Unlock K—5 Literacy with the Science of Reading

Early literacy education sets the foundation for lifelong learning. Every educator wants to support their students with high-quality resources to promote excellent reading skills. However, not all materials readily available meet the needs of these young readers. In fact, years of flawed research and poorly-designed resources have set our students back.

The number of students in the United States who can’t read well is shockingly high. One-third of all fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level, and most students are still not proficient readers by the time they graduate high school. 

This is due to a flawed theory that, despite being debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, remains prevalent in today’s schools. The theory, known as “three cueing,” has struggling readers use the strategies of memorizing words, using context to guess words, and skipping words they don’t know in order to get by. What’s more, elementary-age students are often provided with the least variety of engaging, meaningful content, despite us knowing that students grow more quickly as readers when interested in the content. 

Unfortunately, students who don’t get a good start in reading are more likely to struggle throughout their academic career. . The practices in “three cueing” combined with ineffective content make it harder for students to learn how to read, yet they persistently find their way into teaching practices and curriculum materials. In her piece "At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers," Emily Hanford reports that school districts spend millions of taxpayer dollars on curricula that include this disproven theory and disengaging texts. What’s more – teachers are still taught this theory in preparation for and while on the job.

The Science of Reading

But there is hope. Strong curricula - such as K-5 Bookworms Reading and Writing and EL Education K-8 Language Arts - have created resources grounded in the Science of Reading, a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.  

Over the past 20 years, cognitive scientists have found that learning to read and write is not a natural act. Students need explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction in the foundational “building blocks” of reading: phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. 

When we start with a strong foundation, students are more likely to succeed for years to come. According to Jennifer Buckingham in a 2020 article written for the Reading League Journal “Six Reasons to Teach Using the Science of Reading,” fewer children need intervention when the Science of Reading is applied. She also wrote that an estimated 80%-85% of children will learn to read well if provided with evidence-based classroom reading instruction from a highly knowledgeable teacher.

One such example of a curriculum that applies the Science of Reading is EL Education K-5 curriculum. Based on the research by Dr. Linnea Ehri, EL Education’s  Reading Foundational Skills Block in K-2 is designed to help students crack the alphabetic code, become fluent readers, and ultimately comprehend text. This essential process maps phonemes (speech sounds) with graphemes (letters or letter groups) and bonds them to memory. Finding proficiency in phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency through this method gives students the mental bandwidth to pay attention to the meaning of the text.

Focusing on Content

Historically, we’ve been afraid to put challenging and meaningful content in front of our elementary school students. Frankly, this does a disservice to our students who deserve to be challenged to strengthen their reading muscles and skills.  

In fact, reading science tells us that a curriculum can yield four times the vocabulary growth when it engages students in a single topic of study over the course of many weeks. The potential within an elementary school, full of eager learners, is huge, and there’s ample opportunity to introduce knowledge through reading at an early age. 

Journalist Natalie Wexler covers in her book The Knowledge Gap, many schools are focusing so closely on reading comprehension and skimping on social studies and science, creating a trend that does the opposite of what would accomplish student literacy goals. Finding the main idea is not the most important factor in reading comprehension, as much as expanding knowledge and vocabulary. 

Wexler points out that this is particularly true for schools where test scores are low. When it comes to the test score gap, researchers have found that children from well-educated families pick up more academic or sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home. Kids that come from less-educated families rely on time in school to teach these skills, where they are less likely to learn more world knowledge.

A curriculum with content that builds logically with engaging content from one grade to the next has shown to produce greater results and create a more equitable learning landscape for students.. A study of one school district that implemented the Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing curriculum showed greater improvement after just one year compared to demographically similar schools that were not using the curriculum. Bookworms uses a wide range of themes and topics to maximize vocabulary acquisition.

Where does the Science of Reading live in Open Up Resources curriculum?

Both Bookworms K-5 Reading and Writing and EL Education K-5 are built upon the principles of the Science of Reading. Each curriculum includes the building blocks of phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension skills and strategies, as well as writing and grammar. Contact us to learn more about applying these curricula to your school, as well as available professional learning opportunities to support their implementation.