The Science of Reading

Happy National Read a Book Day! To mark the occasion, we’re taking a deep dive into the scientific study of reading—courtesy of Gina N. Cervetti, professor of education at the University of Michigan. Cervetti, who also sits on the board at ReadWorks, opens up about this movement's impact and why research-based approaches to teaching reading are on the rise in the U.S. Just this summer, for instance, the AP reported on how Mississippi catapulted from being the second-worst state for fourth-grade reading in 2013 to 21st last year. The difference? Educators are now trained in these methods of teaching.


What exactly is the science of reading?

It’s a movement with the goal of ensuring that reading instruction is grounded in scientific research from education and related fields. The emphasis has been on ensuring students develop the skills needed to read words accurately and fluently, though research points to other essential skills and knowledge, as well.

Could you break down the process of learning to read?

Many skills and types of knowledge contribute to children’s success in reading—and the relative importance of these skills and knowledge change as students move through school and encounter different kinds of texts. Children need to learn to read the actual words on the page, and they also need to develop an understanding about how these words are joined together to form sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts of different genres. Children need to develop vocabulary knowledge and knowledge about the world so that many of the words and ideas they encounter in texts are familiar, making it easier to understand the texts as a whole. Children also need to develop cognitive strategies that help them monitor their meaning making, form connections within and across texts and to things they already know, and fix up their understanding when it breaks down. Finally, children need to develop stamina and motivation to read.

What are the challenges right now?

We are all aware that many children had limited access to high-quality instruction during the pandemic. In reading, this means that some students missed instruction in critical foundational skills, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that this has placed them behind expectations. It will take time and resources to make sure every child is back on track.

We’ve been reading so much about the science of reading in the news lately. Why now?

In the field of education, we constantly revisit questions about the most effective instruction for children. Occasionally, these conversations become part of the public discourse, as they have recently with the science-of-reading movement. These conversations can heighten awareness and generate innovation, like what is happening as people grapple with how to help students overcome the reading losses of the pandemic. However, they can also lead us to expect simple solutions for complex social projects, like teaching every child to read.

Tips for parents to better support their children?

At home, there are many opportunities to read different kinds of texts for various purposes. As much as possible, make reading part of every family activity. Using texts like recipes, letters, sacred books, and stories for their intended purposes and pointing out how they are organized is a great way to reveal how print works and why it’s useful. As you read, explain the words you encounter (ingredients, procedures, sincerely). Make reading part of learning new things and use reading to follow your child’s interests.

Last but not least: What inspired you to enter the field of reading comprehension research?

The biggest inspiration came from my work with adults who had not acquired conventional reading skills. These adults could typically read some words, but often struggled to read longer strings of words and to make sense of their reading. I saw how this shaped their life opportunities—access to education and work, the ability to read with their children, the ability to navigate transportation systems and move around in the world, and so on. I wanted to help ensure no individual reached adulthood without the reading skills needed to make choices about the trajectories of their lives.

From now to the end of September, we will donate a portion of proceeds from every single order to ReadWorks, which is committed to solving America’s reading comprehension crisis and student achievement gap. #VBGIVESBACK