What is the Science of Teaching Reading?

The science of teaching reading refers to the body of research and evidence-based practices that inform how we teach children and adults to read proficiently. This science is grounded in decades of research from multiple disciplines, including cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and education. 

In the past few decades, the term "science of reading" has gained significant traction, especially in debates around reading instruction. The weight of evidence suggests that systematic phonics instruction is crucial, especially for early readers and those struggling with reading. 

Many refer to systematic and explicit reading instruction as the Fab 5 of Reading. 

We have a comprehensive online course for the science of teaching reading, which encompasses all the essential elements of foundational reading skills and how to address them in the classroom. To learn more about that, click here.

What is the Fab 5 of Reading?

The "Fab 5" of reading, often termed the "Big Five" or "Five Pillars" of reading, refers to the five critical components of reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel. These components are foundational to teaching reading effectively. They are:

  1. Phonemic Awareness is hearing, identifying, and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Before children can begin to read, they must know how sounds in words work. It's the foundation of understanding that different letter combinations make different sounds. 
  2. Phonics involves teaching the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. Phonics instruction helps children learn to decode words by sounds. This is an essential skill for beginning readers.
  3. Fluency refers to the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression. Fluent readers recognize words and comprehend them simultaneously. Repeated and guided oral reading are commonly used to help students become fluent readers.
  4. Vocabulary can be divided into oral vocabulary (words we use in speaking or recognize in listening) and reading vocabulary (words we recognize or use in print). Effective vocabulary instruction involves direct teaching of specific words and teaching students strategies to determine the meaning of unknown words.
  5. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. Comprehension strategies taught explicitly can help students understand, remember, and communicate with others about what they read. These strategies include predicting, questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and more. Be sure to remember these when taking your certification exam. 

What is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics?

Phonemic awareness and phonics are both essential components in learning to read, but they refer to different skills. Here's a breakdown of their differences:

Nature of the Skill:

  • Phonemic Awareness is an auditory skill that focuses on hearing, identifying, and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. It's purely a listening and speaking skill, meaning it doesn't involve print.
  • Phonics involves understanding the relationship between spoken sounds (phonemes) and their corresponding written symbols (graphemes). It's about decoding written language by linking individual letters or letter combinations to specific sounds.

Instructional Focus:

  • Phonemic Awareness: Activities might include rhyming, segmenting spoken words into individual sounds (e.g., saying the sounds /c/, /a/, /t/ for the word "cat"), or blending individual sounds to form words.
  • Phonics: Activities often involve teaching children to recognize letters and letter patterns in written words and then produce their corresponding sounds. For example, learners might be taught that the letter combination "ch" makes the /ch/ sound as in "chop."


  • Phonemic Awareness: Because it's an auditory skill, you could develop phonemic awareness in the dark. It's all about sounds and doesn't involve any written symbols.
  • Phonics: This is where the print comes in. Phonics bridges the gap between the sounds of spoken language and the letters of written language.

Developmental Sequence:

  • Phonemic Awareness: Typically develops before phonics and is a predictor of reading success. Before children can understand that letters represent sounds, they need to be aware of the sounds themselves.
  • Phonics: Once a child has developed phonemic awareness, they are better equipped to understand that letters and letter combinations represent those sounds in written form.


  • Phonemic Awareness: A strong foundation in phonemic awareness can significantly aid the acquisition of reading and spelling skills because it facilitates understanding the alphabetic principle (the idea that letters and letter combinations represent individual phonemes in written words).
  • Phonics: Essential for decoding and encoding (spelling) words, especially in the early stages of reading instruction. Systematic phonics instruction has been shown to improve children's reading comprehension significantly.

What is fluency, and why is it essential in reading?

Fluency is one of the foundational skills in reading. It refers to reading a text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression. A fluent reader can recognize words automatically without needing laborious decoding and read aloud with a natural tone, rhythm, and intonation.

Fluency is the bridge between word recognition and comprehension.

Components of Reading Fluency:

  1. Accuracy: Recognizing and reading words in the text correctly.

  2. Rate: Reading speed or the ability to read words in a text swiftly. Rate is typically measured in correct words per min (wpm).

  3. Prosody: Using appropriate expression, tone, and intonation while reading aloud.

Importance of Fluency in Reading:

  • Automaticity and Cognitive Resources: Fluent readers recognize many words automatically, so they don't have to use cognitive resources to decode every word they encounter. This automaticity allows them to allocate more cognitive resources to understanding the text.
  • Comprehension: Fluency is closely tied to comprehension. When a reader spends less time struggling with decoding, they can invest more effort into understanding the content of the text. Conversely, non-fluent readers often use their cognitive resources to figure out words, leaving them with less cognitive capacity to grasp the meaning of what they're reading.
  • Engagement and Motivation: Reading fluently can enhance a reader's enjoyment of the text. When reading feels effortless, individuals are more likely to engage deeply with the content and feel motivated to read more.
  • Building Confidence: Achieving fluency can bolster a reader's confidence. When children can read out loud, smoothly, and with expression, they often feel proud and accomplished, further promoting a love for reading.
  • Support for Higher-Level Skills: As students progress in their reading journey, the texts they encounter become more complex. Fluent reading at the foundational level ensures they are prepared to tackle advanced content without getting bogged down by basic decoding.
  • Assessment and Feedback: Listening to a student read aloud can provide valuable insights into their reading proficiency. Teachers can assess fluency levels and provide targeted feedback to help students improve.

How does vocabulary affect comprehension?

Vocabulary plays a pivotal role in reading comprehension. A reader's understanding of individual words directly impacts their ability to grasp the meaning of sentences, paragraphs, and entire texts.

  • Understanding the Message: Words are the building blocks of any message a text is trying to convey. If readers don't understand the words they're reading, they can't understand the text's message. Each unknown word can obscure the meaning of a sentence or an idea.
  • Contextual Interpretation: Sometimes, readers might come across unfamiliar words but can deduce their meanings from the context, which is a critical skill. However, if a reader's vocabulary is severely limited, they may not understand the surrounding words enough to make these contextual inferences.
  • Building Knowledge: Vocabulary is also tied to background knowledge. Knowing the words in a text often helps readers connect to prior knowledge, which facilitates comprehension. For instance, understanding terms like "photosynthesis," "chlorophyll," and "cell" would greatly aid in comprehending a science text about plants.

Given the profound impact of vocabulary on comprehension, it's essential to prioritize vocabulary instruction at all levels of education.

Strategies that help build vocabulary include direct instruction of specific words, teaching morphology (roots, prefixes, suffixes), encouraging wide reading to expose students to new words, and teaching context clues and dictionary skills to help students independently decipher unfamiliar words.

Why is reading comprehension important?

Reading comprehension sits at the core of the science of reading. It's the end goal of reading, capturing the reason we read: to understand and derive meaning from the text. 

Comprehension is considered a higher-order thinking skill because it extends beyond basic recognition and recall of information. Instead, it involves processing, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from a text. These higher-order processes enable readers to engage with and derive meaning from texts and apply and transfer that knowledge to new contexts.

  • Beyond Decoding: While decoding is a foundational skill for reading, comprehension requires the reader to go beyond just recognizing words. It's about understanding the message, relationships, implications, and deeper meanings conveyed by the text.
  • Critical Analysis: Comprehension often demands critical thinking. Readers must assess the credibility of information, identify biases, and differentiate between facts and opinions.
  • Synthesis: Reading comprehension can require readers to integrate information from various parts of a text or even multiple texts, combining them to form a holistic understanding or to generate new insights.
  • Making Inferences: A significant aspect of comprehension is the ability to read between the lines. Readers often need to infer meaning based on context or their prior knowledge, as not everything is explicitly stated in a text.
  • Application: Higher-order comprehension enables readers to apply what they've read to new situations, problems, or contexts. This ability to transfer knowledge is a hallmark of deep understanding.
  • Reflection: Comprehending complex texts often prompts reflection, where readers contemplate the broader implications of what they've read, relate it to their own experiences, or evaluate its significance in a broader context.

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