I’m passionate about intentional, whole child development. And I love to nerd out. Tell me you have some science about how children learn and grow and I am all in for a deep dive.
So, when I dove into the Science of Reading, I thought there were a few things that could be clarified, especially when it comes to our youngest learners.
There are LOADS of resources on this topic (just check out my sprawling show notes from Episodes 56 & 57 of Not Just Cute, the Podcast, where I get into even more of the details). After digging into the minutiae, I personally find it helpful to condense the information into something visual.
With apologies for the fact that I did not major in graphic design, here’s my attempt to illustrate what the Science of Reading gets right, and what it leaves out.
Above is a replica of a common graphic depicting the “Five Pillars” of the Science of Reading. These five elements came into focus in a report released by the National Reading Panel in 2000. Based on rigorous meta-analyses of existing research focused on grades K-12, they recommended emphasizing these key elements to promote reading proficiency.
Around 2018, journalist Emily Hanford (along with others) began asking why so many children in the US were struggling with reading, calling attention to the National Reading Panel’s recommendations back in 2000. The assertion was that these elements had been delineated by scientific study years before, but were still being ignored. The biggest target: phonics. Too many literacy programs had too little emphasis on this key element.
Generally, when a person, policy, or resource uses the term, “Science of Reading,” they are referencing the 2000 report from the National Reading Panel and systematically teaching these five elements.
It’s true, these five elements are critical to building readers, and it is based on science.
But as clean and clear as this pillar graphic is, I can’t help but feel it’s missing something from a developmental perspective.
I envision something more like this:
(To compensate for what I lack in design talent: a description. A section of a brick wall with a foundation in blue, built upon by rows of bricks – base layers of pink emergent literacy and a red section of skills spanning early literacy on to transitional literacy and then fluent literacy.)
To be abundantly clear, I am NOT anti-Science of Reading. But I do think there are some pitfalls to look out for, which should explain why I prefer this illustration.
Pitfall #1: Missing the Foundation
I’m biased. I specialize in early childhood. So, when I hear people talking about any subject, I believe that has different implications for preschool vs kindergarten vs first grade, etc. To use an earlier metaphor, we don’t “push kids down the stairs.”
When I read panel member Timothy Shanahan’s summary of the National Reding Panel’s report, I took special note when he emphasized that the panel focused on research studies involving children in grades K-12. Therefore, he concluded, while the recommendations are largely applied to primary grades, they can be applied to older grades as well.
What too many miss however, is that this also means they are not meant to be applied directly to preschoolers. After the National Reading Panel (2000) issued their report, Shanahan then led the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) to explore the obvious gap — what does the science say about preschoolers?
The scientists behind the Science of Reading knew preschoolers needed something different. So why would we think we can – or should want to – jump right in with the big five with our preschoolers? To do so is ignoring the science once again.
We know we aren’t serving young children well when we treat preschool as “elementary school light.”
The second panel (NELP, 2008) took a similar approach to the first (NRP, 2000), but did not release a list identical to the original five factors. Similarly, in 2021, the Institute of Education Sciences put together a research summary focused on early literacy to include what has been learned in the 20+ years since those two landmark panels began. Again, the work complemented the five key elements, but wasn’t the same list.
They did find similar factors. In fact, one might say that when the science is focused on these younger learners, the key factors that emerge are the precursors to the big five.
Here’s what I find stands out in the collective science (labeled on the pink bricks, representing emergent to early literacy):
- Oral Language (Conversations –vocabulary, concepts, structure, grammar, comprehension, fluency, etc.)
- Phonological Awareness (Sounds in words – phonemes, yes, but also onset and rime, syllables, alliteration, rhyming, etc.)
- Concepts of Print (Understanding printed words carry meaning, how to hold/turn a book, etc.),
- Alphabet Knowledge (The names, shapes, and sounds of letters — the earliest phonics!)
- Early Writing (Think about all those shared writing experiences, dictations, inventive spelling, and stories told in drawings and scribbles.)
And what about before preschool? Research tells us that the foundation for literacy begins building at birth. As soon as children begin hearing sounds and engaging in meaningful interactions, their brains begin building foundational language and literacy skills. (The work of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff offers some of my favorite examples.)
Every song, every story, every conversation, is building that critical foundation. In fact, some of the research pointing to the importance of early literacy skills, like alphabet knowledge, note the possibility that these other language rich experiences may be a confounding factor. Meaning, the benefit they found in children who knew the ABCs at preschool age might have been about directly learning the letters but might also have actually been about all the stories, songs, conversations, and experiences in that foundation, which also happened made knowing the ABCs possible.
These skills build upon and are interlocked with one another. When building literacy, we don’t suddenly erect five disconnected pillars on sand. We build a deep, strong foundation. Then we start building emergent literacy skills in the zone of proximal development, preparing the way for the next five key elements and more. Language and literacy development doesn’t begin with word lists and timed readings.
Pitfall #2: Overcorrection
It’s clear that alphabetics work was being underemphasized before the spotlight was put on the Science of Reading. Improving, increasing, and integrating systematic work with phonics and phonemic awareness will undoubtedly improve reading skills. However, we must be reminded — as MANY scholars on this topic have — that not only is this not where we begin, but that phonics alone is not a reading program. Reading is more than making the right sounds.
Of the many models for reading out there, I am particularly fond of Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope. (Fantastic copyrighted image here. A must-see. And for those who like a longer explanation, enjoy Dr. Scarborough explaining her work in this delightful video.)
Maybe it’s that she is a self-proclaimed centrist in the “Reading Wars,” or that she espouses a developmental perspective, or perhaps because her focus is on preschoolers, whatever it is, her explanation resonates profoundly and simply all at once.
Her work (and that of many others) emphasizes that the sounds/decoding aspect of reading is just one part — a critical part to be sure, but only one part nonetheless — woven together with many other elements that combine to help us make meaning. And making meaning is the ultimate goal of reading.
So while the increased emphasis on phonics is absolutely an improvement, we must beware of programs or practices implying that reading is simply the process of decoding. Phonics alone is not a reading curriculum, and is not, itself, the Science of Reading.
There are many, many elements that go into the interlocking brick-wall-like construction of literacy. Omitting the other elements is ignoring the science, not embracing it.
Pitfall #3: Oversimplifying
The National Reading Panel utilized rigorous research practices. That’s what gives their findings merit. But to ensure that rigor, they also had to be merciless about their focus. That means that of the 30 or more topics the committee considered studying, they whittled their focus down to eight or so elements, which then led to the five key elements found in the report.
This doesn’t mean those five don’t matter, but it also doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else that matters. For example, writing was one of the topics excluded from the panel’s study. Does that mean a high-quality reading curriculum doesn’t need to include writing? Of course not.
Additionally, the panel’s contemporary, the National Research Council Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998), outlined the importance of motivation, environment, and early interactions in their consensus statement. Those aren’t in the five pillars either. But science tells us they do matter.
In fact, in her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes, “The association between hearing written language and feeling loved provides the best foundation for this long process [of emergent literacy], and no cognitive scientist or educational researcher could have designed a better one.”
So, while the five pillars are essential elements of a quality literacy program, they aren’t the ONLY elements, and the panel never said they were. We absolutely need to give those elements careful attention and implement them with careful intention, but no one on the panel implied that reading education was a simple 5 box checklist.
The work of the National Reading Panel (2000), should be applied along with an awareness of the work of its contemporaries, the National Research Council (1998) and the National Early Literacy Panel (2008), in addition to the current research from the Institute of Education Sciences (2021) and the ongoing research from scientists of varying disciplines, like Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Rachel Romeo, Patricia Kuhl, and Alison Gopnik, to name just a few.
While there’s no disputing the importance of the five key elements, there’s room for more bricks as we build literacy.
Pitfall #4: Tunnel Vision
I prefer the image of a portion of a brick wall over the image of five pillars because when we talk about literacy, we’re not really looking at the whole structure, just a part. Education and development are more than just reading scores. Reading is important, but it’s not the whole picture.
In the Building Literacy image, we can imagine that the bricks not only interlock with other elements of literacy, but with other elements of cognition, social-emotional development, and motor development (ever tried holding a pencil or even sitting still without it?). We’re not just building readers, we’re building whole, healthy, happy children.
We’re using literacy to introduce empathy, critical thinking, and problem solving.
We’re using language to encourage curiosity and wonder, numeracy and spatial reasoning, friendship and kindness.
All these blocks interconnect and reinforce one another.
And the mortar? Well, where the image of the pillars simply surrounds them with air, the mortar that holds these bricks together combines the Science of Reading with the Science of Learning.
How we teach matters.
In 2015, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek participated with several other academics to combine research in psychology, education, neuroscience, machine learning, linguistics, and more to create a consensus on optimal learning environments. They called it the Science of Learning. She and her colleagues asserted, based on the research, that children learn best when learning is active, engaging, meaningful, social, iterative, and joyful.
Hirsh-Pasek often points out that these elements are also inherent in play. Playful Learning is the term she and her research partners use to describe environments where adults prepare, support, and scaffold playful environments and interactions to support learning. And, they assert, it’s where the best learning happens.
No shade intended to the creator of the five pillars graphic. The brick wall segment isn’t a perfect illustration either.
Progression through the literacy phases (foundational, emergent, early, transitional, fluent) doesn’t happen all at once and it isn’t perfectly linear. More complicated skills build upon prior skills of course, but each skill area also builds progressively through many levels. Phonics at the early literacy stage in kindergarten or first grade will look different from phonics work at the transitional phase, often around second grade. Each child moves individually, building skills as they go.
As the elements build upon each other, they are also interrelated (which the brickwork shows), but they don’t stay in one place. Early writing is supported by concepts of print and concepts of print are reinforced by early writing, so which brick rests upon which? Apparently, this fluid brick wall is of the Hogwarts variety.
Ultimately, when I want to apply the science of building literacy in the early years, I look at my individual learners to see where I need to set the scaffold to meet them where they are (foundation? emergent rows? early literacy? transitional literacy?). Then I begin to build literacy skills within the context of the Science of Learning, intentionally and systematically building each row, secured into place with playful learning experiences and whole child development.
And I keep in mind, as Don Holdaway said, “Literacy ought to be one of the most joyful undertakings ever in a young child’s life.”
The science also supports that.
Learn more about putting this science into action in Not Just Cute the Podcast, Episode 58.
Show notes will include resources for both preschool, PreK and K-2 settings.