Exploring the Science of Reading: How the Brain Acquires Literacy Skills

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Reading is a complex process that allows us to understand written language and access a world of knowledge and ideas. But how does the brain learn to read? What are the underlying processes and mechanisms that make it possible for us to comprehend written text? This article will dive into the science of reading and explore how the brain learns to read, from mapping letters and sounds to developing fluent, comprehension-based reading.By gaining a deeper understanding of how the brain learns to identify and recognize word patterns, we can gain insights into how to support students in their journey to becoming successful readers.

What is the Science of Reading?

Dr. Mark Seidenberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison defines the science of reading as “a body of basic research in developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience on reading, one of the most complex human behaviors, and its biological (neural, genetic) bases.”  

This definition highlights the interdisciplinary nature of the science of reading and informs us how the brain acquires language and the ability to make meaning from text. When we understand these basic cognitive processes, we can better understand how beginning readers develop these abilities and how to better support them as they learn to read.

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What Beginning Readers Need

There are a variety of skills that beginning readers need to develop sequentially and harmoniously for a solid literacy foundation. Two models demonstrating the connection between these skills and how they work in tandem for reading development are “The Simple View of Reading” and “Scarborough’s Reading Rope.”

The Simple View of Reading

From Shifting the Balance by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, copyright © 2021, reproduced with permission of Stenhouse Publishers. www.stenhouse.com

From Shifting the Balance by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, copyright © 2021, reproduced with permission of Stenhouse Publishers. www.stenhouse.com

The Simple View of Reading is a formula that emphasizes word decoding (the ability to recognize words and decode text accurately) and language comprehension (the ability to understand the meaning of words and sentences). If either of these abilities is weak, the student’s overall reading ability will be impacted. For example, a student with solid word decoding skills but poor language comprehension skills may be able to decode text accurately but may need help understanding the meaning of the text.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

From Shifting the Balance by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, copyright © 2021, reproduced with permission of Stenhouse Publishers. www.stenhouse.com

Developed by Dr. H. Lynn Scarborough of the University of Texas at Austin, the Reading Rope model depicts reading as a process that involves multiple strands or skills that work together to support reading comprehension. This model includes six strands: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and text structure. These strands represent the skills and abilities necessary for successful reading and are interwoven to form a “rope” that supports reading comprehension. According to the Reading Rope model, phonological awareness and phonics form the foundation of the rope and provide the basic skills necessary for decoding words.Vocabulary and fluency contribute to the growth of the rope and support the ability to read words quickly and accurately. Comprehension and text structure support understanding the text’s meaning and making connections to prior knowledge.Both models show that a deep understanding of these complementary skills is essential for guiding student reading development.

Related Article: Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy: Understanding the Key Differences

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a crucial pre-reading skill and involves recognizing, comprehending, and manipulating individual phonemes in spoken language. This ability enables students to establish the connection between sounds and letters, which is a crucial component in decoding written text. For example, a child with strong phonemic awareness might be able to identify the individual sounds in the word “cat” and then change the first sound to make the word “bat.”

These skills equip learners to identify the sounds associated with each letter and blend those sounds together to read words. It is important for educators to incorporate phonemic awareness into their reading curriculum through sequential and explicit instruction, also known as structured literacy, to lay the foundation for other necessary phonics skills.

Phonics skills refer to a reader’s ability to use the relationship between letters and sounds to decode written text and read words accurately and fluently. While phonemic awareness is an essential component of phonics skills, several other skills are also considered part of the phonics toolkit:

  1. Letter-sound correspondences: Recognizing the sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet and knowing how to blend those sounds together to form words.
  2. Word decoding: Using letter-sound correspondences to decode unfamiliar words, including recognizing common word parts such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
  3. Blending sounds: Combining individual sounds to form words, including recognizing and producing blends such as “st,” “bl,” and “cl.”
  4. Segmenting words: Breaking words into individual sounds and identifying the sounds in spoken words.
  5. Phoneme manipulation: Adding, deleting, or changing sounds in words to make new words, as well as recognizing and producing rhyming words.
  6. Word families: Recognizing and producing words that share a common pattern, such as “at” and words like “cat,” “rat,” and “hat.”

By developing these phonics skills, children are better equipped to decode written text accurately and fluently, build their vocabulary, make connections to prior knowledge, and understand the meaning of the text. This process helps students develop their vocabulary and connect new words and the sounds they already know. It also strengthens their memory for words and sounds, which helps to lay the foundation for reading fluency.

The Importance of Fluency

Fluent readers can recognize words automatically and effortlessly, reducing the mental effort required to decode words and freeing up cognitive resources for understanding the text. With improved reading stamina, learners are more likely to feel successful and confident in their reading abilities, which can inspire them to continue reading and exploring new books and texts. Educators can help children become successful, confident readers who can read for pleasure and information by incorporating instruction and activities that focus on developing fluency.

The Importance of Listening and Reading Comprehension

When students are able to comprehend what they hear, they can make meaning from phonological sounds by building connections to prior knowledge using the context in which language is being used. An example of listening comprehension is a student’s ability to hear a passage and make inferences about the feelings and actions of the characters in a story.

Example: “I think the main character is feeling sad because they lost their dog.”

Reading comprehension uses the same cognitive processes as listening comprehension along with orthographic mapping, and it’s the brain’s ability to essentially “listen” to what it reads. The less mental effort used to decode words, the more the brain can focus on understanding the meaning and context of the text.


In conclusion, it’s critical for educators to understand the Science of Reading so they can better equip students to engage in the cognitive processes that are essential for reading development. With sequential instruction focusing on phonemic awareness, phonics skills, fluency, and reading comprehension, our students will gain confidence in reading and their ability to think critically, draw conclusions, and generate meaning beyond the text.At Strobel Education, we strive to equip educators with research-backed strategies and insights through on-site professional development, virtual workshops, and our online course about the Science of Reading.

To learn more about the Science of Reading, watch our free training from our Science of Reading Online Course, and let us support you and your teachers with empowering research and strategies that will elevate student success in your classrooms.

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