Teaching Tuesday: The Science of Reading – Past, Present and Future

little girl reaching for books

The Science of Reading (SoR) is a hot topic in education. For this reason, we want our Teaching in Purple audience to learn a brief history of the SoR, current research that expands the definition and methods, and the application of SoR research within the classroom. We hope you enjoy reading this article and learning more about the Science of Reading.

The Past

Teaching students to read is an educational value we have always held as a high priority. As far back as the 18th century, the term “Science of Reading” can be found in a study on the science of linguistics that focused on the proper pronunciations of holy texts. American educators borrowed the term when teaching the correct pronunciations of words in student primers. Science of Reading was used in educational literature in the mid-20th century, but not often. 

In 1990, the field of education entered a period referred to as "reading wars."During this debate on teaching reading using whole-language or phonics methods, the term "scientific research-based reading" (SRBR) emerged and was used in federal education law to guide reading instruction. Most researchers believe this term was relevant to the National Reading Panel (NRP) work and the basis of the requirements contained in the No Child Left Behind Act.2 When the NRP released its report in 2000, the comprehensive research and studies identified five literary practices (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension) as necessary ingredients for student reading success.

The Present

At the start of the 21st century, the SoR was back in the limelight as a set of conclusions and principles, carefully and publicly analyzed, drawn from a substantial body of scientific study. Dr. Hollis Scarborough conceived "Scarborough's Rope," which garnered attention when published in 2001.3 She recognized that reading is a multi-faceted cognitive skill, gradually acquired over years of instructional practice, creating a visual with two strands. The strands within the rope used much of the same language as the NPR report. 

The term SoR reemerged in 2010 in a book titled “Language at the Speed of Sight” by Mark Seidenberg, bringing attention to the importance of reading research and the Science of Reading.4 In 2018, Emily Hanford produced a radio documentary emphasizing the lack of decoding instruction with regard to phonemic awareness and phonics.5 Fortunately for our students, researchers and publishers have developed refined approaches to reading instruction, aligned to the SoR, which identify the most effective approaches for teaching reading. 

The Future

As the research on the SoR continues, pedagogical recommendations will be applied from the evidence gathered from instructional studies. Much of the educational community agrees that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension should be taught and learned using grade-level text.

Few would argue that teaching language comprehension (background, vocabulary, and literacy knowledge, including language structures and verbal reason) needs to become increasingly strategic. Word recognition skills (phonemic awareness, decoding and spelling) need to become increasingly automatic, and the combination of language comprehension and word recognition leads to skilled reading.

These conclusions form the foundation of the Science of Reading, and the application of this knowledge in the classroom is the key to ensuring all students learn to read. Hopefully, the background knowledge and overview of SoR is a good starting point for developing a deeper understanding of how we as teachers can apply the research to lesson design and instruction, including explicitness, differentiation and intensity.

If you are interested in teaching reading, learn more about the reading specialist degree program through Grand Canyon University's College of Education. Check back each week for more Teaching Tuesday articles. 

 Retrieved from:

1 Academia, The Reading Wars in August 2022 

2 NIH, Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups in August 2022 

3 RGR, What is Scarborough's Reading Rope in August 2022 

4 Reading Matters, Connecting Science and Education in August 2022 

5 APM Reports, Hard Words in August 2022 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.