correspondent and producer Emily Hanford produced the program Hard Words—Why aren’t kids being taught to read? for American Public Radio in 2018 and followed this up in 2022 with the six-part series, Sold a Story. In these programs, Hanford spells out how and why so many schools still use balanced literacy despite what the science shows about how children learn to read.
The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk. But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain isn’t wired to read.
An informative webinar and panel discussion
Understanding the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy—Webinar and Panel Discussion with Dr. Susan Hall, retired Co-founder of 95 Percent Group, Illinois Educators, and The Reading League Illinois will help you gain a clear picture of the key elements required for literacy success. Dr. Hall and the panel introduce you to the scientific concepts and research behind structured literacy and supply further resources.
Support for evaluating curriculum
How can you evaluate if a curriculum or approach is aligned with the scientific evidence base of how children learn to read? The Reading League has prepared Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines designed to highlight non-aligned practices in the areas of:
- Word recognition
- Language comprehension
- Reading comprehension
They also provide a Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines Reviewer Workbook to help curriculum review teams record their evaluations. You can download it here.
What needs to change?
School districts and schools across the country are taking heed of what the science of reading research identifies about how best to teach reading. They’re committing to making the necessary changes to radically improve literacy instruction. Several states have adopted legislation and policies that require all literacy instruction to be grounded in scientifically-based methods. According to an EdSource post by writer John Fensterwald (March, 2023), Colorado, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Connecticut have created comprehensive early literacy plans as their literacy road maps. They require or incentivize districts to train teachers and adopt textbooks tied to the science of reading research. New York City, the nation’s largest district, announced in 2022 that all districts must implement curricula that are based in the science of reading.
We still have a long way to go to arrive at a place where “95% or more of students can learn to read when provided with high quality, evidence-aligned instruction.” Numerous experts in the science of reading call for significant changes in schools of education and professional development for teachers, principals, and school and district administrators, and ongoing coaching support for teachers in the science of reading. There is consensus among the literacy experts that a culture change is required.
A look at the research reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children to read are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and therefore make learning to read more difficult than it should be… in short, what happens in classrooms isn’t adequate for many children.
Schools of education
Schools of education have been siloed from researchers in the neighboring cognitive science and neuroscience departments on campus. Typically, deans and faculty in education schools have not kept up with the research. The Reading League answers this question in their Frequently Asked Questions:
Don’t colleges/universities provide teachers with this knowledge during their preparation programs?
Not necessarily. Much of the science of reading comes from disciplines outside of schools of education (e.g., neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive psychology, etc.) Therefore, professors who teach in schools of education are often unfamiliar with the scientific evidence base.
Emily Hanford’s work on Hard Words revealed:
“The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again.
Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it.”
Teacher professional development
Districts and schools doing successful implementations of the science of reading report how professional development and ongoing coaching in the science of reading is essential for teachers, and also for principals and administrators who need to understand the research and knowledge base as well.
IDA’s Structured Literacy: An Introductory Guide (p. 15-16) reports:
Studies have repeatedly shown that licensed teachers, including both general and special educators who have been recently trained, often lack knowledge about phonemic awareness and phonics; the appropriate role of context cues in reading (e.g., to determine word meanings, not to guess at words in decoding); common types of reading difficulties such as dyslexia; effective methods of assessment; and research-based interventions (e.g., Brady et al., 2009; Moats, 1994, 1999; Moats & Foorman, 2003; Spear- Swerling & Cheesman, 2012; Washburn, Joshi, & Binks-Cantrell, 2011).
IDA has written research-based Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS for Teachers of Reading. IDA defines KPS as “the knowledge and skills that all teachers of reading should possess to teach all students to read proficiently.”
The report Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa C. Moats, EdD, explains why “the preparation and professional development of teachers who teach reading and writing must be more rigorous and better aligned with decades of reading science” and outlines how to get there.
Professional learning is an important strategy to support successful implementation of structured literacy in the classroom. Employing an ongoing, regular coaching strategy helps teachers reflect on and improve their practice while ensuring implementation happens well and with fidelity, and that instruction is effective and sustainable.
The 95 Percent Group uniquely supports professional learning with a range of offerings and up-to-date knowledge about how the brain processes text, informed by two decades of thought leadership in the science of reading.
…bringing in the coaching with 95 Percent Group gave us a clear distinction between: what is core instruction—what should we be doing for everybody? And then, how do we give a second layer of support? The biggest benefit from coaching is that it gives us one language around best practices, and the ability to share information on students to make our Walk to Intervention model run smoothly. We have 120 kids shared by four classroom teachers and intervention teachers. When we can easily share information and pinpoint skill gaps, this means everyone is supporting the learning of these students—it’s not just on one classroom teacher to make sure the students get what they need to reach their full potential.
95 Percent Group resources for professional development
- Professional Development Courses – Choose to take online courses, or bring courses to your school or district in person.
- Science of reading + 95 Phonics Core Program workshops – Gain grade-level expertise in virtual workshops that combine the latest science of reading research with best implementation practices for using the Tier 1 95 Phonics Core Program®.
- Science of reading symposia – Attend regional events to expand your network and gain valuable insights.
- Literacy webinars – Join experts and gain insight on current literacy topics. Build your knowledge and leadership capacity.
Implementing science of learning: Success stories and best practices
Seeing the success factors and best practices of states, districts, individual schools, and teachers that have implemented reading instruction and practice aligned with the science of learning is an essential part of making the culture change that’s necessary and nurturing courageous literacy leaders to do the work. We’ve put together a few exemplars who share their knowledge and experiences—from a small school of 590 students to a 4-school rural district to a major urban county with 59 schools.
School districts and schools implementing science of reading
Fairfax School District, Kern County, California
4 schools, 2688 students
David Mack, EdD, Chief Administrator of Business Services has worn many hats in the Fairfax School District—from math teacher to school principal. He did his dissertation on the topic Improving Fidelity of Implementation of a Tier I Phonics Program: An Improvement Science Study. David Mack shares his research, his experience in the district, and what he’s learned about best practices in implementation of the science of reading. Read the post.
Val Verde Unified School District, Moreno Valley, California
21 schools, 20,000 students
Schools in Val Verde were facing several challenges in improving student reading outcomes and have been on a journey to strategically implement science of reading practice in their classrooms for a number of years. Val Verde’s journey highlights the importance of evidence-based, data-driven instruction, ongoing support, and a commitment to equitable education for all students. Aimee Garcia, Val Verde K-12 District Director of Education Services, has this to say about a consequence of not applying the science of reading: “The scope and sequence of a program is essential—if everyone is choosing to do their own thing, we are unintentionally creating an equity problem because we can’t guarantee that all students will receive instruction on the skills they need at the time they need it.” Read the post.
Fulton County Schools, Atlanta, Georgia
59 schools, 90,000 students
For years, decisions about reading curriculum were left to the discretion of individual schools in Fulton County. Jennifer Burton, Fulton County’s director of literacy, weighed in on this idea: “This resulted in a hodgepodge of balanced literacy-based programs, not backed by the science of reading, that clearly weren’t reaching all students,” she said. When you have many school leaders all making different decisions, it becomes difficult to have clear communication and one guiding direction. The district needed one program based in the science of reading: a literacy program to implement across ALL of their elementary schools in order to all move in the same direction towards reading proficiency. Read the post.
Explore more school stories here.
Additional Resources from 95 Percent Group
Insights from thought leaders and resources to help you bridge knowledge and practice as you bring structured literacy to your school or district.
Science of Reading 2.0: Implementation made easy
The next generation of the science of reading connects research about reading and learning to help educators implement effective literacy instruction.
Efficacy studies designed with guidance from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to meet the highest levels of evidence
We can all make a difference
Every child has the right to read and to read well. At the same time, teachers have the right to teach their students to read based on the most up-to-date knowledge about how the brain processes text. And parents and caregivers have the right to know and understand the research that shows that 95 percent or more of young people can learn to read when provided with high quality, evidence-aligned instruction. We can all make a difference in ensuring that our children and our students have the support and skills they need for success.
95 Phonics Core Program® provides explicit, systematic, and cumulative Tier 1 phonics instruction for the whole class. It is strategically designed to reduce or prevent intervention needs before they arise. In 30 minutes a day, the program builds critical phonics skills through explicit instruction to develop strong readers, K-5.
95 Phonemic Awareness Suite™ is a proven set of resources that equips your teachers with professional learning and consistent but differentiated instruction for students receiving Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction, and assessments that pinpoint deficits and map them to specific lessons proven to close those gaps.
95 Literacy Intervention System™ is a school and district-level resource that provides educators with the tools and data they need to make informed decisions that move students toward skill mastery more quickly. The 95 Literacy Intervention System combines assessment data, grouping tools, and resource recommendations into one powerful system designed to bring about systemic improvement in literacy outcomes.
Are you interested in learning about how you can bring an effective and efficient structured literacy approach, grounded in the science of reading, to your school or district? Contact 95 Percent Group today.