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Science of Reading Colloquium

Lilly Endowment, Inc., Funds Research on Literacy Education

Sep 28, 2023

Thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. from the state of Indiana, the WGU School of Education is researching to align and expand the use of evidence-based instructional methods aligned with the Science of Reading in teacher preparation programs. The team working most closely with the grant discovery and research are WGU School of Education faculty members Dr. Robin Griffin-Riggio, Dr. Shannon Clark, Dr. Jerad Crave, and Dr. Ruby Willey-Rendon, led by Dr. Verna Lowe. Joining the group from her role as WGU Regional Director is literacy expert Cynthia Merrill. The focus of the grant is to lift literacy in Indiana but will also be used nationwide due to the reach of the WGU School of Education. 

As part of the grant, the team recently hosted a colloquium for the School of Education with more than 300 faculty in attendance. The team shared learnings from initial research on the Science of Reading and later held break-out sessions on key topics. Highlights from the Colloquium presentation follow below. 

Introduction to the Challenge of Literacy

with Dr. Ruby Willey-Rendon

Today, there are many alarming statistics related to illiteracy and reading achievement in the United States. According to the Nation’s Report Card (2023), in the last nationwide assessment of 4th and 8th graders, only 1 in 3 students met reading proficiency standards, and it’s trending downward with a three-point decline in reading scores for those groups since 2019. The challenges aren’t isolated to K-12. According to Renaissance Learning (2023), the average college freshman reads at a 7th-grade level, and according to the Barbara Bush Foundation, 130 million adults in the United States struggle to read basic sentences. 

As the nation’s largest non-profit School of Education, Western Governors University School of Education will use the Science of Reading to inform a systematic and strategic redesign and redevelopment of its initial licensure programs in Elementary Education for teacher preparation. This will impact how WGU faculty work with their students and teacher candidates to support reading skills in preparation for the next wave of educators heading into classrooms in all 50 states.

Literacy education has been a topic of research, discussion, and often debate for decades ranging from the Whole Word Method to Phonics, and many combinations and derivatives such as Balanced Literacy. But in the past several years, there has been an increasing consensus that literacy education needs to align with the Science of Reading – a convergence of scientific-based evidence from research showing what is working, as well as why and how it is working.

“The body of work referred to as the “Science of Reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, or a one-size-fits-all all approach, a program of instruction, not a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars conducted across the world in many languages.” – Dr. Louisa Moats, nationally recognized authority on how children learn to read and why some struggle.

Neuroscience and the Simple View of Reading

with Dr. Shannon Clark

Neuroscience shows us that reading is a collaborative process in the brain. In successful readers, these regions (pictured below) are trained to ‘light up’ on the left side of the brain for efficient and effective reading. In struggling readers, researchers found the right side of the brain was lighting up, showing these students need instruction in reading that can effectively ‘rewire’ the reading and literacy process. 

The Simple View of Reading

Researchers Gough and Tunmer (1986) introduced the Simple View of Reading Formula showing reading comprehension is achieved when students are strong in decoding or word recognition and language comprehension. Their formula is D X C = RC.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope Introduction

with Dr. Jerad Crave

Scarborough followed the Simple View of Reading Formula with a more complex view by weaving previously scattered components into a clean visual that represents all the language comprehension pieces as well as the word recognition pieces into a cohesive skilled reading approach. These are the factors that influence reading. The visual was created predominantly for parents and is not prescriptive or a defined curriculum with a set order of operations. It was designed to provide a holistic view of how skilled reading happens.  

The Language Comprehension Strands of the Rope

with Dr. Robin Griffin

Dr. Griffin shares insights into the various components of the reading rope in the Language Comprehension (red and orange) threads.

Background Knowledge – This is what one possesses from life experiences. Students cannot make meaning from text if they have nothing to connect it with. 

Vocabulary - Vocabulary is a strong predictor of reading comprehension (Boulware-Gooden, Carreker, Thornhill & Joshi, 2007.) Teachers can use direct and indirect strategies for teaching vocabulary. Through true direct instruction students can learn about 300 to 400 words per year, but through indirect instruction like reading aloud, discussions, and independent reading students can learn nearly 3000 new words per year. 

Language Structures – This refers to the comprehension of text at the sentence level and includes syntax, semantics, and grammar. Syntax and semantics include the tone of the sentence or word choice, and grammar refers to the rules for how words can be used.

Verbal Reasoning – This involves figurative language throughout the text. Students infer the actual meaning of metaphors, similes, hyperboles, et cetera, and they're able to use what they know to be able to draw conclusions. 

Literacy Knowledge – This involves making sense of printed language. Literacy knowledge begins in young readers with an understanding of word spacing, reading left-to-right, punctuation, capitalization, and more generally how print works. As readers grow, they gain meaning from a variety of genres and texts, all of which build upon the language acquisition children have by being exposed to conversation, songs, being read to, and more.

The Word Recognition Strands of the Rope

with Dr. Ruby Willey-Rendon

Dr. Willey-Rendon helps define the various components of the reading rope in the Word Recognition (blue and green) threads.

Word recognition is the lower strand of Scarborough’s rope and includes three reading skills that support students in their interaction with printed text. The three strands include phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition.  

Phonological Awareness - Phonological awareness is an umbrella term that is comprised of reading skills that support the awareness that spoken words are made up of individual sound parts. Phonological awareness is all-encompassing in that it involves the large and small parts of spoken language.  Phonological awareness skills include words in sentences, rhyming, and syllables. Phonemic awareness is a skill under phonological awareness that includes isolating, segmenting, blending, adding and deleting phonemes, and manipulating phonemes.  

Decoding – Decoding is the ability to look at a word and connect the letter (graphemes) to its sound (phonemes).  It is the ability to sound out a word even if there is no comprehension of the word’s meaning. When we look at phonics instruction according to the research that has been conducted for the science of reading, it needs to be explicit, systematic instruction matched to the student's developmental levels. It incorporates a scope and sequence for content delivery and a variety of word study activities promoting engagement and accountability through direct teaching. 

Sight Recognition - Sight recognition is words that contain sound/spelling correspondences that students are not familiar with and therefore, are not able to use decoding skills and strategies to decode the words. These are the words the student has learned to read on sight and can either be permanently irregular or temporarily irregular, containing one or more spelling-sound correspondence that is unique to that word and is not completely decodable, or has not been introduced yet in the phonics progression for decoding. Orthographic mapping is a cognitive process in which words are stored permanently for instant retrieval, and leads to accurate and effortless, fluent reading.  

According to Dr. Scarborough (2019), the Reading Rope is a metaphor for reading.  The Reading Rope does not include evidence-based best practices for instruction.  Some other factors that influence reading that are not present in the rope include but are not limited to preschool experiences, family history, external or environmental influences, trauma, socio-economic factors, specific language impairment, ESL, executive functioning weaknesses, and the efficacy of prior instruction.

Skilled Reading and Reading Comprehension

with Dr. Shannon Clark

As a student becomes more fluent and skilled in the strands of the reading rope, they develop increasing speed and accuracy in decoding and linguistic comprehension skills. The various strands reinforce one another as they weave together and twist. As the reader progresses, the language comprehension strands become increasingly strategic while the word recognition strands become increasingly automatic. The final result is skilled reading which includes fluency word recognition and ultimately, text comprehension. 

Structured Literacy

with Dr. Jared Crave

This is an integrated approach to reading instruction created by the International Dyslexia Association. It benefits all readers, not just those with dyslexia. It is designed to use systematic means and methods specifically to work on decoding and comprehension methods.

Systematic, Explicit, and Sequential Literacy

This is prescriptive and strategic with a three-pronged approach and focused instruction that increases in complexity over time.

Systematic - Uses diagnostic tools to plan for the instruction and identify specific skills that are needed. 

Explicit - Uses direct and clear directives to the learner. The teacher provides a skill or activity the student repeats multiple times. 

Sequential - Focuses on the individual learner and their needs using an established scope and sequence.

The five components of Systematic, Explicit, and Sequential Literacy are: 

Phonology: sound structures within speech as well as the production of speech sounds

Orthography: a study of letters and letter combinations to make meaning in a language

Morphology: a study of small but meaningful units of a language such as a prefix, suffixes, roots

Syntax: the other words within a sentence

Semantics: the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences

The Work at the WGU School of Education

with Dr. Verna Lowe

“As our group of subject matter experts continues to expand upon the research, we intend to use the Science of Reading to radically redesign our curriculum across our Elementary Education Initial Licensure Programs,” said Lowe. “Because of the scale the WGU School of Education has as the leader in teacher preparation we can create a wave of literacy-informed teachers and educators that can significantly and positively impact literacy acquisition skill building across K-12 in addition to the impact we will have in Indiana.” 

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