Integrating the Science of Reading into Literacy Lessons

In my last blog post, I reviewed the research behind the Science of Reading. With all the research available, it can be overwhelming to consider how to teach the reading curriculum – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Let’s review the five tenets of the science of reading and the resources from researchers and teachers who teach them.

Phonemic Awareness

The University of Oregon defines phonemic awareness as the ability to hear and move around the sounds in words. For example, there are three sounds in the word cat – /c/, /a/, and /t/. Since children learn speech before they learn to read, they need to process the sounds in a word several times to incorporate the visual word into their memory. This process, called orthographic mapping, allows the word to become a sight word after it has been decoded by sounds several times. The video “What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading” overviews this process.

Student reading a book.
Photo by Guybas courtesy of the Unsplash

Burkins and Yates’ book, Shifting the Balance, breaks down phonemic tasks from less difficult to more difficult. First, students learn individual speech sounds; then, they learn phoneme blends that combine separate sounds to make a word, such as the three sounds in the word map (/m//a//p/.) The next step in learning about phonemic awareness is segmenting phonemes; students start by listening to a whole word and then breaking it into separate sounds. Phoneme isolation occurs when students can identify each sound in a word. After learning to hear each sound, students can work on phoneme discrimination, where they hear the differences and similarities in two or more sounds. For example, students can tell which words have different ending or beginning sounds. Finally, the two most difficult phonemic awareness tasks are deletion, which requires removing a sound, and substitution, when that sound is replaced with a new phoneme to create a new word. If you are wondering where to start teaching phonemic tasks, the University of Florida Literacy Institute has a foundation toolbox that includes free lessons for phonemic awareness tasks, phonics, and decodable readers.


In addition to phonemic awareness, which focuses solely on sounds, students must connect each sound to the symbol or graphemes the sound represents. Connecting sounds to symbols is where phonics instruction comes in. The National Reading Panel describes phonics as “the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent phonemes and that these sounds are blended together to form written words. Readers who are skilled in phonics can sound out words they haven’t seen before, without first having to memorize them.” One recommendation from the National Reading Panel and other experts is to teach phonics explicitly, systematically, and sequentially.

Two great resources for sequence, scope, and resources concerning phonics instruction are Shifting the Balance and the University of Florida Literacy Institute. There are also many free websites to help supplement phonics instruction.


Dr. Tim Rasinski says fluency is the bridge that connects phonemic awareness and phonics instruction to comprehension (Science of Reading The Podcast). There are two parts to fluency: automaticity and prosody. In automaticity, the words have become sight words, and students are no longer working to decode them. Prosody is the tone, inflection, and emotion that shows when fluent readers read aloud. Fluency is not about speed. Instead, teachers should focus fluency instruction on repeated readings for an authentic audience, like in Reader’s Theater.

“It is imperative to build background knowledge about a text through vocabulary that follows the themes or events in a text.”


Vocabulary knowledge is how well students know and can use words in different contexts, and it influences a reader’s ability to comprehend text (Young, Paige, & Rasinski, p. 89, 2022). Vocabulary knowledge should be generative, where students generate “patterns and features that underlie all words. All words in the dictionary can not be taught…the target words of instruction are selected to help students generalize their knowledge about words and concepts…students are taught to extend knowledge of the new word to other words” (Hiebert, 2020). Dr. Hiebert analyzed exemplar texts identified by Common Core Standards and found an average of 91.5% of words came from 2500-word families. She has listed these word families and their morphology on her website,, which contains free decodable texts and classroom resources.


Parent reading a book to children.
Photo by Getty Images on Unsplash+

The final science of reading tenet, comprehension, may be the hardest reading skill to explain. Reading Rockets states, “comprehension is the understanding and interpretation of what is read,” and to fully understand what they read, students must also “decode,” “make connections,” and “think deeply.” With all these tasks in mind, it is imperative to build background knowledge about a text through vocabulary that follows the themes or events in a text (Hiebert) and by questioning students about what they already know and need to know. Students should also be engaged, curious, and interested in the text (Vacca, Mraz, & Vacca, 2021); therefore, ensuring students understand their reading purpose is also a form of building background knowledge. Young, Paige, & Raskinski call for purpose-driven tasks, stating, “A more authentic way of looking at how comprehension takes place happens when we examine our purpose and what we do with a text after we read and comprehend it” (2022, p. 114). By focusing our students on a culminating activity that will use what they have learned from reading, students have a purpose for reading. Some authentic reading tasks could transform the text into multimodal presentations, solve real-world problems, debate sides of a story, or catalyze authentic discussions.

“These five tenets of the science of reading are important to reading instruction, but student engagement and the artful teaching of reading are also important.”

These five tenets of the science of reading are important to reading instruction, but student engagement and the artful teaching of reading are also important. I hope the resources linked within this blog post will help teachers to generate new ideas and curricula to effectively use the science of reading in their classrooms. Do you know someone who is already teaching reading artfully? Please let me know; I would love to observe their work.

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