Stephanie Grimaldi: The science of reading 

Published: 05-29-2023 10:25 AM

It is encouraging to hear that the Northampton Public Schools are engaged in curriculum review and data analysis to improve our children’s reading instruction. The recent article, “Schools eye literacy shift to ‘science of reading,’” [Gazette, May 15], makes some inaccurate statements and over-simplifies the complexity of reading and reading instruction. First, the “science of reading” is not a technique and not limited to phonics instruction. The science of reading is a body of research from multiple disciplines including, but not limited to: education, cognitive science, and linguistics. It informs our understanding of how the brain creates neural networks connecting phonemic awareness (the ability to hear the individual sounds of a language), the symbols of a written system and the sounds they represent, and the meanings of the words being decoded.

The research evidence is clear that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is needed to effectively and efficiently decode written language (a human invention and something our brain needs to learn). The science of reading also provides us with components of language comprehension needed for people to comprehend what they’ve decoded. This concurrent instructional need includes instructional intentionality in building background knowledge, expanding vocabulary, understanding language structures, using verbal reasoning, and knowledge of written language structures.

Teachers need to understand the what, why, and how of teaching both word recognition and language comprehension in order to appropriately differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the students sitting in front of them. Furthermore, a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) should be in place in each and every classroom where the “core” curriculum (the instruction provided to all students, everyday) is designed to meet the needs of at least 80% of the students. This instruction, often referred to as Tier 1, or primary prevention, is based on universal screening. Secondary (Tier 2, approximately 10-15% of students) and tertiary (Tier 3, approximately 5% of students) instruction is then provided in instructional focus area(s) identified by diagnostic assessments with increasing intensity and adjusted, if needed, based on progress monitoring assessments.

To say that NPS is implementing the science of reading by purchasing a new phonics curriculum and training teachers to use those materials is only addressing a portion, albeit critical, of what is needed to ensure all students become skilled readers. It is my hope that the article provided only a partial picture of the work being done within the schools.

Stephanie Grimaldi, professor of education, Westfield State University