What’s the ‘Science of Reading’ approach to teaching literacy skills?

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

What should parents know about the “Science of Reading?”

What it is: At a recent briefing discussing test scores from the assessment known as “the nation’s report card,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said the city’s school system is making investments in “the Science of Reading” to help students reach their literacy goals.

So what is the “Science of Reading” approach to helping students learn to read?

Broadly, it describes the current best practices of how students are taught to read.


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Elizabeth Ross, interim assistant superintendent for the division of teaching and learning in D.C., said it includes several components. Generally, the approach looks different in each classroom and each grade level, but it focuses on phonics and word comprehension, and relies less on student memorization.

The approach’s five key components, Ross said, include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Phonemic awareness, she said, is the “ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words.”

What it means: For some D.C. area school systems, the structure of literary lessons has changed as of late, according to Marni Matyac, a D.C.-area reading specialist.

Now, there’s more of an emphasis on phonics and phonetic awareness in the younger grades, she said. So, teachers will lead a whole-class lesson on a particular concept that will “hit about 40 to 50% of where their kids are,” and then students will work in small groups to work on things students in that specific group need to work on.

One group could be working on word endings, while another may be working on vowel sounds, Matyac said. Then, at the end of a unit comes a full lesson on comprehension.

Tests are used, Matyac said, to determine how to best tailor class lessons to each students’ needs.

The changes move “away from a comprehension-focused approach with a word study component that addresses the phonics [to] a more phonics-based approach,” Matyac said.

Ross, in D.C., said the “lessons are sequential, they build on each other, and they provide students with feedback focused on correct letter sounds, phonemes, graphemes. You can see that each lesson is building on the students’ prior knowledge base, and teeing the students up for success in the next lesson.

So there should be strong coherence across lessons over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year — you can also see that there’s regular progress monitoring being used in order to inform instruction.”

Some, though, suggest students who are reading at or above grade level may be left behind.

“This is going to be a shift, because they may not be getting as much of a targeted approach to their reading as they have in the past,” Matyac said.



Because, she said, a class lesson may be catered to half of the class, the other half of students “are just going to kind of zone out.”

Regional snapshot: Ferebee, the D.C. Public Schools chancellor, said D.C. is adopting the newest approach to literacy.

Matyac said this is the first year Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia is also adopting the phonics-based approach to reading.

Talking points: Regarding the phonics-based approach, Matyac said, “Systematic phonics isn’t bad, it’s a good thing. It’s a necessary thing. And we need to do it with fidelity. But we also need to teach comprehension as well.”

Ross, in D.C., said, “As our understanding of the way the child’s brain develops has evolved, due to a lot of hard work by educators, by researchers, we have come to understand that reading is far more complex than relying on memorization. And as such, have really shifted to understanding the scientifically based approach.”

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Proposed Virginia policy: The proposed Department of Education guidelines that impact transgender students in Virginia have received over 71,000 public comments in the 30-days since the comment period began.

Initially slated to go into effect this week, the policy’s effective date has been pushed to Nov. 26. A Virginia Department of Education spokesman told WTOP the policies “won’t become final until the review is complete and a final version is approved by the state superintendent.”

According to state policy, if a written public comment says a guidance document is contrary to state law or regulation, the effective data is delayed for an additional 30 days.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said he expects counties to adopt the policies once they’re finalized because “it’s the law,” he told WTOP.

What Scott’s Reading

  • DC public libraries to expand hours in November [WTOP] 
  • Fairfax Co. votes to formally oppose new student transgender policies [WTOP] 
  • Prince William County schools report reveals troubling data [InsideNova]
  • Bowie parents oppose Prince George’s school closure proposal [Washington Post]
  • Survey shows most D.C. teachers aren’t happy with their jobs [DCist]
  • Board of Education candidates discuss key issues at Bethesda Beat forum [Bethesda Beat]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Road trip: Heading down to Charlottesville to watch some football. Let’s hope it’s competitive, and not the bad kind.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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