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Can a focus on foundational skills and balanced literacy coexist? Listen to Dr. Sharon Vaughn describe the Science of Reading and implications for literacy instruction, clarifying misconceptions presented in this latest resurgence. This podcast provides valuable information every teacher can use.

Special Guest Author:

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D. is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin.

Clarifying Misconceptions About the Science of Reading

Over the past 40 years, research has provided valuable insights into how children learn to read. Today, this evidence-based body of knowledge is called the Science of Reading, which indicates that students need systematic, explicit instruction to achieve the ultimate goal of comprehension. When students are directly taught these foundational skills while they’re learning to read, they have a better chance at becoming successful readers.

“We’ve learned a lot about the critical elements to develop, sustain, and enhance reading, and how to allow literacy to be accessible to all learners, not just students who acquire it without a lot of instruction,” says Dr. Sharon Vaughn, the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. 

According to Dr. Vaughn, approximately 50% to 60% of students will require explicit instruction to become proficient readers. She says the Science of Reading can positively impact all students, particularly those who need this kind of direct approach. “When we think of the Science of Reading, we think about those components and elements that are part of this explicit instruction that makes literacy available to all learners,” she says. 

Implications for practice in the classroom 

There are five components to the Science of Reading: Phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. All are expressed in the classroom based on the age or grade of the student, as well as the student’s learning needs. 

For example, in phonemic awareness, teachers can consider the sounds of language, including blending, deleting, and manipulating sounds. “Some of the most fun you can have in the classroom is around phonological phonemic awareness and gradually building that in a way in which it maps to print,” she said. 

This can also include teaching the phonology and orthography of words, as well as words that don’t “play fair,” the high frequency words that don’t follow typical phonemic rules. “We have to teach those outlaw words separately,” she explains. 

Vocabulary and word meaning are also integral to literacy instruction in the classroom. As Dr. Vaughn says, “You can’t get very far in reading if you don’t know what the words mean.” 

It’s also important to know when and how to emphasize these components in the classroom. As students progress through the grades, they gain the background knowledge required to read increasingly complex and dense text, which means educators can adjust which concepts of the Science of Reading they emphasize. That’s why it’s important to address the foundational skills early to build a strong foundation on which other skills can be built. 

“You can’t get to this rich, wonderful world of comprehension if you can’t read the words. In some cases, we forget that we have to build the foundation and structure to get there. A house that will fall if it doesn’t have the strength of that foundation,” she says. 

Addressing the varying needs of students 

Dr. Vaugh explains the Science of Reading can help educators address “an accordion of needs” in the classroom, which can be complicated not only by reading levels of each student, but by students’ primary language spoken at home and any special needs that require adaptations or accommodations. 

“When the accordion starts widening, this requires variation in instructional practices and in the level of words. It also requires an understanding of how these foundational skills around phonemic awareness and phonics need to be made more difficult and easier based on these learners,” she says. 

Although one school of thought believes the Science of Reading and a balanced literacy or a workshop approach to teaching literacy are mutually exclusive, Dr. Vaughn says that’s simply not true. “The Science of Reading doesn’t tell you how to organize your classroom or which approaches to take. It tells you that we know how to implement explicit practices around these components of reading to address the range of learners in our classroom. The more we know about that, the more responsibly we can perform. But even more importantly, the more likely we are to support a range of learners so they enjoy reading,” she says. 

She frames the Science of Reading as an opportunity to enrich and enable all literacy professionals to become more proficient in teaching reading, which will have a positive, long-term impact for everyone in education. 

“My hope is that all professionals involved in reading take the opportunity to understand what we know about the scientific practices that enable us to weave together the best set of programs and approaches possible, and that we consider ourselves a scientific profession that relies on knowledge to inform us,” she says. 

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Sharon Vaughn

Sharon Vaughn

myView Literacy Author / Endowed Chair in Education and Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin.

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