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Transforming Literacy Instruction

The Science of Reading


Despite the ongoing “reading wars,” 50 years of scientific research has led to a great deal of consensus about how children learn to read. Specifically, about the fundamentals of how to teach reading effectively.

In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.

The national panel members formulated seven broad questions to guide their efforts in meeting the Congressional charge of identifying effective instructional reading approaches and determining their readiness for application in the classroom: 

  1. Does instruction in phonemic awareness improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  2. Does phonics instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  3. Does guided repeated oral reading instruction improve fluency and reading comprehension? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  4. Does vocabulary instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  5. Does comprehension strategy instruction improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  6. Do programs that increase the amount of children’s independent reading improve reading achievement and motivation? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 
  7. Does teacher education influence how effective teachers are at teaching children to read? If so, how is this instruction best provided? 

Reading advocates believed that the findings from the National Reading Panel would settle these debates and result in immediate, comprehensive improvement in literacy instruction. Today, more than two decades have passed since the National Reading Panel published Teaching Children to Read. But the findings still have not been implemented in many classrooms across the United States. 

1. Equity & Diversity's Effect on Learning to Read

While children don’t need to be explicitly taught to speak, they do need to be explicitly taught to read and write. It doesn’t happen “naturally” or “when they are ready.”

For many children, learning to read is challenging. While some unfairly assume that impoverished or homeless students are destined to have difficulties learning to read and write, the truth is that most students have normal cognitive and language abilities and the desire to improve their literacy skills.  

It's not the circumstances students bring to school that limit students' growth, but rather their lack of opportunity at school as H. Richard Milner, IV shares in his book Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (2010). Miller asserted that instead of placing blame on individuals, focusing on opportunity forces us to think about how systems, processes, and institutions have maintained the status quo and sustained complicated disparities in education, further widening the gap itself.

A 2021 study Accelerate, Don’t Remediate reported that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely than their white, wealthier peers to experience remediation—even when they had already demonstrated success on grade-level content. 

2. The Complexities of Learning to Read

While reading is a complex process for all students, decades of research-based literature outlining evidence-based strategies for reading instruction already exist to guide educators in the right direction. 

Both The Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Rope are foundational science of reading research tools for educators. 

The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View of Reading was introduced by researchers Gough and Tunmer in 1986 to reconcile ‘The Reading Wars'. Gough and Tunmer sought to eliminate hierarchical thinking that prioritized decoding or comprehension as a higher priority over the other rather than interdependent skills that together build reading comprehension. 


Both decoding and listening comprehension are quite complex. They involve a wide array of skills and knowledge. The Simple View of Reading, itself, doesn’t provide sufficient guidance for the development of instructional strategies that develop and grow reading comprehension skills. But, it does offer two broad areas of focus that are proven to affect a student’s ability to comprehend text.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

In 1992 Hollis Scarborough introduced the concept of the Reading Rope. Scarborough’s rope provided a valuable visualization of The Simple View of Reading. 

By twisting together pipe cleaners, Dr. Scarborough used this visual to communicate to the parents the complexities involved in learning to read.

Scarborough's reading rope

In 2001, the model was published in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research. Reading teachers immediately saw how useful it was, and it became a staple for educating new teachers and parents alike.

Scarborough’s model expands The Simple View of Reading into two strands of a rope: Language Comprehension and Word Recognition. Within each strand, individual threads define those strands with individual skills for each. 

For teachers of  English reading, this provides a visual reminder of the complex components of reading and the number of things that must be taught to achieve success.

The Role of Knowledge Building Curriculum in Comprehension

In the late 1980s, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, designed an experiment to determine the extent to which a child’s reading comprehension depends on prior knowledge of a topic.

To test this theory, Recht and Leslie brought in 64 seventh and eighth-grade students who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball. 

Recht and Leslie found that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text—more so than their supposed reading level. Kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, did poorly. And students who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

Frederick Bartlett’s 1932 study Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology connected comprehension and cultural relevance. 

Bartlett’s research consisted of participants who were European Americans and Native Americans. Bartlett asked participants to read a Native American folk story twice and then asked them to recite the story after 15 minutes. Native American participants found it easier to reproduce the story. European Americans often left out or replaced details related to the Native American culture.  

Research has also shown that reading comprehension depends on both fluency skills and a very broad base of knowledge. 

In the publication Knowledge Matters, author Ruth Wattenberg published that as students age and gain foundational reading skills, lack of knowledge when reading a text typically becomes the much greater obstacle to reading comprehension. 

Comprehension is directly related to a student’s ability to make meaning from text. “To make meaning from text, the reader needs relevant background knowledge related to the text’s vocabulary, topic, and structure,” says Nonie K. Lesaux, a literacy researcher at Harvard. 

Knowledge building is proven to strengthen reading comprehension, but a lacking component in literacy curricula used in many schools across the country. 

3. Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy Instruction

The discussion surrounding the efficacy of balanced literacy instruction as compared to structured literacy instruction continues to be widely debated. 

Gough and Tunmer’s research shows that a weak foundation in decoding strategies compromises reading comprehension. Balanced literacy instruction is typically not aligned with the Science of Reading and overlooks the importance of systematic phonics in literacy instruction. 

Balanced Literacy also emerged in the 90s. The term balanced literacy instruction first appeared in California in 1996. Policymakers attributed the low scores on the national reading assessment to the use of whole language instruction. A new curriculum, called balanced reading instruction, was mandated. 

At that time, balanced literacy was defined as a “philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control. 

Today, the definition of balanced literacy is left widely to the interpretation of the educator. However, most balanced literacy classrooms favor immersion in literature over teaching fundamentals like phonics - a pillar of the evidence-based structured literacy approach that was built on decades of exhaustive research

Structured Literacy

Structured literacy, an approach to literacy instruction that is aligned with Science of Reading research, emphasizes highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy. These components include both foundational skills (e.g., decoding, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (e.g., reading comprehension, written expression). 

Structured Literacy incorporates explicit, systematic phonics into literacy instruction. Gough and Tunmer’s research has contributed greatly to our understanding of the most effective ways to teach reading. 

If children cannot encode and decode naturally, then research shows that exposure to unfamiliar text will only lead to practicing compensatory strategies, (such as relying on picture cues) while valuable instructional time passes by. 

Building Decoding Skills in Young Readers

Stanford research published in 2015 confirms that beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships, or phonics, instead of learning whole words, increase activity in the area of the brain best wired for reading.

The study confirmed that words learned through letter-sound instruction elicit neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain - which encompasses visual and language regions. 

Words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing. Strong left hemisphere engagement during early word recognition is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading. 

Students who can’t read the words in front of them certainly can’t read them with understanding. 

4. Guided Reading vs. Small Group Reading Instruction

Much like balanced literacy, guided reading has been widely debated. However, guided reading that centers around reading levels and cueing systems is not aligned with Science of Reading research. 

Traditional guided reading strategies center around small groups based entirely on reading levels. 

This type of guided reading can be particularly problematic for students who struggle with decoding. If students who struggle with decoding are asked to read leveled texts that contain a significant number of words they can’t decode, instruction can quickly evolve into using guessing strategies such as cueing and other compensatory strategies that will not lead to improvements in comprehension. 

Additionally, limiting students’ instruction to leveled texts reduces the time struggling readers may spend engaging with complex, grade-level text.

Traditional guided reading that focuses exclusively on leveled text, particularly in diverse school systems, has been linked as a contributor to opportunity gaps.  

A TNTP study reported that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely than their white, wealthier peers to experience remediation—even when they had already demonstrated success on grade-level content. 

In 2018, TNTP researchers followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems with A and B students and confirmed that far too many students graduate from high school still unprepared for the lives they want to lead because they’re missing skills they need. Specifically, not because they can’t master challenging material, but because they’re rarely given a real chance to try. 

TNTP also found that students who could be successful with grade-level content when given the opportunity were too often denied the opportunity to do so (including during guided reading instruction that focuses on leveled text that is often below grade level).

Although the terms “guided reading” and “small group instruction” have been used interchangeably by educators across the U.S., these two approaches are not the same.  

Small group instruction forms student groups based on a shared skill deficit. Instruction focuses on filling identified gaps in student learning and allows a teacher to target individual student needs.  

Small groups may include students who are at different places in their reading journey, but still share a common challenge with growing reading skills in either word recognition or language comprehension. Small group instruction helps students build the strong decoding skills they need to become fluent, proficient readers and aligns with Science of Reading research by including both word recognition and language comprehension skill development. 

Targeted small group instruction should include grade-level text whenever possible. Even for students who do need below-grade-level-text during targeted small group instruction (for example those who are working on decoding skills), students should still have plenty of opportunities to engage with grade-level texts, content, and vocabulary.

Targeted small group instruction can focus on any one of three areas:  

Phonics Small Group: This is the type of small group supports students who need to be retaught a word recognition concept they were unable to internalize during a whole group phonics lesson. During this small group, controlled texts are used to highlight the concept and give students lots of “at bats” as the teacher coaches them. Although the focus of this group is phonics, it’s important to always emphasize comprehension after reading the text to make meaning. 

Blended Group: This small group structure allows students to practice both accuracy and comprehension. In this group, students get lots of “at bats” in word solving as well as answering literal/inferential questions about the text.

Comprehension Group: This small group is best for students who have 98% accuracy when reading a text but often struggle to answer literal and inferential questions about the text.

Targeted small group instruction should never replace access to grade-level text, instruction, and content, but rather should be used in addition to grade-level text, content, and instruction when students have specific needs.

Using Controlled Versus Non-Controlled Texts in Small Group Instruction   

For small group reading instruction teachers can use a variety of books based on the targeted area of the small group they are teaching including:

  • Targeted Phonics: Controlled Text (Aligned to Decodable)
  • Targeted Comprehension: Non-Controlled Txt (At, Below, or Above Grade Level Text); and
  • Blended Small Groups (Controlled, At, Below, or Above Grade Level Text)

Controlled texts are a series of short stories that typically follow the sequence of phonics skills taught in a particular phonics program.  A controlled text is only controlled if the concepts have been taught to students before the text is introduced.

Controlled texts are an excellent resource for beginning and struggling readers.   They are extremely effective for helping students gain confidence in reading while also building fluency.  

In a non-controlled text, the sentences include phonetically irregular words and patterns students have not yet learned. Non-controlled texts are extremely helpful in providing students with authentic literature in which they can practice multiple-word recognition and comprehension concepts they have learned.


Decades of research have reinforced the importance of having a Science of Reading aligned literacy instruction program, yet the literacy instruction debate continues.  

Today, the urgency to transform literacy instruction strategies from balanced literacy to structured literacy and guided reading to small group instruction is a necessity to swiftly address learning loss and eliminate the disparity in achievement in minority and disadvantaged student populations.