Cognitive science can tell us a lot about how students learn to read.
Reading failure affects more than half of U.S. students, contributing to a persistent achievement gap. The time to learn about that science and put it to better use is now. But to do so, we must first shift the focus of our national discourse on reading instruction from what is learned to how it is learned.
In a recent article, Emily Hanford reported that many educators rely on ineffective means of teaching students to read and ignore substantial research that demonstrates better outcomes from phonics instruction than from the whole language approach. While Hanford’s arguments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to teach reading, researchers and teachers have noted that not all students respond the same ways to specific educational approaches.
Indeed, there are a variety of approaches used to teach early reading development. In many cases, these programs are supported by evidence that demonstrates success for some but not all children.
These approaches come in various forms, from pre-packaged, scripted programs delivered by educational publishers to teacher-developed lesson plans and countless others. The development of phonic skills (sound-symbol relationships) is an undeniably essential component to successful reading, serving as an organizing hub for differing approaches. But the way each approach provides phonics instruction varies from a tightly controlled sequence of phonics rules to an unstructured exposure to these rules through immersion in rich literature.
The experiences, skills and knowledge that children bring to school place them at different points, suggesting they might need differing amounts and/or types of instruction. It isn’t enough merely to know the phonics rules. Research tells us that skilled readers not only have good decoding skills but go beyond decoding to recognize words automatically. Students who can flexibly use and generalize the “code” are able to transfer these skills to read known and even novel words in connected text. This transition shifts the cognitive load from focusing on the structure of words to accessing the meaning of words. Children who develop what is known as “automaticity” can move on to focus on fluency and comprehension while others continue to struggle, laboring at the word level.
So rather than focusing primarily on what students need to know, we should instead focus on how they learn. Understanding exactly how automaticity develops — thereby opening the door to reading fluency and comprehension— can provide a window into more effective reading pedagogy. Fortunately, research in cognitive science has already identified powerful principles of learning to help us get to answers for these and other important questions.
In 2014, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel published Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, in which they examine examples of learning across several domains and explain how educators can translate notable findings in cognitive science into best practices for instruction. An important principle of cognitive science with direct relevance to the development of reading skills is “systematic variation.” Practicing a skill over and over in the same way may teach students to acquire the skill, but it won’t necessarily lead them to apply that skill to other contexts. Rather, students need to practice the skill in a variety of different ways to be able to retain, generalize and apply that information.
A significant body of research about how people learn demonstrates the clear benefits of systematic variation. For instance, in one study on the impact of variation in learning to identify dialects, one group of participants was trained to identify six different dialects by hearing just one talker in each of six dialects. Another group was trained to identify the same six dialects by hearing three different talkers of each dialect.
The second group learned far more quickly to correctly identify dialects. Why? This group experienced systematic variation that “made it stick.” The benefits of systematic variation have also been demonstrated in a diversity of other domains, including first language acquisition, word recognition, facial recognition, landing a plane, tossing bean bags at targets and even identifying artists by their painting styles.
When it comes to reading, traditional phonics teaches skills one at a time to mastery, intentionally limiting variation to emphasize the rule being taught, whereas whole language introduces the learner to almost unlimited (and unstructured) variation with the belief that immersion in age-appropriate literature leads to a natural understanding of phonics. But cognitive science tells us that some degree of variability is important to cement skills so that they stick and become truly automatic.
Indeed, systematic variation offers a consistent benefit to students learning to read, as demonstrated in this study by Keith Apfelbaum and colleagues. Specifically, it teaches students to retain, generalize and use their skills. With this in mind, educators should consider the following when planning reading instruction for their students:
1) Before beginning reading instruction, teachers should conduct a high-quality baseline assessment.
2) Identify assessment tools that determine what students know about phonics and whether they can flexibly use their knowledge.
3) Assess students who have gaps in foundational skills, such as phonics, syllabication and automatic word recognition.
4) Vary the ways in which students learn foundational skills like phonics so they can become automatic readers.
5) Match the amount of variation in both content and tasks, and types of feedback should be matched to the student’s needs.
6) Students who have reasonably good decoding skills but still lack automaticity may be prime candidates for an approach that emphasizes systematic variation.
7) Teachers should periodically evaluate growth and fluency, and compare to baseline results.
Principles of learning, studied extensively in cognitive science, could and should inform solutions to our national reading problem. We should not get stuck in the past and in arguments about methods of teaching. Practitioners and scientists should embrace and exploit the recent, relevant findings in cognitive science to understand how students learn and which instructional approaches best fit each learner.
Carolyn Brown and Jerry Zimmerman are co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a provider of research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits and empower them to achieve significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension.