Blogger Tess Prendergast

The Science of Reading: A Primer for Children’s Library Staff

I hope you enjoyed last month’s post called Understanding the Simple View of Reading. I am grateful for the positive feedback I have received. I think that it is vital for children’s library staff to understand how reading develops and how to support it.

To inform how I teach my children’s library services and children’s literature courses, I recently joined the International Literacy Association. I immediately noticed many of the emerging resources are about something I have also been hearing a lot about in news media, as well as things like Reading Rockets. You may have heard about it recently too: The Science of Reading.

What is the Science of Reading?

The term “The Science of Reading” collectively refers to the vast, interdisciplinary body of research evidence gathered and published over several decades about how proficient reading and writing develop and how to prevent and address reading difficulties. It is important to note that the Science of Reading is not an ideology or philosophy, nor is it fad, trend, new idea, or pendulum swing. It is most definitely not a political agenda nor a one-size fits all approach to reading. It is not a specific program of instruction, nor is it all about only one component of instruction (i.e., phonics). So, what is it all about and why do we keep hearing about it? To answer that question, we need to survey the terrain of reading instruction since the 1980s onwards, during which many of you were taught to read. 

You might already know that a method of reading instruction generally referred to as “whole language” gained popularity in the 1990s. It is based on a premise that children who are immersed in language and literacy rich environments will learn to read by using various strategies (such as looking at the pictures & looking at the first letter of a word) to figure out what the text means. This approach de-emphasizes (but does not eliminate) systematic phonics instruction and emphasizes the immersion of children into settings filled with books that they enjoy reading, talking, and writing about. Various iterations of the whole language approach are no doubt attractive to teachers (as well as librarians) who believe in instilling a love of reading and who may also believe that explicit and systematic phonics lessons might be boring and turn kids off reading.

In 2000 the National Reading Panel reviewed rigorous, scientifically valid studies that demonstrated effectiveness and they concluded that – among other important strategies – phonological skills are essential – so they advocated for more systematic phonetic teaching approaches. However, it seems that by then so-called phonics was so out of step with what teachers thought they should be doing, that the panel’s recommendations seems to have had a lukewarm reception. Today, a groundswell of concern for poor reading achievement has reiterated the science of effective reading instruction. Adherence to the Science of Reading evidence that includes systematically teaching decoding skills (aka phonics, or more colloquially “cracking the code”) alongside language comprehension skills seems to now be gaining ground.

What does this all mean for children’s librarians?

Before you start thinking you need to go get another degree to understand all this, I want to reassure you that you already know a lot more about effective reading instruction than you think. For one (very important) thing, Every Child Ready to Read is totally aligned with the Science of Reading principles. A well-constructed storytime (including songs, rhymes, and stories) introduces the kinds of phonetic and language skills that are already proven to support early literacy growth in young children. As they approach and enter school, our collections and programs can continue to support them as they learn to read. As they continue to grow towards young adulthood, we can be ready with reading recommendations and programs to suit their tastes and development.

As facilitators of early literacy and ultimately (we hope!) reading enjoyment, children’s librarians should be familiar with how reading is being taught in our communities. We need to stay abreast of changes in educational approaches and be ready to answer parents’ questions and address their concerns. Parents and caregivers might come in to your library looking for material that is similar to what their children are reading at school. Or, they might be trying to teach their children over and above or in a different way than what their schools are offering their children. (A fantastic free resource for this scenario is Read Not Guess, a online program for parents to help their children learn read using a simple and fun phonetic approach.) Caregivers might come in looking for ways to address or prevent reading difficulties. Finally, they might have read or heard something about the Science of Reading and ask you about it. The more informed you are, the more supportive and helpful you can be when you address their questions can concerns. 

The following resources have been selected to provide you with everything you need to understand the Science of Reading and how to integrate it into your work with children and families at the library.

Recommended Science of Reading & Early Reader Resources

An Interview with Amy Forrester on early reader work (ALSC blog post)

Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert

The Phive Phones of Reading

Read Not Guess: Help Your Child Learn to Read

Teaching reading is rocket science:  What expert teachers of reading should know and be able to do

Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong (Podcast)

Why the Science of Reading is Right for My Young Learner

Do you have any other Science of Reading resources to share? Please add links in the comments!

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