A More Actionable Take On The Science Of Reading

Our guest author today is Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development at New York University.

Over the past few years, “the science of reading” has become the latest obsession in the field of education. From professors and textbook publishers claiming they teach it to politicians and principals claiming they follow it, the science of reading is everywhere.

And nowhere.

Like so much jargon, “the science of reading” is fast becoming a meaningless label—it’s applied to draw attention to political circumstances and no longer signals any deep understanding of how literacy develops. So let’s take another approach. Let’s define reading proficiency in a way that may be comprehensible and compelling, not only to educators but to the general public as well. And the clearest model to date is Gough’s and Tunmer’s “the simple view of reading.”

The simple view of reading is rather elegant in its efficiency.  Basically, it argues that reading comprehension—that is, reading with real meaning is a product of fluent decoding and language comprehension. Essentially the model goes like this:  Reading comprehension (RC) = fluent decoding (D) X language comprehension (LC). Neither fluent decoding nor language comprehension alone is sufficient for reading comprehension. Like Sinatra would say, you simply can’t have one without the other.

The model has served many scholars well, with one BIG caveat. Most of us would agree on what fluent decoding looks like (e.g., the ability to easily and automatically translate a string of letters into words). And there is also a host of research on how to teach decoding effectively. But no one is quite sure what language comprehension is, or how best to teach it

Like “the science of reading,” the term “language comprehension” has many definitions. Some use it to describe listening comprehension; some, oral language development; others may define it as vocabulary, syntax or the ability to make inferences. And still others might refer to it as one single linguistic factor called “language.” You can certainly make an argument that all of these areas contribute to children’s ability to understand what they read. But if we take Gough and Tunmer’s original charge—that is to make things comprehensible and actionable—then language comprehension includes two crucial skills: vocabulary and content knowledge.  Luckily, they go hand-in-hand.

Think about vocabulary and content knowledge as reciprocal processes: one feeds the other. If you know a lot about a topic, you’re likely to know the clusters of words associated with it. Similarly, words that constitute common categories or words that occur frequently in different contexts are likely to help children build a network of knowledge about the topic. Both are cumulative and exponential: the more you know, the easier it is to acquire new knowledge (including vocabulary) because your existing knowledge facilitates understanding and retention—and thus accumulation.


If we recognize that knowledge is not a static characteristic, but rather one that is highly alterable, then how does it develop? Children need a fairly extensive knowledge network of vocabulary and concepts to read and successfully comprehend in later grades. But to get started, we need to begin in the early years to help children organize large amounts of information into meaningful networks with plenty of opportunities for repeated practice and extended learning. 

In my team’s research studies of vocabulary, we use shared book reading as an opportunity to expand childrens content knowledge in science and mathematics. Topics in science—for example, wild weather and habitats—tend to intrigue children, and they also provide rich opportunities to build content and conceptual knowledge essential for developing knowledge networks. For example, if children learn that tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes are all types of wild weather, they begin to understand certain properties of a category—that wild weather can be damaging and destructive, and that people need to take safety precautions.

Based on our research, knowing a word’s meaning is not sufficient unless it is tied to a network of concepts that helps children understand their world. Using both narrative nonfiction books and informational text, we work to deepen their knowledge about a particular topic, introducing additional content related words throughout our sessions. We concentrate on the topic over three weeks, building and adding new words along the way, so that by the end, children have acquired over 100 words connected to a network of concepts.

Years ago, my team and I were captured by ideas of E. D. Hirsh Jr. in an article written for American Educator, an AFT publication.  In that article, he suggests a relatively easy approach to building content knowledge. We took it to heart, and developed a supplementary curriculum called the World of Words (WOW!), a shared book reading program for prekindergarten through second grade that promotes vocabulary and content knowledge. The approach is rather straightforward: we clustered our read-alouds by topics that seemed to be most interesting to children, and read books to children from multiple genre on the same topic for two to three weeks. For example, they might listen to narrative and informational books all about space throughout these weeks, and through these readings learn words like oxygen, asteroid, supernova—words associated with that topic. 

For each lesson, teachers start off by giving child-friendly definitions of words to create a shared understanding for all the children, with the presumption that there’s much to learn (e.g. we eschew “what’s that?” questions) followed by conversations about the topic. At the end, children not only know a lot about the topic but they have accumulated a rich vocabulary within a conversational context to talk about it. 

In other words, they have developed knowledge networks, a type of organizational prosthetic that can serve to diminish the information processing load in the future learning. As children learn about new words within a topic, they begin to form a mental representation of these concepts, devoting less mental energy to how words relate to one another. For example, when children are introduced to the word hurricane as a type of wild weather, they can begin to understand the properties of the category and appreciate that they need to find shelter. In this respect, learning words in categories has inductive potential. By diminishing the information processing load, children are able to access existing knowledge and acquire new information more rapidly. Understanding the basic concept of wild weather, for example, enables children to quickly make new associations and create additional unrefined schemas (e.g., tropical wild weather), which becomes increasingly differentiated with additional knowledge. In this respect, as Hirsch powerfully demonstrated, “knowledge begets knowledge.”

Based on what weve learned about developing knowledge networks, we propose five instructional principles that thread throughout our work and that of other researchers who have focused on knowledge-rich instruction.

Principle 1: Big Ideas. We start our planning process with the big ideas we want children to learn. Big ideas are concepts and principles that allow for the most efficient and broadest  acquisition of knowledge across of a range of examples in a domain. For example, big ideas in our topic of “marine mammals” include the fact that they have life cycles, have ways of protecting themselves, and live in habitats based on their needs. These big ideas serve as cross-cutting themes, linking one topic to another. Insects, pets, and wild animals, for instance, will share these common features, allowing children to understand commonalities across this broad domain (e.g., living things). Big ideas, therefore, serve to emphasize what is important, while concepts focus on smaller units of knowledge. In the case of marine mammals, we focus on concepts such as how whales, manatees, and seals all have lungs and breathing oxygen. Words cluster around a concept with similar properties.

Principle 2: Word Knowledge.  Vocabulary is childrens entry to knowledge and the world of ideas. So we need to focus intensively on vocabulary in the earliest grades. In order to have a good conversation or inquiry lesson in science, for example, children need a threshold of content-specific words in order to talk about their ideas. Words are learned incrementally and cumulatively after many different exposures. As children encounter a word repeatedly and in multiple contexts, they accumulate more and more knowledge. To develop a deeper understanding of words, we start with child-friendly definitions of words, making sure the children have a common understanding of them, and review them frequently through our shared reading activities. We select words in categorical sets (e.g., manatee, whale, seal) to help children begin to develop imagery and mental models of concepts. 

Rather than using so-called “Tier 2” words, we select words to focus on our big ideas and identify important, depictable words that are thematically related and that can be applied to higher-order concepts. Often described as “Tier 3,” these words are central to building knowledge and conceptual understanding and are integral to contentlearning in various academic domains. For instance, children learn to classify vocabulary pictures by categories (e.g., this is a living thing; this is not a living thing) and to describe how words relate to one another.

Principle 3: The Use of Multiple Genres.  Children develop deeper knowledge when they are exposed to a topic through multiple genres. For example, storybooks and particularly narrative nonfiction books are a wonderful source for learning new words and developing an emotional connection between the characters and the topic. On the other hand, informational books often include more dense vocabulary and concepts, and are likely to provide factual information about the social and natural world. When we use both genres (narrative nonfiction, informational) we can provide a more intensive experience for children, allowing them to deeply process lexical sets of content vocabulary and related concepts. That is, the integration of texts and topical units promotes more frequent encounters with words, and develops knowledge across genres which creates a deeper and more thorough understanding of the topic.

Principle 4: Distributed Review. Successful learning also depends on distributed review to reinforce the essential building blocks of information within a content domain. However, simple repetition of information wont reliably ensure learning. According to research (and here), review requires: (a) sufficient amount of time on a topic; (b) that it be distributed over time (e.g., not in a single dose); (c) that it be cumulative, with less complex information integrated into more complex tasks; and (d) varied contacts to illustrate its wide application to children’s understanding of information.

Principle 5: Intentional Opportunities for Language Engagement. Opportunities to talk about and more deeply process information are essential for developing children’s knowledge. Children will need to build a strong oral foundation in conjunction with many opportunities to learn content and connected concepts. One instructional technique that we use is to have children make contrasts and comparisons—such as describing what is similar or different about the properties of certain concepts. For example, we give children puzzlers like, are tomatoes a type of fruit? Why are they or are they not a fruit? Puzzlers help children think outside the immediate context and consider the reasoning behind the contrasts, which can further stretch their understanding of categories and concepts. This type of activity requires more complex thinking and encourages them to problem-solve, helping children manipulate the knowledge that they are acquiring, deepening comprehension, and facilitating the development of new knowledge.


Thousands of children have experienced and benefited from WOW, making statistically significant and practically significant gains in vocabulary, conceptual and content knowledge (see, for example herehere and here). But the most compelling data point of all from our perspective is to look at children’s eyes, the sparkle when ideas catch and grab their attention. No assessment is quite so valid.

One important point here. Notice that I haven’t used the terms “prior knowledge” or “background knowledge.” These terms put some children at a disadvantage, by reinforcing a longstanding academic hierarchy that values a rather narrow band of subject-matter knowledge over a great breadth of family, community, and cultural knowledge. 

Young children are naturally eager to learn but never so much as now, after this tumultuous year. Let’s greet them with opportunities to learn about their world, and build culturally sustaining, fascinating experiences for them that feed their interests and developing vocabulary and knowledge. John Guthrie called it “teaching for engagement,” which is recognizing that children WILL talk about a topic if they have something to talk about. They’ll talk about wild animals, the mysteries of space, climate change, and more—if we give them the time, choice, and practices to do so. And if we do this at the very beginnings of their literacy experiences, it will give them a purpose and a goal for learning to read.

There are some lessons to be learned here. First, all children bring valuable knowledge from their families and communities into the classroom—and all children have expertise to share with their classmates. Second, all children are capable of learning yet more—by building on what they already know and by investigating entirely new topics. New knowledge can and should be taught, early on through books, videos, and direct experiences—including peers sharing with each other. In some cases, the content that we teach might be additive, while for others it might be new. But by being explicit in our teaching of content and in our valuing of children’s funds of knowledge, we place all children on an even playing field. Third, we don’t have a minute to wait. Far too frequently, we hear the saying that children go “from learning to read to reading to learn.” However, delaying the learning of academic content knowledge until children are presumably competent readers puts them at a severe disadvantage, especially given the slow, and often incremental nature of developing content expertise. It can also implicitly convey a message that reading is just a technical skill, like practicing the scales on the piano, without any real application to meaning.                              

There are other assumptions, as well, that need to be challenged, often derailing our instructional time and efforts to teach meaningful content: That children need to build stamina in reading. That leveled books can build reading skills. And finally, and perhaps most controversially, that reading comprehension is a generic skill which children may have—or not.  As numerous studies have now shown, reading comprehension is not a skill that can be easily transferred from one domain to another (see herehere and here). This is precisely why we need to integrate content learning into literacy instruction, including all areas of the curriculum such as science, social studies, math, and art.

Our children will need skillfully engineered systemic instruction that is content rich and that maximizes the valuable resource of time. Whether couched as the “science of reading” or not, the imperative is to teach decoding skills as early as possible while simultaneously fostering childrens knowledge as a means for providing a firm foundation for reading comprehension. Our children deserve no less.

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