The research behind reading: where should you start?

Like many others, I taught for several years with almost zero knowledge of how people learn to read. Yes, during my PGCE, I was told that phonics was a good thing, and I was given Letters and Sounds to read, but beyond that? Not much. Thus, it was something of a surprise to learn eventually that the science behind reading is arguably the most thoroughly explored area of cognitive psychology and that well-founded recommendations for pedagogy are available for teachers.

Perhaps you don’t know much about the research into reading, but would like to change that. It can be difficult to know where to begin, and time is precious. This blog is my attempt to match a decent course of action to the amount of time that you have available. I’m no expert, but I hope that I’ve read and digested enough to support your first steps into this area of learning. Trust me: if you are someone who teaches children to read, you won’t regret taking the time to better understand this subject. It will make you a better teacher.


If you effectively have no time to dedicate to this goal at present, then get the ball rolling by following these people on Twitter:

@TheReadingApe

This Twitter account posts about all things phonics and reading. The blogs are concise and informative, with references and further reading for those interested. A case in point: https://www.thereadingape.com/single-post/2019/06/23/Comprende-Reading-comprehension-a-skill-to-be-taught

@ReadingShanahan

Timothy Shanahan was a member of the National Reading Panel in the US, which was responsible for sifting through the mountains of research into reading and coming up with recommendations for educators. His blogs at shanahanonliteracy.com are always worth reading, and his views are informed by an extensive understanding of the current evidence. This one gives a pretty good flavour of what he does: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-fluency-so-that-it-takes

@c_mackechnie

Charlotte Mackechnie is an advocate for linguistic phonics who tweets and writes very persuasively on the subject. Here is an example from her excellent blog: https://linguisticphonics.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/what-skills-are-required-for-reading-and-spelling/

@SWLiteracy

John Walker is the man responsible for Sounds-Write phonics, and, given this fact, his blog is full of excellent advice for teachers on the subject of early reading: https://theliteracyblog.com/


If you have 1-2 hours only, read this overview of the research – Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1529100618772271

I can’t really imagine a more efficient way to get to grips with the subject than reading this. It covers everything from the alphabetic principle to different computational models of reading to language comprehension.


Where you go after reading this depends on your priorities…


If you have 5-10 hours and you want to get to grips with all aspects of reading, from phonics to fluency, from comprehension to leading reading across a school, then I’d be a fool not to recommend the book I wrote for precisely this purpose, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=teaching+primary+reading&qid=1621544542&sr=8-3

All royalties are going to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in understanding the history of reading (which is surprisingly relevant to understanding how it should be taught), scientific models of reading and where these might lead in the future, then read this book:

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg.

Language at the Speed of Sight is an entertaining read that takes a broad view of reading acquisition. You will likely spend considerable chunks of the book thinking, “Do I really need to know this in this much detail?” and “Is this really relevant?” All I can say is that the more I learn about how people learn to read, the more I recognise that subjects like orthographic depth and the historical development of different writing systems are relevant and useful to know.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in the initial acquisition of reading and the pedagogical implications, then read this book:

Early Reading Instruction by Diane McGuinness.

Full of references and breakdowns of relevant research, this book gives a grand tour of the science into early reading. It is, in effect, a deeper exploration of most of the subjects explored in the Corrigendum: Ending the Reading Wars paper discussed above. (It is worth noting that I disagree with McGuinness’s conclusions about dyslexia, which are based on the claim that “for a biological theory [of dyslexia] to be accurate, dyslexia would have to occur at the same rate in all populations.” This seems an inaccurate account of how genes and environment can, and do, interact. The definition of dyslexia advocated in Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight makes more sense to me.) While it is a little dated and contains the odd dubious claim, it remains an excellent introduction into the research on early reading.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in immediate practical applications of research into reading, especially in a Key Stage 2 and secondary context, then read these two books:

Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

While at first glance this book seems most relevant to a US context, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the wealth of experience and strategies contained in this text could be applied in almost any setting where children have a solid level of reading fluency. (For more on what I mean by reading fluency, read this: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/08/10/how-i-will-teach-reading-this-year/)

Thinking Reading by James and Dianne Murphy

This short book is one part call to arms for secondary schools who are not yet systematically tackling student’s reading difficulties, one part guide for school leaders and teachers on how to begin to answer that call. It is a perfect companion to Reading Reconsidered as it addresses a key question that Reading Reconsidered leaves unanswered: “What about the kids whose reading is so weak that they can’t engage with these methods?”


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in reading comprehension, then read this book:

Understanding and Reading Teaching Comprehension by Jane Oakhill

This book is a readable guide to the research into all the elements that make up reading comprehension – vocabulary, background knowledge, inference, text structure, cohesive devices and comprehension monitoring – with practical recommendations for how these can be taught. However, bear in mind that most of the strategies considered in the book are best taught quickly and explicitly, with little to be gained from extensive instruction. This is discussed here: http://www.danielwillingham.com/uploads/5/0/0/7/5007325/willingham&lovette_2014_can_reading_comprehension_be_taught_.pdf

and here:

https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/how-much-comprehension-strategy-instruction


If you have 25 hours, then read all four of the books mentioned above. While each might not be directly relevant to your context, as a whole they give a broader view of the research behind reading and its implications for instruction.


If you have more than 25 hours, here are some further options that are well worth your time:

The Science of reading podcasts – hosted by Susan Lambert

The Science of Reading podcasts by Amplify are pacy interviews about reading science and instruction that traverse all areas of the subject. Guests to far include such luminaries as Tim Shanahan, Natalie Wexler, Tim Rasinski and Emily Hanford. Find it here: https://amplify.com/science-of-reading-the-podcast/


Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book covers similar ground to the first section of Language at the Speed of Sight. However, Proust and the Squid provides a more wistful journey through the history and science of reading, along with an engaging and personal (if rose-tinted) exploration of dyslexia and its controversies.


Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

This is a fascinating look at the effective ways of teaching vocabulary


The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley

In Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Alex Quigley argues for a thorough, cumulative approach to teaching vocabulary across schools.


Sounds Write – English Spellings: A Lexicon by Dave Philpot, John Walker and Susan Case

This is a detailed discussion and analysis of English spelling from a linguistic phonics perspective.


Words in the Mind by Jean Aitchison

This is an entertaining and informative guide to the best research on how our mind deals with words and the links between background knowledge and vocabulary:


Learn more about the best bets for developing reading fluency from this excellent paper:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328784455_A_SYNTHESIS_OF_RESEARCH_ON_READING_FLUENCY_DEVELOMPENT_STUDY_OF_EIGHT_META-ANALYSES


Dive into the weeds of comprehension strategies and inference training by reading these papers:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311215549_Activating_Background_Knowledge_An_Effective_Strategy_to_Develop_Reading_Comprehension_Skills

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313687046_Examining_the_Impact_of_Inference_Instruction_on_the_Literal_and_Inferential_Comprehension_of_Skilled_and_Less_Skilled_Readers_A_Meta-Analytic_Review

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49176228_An_instructional_study_Improving_the_inferential_comprehension_of_good_and_poor_fourth-grade_readers

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273162713_Inference_Instruction_for_Struggling_Readers_a_Synthesis_of_Intervention_Research

(It’s worth noting here that some of this research is quite dated; the blog by @TheReadingApe described above is worth reading as context before reading these, as is this blog by @ReadingShanahan, where the sort of inference strategies discussed in the above papers are referred to using the umbrella term “comprehension strategies”: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter


There is so much more that I could add, but I hope that the reading material above gives a flavour of the reading research to anyone new to the field. Now here’s a shameless plug: my book, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading is my attempt to summarise the research into teaching from the perspective of an experienced teacher and school leader. I think it has something to offer to trainee teachers, experienced teachers, reading coordinators, school leaders and those teaching reading at secondary schools. All royalties will go to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.

Feedback is, as ever, appreciated.

2 thoughts on “The research behind reading: where should you start?

  1. Thank you – all good recommendations!

    What about flagging up the existence of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction which also endeavours to capture developments in this field ‘internationally’ and will provide some history and recommended reading via its forum:

    https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/

    And then, have you thought about providing links for any practical information and support for those in the classroom (and special needs)?

    Like

  2. Most children learn to read despite adult ‘help’.

    Those children who ‘struggle’ to acquire this essential life skill almost always do so due to incomplete phonic knowledge compounded by the low priority given to the explicit teaching of reading by many KS2&3 teachers.

    The amazing thing is that more learners (children) who are functionally illiterate (and branded as mentally ill because self-esteem plummets) don’t give up on school sooner than KS4 and vote with their feet.

    Like

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