Is the Science of Reading the same as Phonics?

A drawing of a book and a brain above it with arrows pointing from the book to the brain, gears in the background

Expanding the View of the Science of Reading

Lately, in conversations with other educators and even in the news, the Science of Reading often comes up. This is not surprising since multiple states are implementing broad reforms to train K-3 elementary school teachers in how to teach reading using the Science of Reading framework. During these conversations, teachers often tell me about how the Science of Reading is the same as teaching phonics. News headlines also lead with the amount of money that is being invested in states to implement phonics-focused reading instruction.

So, what is the Science of Reading? Is it simply phonics; is that where the science ends? While phonics is a component of the Science of Reading, the framework is much more complex than simply sound-to-letter correspondence.

In our previous article, we looked at the findings from the Reading for Understanding (RfU) Initiative by the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated extensive research to explain how reading has changed over the past few decades. RfU researchers found that 21st century readers need to be proficient in a variety of reading skills and have the ability to critically think about and analyze the ever-expanding world of information.

Literacy researchers have identified skills that lead to proficient reading. The identified skills are the crux of the Science of Reading framework, and extend well beyond phonics. The Science of Reading framework is a constantly-evolving field as new research emerges (e.g., see the work of Stanislas Dehaene). In this article, we will dig into the Science of Reading and the foundational reading skills that, when taught together, lead to proficient reading.

What is the Science of Reading?

When we talk about the Science of Reading, we are referring to a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. For the past 5 decades, scholars from cognitive psychology, education, special education, linguistics, and neuroscience, among others, have contributed to scientifically-based reading research in multiple languages across the world. This research informs how proficient reading and writing develop, why some individuals have difficulty, and how to effectively assess and teach reading and writing. Importantly, the Science of Reading has helped educators understand the cognitive processes that lead to reading proficiency while debunking various methods, such as the 3 cueing system, that are not scientifically based.

A rope diagram showing how multiple strands representing different reading skills weave together into the rope of skilled reading
Figure 1. Scarborough’s Reading Rope, Scarborough (2001)

Reading Skills

In an attempt to find the best ways of teaching children to read, the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) reviewed reading research and identified 5 scientifically-based elements that lead to reading success—phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. To show the interconnected nature of reading skills, Scarborough (2001) conceptualized a Reading Rope that visually demonstrates the strands of reading that are woven together to construct skilled reading (Figure 1). The strands in the Reading Rope consist of language comprehension skills, including background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge, and word recognition skills, including phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition.

More recently, the RfU Initiative focused on possible explanation for skilled and developing reading “beyond letters and words, including the linguistic, cognitive, and dispositional characteristics, which have been shown to influence comprehension in past research but are not yet entirely understood” (Pearson et al., 2020). The RfU research illuminates the skills and knowledge that are the foundation for reading comprehension — specifically linguistic and cognitive skills.

Scarborough (2001) posited that word recognition skills include phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. Other researchers (e.g., Pearson et al., 2020) have deemed decoding as a linguistic skill that comprises word and higher level language skills. Decoding is a requisite skill to becoming a proficient reader. Decoding is the ability to apply knowledge of grapheme-phoneme, or letter-sound correspondence (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; NRP, 2000) to translate print to speech (Foorman et al., 2016). Decoding is a crucial 1st step in learning to read, but once word-level skills are well developed, other skills become crucial to reading success, namely, skills related to higher order language skills (Alonzo et al., 2016 [LARRC]).

Language comprehension skills in Scarborough’s Reading Rope include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Similarly, Pearson and colleagues (2020) suggest that language-related skills, such as knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and disciplinary discourse, be called higher order language skills. Language-related skills combine to construct knowledge of academic language, which influences reading comprehension, especially as readers move through school.

An additional classification of skills identified by Pearson and colleagues (2020) includes cognitive skills. Research points to the importance of cognitive skills in the role of reading comprehension. Specifically, the process of activating “information relevant to the situation described in a text, to suppress irrelevant information (inhibitory control), to monitor comprehension, to engage in successful inference, and to remember and follow sets of directions (self-regulation)” (Pearson et al., 2020, p. 59, emphasis in original).

Similarly, Scarborough (2001) included background knowledge as one of the language comprehension strands. Being able to activate relevant background knowledge is an important skill that can facilitate comprehension; however a lack of background knowledge may inhibit reading comprehension for some readers. For instance, a reader who cannot activate relevant information and maintain sustained attention while reading a text will likely not comprehend and form a coherent model of the text (Arrington et al., 2014 [PACT]). In addition, several research studies (e.g., Barnes et al., 2015 [PACT]) have found that less skilled readers not only have difficulty comprehending the text as a whole, but also struggle to comprehend at the local level–paragraphs and sentences. Readers need to be able to maintain attention and recognize when comprehension is fragmented and breaks down in order to construct meaning from more advanced texts as they move through school. These metacognitive and self-regulatory behaviors are key to reading success.

Expanding the View of the Science of Reading

So, when it comes to the Science of Reading, phonics is a crucial first step to reading success, but remember, phonics is only one part of a wider range of skills included in the Science of Reading. Once a reader has mastered the letter-sound correspondence, it is critical to build higher-level language skills and develop the cognitive skills that lead to successful reading comprehension. Assessing foundational reading skills is important not only to intervention programs, but also to more effective general instruction; we turn to assessment next.

Implications for Assessment

Knowing the Science of Reading framework and the variety of skills it takes to read is important for being able to support learners in becoming skilled readers. Another critical aspect is to know how to assess reading skills to pinpoint what may be causing reading difficulties. Although there are several reading assessments available, the one that focuses on most of the skills mentioned in this article is ETS ReadBasix, a.k.a. RISE. This assessment was created for adolescent learners in grades 3-12 to measure 5 foundational skills that contribute to reading comprehension. The skills and the corresponding assessment include: 1) word recognition and decoding, 2) vocabulary, 3) morphology, and 4) sentence processing, and 5) reading efficiency. In the next series of articles, we will look at each skill in more depth to provide insight into what each skill is and how we can best support readers in becoming proficient readers.

We look forward to more conversations about the Science of Reading and how to best support reading comprehension. If you have a question about the Science of Reading or would like us to consider a specific topic, let us know here.

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This and many other topics related to the Science of Reading are covered by the Professional Development training that is offered for the ETS ReadBasix assessment.


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