Experts on Camera

Dr. Shayne Piasta: The science of reading

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In response to learning losses that occurred during the pandemic, many parents, educators and others are accelerating longstanding efforts to implement more science-based approaches to reading instruction in schools. More than a dozen states have pushed for changes in recent years, aiming to improve children’s literacy and include marginalized groups.

On Tuesday, September 5, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Shayne Piasta, a professor of literacies, literature, and learning at The Ohio State University and a faculty associate at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. She spoke about topics including: what is meant by the “science of reading” and how it can be misinterpreted; skills supported by the science of reading; the effectiveness of different approaches to reading instruction for children; considerations for children from marginalized backgrounds; opportunities to improve reading instruction in the United States; and intended and possible unintended consequences of science of reading policies.

Declared interests:

Dr. Piasta is a member of the Lexia Educational Leadership Council and the National Center on Intensive Intervention Academic Intervention Technical Review Committee and receives honoraria from these organizations. She is also currently an Associate Editor for Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, an editorial board member for additional journals, a member of the Ohio P20 Literacy Collaborative and State Literacy Team, and a founding member of Providing Opportunities for Women in Education Research, but does not receive compensation for these roles. 

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SHAYNE PIASTA: I’m Dr. Shayne Piasta. I am a professor here at the Ohio State University, specifically in the area of literacies, literature, and learning. And I’m also a faculty associate at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. My focus is on early reading development, including how we can best support developing readers through effective classroom practices and programs.

Interview with SciLine

What is meant by the “science of reading”? Are there any common misinterpretations?


SHAYNE PIASTA: The science of reading refers to the accumulated knowledge base we have from scientific research as to the reading process, its components, how reading develops, and how we can best support those who are learning to read. One of the misconceptions I see is that the science of reading is believed to be its own approach or its own curriculum or things of that nature. It’s not. It’s a knowledge base, and we want to make sure that we pick curricula and other learning materials that align with that knowledge base. Another misconception that I see is that the science of reading is equated with phonics instruction. Science of reading, again, is a knowledge base, not a specific approach. Phonics instruction is a specific approach, whereby one is explicitly and intentionally teaching children all of those important links between letters and sounds, both at an individual letter level—like learning the alphabet—but also at higher skill levels, such as learning about some complex spelling conventions that we might have in the English language.

What critical components are needed for a reading curriculum to be successful?


SHAYNE PIASTA: First and foremost, I would expect a reading program to have a scope and sequence, meaning that there is predetermined content of what’s going to be covered. And then that’s in a particular order, often building from more simple skills or concepts to more complex skills or concepts. So, we can see how this might apply, for example, to phonics instruction, where we’re going from simple letter sound correspondences and building up to more complex associations between letters and spelling patterns and how those words are pronounced. So, any successful reading program should have a scope and sequence. It should definitely have it for the phonics component, but it should have it for other components as well.

What role does background knowledge play in learning to read?


SHAYNE PIASTA: We’re learning more and more about how critical concept knowledge and background knowledge are for successful reading. So, within any reading curriculum, it should have opportunities for children to build those skills—to learn about our world, to make connections with the world, to make connections about different types of information. And then they bring that with them when they’re going to read a new piece about a certain topic so that they can actually make sense of it. And a big component of that is really the language component. So, having opportunities to use language, express ourselves using language, summarize things using language, being able to learn new vocabulary words, which will help you understand new passages of text—making sure again, it’s not phonics only. It’s phonics and these opportunities to support knowledge building as well as language skills.

Are any approaches especially effective for children from marginalized backgrounds?


SHAYNE PIASTA: So, the science of reading applies to all learners. So, the practices—most practices that we would recommend as being aligned with the science of reading are going to be helpful for students from a range of different backgrounds. That being said, it’s very important to be able to identify the strengths and the learning needs of individual children. And that, of course, is when kind of that background will come into play.

What does the evidence suggest schools could do to improve reading instruction?


SHAYNE PIASTA: For schools, I would suggest attending to both of the big buckets of component skills that the science of reading supports. So, making sure to attend to those word reading and decoding skills, such as supported by high quality phonics instruction, as well as those meaning-focused skills like language and background knowledge, and all of the things that help you actually make meaning from text. There should be attention to both of those based on the science of reading.

How can parents support kids who are learning to read?


SHAYNE PIASTA: For parents, I would recommend focusing on creating positive literacy environments at home. So, what I mean by that is having children see you reading, having children see you writing for purposes, and being clear about how literacy plays a role in your everyday life. So, not just: We have storybook time together, and we read together, but also maybe we can make a grocery list together. Or maybe I point out that, hey, I’m reading these instructions so I can put together this piece of Ikea furniture, right? Really highlighting all of the important roles that literacy play in our daily lives. And in addition to that, helping children build positive connections with those reading opportunities or literacy opportunities, so that it’s fun, it’s engaging and it’s something they want to do.

How are reporters doing covering the science of reading?

[Posted September 5, 2023 | Download video]