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What the Science of Reading Tells Us about Learning to Read

By: Liana Roth 10/04/2022
Gain clarity on what the Science of Reading is and how it can help inform your reading instruction.
A young learner pointing to words in a book.

Why Is Learning to Read So Hard?

The short and simple answer is: the English language is weird. 

Think about it. I bet you can come up with a whole list of rules no one quite understands and another long list of words that break the rules on the first list! Check this out: 

  • The alphabet has 26 letters, but a bunch of those letters have more than one sound. 
  • We spell and pronounce some words the same, but they have different meanings. 
  • We spell some words the same, but they are pronounced differently. 
  • And anybody want to explain the purpose of the silent k, p, or g?  

When you stop to consider how many rules our language has and how many times those rules are broken, it’s no wonder learning to read can be so tough—even for native English speakers. 

Reading is automatic for you and me (now), but it’s actually not a natural process. It’s not hardwired. When toddlers are learning to talk, they pick up sounds and words organically through exposure. We all learned to speak because we heard other people talking around us and, even more importantly, talking to us. But we don’t learn to read words by being surrounded by words and books. As great as that would be, it takes more than that. We have to train our brains to make the necessary connections to be good readers. So even though reading may be very natural, it took brain mapping and practice of specific skills over and over to make it happen. That’s the Science of Reading.  

What the Science of Reading Tells Us

The Science of Reading is really just decades of research in a variety of fields that focuses on how our human brains learn to read. And make no mistake about it—learning to read requires our brains to work hard! 
To read a single word, our brains have to: 

  • Recognize the letters in the word 
  • Know the sounds the letters make in the word 
  • Put the letters/sounds together to form the word 
  • Make sense of the meaning of the word 

That process can only happen when four different regions of the brain work together. Our Phonological Processor helps us make sense of the sounds we hear so we can understand and produce language. This works in tandem with the Orthographic Processor to connect words to what they look like visually. With this information, we use Phonics to connect sounds with symbols. Finally, the Context and Meaning Processors help us figure out a word’s intended meaning. 

Infographic displaying four sections of the brain: Context & Meaning Processors, Phonics, Phonological Processor, and Orthographic Processor.

EAB’s Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap explains, “Each region plays a role in various human functions—speech, sound, sight, and processing meaning—all of which are necessary for reading.” 

When our brains make these connections to read a word, we store the word permanently in a process called orthographic mapping. The ultimate goal is to map thousands of words over time so that reading words—and understanding them—happens automatically. But for beginning readers in our classrooms, we have to teach the skills that lead to orthographic mapping explicitly and systematically. 

It’s no wonder teaching our kids to read is so hard! Fortunately, we have a science-supported tool that helps.