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Science of reading informed strategies

If you’ve been paying attention to the education news lately, you know that the science of reading is popping up everywhere—from legislation in states across the country, to podcasts detailing the ways in which teaching reading has fallen short, to the “revelation” that we have been sitting on decades of research that guides us in understanding what works and what doesn’t.

Whether you are new to the science of reading and understanding how to implement science of reading instructional strategies, or you are already weaving science of reading instruction into your curriculum, these 13 research-based reading strategies will offer you a framework for your teaching or some fresh perspective on bringing some evidence-aligned strategy into your district, school, or classroom.

Key findings of science of reading research

According to the body of evidence we call the science of reading, 95% of people can learn to read with direct, systematic, evidence-aligned instruction and extra support when needed. There have been assumptions previously that most people could learn to read naturally, or on their own. We now know that a significant portion of the population (about 50%) require explicit, systematic instruction of foundational reading skills in order to learn to read.

The National Panel of Reading Report in 2000 identified five pillars that are necessary for teachers to explicitly instruct on: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each of these pillars builds on the one that comes before it—all building blocks toward the ultimate goal of literacy instruction: deep reading comprehension on grade-level and beyond.

Phonemic awareness: the understanding of and ability to identify, isolate, blend, and manipulate the smallest sounds, or the phonemes, inside of words. This is a foundational prerequisite for reading readiness. Deficits in phonemic awareness are one of the first signs that students may have difficulty learning to read.

Phonics: instruction on the alphabetic system, or the way each sound or phoneme maps to a letter or spelling pattern. By giving children “the code,” they are able to automate the process of sound/symbol recognition—allowing them to quickly recognize words and patterns that are used with high frequency, to break down unfamiliar words more easily, and ultimately, to free up mental energy allowing for deeper comprehension and connection.

Fluency: requires mastery of word recognition skills to the point of becoming so automatic—or fluid—that decoding no longer requires cognitive effort or conscious attention. It is important to remember that fluency is not an end in itself, but rather a critical gateway to comprehension. Fluent reading frees cognitive resources to process meaning, and in turn, helps with text comprehension.

Vocabulary: students with limited vocabulary will struggle with reading fluency and comprehension. For students to close the vocabulary gap, they need vocabulary instruction that both teaches the meaning of well-chosen words and shows them how to learn words on their own. In particular, a breadth and depth of vocabulary offers students (who are both learning to read and reading to learn) added background knowledge on different topics allowing them to more easily anchor new information to knowledge they already have.

Reading comprehension: Although comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction, and necessary for kids to cultivate a deep love of reading, instruction on comprehension strategies that will help to form these internalized habits is important. Being able to deeply understand and make connections to what’s happening in a text allows students to have “a conversation” with the author and to experience any text on a higher level.

Now that we have an understanding of the pillars, let’s dive into the strategies that support each.

Science of reading informed strategies

Below are 13 science of reading informed strategies to implement in your literacy instruction.

Strategy #1: Phoneme isolation with objects

Being able to isolate the initial, medial, and final sounds in a word is one of the first skills we build for reading readiness. Additionally, if students have practiced at length and continue to struggle, this is a sign that there could be an obstacle.

Reading pillar: Phonemic awareness

Recommended age: Preschool age kids—but can work with kids as young as 2!

Steps to implement:

  • Gather a pile of small objects—ensuring that at least a few of them begin or end with the same sound. This works best with simple CVC words like “cat”, “bat”, “cup”, “cub”, etc.
  • Go through and name each object, emphasizing the different sounds in each.
  • You can start by asking, “Do cat and cub start with the same sound?”
  • Once kids can identify this, then you can ask them to group objects by initial sound or final sound, and eventually medial sound.

A child’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school is widely held to be the strongest single determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read. Approximately 25% of middle class 1st graders don’t have an understanding of phonemes and that percentage grows for children who grow up in less literacy rich environments.

Strategy #2: Phoneme segmentation

When students are able to hear and pull apart all the sounds that make up a word, it is a very solid sign of readiness for phonics and for reading in general. This is a strategy you can turn into a game to play with children as soon as you notice they can isolate sounds.

Reading pillar: Phonemic awareness
Recommended age: Preschool/kindergarten

Steps to implement

  • Start with simple CVC words such as “cat.”
  • You can use Elkonin Boxes for this to help make it more concrete. Put 3 chips underneath the boxes.
  • Say the word out loud.
  • Ask your student to think about what sounds they hear inside the word.
  • For each sound they hear, have your student move a chip (or stone or coin) into the box in the order they hear it. (/c/-/a/-/t/)

Phonemic awareness isn’t a natural skill. Many people do not attend to the sounds of phonemes as they produce or listen to speech. Instead, they process the phonemes automatically, directing their active attention to the meaning of the word as a whole.

By directly teaching how to identify phonemes inside a word from the beginning, (its parts and how they make up the whole instead of looking at the whole word first) you are offering a word attack strategy as language becomes more sophisticated.

Strategy #3: Phoneme substitution

One way to practice manipulating the sounds in words is with phoneme substitution. When you can hear what the sounds inside the word are first, and then you can imagine a different sound in its place to build a new word, you are building awareness of the building blocks of language.

Reading pillar: Phonemic awareness
Recommended age: Preschool/kindergarten

Steps to implement

  • Start with a simple CVC word, “mat”.
  • Ask the student to identify the sounds they hear inside the word (segmentation). You can use Elkonin
  • Boxes for this one as well if you need to make it more concrete.
  • Then ask them to take away the first sound in the word /m/ (remove chip from first box).
  • Add /b/ instead (put chip back while saying the new sound /b/).
  • Ask them to say the new word that is formed (“bat”).
  • Repeat.

Identifying and manipulating phonemes is an advanced phonemic awareness skill. These skills help to build fluency in both reading and, eventually, spelling.

Strategy #4: Finger blending to decode

When you recruit multiple senses to the practice of phonics, it creates a “stickiness” to the material—not only for students with reading challenges, but for all students learning to read. Using the fingers of the non-dominant hand from left to right when you say the sounds in a word, helps students to map and retain the orthographic pattern of the sounds.

Reading pillar: Phonics
Recommended age: Kindergarten-3rd grade

Steps to implement

  • Present a word (e.g., snap).
  • Have students hold up their non-dominant hand (non writing hand).
  • From left to right, tap out the sounds in the word: /s/ /n/ /a/ /p/ starting from the left side and tapping fingers on the thumb or on a surface while saying the sounds.
  • Then say the sounds together to form the word.

Pulling the sounds in the word apart in order to figure out what the word is helps students to understand that each phoneme maps to a letter or group of letters. This enforces the alphabetic principle—mastery of which is foundational to automaticity and fluency.

Strategy #5: Sound sweeping to blend

Sometimes, students will do OK with isolating the sounds in a word to decode. But when it comes to putting them back together to blend the sounds, they struggle. Using a finger or a pencil can help students to pull the sounds together more effectively.

This works well when practicing writing words as well.

Reading pillar: Phonics
Recommended age: Kindergarten-1st grade

Steps to implement

  • Say the word you want to blend and to write out loud (e.g., shock).
  • Have student tap out the sounds like they do for finger blending (/sh/-/o/-/ck/).
  • Next, have the student write the word, saying each sound as they write it.
  • Then have students use their pencil to underline or sweep under the word as they elongate the sounds and blend them together: ssshhhooooccck. This helps to show the way the sounds blend together.
  • Then say the word the way it is pronounced.
  • Repeat with another word.

This is a multisensory strategy (hear it, say it, write it) that works well for all students learning to read and write. When we engage more than one sensory experience, information is absorbed in a different and more “sticky” way.

Strategy #6: Airwriting

Airwriting, another multisensory approach to teaching phonics, is easy to do wherever you are. By using your whole arm (starting at the shoulder), your body is using muscle memory to reinforce the sound each letter or phoneme makes with the shape made with the whole arm in the air.

*This activity is especially helpful for frequently confused letters like b and d.

Reading pillar: Phonics
Recommended age: Preschool-1st grade

Steps to implement

  • Have students stand up and pretend there is a giant chalkboard or whiteboard in front of them.
  • Using their writing hand, students hold their arms and wrist straight in the air.
  • Have your student say a sound /m/, while writing the shape of the letter or phoneme in the air with a straight arm.
  • Repeat the same sound 3 times.

While this is a method frequently used for students who have dyslexia, it is effective with all types of readers, and is a great way to get your students out of their chairs and using their whole body. When kids engage multiple senses in their learning process, information is more easily absorbed and retrieved.

Strategy #7: Readers’ theater

Readers’ Theater is a fantastic way to practice fluency and expression with repetition of text in a small group. This is an activity that can begin using pre-prepared scripts when children are first introduced to Readers’ Theater, and then can progress to students writing their own scripts—integrating reading, writing, speaking, and listening in an authentic context.

Reading pillar: Fluency
Recommended age: 2nd grade-5th grade

Steps to implement

  • Teachers can buy or print out Readers’ Theater materials based on grade or reading level.
  • Students work in small groups; each person has a specific role to practice.
  • Students can start by highlighting their script where their own lines are in order to identify what they need to practice.
  • Students can practice lines on their own first, and then together in order to prepare an informal performance.

When children are offered an authentic opportunity for repeated reading practice, this enables them to work on fluency, expression, and prosody—all ultimately helping them towards the goal of greater comprehension and depth of understanding of character and plot.

Strategy #8: Oral reading passages

Oral reading passages are a great resource for easy repeated reading opportunities for children. They are usually organized by reading level or grade level allowing students to practice and master a particular level and then progress to the next level. This activity offers the opportunity to work on fluency (reading rate and accuracy) and expression.

Reading pillar: Fluency
Recommended age: 1st grade-5th grade

Steps to implement

  • Begin with a 1 minute oral reading to establish a starting benchmark
  • Once you establish the level your student is starting at (reads confidently and fluently at), give them an oral reading passage at the next level. Start with a cold read for 1 minute and record the accuracy and rate.
  • Have the student practice with that same reading passage for a few days. They will need to read aloud from the same passage either with you, with a friend, or on their own a few times every day for a few days.
  • Do a second timed reading with the same passage to record progress. If they pass that level, move to a passage in the following level.

Repeated readings of a text offer students practice with automaticity of high frequency words as well as with awareness of punctuation and syntax which ultimately helps with expression, prosody and reading comprehension. Using a pre-prepared set of oral reading passages, or decodable texts, is an easy way to help students gain confidence and momentum with these foundational skills.

Strategy #9: Morphology: Affixes and root word study

The study of word parts is an important part of being able to break down unfamiliar words. This becomes especially important as students begin to encounter more academic vocabulary and sophisticated text in upper elementary and middle school.

Reading pillar: Vocabulary
Recommended age: 2nd grade-8th grade

Steps to implement

  • Using a list of Latin or Greek affixes and root words, teach students the meaning of different prefixes and suffixes while giving a variety of different examples of how they are commonly used.
  • Additionally, show students how they can use their knowledge of affixes and root words to break apart unfamiliar words and figure out parts of words in order to help with difficult reading tasks.

When students have strong morphological skills, they can approach an unfamiliar, multisyllabic word and break it into parts in order to predict the meaning. This is a foundational skill that offers an advantage in all areas of literacy: decoding, spelling, comprehension, and oral language.

Strategy #10: Academic vocabulary squares

When students have a deep understanding of vocabulary, their content knowledge develops roots. By guiding them to look at multiple angles of a word, students can more easily internalize word meanings, allowing for a greater chance of retrieval and subsequent anchoring of new knowledge in the future.

Reading pillar: Vocabulary
Recommended age: 3rd grade-12th grade

Steps to implement

  • Print out a template for vocabulary squares or have students create a box with 4 boxes inside in their notes.
  • Students write the word at the top or in the middle of the 4 squares.
  • For each of the 4 boxes, give students a different way for understanding each word. (e.g., definition in the first box, synonyms in the second box, antonyms in the third box, and a sketch or drawing that they associate with the meaning in the last box. These can be customized however you need depending on the grade).

By breaking down all the aspects of a new word and looking at the definition but also synonyms or associated words, it’s more likely that students will be able to anchor the new information to something they already know. This helps to deepen understanding and aids in future knowledge retrieval. This is often referred to as Meaningful Learning.

Strategy #11: Double-sided note-taking

When reading to learn, it’s helpful for students to interact with the text in a way that will help them to define unfamiliar concepts as well as to ask questions about that which they are trying to connect to. By putting fragments of the text (quotes), or unfamiliar words or questions they have, on one side of the page and then writing definitions, answers, explanations or interpretations on the other side, they can help integrate all of the knowledge in one place.

Reading pillar: Comprehension
Recommended Age: 2nd grade-12th grade

Steps to implement

  • Have students draw a vertical line down the middle of their page
  • On the lefthand side at the top, they can write Concept/Question/Quote
  • On the righthand side at the top, they can write definitions, answers, interpretations, etc.
  • When students come across an idea, an unfamiliar word, a quote or detail that’s important to the main idea or purpose for reading, they can record this on the left side of their notes and then add their own thoughts on the right side. This can serve as a great resource to go back to when students need ideas for a response to reading.

By using this method for notetaking, students will have a framework into which they can pour new vocabulary knowledge, connections they make about characters, setting, the main point and details, or to ask questions that they can come back to as they read and learn more. All of these actions taken while reading help students to retain and weave information into their already existing schema.

Strategy #12: Writing about reading

Author Joan Dideon once said, “I write to know what I think.”

Writing about reading is an effective way to aid students in thinking more deeply about what they are reading. When reading is required, it’s often easy to skim for information, especially if there are comprehension questions to answer from the text. When we ask students to write about their reading, we are asking them to dig a little deeper than just the plot; we want to know what they think about what they’ve read. And often we don’t know this until we can put words on the page.

Reading pillar: Comprehension
Recommended age: 2nd grade-12th grade and beyond

Steps to implement

  • Let students know before their reading assignment that they are going to be writing a response about what they’ve read. This can be intimidating for those students who aren’t used to thinking about what they themselves think about their reading. Offering some prompts can be helpful when getting started—especially for younger readers. Here are some suggestions:
  • Offer prompts or sentence starters like, “I wonder if…” or “This character reminds me of…” or “When _________ (Character) did/said/thought __________, it made me think that…”  Alternatively, you can choose the quote, phrase, word, and have all students write on the same idea until they are more confident choosing something on their own.
  • Set a timer. Encourage students to write for the whole time until they hear the timer go off.
    If students say they don’t know how to start or are stuck, have them write the word stuck on the page over and over until something else comes out. Sometimes thought follows action.

Writing about reading offers students a way into critical thinking when it can feel intimidating to offer their own thoughts. This is a strategy that will help readers that are just beginning all the way up through college. It’s an easy activity to scaffold and release ownership of, once students are comfortable and confident with their own ability to identify what to explore in their response.

Strategy #13: Book groups

Allowing students to have ownership of what they choose to read can go a long way—especially with students who may be reluctant readers. By grouping students together to read and discuss a book, you are offering a format that’s out of the ordinary when compared to whole class work. It allows for a smaller (sometimes less intimidating), more targeted experience where all members of the group can participate and feel heard.

Reading pillar: Comprehension
Recommended age: 1st grade-12th grade

Steps to implement

  • Before having students choose books, spend some time in whole class or small group conversation about what makes book groups successful. You could even draw up an agreement and have all students sign the agreement, or you can have groups do this on their own once they are formed.
  • Depending on the age/grade level/group dynamics of students, you can assign books or you can offer choices and let students “group themselves.”
  • To do this, offer a handful of different books (it works well to base book choices on a general theme or historical period or another topic you know you (or other teachers) are exploring during the time they will be reading.
  • Once students are in groups, they should create rules (no reading ahead, a decision on what will happen if a group member can’t complete the reading etc., how will we ensure everyone is participating in discussions? etc.).
  • Students should complete reading at home or during a designated time in class.
  • Once in groups, the teacher can provide discussion questions or students can generate ideas on their own.
  • It’s a great idea to end book group discussions with some writing about reading (see previous strategy) and with assurance that each student knows the assignment for the next meeting.

Around 1st or 2nd grade, and forward, most children become increasingly interested in social interactions. Book groups are a great way to infuse a social element into reading. By grouping students together and creating a community around the book they are reading, it offers a smaller, more informal way for students to ask questions, explore their ideas, and to get help should they need it.

Tips for parents and teachers

When looking to implement one or more of these research-based reading strategies at home or in the classroom, there are few things that might help you:

  • Try one strategy at a time. If your students or child don’t get it at first, keep trying. Sometimes it takes a few times to get it down.
  • When you are asking children (especially children who are struggling with phonemic awareness or phonics) to say a sound and write a sound at the same time, they will resist. Sometimes a lot. Be patient. Keep modeling this skill. The repetition of sounds while writing the letter is an extremely effective multisensory approach to teaching phonics.
  • If you have younger children (2-3), play these games when you have a few minutes in the car, or in the waiting room somewhere. Young children are really drawn to language and love to play games.
  • Playing a sound game (I’m thinking of something in the room that starts with /b/) is easy, free and fun! It’s a great way to get phonemic awareness started.
  • For older kids, you can play games where you first say the sounds in a word (/c/-/a/-/t/) and have them put the sounds together and say the whole word, “cat.” Then you can ask them to pull words apart into the sounds (what are the sounds in the word “cat”?).
  • Any time you can sneak these little skills in—even for a few minutes at a time, you are offering your children or students another building block in their reading and language readiness.
  • Using science of reading strategies to support children with reading disabilities.
  • Students that have a reading disability like dyslexia, for example, truly benefit from a structured literacy approach and research-based reading strategies. Any strategy that engages multiple senses such as seeing a sound, saying a sound, and writing a sound goes much further towards retention and retrieval of that sound or skill.

The final word

When it comes to science of reading informed strategies, it’s helpful for literacy instructors to have many different tools to use with students. 95 Percent Group’s One 95™ Literacy Ecosystem™ addresses literacy instruction across Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3—offering districts and schools a streamlined approach to reading instruction for all students—those with deficits and those needing enrichment.


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