The Science of Reading

Learning to read is one of the first big steps children take in their education. Ever wonder how it all works? The science of reading is a vast and complex field of research that continues to interest parents, teachers, and scholars to this day. The more we understand about the science of reading, the better we can help students learn how to read. Here’s what we know so far. 

The 5 Pillars of Reading

The National Reading Panel identified five key concepts of reading:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate sounds. There are 44 phonemes (sounds) in the English language. Phonemic awareness only requires students to hear and recognize these sounds, it doesn’t require them to read printed words. This is the first step in developing reading skills. First students learn to recognize the sounds of a language, then they learn how the sounds are represented with letters. 


Phonics refers to the relationship between graphemes (letters) and phonemes (sounds). Students typically learn these relationships through alphabet songs and letter flashcards. The English language is notoriously full of irregular spellings and exceptions but phonics teaches students a system for remembering how to read words based on letter-sound relationships. 


Fluency is the ability to read texts quickly and accurately without having to stop or pause to decode words. Fluency is critical for motivation because when students develop reading fluency they become more confident and motivated readers while students who struggle with fluency often become frustrated and have low motivation to read. 


Vocabulary is the relationship between words and meaning. Children start learning vocabulary from a very young age, mostly by listening to conversations. The more language input children are exposed to, the faster they will acquire a large vocabulary base. 


Comprehension is a child’s ability to understand, remember, and make meaning of what they are reading. This goes beyond just single word vocabulary knowledge. Children need to comprehend entire sentences to read effectively. Students typically don’t begin to enjoy reading until they have developed reading comprehension. This is when they are able to predict, infer, and make connections in the text they are reading. 

Dr. Ehri’s Phases of Word-Reading

Dr. Linnea Ehri, a former member of the National Reading Panel, has conducted research on the science of reading since the 1970s. Ehri describes four phases of word-reading: prealphabetic, early alphabetic, later alphabetic, and consolidated alphabetic. Let’s break down each of these phases. 

  • Prealphabetic: Letter-sound relationships are not yet developed but the learner understands the general concept of printed text and can recognize incidental visual features of words. 
  • Early Alphabetic: Some letter-sound relationships are developed and the learner demonstrates early phonemic awareness skills such as syllables, rhymes, and sound matching. 
  • Later Alphabetic: Phonemic awareness skills are developed and the learner understands how to segment and blend sounds. The learner can recognize some sight words and process them automatically. 
  • Consolidated Alphabetic: Sight word vocabulary increases and learner demonstrates advanced phonemic awareness skills such as deletion, substitution, and reversal of sounds. 

Dr. Ehri’s research also found that children learn to read by using orthographic mapping to memorize sight words. Orthographic mapping is the process of forming letter-sound connections that allow the learner to memorize spellings, pronunciations, and the meaning of specific words. Ehri’s research is used widely across reading programs and praised for it’s in-depth analysis of the science of reading. 

The Simple View of Reading

(RC = D x LC)

Gough & Tunmer (1986) asserts that reading comprehension (RC) is the product of decoding (D) and language comprehension (LC). The view is ‘simple’ because it only involves two core competencies but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Decoding is the ability to automatically understand letter-sound relationships. Language comprehension is the ability to understand the meaning of words. As children learn more about vocabulary and grammar, they develop more proficient language comprehension.

So, in this view of reading, decoding is multiplied times language comprehension, not just added together. This means that you can’t compensate for weak decoding skills with strong language comprehension skills or vice versa. Both decoding and language comprehension skills must be equally developed for successful reading comprehension. For example, a student might appear to be a great reader if they can accurately decode and produce the correct word-sound relationships, but if their language comprehension is low, they may not understand the meaning of the words. When students can both decode the sounds and understand the meaning of words, they are on their way to becoming an effective reader. 

Why the Science of Reading Matters

The science of reading has been researched for decades all across the world in hundreds of languages. Learning to read is one of the most important educational challenges that children face. The more we know about literacy, why some children have difficulty, and the most effective teaching practices, the more we can help students learn to read. The five pillars of reading can help parents and educators design lesson plans and instructional materials that target the core competencies that every student needs to develop in order to read.