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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.  Recently there has been an 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 its 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% 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.

Consider the impact on a student of having stronger or weaker cognitive skills in each of these areas.

Sustained attention: The ability to stay on task for sustained periods of time.

Relevance: Weaker sustained attention could mean that a student’s attention wanders off partway through decoding a word or a sentence or a paragraph, resulting in gaps in what their brains take in or requiring them to go back and start over.

Visual span:  The ability to process a volume of visual information with a glance.

Relevance: Students who see a letter at a time or a word at a time will likely struggle to decode accurately and build fluency. Students who can take in groups of words or whole lines of text are more likely to get the gist, as well as the meaning of specific words.

Sequential processing: The ability to see objects in a sequential order, as in reading.

Relevance: Objects may be letters, words, phrases or ideas. Some students’ brains don’t retain the order in which information was taken in. So 5+7 may be seen as 7+5. Fortunately, addition is forgiving. But subtraction is not. The statement 5-7 means something very different than 7-5. And in reading, the order of letter is always important. Bad and dab are simply two very different words, although they contain the same letters.

Visualization: The ability to recall an image of what has been seen and to mentally manipulate or change aspects of that image in the mind.

Relevance: One strategy strong readers often use to comprehend and remember what they read is to create a mental image of it.  A teacher might say, “Can you see that scene in your mind?” Some students do this very easily. For others, their “mind’s eye” has not developed to support this way of seeing and remembering. Lack of comprehension and lack of retention are likely in these cases.

Working memory: The ability to hold and manipulate information consciously in the mind.

Relevance: Working memory is what enables to us hold information in mind while we read from the beginning to the end of the sentence, to bear the relationships in mind, to compare what we are reading to what we already know to give it meaning, and to know whether or not we are understanding what we are reading.

Inhibitory control: The ability to suppress a thought or idea and to refrain from doing something one otherwise would do.

Relevance: Students who “blurt out” words when they read are often thought to be guessing from context. Research suggests that the issue is more likely related to inhibitory control (or the lack thereof). The mental process of suppressing a word candidate (which is the same mental process as suppressing other ideas or actions), needs to be working well in skillful reading.

Cognitive flexibility: The ability to change our mindset when the rules of the world around us change, to shift between mental processes.

Relevance: The Science of Reading tells us that there are two different processes (pathways in the brain) that are used for sounding out words and recognizing sight words. The Science of Learning tells us that our brain’s ability to switch back and forth between these processes involves cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility also is what allows us to understand different characters’ points of view or to revise our thinking when we realize that we had something wrong – for example, giving up on the idea that it had to have been the butler when it turns out he has an ironclad alibi).

The science of reading as it is currently conceptualized is very important. It makes clear some important principles about how reading instruction needs to happen to be effective.  But it doesn’t explain why, even with excellent instruction based on the science of reading and structured literacy, many students will struggle or perform reading tasks much less well than we would otherwise expect. In other words, science-based reading instruction is necessary but not sufficient.

The science of learning recognizes that the cognitive capacity of the learner — the strength of individual cognitive skills and the ability of those skills to work together in an integrated and efficient way —  is also a vital part of the equation that represents how strong readers develop. The science of learning also informs us that cognitive capacity can be developed. Improving an individual’s cognitive capacity, and thereby improving everything that individual does with their cognitive processes, whether reading, math, sports, work, or any other part of life, is something we also know how to do.

As educators living in a day when neuroscience is increasingly guiding our understanding of how learning happens in our students’ brains, let us embrace the science of reading and let us get busy extending that to the science of learning.



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