The intersection of the science of reading and edtech

Blending digital supports in the science of reading can yield positive and lasting results on

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While this fall marks my 38th year in education, it has been 28 years since I was a classroom teacher. Teaching elementary school was the hardest job I ever had, but there are many parts of the role I miss. This time of year, I especially miss the opportunity to teach young learners to read and write. As any elementary educator will tell you, seeing a child’s eyes light up as they grow into individuals capable of expressing themselves and exploring their own interests through the written word is one of the greatest joys in life.

The fulfillment I find in helping elementary school students develop their literacy skills has driven my interest in the science of reading. As the single most-discussed topic in education at this moment, the science of reading has been a focus of intense interest in state legislatures nationwide. Specifically, as of July 2023, about 30 states have passed legislation or created new policies focused on teaching reading.

But what is the science of reading? One of the most useful definitions of this incredibly important body of work comes from the Ohio Department of Education, which explains that the science of reading is a body of scientific evidence that:

  • Informs how students learn to read and write proficiently
  • Explains why some students have difficulty with reading and writing
  • that all students benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and writing to become effective readers
  • Does not rely on any model of teaching students to read based on meaning, structure and syntax, and visual cues

I really like the Ohio Department of Education’s definition of the science of reading as it focuses on the interdisciplinary nature of the topic as well as how the body of knowledge, “Informs how students learn to read and write proficiently.”

I have seen close-up and in person some truly innovative examples of how school systems nationwide are implementing lessons learned from the science of reading. For example, we have all seen the national spotlight shining on Mississippi for the incredible work that their Department of Education has done to roll out the science of reading purposefully and systematically across the state. Districts across the country have provided extensive professional learning, changed their core reading programs, and strengthened their instructional practices.

Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools is supporting all K-3 teachers with science of reading resources and practices. Educators are diving into the integration of the science of reading and the teaching of science using digital resources. This work, which was started through conversations with the Mississippi Department of Education, was recently presented to the district’s PreK- 3 teachers during their recent A Kaleidoscope of Possibilities: Science of Reading professional development event.

The practice of integrating the science of reading and the teaching of science was inspired by Natalie Wexler, the author of The Knowledge Gap. In her work, Wexler states very clearly: “The best way to build that knowledge, beginning in the early elementary grades, is to immerse children in social studies, science, and the arts–the very subjects that have been marginalized to make more time for comprehension skill practice.” Using this philosophy as a starting point, Prince George’s County K-3 teachers explored three instructional ideas:

Using video segments to build understanding of science concepts. Engaging video segments bring the power of multimodal learning alive. Video segments can introduce students to different concepts like the life cycle of plants and animals by showing and telling them simultaneously. As students learn these concepts in science, they also provide background knowledge to support students in reading decodable texts with words like stem, leaf, or root.

Using science words for phonological awareness and phonics activities. This does not sound all that interesting or innovative, does it? However, think about it. Often, we have siloed our subject areas. Literacy is taught at one time. Science is taught at a different time. This idea suggests that we need to map and integrate our curriculum. While students are learning about plants, stems, and roots in science, the K-3 teachers in Prince George’s County discussed and investigated the use of sound or Elkonin boxes to segment the words.

Developing digital activities to integrate background knowledge building and literacy skills. Students tend to love digital activities because they mirror their use of technology outside the classroom. From real world, relevant content to adaptability and gamification, digital tools and resources can engage students and stoke their natural curiosity. Let us capitalize on students’ interest in technology and employ digital resources and strategies that positively impact the literacy achievement of our students. To accomplish this, Prince George’s educators examined a background building framework to use with their science resources and incorporated this framework into the creation of digital activities that will be used in science and reading.

We know that the literacy achievement of our students needs focus. It is refreshing to see that in state legislatures nationwide, the science of reading has received bipartisan support that may result in fairly significant positive outcomes for our students. Now, it is time for edtech companies to step up and provide the professional learning and digital resources that will encourage even further integration of the science of reading and the teaching of science. I believe the use of digital tools to support this goal will form a new nexus of student success that not only impacts their literacy achievement, but also their science achievement as well.

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eSchool Media Contributors