The Science of Reading

So how exactly does a kid learn to read?

I’ve been teaching for 10.5 years, and I still struggle with that question. I do know this: it has to click. Once it clicks, a child reads with fluency, increasing comprehension, and joy (“I can read!”). The hard question: How does it click?

The best training I’ve gotten in teaching reading has been through Metro Schools. They have offered me so much professional development over the years on how to teach reading and even how to teach English Language Learners to read.

We focus on five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.

(The difference between phonemic awareness and phonics is that phonemic awareness deals purely with sounds but not letters. Phonemic awareness includes initial/medial/final sounds, rhyming, sound substitution, discriminating between different sounds, hearing syllables, segmenting and blending sounds – but it does not include letter names or letters at all. Research shows that good phonemic awareness is a pre-cursor to good readers. Phonics deals with sounds and the letters or letter combinations that make those sounds.)

While teachers use a reading basal with their whole class, we also focus on giving kids books at their level. Every elementary school in Metro has a Book Room, which has sets of books (6 to set) that we use for small group reading instruction. The books are leveled (we use a numerical leveling system from Level 1 to 40 something – not sure the highest). These are not basals or Dick-and-Jane type books. They are trade books and picture books. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction. They have words with phonetic patterns and sight words that can’t be sounded out. In other words, they are authentic books. We do running records on the kids several times a year to determine their reading level, then we group the students according to similar levels and instruct small groups (3-6 kids) on their levels. While teachers are meeting with groups, the other students are doing literacy centers, or hands-on activities related to the 5 aforementioned components.

We do have benchmark reading levels for the beginning, middle, and end of each grade, but the beauty of it is that if a kid has not reached benchmark, he still gets to read a book on his level! Giving kids a book that they can read independently or with a just a little help is so empowering for the kids. They can experience success at every level of ability. And a kid is never going to read better if he is constantly exposed to reading material that is beyond his reach. Providing books that match the child’s ability allows the child to make progress rather than being stuck in frustration mode. Likewise, a child who is an advanced reader does not stagnate at one reading level or get stuck reading books that are too easy. He also is able to progress and improve because he has access to books at or a little above his level.

All this to say: Metro Schools get a bad rap. And I’ll admit there are some really rough schools in this city. However, I’ve had 2 different people from a neighboring, well-to-do county tell me that their children are not being challenged at their schools. I’m like, “Oh, do they have a book room? Do they do leveled guided reading groups?”
And the answer is, “No.”

Guess we’re doing something right! 🙂


  1. Minka says:

    I remember they wanted to try a new teaching style with my age group…and I have talked to a few other people from different schools that were in the same grade and they also had this alternative learning style. It was in 3rd grade?? I don’t remember exactly… it didn’t work, whatever their special train method was …They didn’t stick with it for more than a year or two..I can’t imagine how difficult it is to try to think of more creative ways to teach kids how to read and write…and how to get them involved with it.
    In elementary school i was way below the norm for reading and writing. In high school I took every English class possible, and it became my favorite subject. Of course i had some great teachers, but how does it switch from hate to love? How could it be so difficult for me in the past and now a passion? I still can’t spell… at all… and grammar is very difficult. I would love to be an editor some day but i know those are out of the question with my downfalls.
    Thank you for teaching, i could never thank my teachers enough for what they did for me.
    It really is appreciated even if we don’t say it 🙂

    • kksorrell says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that you went from hating-to-read to loving-to-read. Rather than an editor, could you be a book reviewer? Just a thought.

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