Skip Navigation

Home Blogs Unpacking the "Science of Reading" with Dr. Tim Shanahan

Unpacking the "Science of Reading" with Dr. Tim Shanahan

West | May 13, 2024

The "science of reading "is all over the news, but some educators are still unclear about what to do in their classrooms. In this blog post, literacy expert Dr. Timothy Shanahan answers questions about evidence-based literacy instruction or the "science of reading."

He emphasizes key findings from research and the IES practice guides, including:

  • Teaching decoding and fluency supports reading development.
  • Reading comprehension instruction should begin early.
  • Writing supports reading and reading supports writing.

Dr. Shanahan helps us understand that it's not an "either-or proposition" (foundational skills vs reading comprehension) but rather it is a "both-and."

REL West: Can you tell us, in a nutshell, what the science of reading is—and isn't?

Dr. Shanahan: The "science of reading" refers to a growing body of research on how we read and learn to read. This evidence is drawn from various disciplines such as psychology, education, and neuroscience.

We must be careful with the term "science of reading," as it lacks specialized meaning within these fields of study. It gained popularity through media and journalism, which often use it to denote research supporting a single facet of reading instruction, such as phonics or foundational skills. However, there exists a broader body of research pertinent to reading instruction.

The science of reading should refer to all empirical studies of any aspect of learning to read, write, and spell in any language.
Dr. Shanahan

The science of reading should refer to all empirical studies of any aspect of learning to read, write, and spell in any language. I would prefer that we would talk about the "science of reading instruction" because that must, ultimately, determine whether particular teaching practices improve children's literacy learning.

For example, the science of reading is often used to refer to neuroscientific studies of the brain and what it does during reading. However, just like in medicine, we cannot go directly from basic science to medical practice—first, we must implement studies to evaluate if that application is safe and effective. Those neuroscientific studies can help us to understand why such instruction may be working, but without those studies showing what works, we do not have a true science of reading instruction.

REL West: What are some myths or misunderstandings about the science of reading?

Dr. Shanahan: Teachers and administrators often assume that the science of reading refers to a commercial program or a single aspect of teaching reading, like foundational skills (which includes: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, alphabetic principle, and fluency). Those confusions can lead to the purchase of materials that are not necessarily effective, or to narrow efforts to improve reading instruction in one way while ignoring other important evidence-based instructional practices, like teaching reading comprehension strategies or the structure of texts.

Many teachers still think that any published article on reading instruction is scientific. That isn't the case, however. Scientific research requires the purposeful collection and analysis of data that allows objective conclusions to be drawn about whatever is being studied. Many articles on reading education are no more than opinions or recounts of personal experience, and as such, they are not part of the science of reading.

What do parents need to know about the science of reading?

Shanahan: From the earliest ages, it is important to talk to your children and to read to them as well. Reading depends upon language and engaging children in conversations helps put that support in place. Likewise, reading to children expands vocabularies and increases children's knowledge, both of which play important roles in learning to read. Parents, if they choose to, can also contribute by doing things like teaching their children the letters and sounds.

Once your child has started school, it is wise to keep in close touch with the teachers. Make it easy for them to let you know how your child is doing with reading and how you can help. When you talk to your child's teacher, ask specific questions about how they are doing:

  • How is phonics development going?
  • What kinds of books can my child read?
  • How is my child doing with vocabulary or reading comprehension?
  • Is this what is expected of a 6-year-old?

Keep a close eye on homework and the books your child brings home. Talk to your child about reading. Again, being specific is important. Don't ask: What did you learn today? Ask, instead:

  • What are you reading about in your reading group?
  • What spelling pattern or letter sounds are you working on now?

Listen to your child's reading to see if there seem to be any problems. Whether or not there are difficulties that need to be addressed, your interest will communicate to the teacher and to your child the importance that you place on reading success.

REL West: How can we communicate to educators and families that teaching foundational skills and teaching reading comprehension is not an "either-or" but a "both-and"?

Dr. Shanahan: The key to this, it seems to me, is to make sure that everyone knows the broad array of knowledge, skills, abilities, and insights that underlie reading. Basic research in the cognitive sciences has identified those things that readers have to know and do during reading to comprehend text. Those components of reading include the ability to decode and to do this so fluently that enough cognitive resources are left over for the reader to make meaning from the text. To accomplish that, readers have to be able to understand vocabulary and how language works. They must connect the information in the text with what they already know, draw inferences and reason about the ideas, and so on.

During the 1990s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) invested $100 million in research on reading. They found that when they successfully taught dyslexic readers the foundational skills necessary for reading (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics), the majority of the children continued to lag in reading because their language comprehension abilities were insufficient.

REL West: Where do you recommend teachers—and leaders—look for guidance on implementing the science of reading and evidence-based practices in reading? 

Dr. Shanahan: I wish I could say there was a single reliable, authoritative source for this. There are many valuable sources but given the extensive nature of reading and the ongoing nature of science, it is important to be cautious and check information in multiple places.

One particularly useful source is the What Works Clearinghouse, which is operated by the research arm (Institute of Education Sciences—IES) of the U.S. Department of Education. They evaluate the research conducted on commercial literacy programs as well as publishing various practice guides and reports which provide authoritative guidance.

There are several reports available. Some, though a bit dated, are still valuable when it comes to making major determinations, such as what needs to be in your curriculum or what instructional approaches have worked. These are all free and can be found online:

Several websites can be useful in this regard, as well, including:

REL West: Can you sum up for us some key takeaways on how to implement the science of reading?

Dr. Shanahan: Many schools mandate a two-hour English Language Arts block. I would suggest that they provide additional guidance on how to divide those instructional efforts, perhaps with one hour aimed at developing foundational skills and the other committed to reading comprehension and writing. Those time commitments reduce the chances of teachers being fooled into approaching reading instruction too narrowly.

The science of reading has identified several things that students benefit from being taught. Any implementation of reading instruction based on science will provide students with extensive ongoing teaching in:

  • Decoding (alphabet, phonemic awareness, phonics)
  • Text reading fluency (reading text accurately, with automaticity, and proper expression)
  • Reading comprehension (written language abilities, cognitive strategies, knowledge of the world)
  • Writing (writing is important, of course, but writing and spelling have also been found to make important contributions to decoding and comprehension)

Each of these is best provided by teachers who have a deep understanding of these aspects of the curriculum and who are well-prepared to deliver such instruction. It helps to support this instruction with programs and materials that are consistent with research findings. And, of course, student learning should be monitored, so that problems are identified and addressed early.

Learn more about how REL West is supporting research-based instructional practice in early childhood literacy:

Resource collection: Joyful Reading and Writing with Young Children
Blog post: Planting Seeds for Joyful Literacy Practices in Early Childhood Settings
Infographic: Joyful Early Literacy: The Teaching and Learning Cycle
Blog post: The Importance of Comprehension in the Science of Reading
Blog post and Resource collection: Family and Caregiver Activities for Young English Learners: A Growing Resource Collection


Kim Austin

Kim Austin

Dr. Tim  Shanahan

Dr. Tim Shanahan

Connect with REL West