Delve Institute of Learning Research

Science of Reading: Decoding the Secrets that Make Reading Possible

Science of Reading Guide to Teaching

Decoding effective reading instruction with the Science of Reading. Do you ever wonder how some people effortlessly devour books, while others struggle to finish a single chapter? The secret lies in the science of reading, and in this article, we will unlock the mysteries behind efficient reading skills.

Reading is not just about decoding words on a page; it’s about comprehending and retaining information. By understanding how our brains process information, we can improve our reading abilities and become more efficient readers. We’ll explore the cognitive processes involved in reading, such as decoding, fluency, comprehension, and visualization. Additionally, we’ll delve into the techniques teachers can use to help young readers develop reading skills and reading comprehension strategies.

Understanding the Science of Reading

What is the science of reading? The science of reading is the study of how people learn to read and comprehend written texts. It involves research from various disciplines, such as psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and education.

The science of reading aims to understand the cognitive processes and skills that underlie reading development, as well as the factors that influence reading outcomes, such as instruction, motivation, and environment. The science of reading also seeks to apply this knowledge to improve reading instruction and intervention for all learners, especially those who struggle with reading.

Science of Reading Myths

There are several common myths and misconceptions surrounding reading and reading strategies – both for children and adults. Let’s debunk some of these myths and separate fact from fiction.

  1. Speed Reading: Speed reading is often touted as a way to read faster and retain more information. However, scientific research suggests that true speed reading, where comprehension is not compromised, is not achievable for most people. Instead of focusing on speed, it is more effective to employ strategies such as skimming, scanning, and active reading to improve efficiency and comprehension.
  2. Subvocalization: Subvocalization refers to the habit of silently pronouncing words in our minds while reading. Some believe that eliminating subvocalization can improve reading speed. However, research indicates that subvocalization is an essential part of the reading process and plays a role in comprehension. Instead of trying to eliminate it completely, it is more beneficial to reduce subvocalization by consciously focusing on the main ideas and key points.
  3. One-Size-Fits-All Approach: Reading strategies should be tailored to individual preferences and learning styles. While certain strategies are generally effective, it’s important to experiment and find the methods that work best for you.

A Science of Reading Classroom

Let’s look at a 2nd-grade classroom. This level is where young readers are developing their fluency skills. They are rapidly acquiring vocabulary and slowly mastering comprehension strategies.

Examples of Activities in SOR Classrooms

Here are some specific examples of activities that might be used in a 2nd-grade science of reading classroom:

  • Phonemic awareness: Students might play games that involve listening to and identifying individual sounds in words. For example, they might play a game where they have to clap the number of sounds in a word.
  • Oral language: Students might engage in activities that help them to develop their vocabulary, grammar, and fluency. For example, they might play games that involve using new words in sentences or that require them to speak clearly and smoothly.
  • Background knowledge: Students might read texts that are related to their own interests or experiences. They might also discuss what they know about a topic before they read a text about it.
  • Comprehension: Students might be asked to answer questions about what they have read, to retell a story, or to make inferences about the text. They might also be asked to write about what they have read.

Activities We Should See Less Of…

  • Guided Reading or small group reading with a teacher reading a leveled text and students guessing at words.
  • Less time is devoted to enjoying time with books without ensuring comprehension of those books.
  • Students memorizing long lists of words.
  • Teaching students to skip words they don’t know or to guess using pictures.
  • Teachers analyzing running records to determine how students “miscued”.

How Does It Help Us Make Sense of Reading?

The science of reading is a body of research that shows how (and continues to discover) the brain processes written language and how we learn to read. It helps us make sense of reading by explaining the cognitive, linguistic, and neurological mechanisms involved in decoding, comprehension, and fluency. From the science of reading, we understand there are 5 main skills in reading:

  • Phonemic awareness: This is the ability to hear and identify the individual sounds (phonemes) in words.
  • Phonics: This is the understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds.
  • Vocabulary: This is the knowledge of words and their meanings.
  • Fluency: This is the ability to read words quickly and accurately.
  • Comprehension: This is the ability to understand the meaning of what is being read.

The science of reading also helps us understand how these skills work together to support reading comprehension. For example, phonemic awareness is essential for decoding words, which is a key skill for fluency. Vocabulary and comprehension are also closely related, as a strong vocabulary can help readers to understand the meaning of what they are reading.

How Our Brain Process Written Information

Reading is a complex cognitive skill that involves many different processes in the brain. When we read, we use our eyes to scan the text, our visual system to recognize the shapes of letters and words, our phonological system to convert them into sounds, our semantic system to extract their meaning, and our working memory to hold and integrate the information.

We also use our attention, executive functions, and metacognition to monitor and regulate our comprehension and learning. All these processes work together in a coordinated and efficient way to enable us to understand written information.

Factors that Affect Reading

The ability to process written information is a complex skill that develops over time. Young children typically start by learning to decode words, and then they gradually develop the ability to recognize words automatically. As children become more proficient readers, they also develop the ability to comprehend more complex written information.

There are a number of factors that can affect how well the brain processes written information. These factors include:

  • The reader’s age: Younger readers are typically not as proficient at decoding words and comprehending written information as older readers.
  • The reader’s background knowledge: Readers who have a strong background knowledge of the world are typically better able to comprehend written information.
  • The difficulty of the text: More difficult texts require more cognitive effort to process, and readers may struggle more with these texts.
  • The reader’s motivation: Readers who are motivated to read are typically more likely to put forth the effort to process written information.

The Science Behind Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of decoding words on a page; it involves a complex interplay of cognitive processes. Understanding the science behind reading comprehension can help us develop effective strategies to enhance our understanding of texts.

Working Memory and Comprehension

Working memory plays a crucial role in reading comprehension. It refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information in our minds while engaging with new information. By improving our working memory capacity and utilizing strategies such as chunking and rehearsal, we can enhance our ability to comprehend and retain information while reading.

The Role of Vocabulary

Vocabulary Knowledge: Vocabulary knowledge is closely linked to reading comprehension. The more words we know and understand, the better we can grasp the meaning of texts. Building a strong vocabulary through deliberate practice and exposure to a wide range of texts can significantly improve reading comprehension abilities.

Metacognition and Schema Theory

Metacognition refers to our awareness and understanding of our own thought processes. By being mindful of our comprehension strategies and monitoring our understanding while reading, we can identify areas of confusion and adjust our approach accordingly. Metacognitive strategies such as self-questioning and summarizing can enhance reading comprehension.

Schema theory suggests that our prior knowledge and experiences shape our understanding of new information. By activating relevant background knowledge and making connections to our existing schema, we can improve comprehension and make new information more meaningful. This is particularly important when reading complex or unfamiliar subjects.

Teaching Using the Science of Reading

As we learn more about the brain and study what actually works in classrooms, the science of reading will continue to shed light on teaching practices. For now, this is what we know.

  • Using a structured literacy approach that teaches the relationships between sounds and letters, and how to decode and encode words using these rules.
  • Providing explicit and systematic instruction (and reading interventions) in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, with ample opportunities for practice and review.
  • Using multisensory techniques that engage students’ visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile modalities to enhance learning and memory.
  • Creating a supportive and collaborative learning environment that fosters positive relationships, feedback, assessment of learning, goal-setting, self-monitoring, and reflection.

Strategies for Enhancing Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is the process of making sense of text. It includes 9 comprehension strategies and can be taught in many ways.

Incorporating high-quality texts that are relevant, interesting, and challenging for students, and that expose them to a variety of genres, topics, and perspectives.

Modeling and scaffolding reading strategies such as predicting, questioning, summarizing, clarifying, and evaluating, and encouraging students to apply them independently.

The Role of Vocabulary in the Science of Reading

Vocabulary is an essential component of the science of reading, as it affects both comprehension and fluency. Vocabulary refers to the words that a reader knows and understands, and it can be divided into oral and written vocabulary.

Oral vocabulary is the words that a reader can use and recognize in speaking and listening, while written vocabulary is the words that a reader can use and recognize in reading and writing.

A reader’s vocabulary size and depth influence how well they can comprehend texts of different genres, levels, and topics. A reader’s vocabulary also impacts how smoothly and quickly they can read, as they need to decode and recognize words automatically. Therefore, vocabulary instruction is a key part of the science of reading, as it helps readers develop their word knowledge and apply it to various texts.

Overcoming Common Reading Challenges

The science of reading is a field that studies how people learn to read and what factors affect their reading skills. It draws on research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and education.

The science of reading can help teachers with students who struggle to read by providing evidence-based practices and interventions that target the specific needs of each learner. For example, the science of reading can help teachers identify the phonological, orthographic, morphological, syntactic, and semantic components of reading and how to teach them effectively.

Resources for Science of Reading

Heggerty: 30 Science of Reading Resources

Spiral WarmUps: Free Explicit and Systematic Word Study Resources

International Reading Association: The Science of Reading – Supports, Critiqutes, and Questions

Zaner-Bloser: Science of Reading Resource Guide


In today’s fast-paced world, efficient reading skills are more important than ever. The science of reading unveils what goes on in our brains when we read. It helps us understand how to teach young readers. The science of reading seeks to explain why some people effortlessly comprehend and absorb information while others struggle to stay focused. Reading is not just a matter of processing words on a page; it is a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols, making connections, and understanding meaning.