The Science of Reading: How to Understand and Apply the Basics

Want More Science of Reading?

Check out Waterford’s Science of Reading series to explore how the brain learns to read and get tips for effective, researched-based classroom instruction from literacy expert and Director of Curriculum Julie Christensen.

Teaching students to read is so much more than sitting them down in front of a book. It takes an intentional mix of explicit classroom lessons, individualized support, and family engagement to help children develop strong reading skills. But, how do we know what strategies will work best? Have you ever stopped to think about what brain science says about how children learn to read—and how that might make your teaching even more effective?

Staying up-to-date on the research behind how children learn to read can help you make informed decisions about classroom instruction. Educational research offers valuable insights about the neuroscience of reading and how educators can teach literacy more effectively.

Why the Science of Reading Matters

Most children naturally learn to talk simply by exposure to spoken language. The same, however, is not true for learning to read. Director of Curriculum at, Julie Christensen, Ed.M, notes that “by contrast, learning to read requires several years of intentional instruction.”[1]

How educators teach during a student’s early years of reading instruction matters for the child’s lifelong academic success. This is even more pressing because a significant number of students in the US do not meet reading standards. In fact, of all US students:[4]

  • 34% of children entering kindergarten lack the reading readiness skills they needed
  • 65% of fourth graders read below grade level
  • And only 37% of high school students graduate at or above reading proficiency

These statistics can be disheartening, but consider this: Because a child’s early elementary years are so crucial to lifelong success, you can make a big difference in your students’ lives.You can do this by staying current on literacy development research and using these findings to inform your instruction.

What Is the Science of Reading?

What exactly is the science of reading, and how can it inform your classroom instruction? In a recent presentation from, Julie Christiansen reaffirmed that the science of reading is “the body of research from neuroscience and education that helps us understand how the brain learns to read and how to deliver instruction that helps students learn to read most effectively.​”[5]

The science of reading is not, she says, “a new idea​, a passing fad​, a preferred viewpoint, or a program.” Instead, the science of reading points to key learning principles and clear building blocks for literacy. These ideas can shape the way you plan instruction.

How Do Children Learn to Read?

The brain’s reading network is formed in the left hemisphere. Specific areas of the brain process visual information and letter sounds. Other areas of the brain help us retrieve the meanings and pronunciations of words. In non-readers and developing readers, these areas of the brain are not yet connected. The process of learning to read literally changes the brain, forming neural pathways between the areas that must work together to make reading possible.

Two instructional frameworks are helpful in understanding the science of reading. The Simple View of Reading theorizes that proficient reading comprehension is the product of word recognition skills and language comprehension skills.[2]

Scarborough’s Reading Rope expands on the Simple View by outlining sub-areas within both word recognition and language comprehension.[1] Word recognition, for example, pinpoints phonological awareness, decoding and spelling, and sight recognition as important stepping stones. Language comprehension expands in the Reading Rope model to include background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. As a child learns to read, these elements are woven together and the child becomes a skilled and fluent reader.

A systematic and intentional curriculum for teaching reading will use instructional strands that align with the word recognition and language comprehension elements in the above reading frameworks. For example, Waterford’s curriculum is designed around the following strands:

  • Phonological Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension and Vocabulary
  • Language Concepts
  • Communication

These strands are also aligned with the essential components of reading as identified by the National Reading Panel.[1] Together, they are the main pieces of the puzzle for literacy development.

Understanding the science of reading helps us see clearly how to foster skill development for students learning to read. Frameworks such as Scarborough’s Reading Rope, which illustrates how instructional strands are woven together to create proficiency, point to instructional approaches that align with the way the brain’s reading network operates.

How to Use the Science of Reading in Your Classroom

Now that we’ve hit on a few key ideas around the value of the science of reading, let’s discuss how you can stay informed and use that knowledge in your curriculum. Books on literacy development are the most accessible way to learn more. Make sure, however, that these books are recommended by experts in the field and based on recent findings. recommends the following books for in-depth studies on the science behind teaching students how to read:

  • Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers by Louisa Moats
  • Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick
  • Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

Additionally, search for professional development opportunities on the science of reading—like presentations, self-paced courses, or podcasts. This can be a great way to learn the latest strategies from today’s educational researchers in a way that fits your teaching schedule.

Finally, collaborate with other educators at your school district. Studying reading science by yourself can be overwhelming. Together, however, you could share what you’ve learned and brainstorm ways to put your knowledge to use. You could, for example, start a teacher’s book club on books about language development. Or you could practice a literacy teaching strategy together and discuss your classroom’s progress at a follow-up meeting.


  1. Christensen, J. The Science of Reading: From Research to Instruction., April 2021.
  2. Farrell, L., Hunter, M., Davidson, M., and Osenga, T. The Simple View of Reading. Reading Rockets.
  3. Silverman, R. The reading wars, explained. Stanford Graduate School of Education. May 13, 2019.
  4. The Nation’s Report Card. Explore Results for the 2019 NAEP Reading Assessment.
  5. Christensen, J., Persch, K., & Esser, L. An Overview of the Science of Reading. Video from Nov. 2021.

More education articles

A little boy in preschool is sitting on a foam mat with his classmates and is holding a picture book - he is smiling and looking at the camera.

20 of the Best STEM Books for Kids

Books are an excellent way to help children connect more deeply to science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) concepts they are learning in class.