Episode 213

The Science of Reading Explained

Recorded by | Run time: 34 min, 4 sec


The Science of Reading is a culmination of major research articles from English-speaking countries that have been consistent in their findings on learning to read and the teaching of reading.

In this episode Clare Wood, early years teacher and linguistics specialist from Tiny Steps Make Big Strides shares what you should know about effective literacy instruction through the guidance of the research.

The Science of Reading Explained

Holly’s Blog, What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading Research is a great resource for teachers to refer to, so check that out after listening to this episode!

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The Science of Reading Explained – Full Episode Transcript

Bron: Welcome, Clare from Tiny Steps Make Big Strides. It is lovely to have you on the podcast today to talk about The Science of Reading.

Clare: Oh, it’s great to be here, Bron. Thanks for inviting me.

Bron: No worries. And Clare, you collaborated with Holly recently on a blog post that she wrote on Teach Starter’s blog called What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading Research and that blog post has gone absolutely bonkers! Teachers have just loved reading it. So I thank you so much for contributing there and also for collaborating on a beautiful bookmark that you came up with the ideas for, to help students in the classroom. And that’s a free resource. So if teachers want to take a look at teachstarter.com but today we’re going to be talking with Claire about making strides into The Science of Reading.

Because I think some people are just starting to get curious about dipping a toe in, and we would just sign before we came onto the recording, that there’s a huge body of research that the Science of Reading draws upon. And it can be a little bit overwhelming for classroom teachers who have very busy schedules and very heavy workloads, especially in a year like 2020 to take on a new approach to reading instruction. But it is definitely something that is, has been around for a little while.

So we might just start off Clair ‘cause I find your background so interesting.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background in education and linguistics?

Clare: Yeah, well I so I started with a language and linguistics degree and then went on to do a master’s and became an early years teacher, pretty much teaching the first year of school. Didn’t do that long in the UK cause then we moved to the States and I think it’s in America where I really connected the dots beforehand. I think I was doing what many teachers do when you go into school and you mentored by an older teacher and you’re pretty much just following through with what is expected of you. And then I moved to the States and pretty much went into an English as second language classroom and through all the training I got that. I thought it actually makes far more sense to go from speech to print.

And so that pretty much just was the light bulb moment for me when I was teaching lots of children that have very little English and it’s my job to teach them not only to read and spell and write, but actually we really need to be speaking English. So I just found that to be monumental in, you know, in, in my discovery, I suppose, are the most effective ways to teach children to read. And then basically you know, moved back to England and did some tutoring and, and whatnot. And it’s just to me, it’s just overwhelming how, you know, there’s this, you know, you can basically teach a child to read so much more efficiently.

So now I’m in Perth. I basically run a literacy clinic, it’s just for primary extra children and it’s mainly one who haven’t basically picked up literacy in the classroom.

I’ve found that most children that come to me, the parents think they have a language issue, but more often than not actually they really had an instruction issue. So they really were that child that needed more attention. They really were that child that needed that systematic approach.

And that’s not to say that I don’t teach dyslexic children. Of course there are children that do have an actual language issue. But more often than not, I have found that the children that they’re in my clinic. And I know when I talked to my colleagues, it’s the same there that they are the children that just, they really, really needed that systematic approach. They needed that approach where, you know, you’ll, it’s cumulative and you’re starting from the beginning and you’re working through a set sequence. So that, that really does help them. And so it’s, it’s really, really, I find it so exciting that you get, you get children, that the parents are really, you know, the parents are quite anxious and just want the best for their child and they come to you and they think everything’s wrong.

And you do the assessment and you really don’t know at the time you just say, you know, let’s, let’s start from the beginning. And what I noticed is that I find that the children are so excited and involved in the learning because it’s active learning. And because you’re teaching it from your, from the base, then they actually have the confidence to move forward because you’re not teaching them anything that they don’t already know. You’re basically moving in very small, incremental steps.

And I think that that is, that is the true difference between an effective reading instruction program in comparison to a more balanced literacy approach. Yeah, really I think with all children, what we need to do is work from the individual base. Now I appreciate from a costume point of view, that might be tricky, but as well, we can group children, but I’m just talking from my point of view.

You know, I think it’s really important that you do an assessment with a child and you work out where they’re coming from, and then you work from, from that situation. So for example, you can’t have a child coming to you and no matter what age group they’re in and whether they are say year three or year two, I think those year groups are useful. But I think from a reading instructional point of view, we just need to look at the level that they’re at rather than the year group they’re in. So even if you have a year child, but year five child come to you, then I think we really need to be looking at that year five child’s level and how their reading is progressing rather than they might be 10. I think their age has got nothing to do with reading. So I think, and I think that that is probably a huge difference at schools if they change are going to face.

We need to be looking at a child’s level rather than by level. I don’t mean, you know, a levelled reading book, the skills I’ve got, I mean, you know, where they’re at in their reading, can they sound words out? Can they kind of, they put the speech sounds that they’ve got to the letters on a page. Do they know that certain words might have a three letter grapheme trigraph? Do they know that, you know, there are lots of alternatives spellings for the A sound. Yep. They’re the, they’re the questions that we need to be asking ourselves. Yes. Yes.

Bron: So when you were talking before about your background and your experience, and you mentioned your light bulb moment where you decide where you kind of, it kind of occurred to you, that speech to print is so important.

Can we talk a little bit about speech to print as a concept and how that comes into its own when talking about the Science of Reading?

Clare: So, so speech to print is a concept that’s been around for a long time. And I think lots of speech pathologists use that in their daily practice anyway. And I think it’s just getting started properly in the classroom. And actually, if you do want to know more about speech print, Louisa Moats does have a brilliant book that’s actually called Speech to Print and it’s in its third edition now. So just for the listeners, that might be really good go to resource… it’s heavy going, but brilliant. But speech to print is basically taking, are taking the sounds that are coming out our mouths. And obviously every child comes to come into a school in the classroom, they know a lot about oral language anyway, because they, you know, they talk all the time, but speech is really natural. And we pick up speech as a consequence of just being around people and the language acquisition that we’ve got.

And as a non-speech pathologist I’m sure they could tell you more, but it really does just to cap where I was from a reading point of view that doesn’t just occur. Reading has to be taught. It has to be explicit. And so basically the speech of print approach is taken. Our speech sounds working from those initial sounds and moving through in a systematic approach. So for example, the word boat might have four letters, but we don’t split the four letters into the, into the B O A T. We split the four letters into the… And we make sure that our pronunciation is correct. Now, that’s not to say that we should all be pronouncing words the same way. So in the dictionary there is the phonetic transcription, but the dictionary I use, the Oxford English dictionary, has the standard British pronunciation.

But as we know, everybody has a different accent. My accent is completely mixed up ‘cause I keep moving. So what we’ve got to do is take it from that child’s accent really, and we need to talk through, this might be the standard way you say it differently. That’s okay because that’s your pronunciation. And I don’t think because I think as soon as we go through and we talk through, this is the standard, then we’re basically saying one accent’s superior to the other and that’s not true. I think accents out of beautiful tapestry, they really are.

So I think what we, so what we really need to be doing is helping children to understand and connect the speech sounds that come out their mouth to the letters around the page that make up the words.

Bron: Yes. Yeah.

Clare: And that is a brilliant start and that will help all children to progress.

Bron: What are the main differences in The Science of Reading compared with how literacy instruction is currently undertaken in many Australian classrooms? When we look at it, a classroom a more shared approach across literacy and science of reading is more specifically about explicit instruction of reading.

How Does the Science of Reading Approach Differ From How Reading is Commonly Taught?

Clare: Well, I think what we’ve got, what we’ve got to do with the Science of Reading is see it as a body of research. So it’s a body of research that’s been around for a long time and it keeps being added to. And now we also have lots of neuroscience data to back up a lot of what people were saying in the past. So that body of data is then used by expert teachers and effective educators in an explicit, systematic way and the scope and sequence. And, but that’s not to say that phonics is the only thing that helps. It’s not the only thing, but it really underpins everything.

So basically a class might have, have, have a complete explicit session on the A sound. And depending on the age of the, of the children, depending on the background, depending on the level the teacher might go, “Oh, here’s the A sound? And you know, one way to represent the A sound is in the, word play is in the AY. Okay. So you might just have a classroom teacher that knows how students really well and knows that they can’t cope with more than one spelling. Then you might have another classroom down the hallway, his kids really very well and she might go, or he might go, ah, I know that you can cope with three alternative spellings. So today we’re going to go with the sound, I’m going to talk about it. And we’re going to, we’re going to say it out loud. And we’re going to think about our lips and where, when a connect the sound that scent that’s going on with the letters on a page and they might go, Oh, so the A’s sound as AY as in play and it’s AI as in sail. And there’s also the split diagraph, A_E as in cake.

And so I think from a classroom point of view, it’s good. It’s going to look really different depending on the kids that you have. Yeah. I think what we’ve got to look at is explicit instruction is towards mastery and we’re going to scoop everybody up and everybody is going to get it. Everyone’s going to master that. And that comes through a knowledge rich curriculum.

So nobody ever said, just do phonics. I don’t know of any expert that ever went, Oh, let’s just decode. Let’s forget about the meaning. No one ever said that phonics is one element. And basically that classrooms go into go, right? We’re doing the A  sound. We’re going to read these texts. We’re going to play with these words. We’re going to build with these words, but what else is going to discuss these words tone?

Cause we need to know it. Whereas I think what’s happening a lot of time at the moment is, you know, where basically it’s just, it’s, it’s not particularly explicit and it’s, it’s more through immersion. It’s more, we’re going to have a guide. We’re going to have a model text. We’re going to have a guided read. We’re going to read this book, but we’re going to pick out some words. So the phonics, they’re still picking out words. They’re still picking out sounds, but there’s no explicit instruction that, yeah.

Bron: Really interesting. And I just wanted to ask you, do you feel, Clare, that with spelling lists, do you think spelling lists should be based upon, I know with my own children, their spelling lists focus each week on a particular sound and that makes it a lot easier for them to be able to figure out and segment knowing that there’s only four different variations or three or two of that sound. That sound, what, what’s your feeling on spelling?

Clare: I agree with you. I think spelling lists should be like that, but I think as well, if you look at any list, the Dolch list or the Fry list, the Oxford list, whatever lots of those words can, can literally be sounded out just from the initial sounds. So there was a huge amount of those words that are decodable. And then if you go further on, if you have a little bit more knowledge and you can sound further ones out, like we were just talking about with the, the A sound in play. Yeah. So I think, I think the lesson’s really good and they’re important, but I think as well with the list we’ve got to talk about, and we really need to open the discussion up with spelling as why are we doing the spelling test in the first place? Is it informing your planning? Because I see an awful lot of children that now actually you’re right. Have the sounds less, I’ve noticed with my own children that they’re now bringing home a list that has, you know late last week, for example, my children had the S sound, lots of words like rice in the house, which is great, but I think going forward, we could have it where the first year of school, lots of those words were put into the explicit program anyway, so that they would already have used that word.

They’ve already sounded that word out. I think from a, from a spelling point of view, maybe that’s one, that’s another thing that schools could really look up that the sound’s less is really good, but if it’s brought further down, it would be great. And maybe we need to think about what are we doing with those spelling tasks? Because it seems to me a lot of the times the tests are words given on a Monday they’re tested on a Friday and then we move on. Yeah, yeah. We don’t anything else with that data, we need to be data driven, but data driven in a positive way.

So if a child is getting four out of 10 every single week, maybe we need to look at that child and look at the issues that they might be facing because it does seem to me at the same children get nine out of 10 every week and the same children get four out of 10 every week. So maybe we could use the data to inform an empowered us as educators and work through, Oh, this child that they’re flying… this child, maybe not, maybe we could look at, are those words spelled correctly in the, in, in the work anyway, because surely the end goal is just correct spelling. It’s not to know a ton on a spelling test, is it?

Bron: Yeah, it’s, there’s a lot, I think, to unpack and to look into, but I just, yeah, I’m really interested to get your opinion on that. And another thing that comes out of spelling for me is in the early years the differences that we talk about with, through the research of the science of reading on sight words.

So when we look at sight words, what is the main problem with programs that are being taught in the early years and rote learnt?

Clare: Well, I can’t remember who said, this was somebody who’d say this. It’s not my words. Basically every word wants to be a sight word. So, and I think the biggest issue that we have with those spelling lists and the high frequency word charts and everything are that it’s all about rote learning a whole word and from the body of research ae know that that’s not how it works.

We know that we basically take the sounds that are coming out of our mouth and they’re already embedded in our brain because we can naturally speak, you know, pretty much everybody can naturally speak, but we can’t naturally read. So we have to link the sounds will coming out of our mouth with the letters or the light strings, as in the diagraphs, the two letters that go together, the tri graphs, the three letters that go together and then there’s four letters together, you know, the EIGH as in eight height, we really have, that’s what we have to teach children.

And the sight word lists basically sometimes not all the time, but sometimes can be a huge cognitive overload for children because we’re basically asking them to memorise all of these words when really what we could do is if there was a more explicit problem, and we teach them the letter strings that are connected to our speech, then we can actually teach them far more in the first year.

And really what we want is that automatic retrieval. So to begin with, we might be decoding words, but in the end, it’s all about fluency. And we all decode words at times, that we can’t read, even as adults in a words that you go, yeah, I just don’t know yet, come across that really huge scientific word, or you have a dinosaur, you know, you’ve got a parent of a dinosaur lover. If you didn’t hide the book full of dinosaurs.

The first time I did that, it’s thank goodness put the phonetic spelling, God is on his end papers is all I can say. So we all do it. Yes. But it’s just the fact that, you know, if you teach in all of these whole words, then you’re failing somebody’s brain with all of that memorisation or you’re not, and that’s not a skill, you’re not teaching a skill of decoding that word. And then the reading skill turns into a spelling skill and that runs into the writing. So I think the whole sight word lists really have to go, but there are some brilliant sites out there like phonics, phonics books is one that they have the top 300 words, I think it is. And they’ve coded them.

Bron: Okay. That’s great. That is a brilliant resource. And it’s free. Yes. It’s a brilliant resource for teachers to start thinking through less that I’ve got patterns.

Yes. Yeah. I think very interesting and systematic approach. And I think a lot of teachers are going to be thinking, okay, like maybe it is a great time to make a shift and to listen to this research, to take it on board and, and make it a change for Australian classrooms or all classrooms really.

So in Holly’s recent blog that she wrote and you helped out with, she featured eight key ways to get started with the Science of Reading, because sometimes when making changes in your pedagogy, it can be a bit overwhelming taking on a whole new system. But I guess it’s, it’s quite easy to integrate if you break it down into these smaller parts.

So can we talk about one of the things she mentioned in there was about blends? So Clare, can you tell us a little bit about how blends are being taught at the moment and how perhaps we could do away with even the word ‘blend’?

Clare: Yeah. Well, I think the thing with blends is that I suppose the teaching is quite old fashioned now, but I think we’ve got to make the distinction between teaching a child that has an articulation problem that speech pathologists do on a daily basis. And they talk about consonant clusters. I think sometimes it’s really, really important that children actually have lots of the oral work of, and gone with a speech pathologist because maybe they just can’t say the word frog. Maybe they can’t say the word slow and maybe, you know, did they just, basically, they just can’t get the mouth from the letters and you know, you go to a speech pathologist and they help, you know, they basically help you out. They do lots of exercises. They talk through physical.

Bron: Yes. It’s a physical thing. It’s not a cognitive thing.

Clare: Yeah. So, so for me, I think, you know, basically that message has got me mixed up, but if you’ve got an issue with your articulation, of course you needed, of course you need to sort that out. Yeah. Because we do need to pronounce it properly, but that is an oral issue. It’s not a reading issue because that same child that might not be able to say the word frog can still read it. Yeah.

It’s just that they can’t say it. Yep. And so I think what we’ve really got to think about is that the word blends has to go as in blend to blend is a verb. And I think we need to think through that we’re confused and our children where the systematic approach, if we’ve gone through the initial sounds and we say, right, so this 26 initial sounds, and we build words like cat and dog and sit, and then we might change, sit to sat, you know, and we go, we go through the word chain and they can manipulate all these words and they’re automatic for, then some classrooms still go, right.

We’ve made it, you haven’t, you’ve made the jump. But now what we’re going to do is we’re going to put these two letters together as a unit. And so now we’re going to go, right? So you know that there’s a f, and you know, there’s a r, now we’re going to put them together as fr and we’re going to go for, and we talk about the onset and the rhyme. Sometimes that can be good, like rhyming words, you know, they have fun.

They can help, but really if a child can’t rhyme, it’s not that they can’t read. And I think they used a lot in rhyming words. The blends are used a lot in rhyming words. And I think what we need to do is talk to children about that you have, you know, you have initial sounds. So now all we need to do is work on longer work.

So you might be able to do the word fog. Now, if we add in the awe, then it’s frog and it’sfour out of four sounds. Yeah. I think that, you know, that that’s helpful and it’s not adding to cognitive overload and you’re basically upscaling children all of the time. And as the words get longer, and then like you said, you move into those diagraphs and prior graphs and you move into vowel sounds and more complex, constant dance. It’s a continual program. Then you’re continually upskilling children in, was blends as a unit. Then there’s an awful lot of information there that children need to learn that really isn’t needed.

Bron: Well it’s kind of like the sight words, thing, Clare, like you were saying, it’s all that rote learning that is unnecessary because it can actually be decoded and it can actually be figured out like a puzzle. Like the bookmark says, if you look at the word it’s unnecessary to group those letters, because then the combinations and possibilities are quite huge and overwhelming when if you pare it back to those 26 sounds, they’re not as overwhelming. So yeah, I think that that’s very valid. Very interesting that you say that.

Clare: Well, I think that what we should be talking about is we’re talking about our initial, sign-ons A to Z, but then we’re talking, then we move on to longer decodable words. So we might move onto words like frog or tent or even, you know even words like pumpkin. And then I think that’s the, that’s the point really when we should be talking to children about the, unstressed vowel, the Schwab, and we should be saying to them, you know, sometimes we clip our sounds. So sometimes in words like lemon, if we don’t use the spelling voice and we don’t stretch out that word, then we forget that there’s an odor and depending on your accent, well, you could put an I in that you know, or an E that, but really it’s an O.

And I think that that’s really what we need to be doing. Like, you’re exactly what you say is equipping them with the skills and the knowledge so that they can move on. And I think that blends really just slows everybody down. And for some it’s for some it’s, it’s basically just going to trip them up because they were already having a hard time anyway, because we all learn differently. As in, we might have a guy over here who is just picking up on, he’s just racing ahead and we might have a little girl who’s really struggling, but it’s basically just, you know, the path that they’re taking, you know, and we see them all the time in our costumes. Don’t wait. We say, you know, at the end of the day, they might, you know, the boat’s going to get to the finish line, but it’s just, it’s how far, you know, how long it needs to take.

And for some kids, they just need a lot more repetition than basically a little girl who is really struggling. It’s going to take her further behind because she’s already got those initial sounds. But now you’re putting them together as one unit. When really, if you actually did a lot of work with her on blending, the sounds to create the word and segmenting them all at phoneme manipulate all that manipulation to create the word string, then she’s gonna really excel and flourish. What was it? When you talk about blends, she goes, or she might go, you know, she might go, Oh, and she sees it as a new concept. She sees the F and the R together and frog as a new thing.

Bron: It’s almost like she said, she thinks I’ve already had to learn all my sounds. And now I have to learn all the blends as well. It’s a bit overwhelming. You shouldn’t have to learn all the blends if you can, if you know how to blend the sounds. So, yeah.

Clare: And I think your children, I’m actually struggling to blend the sounds to read. Then we don’t need to do blends. What we need to do is lots of, lots of phoneme manipulation exercises that actually really, really help them to see the letters on a page and the sounds that are coming out with them as they see them as linked in together. And it isn’t a walk in the park. It does take time. Yeah. If I think about my own children, my first, my first born, he just got it. You could say, you know, James, this is what you need to do. This is how it works and he’d go, got it. Get it. Let’s get it done. Whereas my middle one, he was far more needed that explicit instruction.

And it took him ages to learn to read, but he’s flying now, he’s in year six. But up until this way, it was a real struggle to him. And we were doing loads of activities at home a lot of work, but he just, you know, he just didn’t get it. And then all of a sudden, you know, because he’s had all that repetition because he’s had loads of exposure then, you know, and obviously at home, he had very explicit instruction, basically, you know, you know, he got it.

But the fact is, if I look at my three children, they’re just the exact same kids that you’d see in a classroom. Yeah. Now they’re the kid, my first kid is the kid that got it. He just, yeah, he’s moving on. Yeah. He didn’t need a lot of teaching. I didn’t do a lot with him, you know? And he’s still like that now, and he’s year nine. He just gets it. It’s like, you know, you put him into motion, you give him a structure, put into motion. He moves on. Look, there’s kids like that. They’re few and far between though, most children need explicit instruction. They really really do. Yeah. And without it, and I think that’s really, when we look at literacy rates across the, the world that, you know, they’re not going up, but we know so much more now why they’re not going up.

Bron: Yep. Yep. Definitely a very important question to be asking ourselves and reflecting on as teachers. And how lucky are we that this research has been done and looked into so that it enables us to, to practice more effectively and to help our students more than we ever have before. So, yeah, really interesting. Thank you, Clare.

One thing I’d just like to ask you as we wrap up is what do you think is the one thing that you would really like all teachers to know about the Science of Reading?

Clare: I would say, and I say this to parents all the time. I don’t think it’s that hard. I think that no, it’s not it’s I don’t think it’s that hard. It’s it is really all about your speech to print. But the fact is if you’ve got an explicit systematic instruction, you’re going to help more children to flourish. And if you really, really want to know more, I think that there are huge amounts of websites out there to help you. But I think as well, I think maybe it’s a mind shift. You’re going to have to take the mind shift and appreciate that maybe what has been happening hasn’t been the most effective way. That’s not to say that children are not, you know, children are not flourishing. Of course we do have children that work well. But I think that people have to take that mind shift approach to think, right.

“You know, if I take it from a systematic basis, the engagement levels in my class are going to go up”. The difficulties are going to go down and children are going to feel more confident and more empowered. And I’m going to feel more confident and empowered as an educator. And I’m going to be able to help more children flourish.”

Bron: If you are interested in reading more about The Science of Reading, I’m going to pop some links to the blog and also to Clare’s website. Also some links that you suggest we go and read for further reading and don’t forget there is that beautiful free bookmark that’s on the website and yeah. Thank you so much again, Clare for joining me today.

Clare: Thanks very much for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.



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