A Crash Course in Using the Science of Reading To Help Kids Learn To Read

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: Miljan Zivkovic/Shutterstock

The “science of reading” is not new, but it has received more attention lately. It refers to the decades-long body of research about how the brain learns to read and the teaching methods that help it happen. Whether you’re a parent, caregiver, or anyone looking to help kids unlock the world of reading, here are some easy ways to put the science of reading to work. 

Explain, explicitly

A hallmark of the science of reading is “explicit” teaching. Rather than having kids guess, or leave it up to the chance that they learn through exposure, try to clearly and concisely explain the principles of our written language. This means saying things like:

  • “Letters can be uppercase or lowercase. This is an uppercase T. This is a lowercase t.” 
  • “Letters spell sounds. T spells the sound /t/ like at the beginning of tiger.”
  • “Words go from left to right. The words start here and go this way.”

As kids’ reading skills grow, explicit teaching is still important. There’s so much to learn, from phonics principles like “’ir’ usually spells ‘err’ like in bird” to conventions like, “These marks are quotation marks, and everything inside them is someone’s talking.” Explicit teaching also helps kids learn comprehension strategies. You might explain, “Sometimes an author doesn’t say everything that’s happening; they leave clues, and readers have to infer or figure things out,” and then talk through an example. 

Teach kids that letter sounds spell words

A cornerstone of the science of reading is that it is most effective to teach kids how to use a word’s letters to read it. Guessing a word using the picture or sentence context doesn’t work well after the beginning stages of reading; over-relying on these strategies can hold kids back. Even our choice of words can help here: telling kids, “b spells /b/” when learning about letters sets a precedent that letters are the workhorses.

Besides teaching explicitly, research also heavily favors systematic teaching. A high-quality reading curriculum introduces concepts and skills in a thoughtful sequence (and spirals back to review frequently in different contexts). This is especially true for teaching letter sounds and other phonics patterns. For caregivers at home, it’s helpful to be familiar with the phonics sequence used at school. That way, you know whether your kid has learned the sound of short i or how silent e works. Check out this example of a phonics scope and sequence.

BTW, make sure YOU know your ABCs and check those cues

As adults who learned to read and write a while ago, it’s essential that we articulate letter sounds correctly to kids. It’s best to clip letter sounds without adding a schwa sound (“uh”). For example, the letter “s” spells the sound /s/—like a very short snake hiss—and not “suh.” This seems picky, but pronouncing letter sounds correctly helps a ton when kids start to blend sounds to read words. Blending well-enunciated, clipped sounds /s/ /a/ /t/ will help kids read “sat,” but “suh-ah-tuh” can get easily garbled. (Skeptical? Say both versions out loud.)  

If you need a brush-up on accurate, clipped letter sounds, our favorite kids’ YouTube personality, Jack Hartmann, can help you out.

It’s also a good idea to double-check any alphabet books, charts, or flashcards that you’re sharing with kids to help them learn letter sounds to ensure they highlight each letter’s most common sound. For example, “cat” teaches the sound of the letter c better than “cheetah.” “Octopus” teaches the short o sound better than “orange.” Jack Hartman can help you here, too; his Learning Letter Sounds song gives a prime keyword for each letter.

As kids progress through school, educators and caregivers should use consistent cues and prompts for all the principles and strategies kids learn. If kids learn about the digraphs ch, sh, th, and wh as “The H Buddies” at school, stick with that analogy everywhere! 

Teach kids how to tackle big words

The need for research-based teaching doesn’t stop once kids learn to read independently. Teaching readers about syllable types and how to divide long words into syllables and read them using phonics knowledge is a game-changer for many kids. (It’s understandable if you, as an adult, aren’t clear on this information. The University of Florida Literacy Institute has a great primer on Teaching Big Words to get you started.)

Build background knowledge and language comprehension

All those phonics skills do little if the words kids read don’t make sense to them. Background knowledge and vocabulary are essential ingredients to reading success. These can be built through kids’ reading independently, being read to (even big kids!), experiences, and meaningful conversations. Think of all that knowledge as a mental library that kids can access when they need help understanding something they read.

Be open to learning more

Using reliable research to inform teaching is always a good idea, but making sense of what that research means we should do for kids in real life can take some unpacking, especially if it means adapting your go-to methods. The best part about the surge of interest in the science of reading is that it’s encouraging everyone to step back and carefully consider how to help kids learn to read. Ask questions about the curricula used in schools and how you can support kids at home, and speak up if a method isn’t working. 

Want to learn more about teaching kids based on the science of reading? Check out the following:

Research-Based Tips to Help Kids Learn Sight Words

Phonological Awareness: Why This Skill Set Is So Important for Young Readers