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In an article published on the Learning Counsel, Betsy Hill, president of BrainWare Learning, writes …

From my heart and from my hand
Why don’t people understand my intentions?

–Oingo Boingo

Education is moving from being based on folklore to being grounded in science at an ever-faster pace. And the science that is playing a greater role encompasses both “traditional” education research as well as research findings from neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology and other related fields. And unless you have been living under a rock, you can’t have missed the explosion of attention to “The Science of Reading,”

There is, in fact, science that explains reading. We know quite a lot today about how reading happens in the brain and the push is to use that information to improve reading instruction. The new, scientifically supported, view identifies five components of reading:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

While that may not sound much different from previous lists of reading “basics,” the emphasis has firmly shifted to phonemic awareness (being able to hear and identify the meaningful sounds of a language) and phonics (explicit instruction on the connection between symbols [letters and combinations of letters] and sounds). This shift is consistent with extensive neuroscience research on the pathways in the brain that enable reading.

The science of reading reminds us that, while humans evolved for language, we did not evolve for reading. So, each person – we might say, each brain – must learn to read on his or her own. Unlike learning to speak, which most of us do with exquisite ease, learning to read can be darn-right laborious. For most of us, it requires instruction, and the quality of that instruction can make a tremendous difference. The science of reading can be very helpful in guiding instruction to improve reading achievement. And as we know, there is plenty of room for improvement with only 35 percent of fourth-graders reading proficiently at grade level.

But the science of reading needs to be considered in the broader context of the science of learning. What the science of reading, at least in its initial form, does not explain is that there are mental processes that are even more basic than phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These more basic processes are what enable our brains to take in, give meaning to, organize, store, retrieve and think about information. These mental processes are called cognitive skills. The science of reading (as it is being discussed currently) does not, for example, address cognitive skills such as sustained attention, visual span, sequential processing, visualization, working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility, to name a few.

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