What Do Emerging Readers Need?
Breaking down the science of reading to identify specific skills & supports for emerging readers.
Many people are talking about the science of reading — a term that is certainly not new, but has been gaining some serious traction recently, and prompting some heated debate. This debate largely stems from how this term is being interpreted and what this means for the students in our classrooms. What is truly meant by the science of reading?
After doing some of my own research, I’ve come to understand the science of reading as a comprehensive body of cross-disciplinary research conducted over the last 20 years that deepens our understanding of how the brain learns to read, including what skills are involved, how these skills are connected, and which parts of the brain are responsible for our reading development. The research seems clear, but because the term has become so loaded, I believe we are losing sight of what our young learners really need to become strong, capable readers.
What makes a skilled reader?
One of the leading researchers of early language development and its connection to later literacy, Dr. Hollis Scarborough, developed in 2001 what he termed the Reading Rope, which helps us articulate the specific skills readers need to have in order to be proficient. The rope consists of lower and upper strands, with the upper strand focusing on language comprehension, and the lower strand emphasizing word recognition.
All these micro skills start to work together through practice and repetition, so that these skills can become instinctive. Ideally, over time, language comprehension becomes more strategic and weaves together with word recognition to produce a skilled reader.
I have greatly appreciated Dr. Scarborough’s work, and recognize connections to how I have and continue to talk about the reading development in my coaching work. Despite using a few different terms, we have similar meanings. What he describes as literacy knowledge, I have described as concepts about print. Similarly, we talk about comprehension as consisting of micro skills including vocabulary and background knowledge — the skills needed to make sense and meaning of a text.
However, I have gone a bit further in my explanation of what emerging readers need and have developed the Reading Wheel, which is based on my understanding of research and my experience as a childhood educator, teaching students how to read.
You’ll see that, in addition to phonological awareness, I include alphabetic awareness, which is defined as “knowledge of letters of the alphabet coupled with the understanding that the alphabet represents the sounds of spoken language and the correspondence of spoken sounds to written language.”
I also discuss the importance of good reading habits, which include what Dr. Scarborough describes as verbal reasoning and a few others. Good reading habits are those often taken for granted skills that proficient readers use when reading — predicting, evaluating, questioning, clarifying, and monitoring for meaning, for example. In my work with teachers, I try to have them engage in the reading of a text, and then reflect on some of the moves they made while reading, to help reveal the habits they utilize most, and how these might be incorporated into their teaching. I also include a specific focus on stamina, which I define as the skill of being able to read for longer and longer periods of time, and the willingness to keep reading, even when it feels hard.
What support do readers need?
To me, all these skills are equally important. The problem arises when we place more value or importance on certain skills over others — e.g., word recognition over language comprehension, which has often resulted in phonics instruction, all the time! Phonics instruction has its place when it comes to helping children learn the relationships between the letters of written language, the sounds of spoken language and supports their phonemic awareness and decoding skills; however, phonics instruction alone would not suffice. Emerging readers need opportunities to recognize the word patterns and letter blends in context, as they show up in books.
If we look closely at both Dr. Scarborough’s Reading Rope and the Reading Wheel, we’ll see that they underscore the importance of being able to read words AND make meaning, evident by the weaving of the individual threads of the rope and the circular nature of the wheel.
Students need explicit instruction when it comes to developing comprehension skills, in order to support them in thinking critically, making connections, and developing their identity as readers. Young readers need differentiated instruction and in the moment feedback as they work to progressively read more complex texts. This often happens during readers' workshops, or small group instruction, such as guided reading.
Lastly, children need opportunities to engage in independent reading and participate in read alouds, to gain exposure to a wide range of texts aligned to their needs and interests, to grapple with different topics and content, to help foster a love for reading, promote stamina, and learn meaningful habits from a skilled reader — their teacher. My students loved read alouds, and often begged me to read more, so they could find out if Clover and Annie end up as friends in The Other Side, or find out if and how the teacher will respond to the class making fun of Chrysanthemum, or find out the connection between Kissin’ Kate Barlow and the Warden in Holes.
As Diana Townsend states, “If we really care about teaching kids how to read, we need to focus on creating space and time for teachers to enhance their professional knowledge." They need time to explore the research around reading development for themselves and engage in conversation with colleagues about how it should inform their instructional strategies and approaches, rather than relying on a packaged curriculum or reading programs to do it for them.
Furthermore, there needs to be meaningful and ongoing inquiry, where teachers can try things out, and then reflect on what’s working, when, for which readers, and why, as we know it takes time and patience to get things “right.” At the end of the day, Townsend reminds us that, “no one is going to ‘win’ the reading wars and children will always be the losers.”