Expert Viewpoint

5 Ways to Add Elements of the Science of Reading to a Balanced Literacy Program

Teaching Reading Does Not Need to be an Either/Or Method

Even before the pandemic, national test scores showed that only a third of American students were proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and struggling ones. At the end of our third school year impacted by COVID-19, the statistics are even more disturbing.

A new study of data from the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — one of the most commonly used reading diagnostic assessments — found that more than 35% of K–2 students were far behind in literacy skills and in need of intensive intervention. Similarly, The New York Times recently reported that 60% of students at surveyed high-poverty schools have been identified as being at high risk for reading problems — twice the number of students as before the pandemic.

The urgency to help these struggling students is reigniting debates about how best to teach children to read. The opposing sides in the “reading wars” tend to advocate for the use of curricula that’s based either on the Science of Reading or on Balanced Literacy. Many schools use a Balanced Literacy approach (one study found at least 72% use it), but there is more to be explored by also integrating components of the Science of Reading to provide students with the support they need.

The “reading wars” turn a complex issue into an either/or, when we really should be focusing on what works best for readers during every stage of their reading instruction.

Science of Reading vs. Balanced Literacy: What's the Difference?

These two approaches to teaching reading differ in some key ways.

Supported by years of research in psychology and cognitive science, the Science of Reading promotes five components of effective reading instruction for young children: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

The scientific consensus is that teaching phonics systematically, explicitly, and cumulatively is key to successful reading instruction. But it’s important to note that the Science of Reading focuses on all the skills needed to become a proficient reader including spoken language, spelling and writing, background knowledge, and fluency.

Balanced Literacy techniques encourage students to be constantly exposed to books. While this method does teach some phonics, it focuses mainly on teaching students to figure out words by using MSV (Meaning, Sentence structure, and Visual Information).

Regardless of which method is used, research shows that around 40% of students can learn to read fairly easily. However, up to 60% need systematic, sequential, explicit instruction. Within that 60%, a subgroup of 10 to 15% will need even more structured and diagnostic literacy support.

Incorporating the Science of Reading into Balanced Literacy Programs

Students who are falling behind in a Balanced Literacy environment will benefit from using elements from the Science of Reading that improve phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Following are five ways that can help you integrate components of the Science of Reading into a Balanced Literacy approach:

  1. Have students spell out regular words phonetically, to help them understand the phonics elements within the words.
  2. Build fluency, motivation, and background knowledge by having students read short, high-interest, nonfiction passages. Encourage them to practice reading the passages several times until they are automatic with the words.
  3. Read together with students out loud, to increase their accuracy and expression.
  4. Give students material that allows them to work independently at their own level and pace. Work toward increasing reading stamina.
  5. Measure students' reading progress so that students can see their own growth and build confidence.

Using these suggestions doesn’t mean your teaching will become awkward or rigid. There are amazing free resources available that educators can use with students to keep learning fun and engaging. For example, you can use a cue card system to help emerging readers master visually confusing letters such as b, d, and p. Or you can use Word Sorts to reinforce and review the spelling patterns. These resources were developed by teachers, for teachers and can benefit students who could use a little extra help.

When the Magic Happens

Reading well is the cornerstone of a student's success in school. When students cannot read proficiently, they cannot learn appropriately; frustration ensues, and students feel defeated. Integrating elements of the Science of Reading will enable teachers to boost literacy while keeping students challenged, engaged, and feeling positive about reading and academics.

Although the Science of Reading has sometimes been characterized as too cold or scientific, its structured literacy approach can lead to the greatest joy students experience: the joy of comprehension. When the words on the page finally start to make sense, students’ confidence soars. And as all teachers know, that is when the magic happens.

About the Author

Karen McKenna, director of curriculum at Read Naturally, worked as an educator for over 20 years, with emphases on curriculum, reading instruction, and staff development. At Read Naturally, she supports schools across the U.S. in the use of research-based, effective reading interventions.