The Science of Reading

Written by: Brooke Vitale


What Is the Science of Reading?

The science of reading is a research-based approach to literacy and learning how to read. It is based on more than twenty years of research conducted by experts from multiple areas, including education, special education, literacy, psychology, neurology, and more, and focuses not just on how we learn to read, but how our brain works when we learn to read.

Often, people confusing the term “science of reading” with a curriculum that teaches reading. It is important to understand that the science of reading is NOT  a curriculum. It is the science and research that phonics curriculums are based on.

So why does understanding the science of reading matter? Simple. Because understanding of the components of reading and the step-by-step process by which children become readers can help parents and teachers make informed choices and do what is best for their children.

What Is Structured Literacy?

For many parents, the term Structured Literacy may sound confusing, overwhelming, even downright scary. But in truth, the term “structured literacy” is one parents would do well to embrace, just as educators, teachers, and curriculum designers have. 

Structured literacy is an approach to reading instruction based on the science of reading—a set of data that has been gathered about the way children learn to read. More specifically, structured literacy focuses on phonological and phonemic awareness, word recognition, and decoding text—elements that the science of reading have identified as crucial to reading success.

Structured literacy—a curriculum based on the science of reading—is comprised of what are known as the five pillars of reading:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

An image showing the 5 pillars of reading for an article on the Science of Reading for Charge Mommy Books

Pro Tip: While most literacy specialists agree on the first four pillars of reading, there is some argument on the fifth. Some reading specialists feel that comprehension is a pillar of literacy, while others feel it is the ultimate goal.

The science of reading makes it clear that all of these pillars are critical to reading success, but one cannot start in the middle. The five pillars of the science of reading are cumulative in nature, with each one building on the next, and beginning readers must start at the beginning: with phonological awareness.

What Is Phonological Awareness?

The science of reading focuses on the way children learn to read. But before they can learn to read, they must master certain pre-reading skills. The science of reading-based term for these skills is phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate words and sentences. 

Phonological awareness comes long before children start to read. It is not about recognizing actual letters, but about understanding that words are formed by letters and sentences are formed by words. Phonological awareness is what allows a child to come up with a list of rhyming words and to recognize words that begin with the same letter (alliteration).

Practicing Phonological Awareness

Rhyming Games

One of the best ways to enhance a child's phonological awareness is by playing rhyming games. Give your child a word and ask them to come up with words that rhyme (or make it a game. See who can shout out more rhyming words first.)

What rhymes with bun?

-done, fun, hun, none shun, stun, son/sun, one, ton.

What rhymes with cat?

-at, bat, chat, fat, flat, gnat, mat, pat, rat, sat, scat, slat, spat, splat, that, vat

Remember, phonological awareness is about sounds, not about spelling, so don't worry if your child comes up with a rhyming word that is spelled differently than the word you started with.

Alliteration Games

Instead of rhyming, try asking your child to come up with words that start with the same sound. 

Remember, some letters can make more than one sound, so choose the specific sound you want to focus on. Don't ask your come up with words that start with A, but with words that start with /ă/ as in apple. 

For some extra fun, trying doing an alliteration scavenger hunt around your house!

ABCs—by sound

Recognizing letters is important for learning to rad, but knowing the letter sounds is just as important. Try singing the ABCs with a new spin. Instead of ABCDEFG, how about:

/ă/, /b/, /k/, /d/, /ĕ/, /f/, /j/

Once children have a strong sense of phonological awareness, they can then move on to developing phonemic awareness.

Free Beginning Readers

Charge Mommy Books is committed to getting children the resources they need to learn how to read. But we know that not every parent and teacher around the world has access to our printed books. That's why our site offers free beginning reader books and resources based on the science of reading. Sample resources include:

  • PDF downloads of beginning reader books
  • Reader's theater
  • Decodable passages
  • Phonemic awareness activities
  • Seasonal activity packs

A picture displaying different free Charge into Reading Decodable Books and Passages.
All of these resources follow the same scope and sequence used in the Charge into Reading Decodable Reader Series

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

The first pillar of reading according to the science of reading is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify letters sounds blend them together to form words. The term phonemic awareness gets its name from the word “phoneme.” 

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech. In writing, a  phoneme is represented as the sound a letter makes surrounded by slash marks. 

The sound made by the letter l, for example, would be written as /l/. The sound made by the letter could be written either as /s/ or /z/.  


Pro Tip: When discussing phonemes, it is important to remember that these are the sounds a letter (or set of letters) makes. This differs from the way the sound is represented in writing, which is known as a grapheme. The written letters ph for example, are a grapheme. The phoneme that represents these letters is /f/.


What we have learned from studying the science of reading is that phonemic awareness is not an innate skill, but one that must be taught. Children in kindergarten, and even into first grade, are often taught phonemic awareness skills through a variety of approaches:

  • Phoneme blending
  • Phoneme addition
  • Phoneme deletion
  • Phoneme substitution
  • Phoneme segmentation

Pro Tip: With each of these elements of phonemic awareness, it is important to note that changes to words must be based not on changing letters, but on changing phonetic sounds. A child at this level is not expected to know that the word CAT begins with a C, but rather that it begins with the /k/ sound.

What is phoneme blending?

The science of reading based-term for the ability to put sounds together to form a complete word is phoneme blending. Often letters are written separately, and children are encouraged to blend them together. For example: /b/ /ă/ /t/ blends to form the word bat. /k/ /ī/ /t/ blends to form the word kite.

What is phoneme addition?

Phoneme addition is the science of reading-based term for the ability add an additional phoneme onto an existing word, to form a new word.

Phoneme addition examples:

Question: What word do you get if you add /m/ to AT?
Answer: MAT

Question: What word do you get if you add the letter /d/ to WAN?
Answer: WAND

What is phoneme deletion?

The science of reading defines phoneme deletion as the deletion of phonemes from a word. This skills is often practiced orally, rather than in writing, and begins with deleting a sound at the beginning or end of a word. As children grow more experienced with phoneme deletion, sounds can also be removed from the middle of the word.

Phoneme deletion examples:

Question: What word do you have if you remove the /m/ from the word MAT.
Answer: AT

Question: What word do you have if you remove the /m/ from the word LAMP.
Answer: LAP

What is phoneme substitution?

Phoneme substitution, or letter substitution, is the science of reading-based term forthe ability to change one word into another word by swapping out one phoneme sound.

Phoneme substitution examples:

Question: What word do you have if you replace the /k/ in CAT with /b/.
Answer: BAT

Question: What word do you have if you replace the /ă/ in CAT with /ŏ/.
Answer: COT

What is phoneme segmentation?

The science of reading refers to phoneme segmentation as the ability to break word down into its individual phonetic components.

Phoneme segmentation examples:

PIG→ /p/ /ĭ/ /g/

MAN→ /m/ /ă/ /n/ 

What can your child read today?

One of the key elements of the science of reading is the understanding that what is decodable to one child may not be to another. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your child recognize uppercase and lowercase letters?
  • Does your child know their letter sounds?
  • Can your child blend (sound out) 2- and 3-letter words, or are they getting ready to?

Use our reading assessment to find the right books for your child.

An image of the Charge into Reading reading assessment

What Is Phonics?

The science of reading defines phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds. 

Phonics instruction is the stage at which children learn to identify written letters and the sounds each letter can make. Early phonics instruction begins with identifying the sounds made by individual consonants. For example, children might learn the sound the letter B makes, and that it is the first sound in the words ball, base, and bit.

As a child proceeds through their phonics instruction, they will learn more complicated phonemes. For example, they might learn that the long A sound can be made by the graphemes ai as in rain and ay as in say.

Phonics and phonemic instruction is an ongoing process. Readers do not learn all of their sounds at once. Rather, they learn in a cumulative fashion, with each sound building on the next.

The order in which children receive phonics instruction is called a scope and sequence

Once children know phonemes, they can begin to decipher sounds within words and recognize spelling patterns. Teaching these skills allows children to understand the relationship between written letters and the sounds of spoken language. 

These phonics skills aid in the decoding of words printed on a page.

Once basic phonics has been mastered, often through the use of CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, the next step toward fluency is breaking down multisyllabic and unfamiliar words. This is called decoding.

What is a scope and sequence?

In order to read, children must first learn the sounds letters make, how to divide syllables, what punctuation is, and so much more. But the order in which children learn this isn’t random. Rather, this is taught using a science of reading-based scope and sequence


A scope and sequence is an organized list of the concepts to be taught (the scope) and the order in which they are organized (the sequence), moving from simple to complex. Building on previous knowledge allows children to understand why words make the sounds they do and why they are spelled as they are. Following a well thought out scope and sequence gives children the structured and sequential approach to phonics they need to become successful readers. 


When teaching phonics, it's important to understand that not every curriculum follows the same scope and sequence. While most agree that it is best to begin with consonant sounds and and short vowel sounds, where they go from there can vary. The important thing is that any scope and sequence used should be aligned with the science of reading.

Here at Charge Mommy Books, we believe that it is important for children to learn how to blend consonants prior to learning digraphs. We focus on learning how to blend letters before introducing the idea that two letters together can make one sound. Other scopes work in the reverse order, teaching children to read digraphs prior to blending consonants.

Our complete scope and sequence, which lists every word in every one of our books, is available here.

The reality is, there is no right or wrong when it comes to scope and sequence. What matters is sticking to whatever scope and sequence is being followed. 

What is decodable text?

With more and more states mandating a phonics-based curriculum, the term decodable has become a bit of a buzzword, but what does it actually mean? Quite simply, decodable text is text that a child has the ability to sound out


This is where the scope and sequence comes in. Decodable text does not feature sounds and spelling patterns a child doesn't know. It does not include words a child is encouraged to “guess," nor does it encourage children to use picture cues to determine what the words on the page are. Rather, it follows a clear science of reading-based scope and sequence, offering text that is in line with where a child is in that sequence. It grows with the reader, introducing new spelling patterns one at a time.


Why does this matter? Because the science of reading has shown that children are more likely to apply their phonics knowledge, read more fluently and with greater accuracy, and need less assistance when using decodable books rather than nondecodable books.

Sounding out words takes a lot of brain power. And asking a child to figure out words they don't have the skills to read takes a lot more. It's not uncommon for children who are faced with nondecodable text to get to the end of a paragraph and not know what they've read. These children have put so much effort into determining what the words on the page are that they haven't been able to process what the words on the page mean. Providing text a child has the ability to read lightens that cognitive load. It allows children to focus on both the words and the meaning, making for a richer and more enjoyable reading experience.

What makes our books different?

  • Grounded in the science of reading and designed in consultation with a LETRS and Orton-Gillingham trained literacy specialist.
  • 9 stages of readers that introduce phonetic sounds and spelling patterns one at a time.
  • Humorous stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end that a beginning reader can ACTUALLY read
  • Written by a best-selling children's book author
  • Each book includes 8 pages of sound-specific literacy activities 

An image of all 9 stages of the Charge into Reading Decodable Reading System

What are sight words?

Most words in the English language are decodable—but not all words are decodable right away. Words like look and say contain more advanced spelling patterns than a beginning reader will be familiar with. Even the word the may not be immediately decodable to a new reader. But you would be hard-pressed to find a book without the word the in it. That's where sight words come in.

Sight words are words that readers recognize instantly, without having to sound them out. It is important to note that words do not begin as sight words. Readers must first learn how to read the words and recognize the patterns that create them.

Often what we consider “sight words” begin as high-frequency words—words that children encounter over and over in simple text. When it comes to these words, it may be tempting just to tell a new reader to memorize them. But the science of reading suggests that would be a mistake. In fact, according to the the science of reading, helping children learn to decode these words through a phonetic approach will lead to better recall and reading success than simply relying on memorization. 

As children see these words time and again, they begin to automatically recognize them, turning them into sight words. The process of forming these connections and converting unfamiliar words to sight words is called orthographic mapping.

What is orthographic mapping?

The science of reading defines orthographic mapping as the act of forming sound-letter connections in the brain. These connections allow readers to identify letter patterns in text that can then be transferred to decoding harder words. For example, understanding the sounds of prefixes or suffixes, or being able to identify unique spelling rules. (I before E, except after C.) 

Orthographic mapping also allows readers to recognize the sounds made by unique spelling patterns. For example, the sound made by “igh.” Being able to identify these patterns leads to faster decoding of text, and as a result, to greater fluency in reading.

What Is Fluency?

The third pillar of the science of reading is fluency. Fluency is the ability to read accurately, at a steady pace, and with expression. Fluent readers are not stopping to decode every word. Their reading is smooth and natural, like their speech. Readers who are fluent exhibit strong comprehension—or understanding—of the language. They recognize the words and their meanings at the same time, and are able to draw connections between what they have read and their own background knowledge. 

Fluency comes from a mix of recognizing sight words and the development of orthographic mapping. Children who lack fluency read slowly. Their reading is choppy and they struggle over each word, sounding them out one at a time. Non-fluent struggle to understand what they are reading. Their focus is not on the meaning of the words, but on actually determining what the word on the page is. These readers, often known as struggling readers, most often need additional support with decoding skills.

What is background knowledge?

The science of reading defines background knowledge as the information a reader brings to the table when reading any text, decodable or otherwise. It is their experience with the world, and their understanding of the world around them. 

What a child knows informs how well they understand any given text. A child who has never seen a game of polo would have a hard time understanding a story that takes place at a polo match. Similarly, one who has never heard of the Empire State Building would have a hard time understanding its significance to New York City or what a comparison to the building's height might mean.

While it is important for children to have a certain amount of background knowledge in order to understand what they are reading, books can also provide children with background knowledge. A book about how plants grow, for example, might not make sense to a child on first reading. But what they learn from reading that book can then inform their understanding of the next book they read on a subject.

Background knowledge can come from a variety of places: lessons learned in school, vacations taken with family, books read to a child, even television shows a child has watched. 

Why Is Vocabulary Important?

The fourth pillar of the science of reading is vocabulary and with good reason. Developing a solid vocabulary is essential to reading and reading comprehension. Even if a child is able to decode a word, they will struggle with overall comprehension of text if they cannot understand what the word means.

The science of reading suggests that most vocabulary words are indirectly acquired, which means that providing direct and indirect exposure to language is vital. Reading aloud, listening to fluent readers, and plenty of independent reading are all great ways to support indirect vocabulary acquisition. 

One of the best ways to prepare a child to be a successful reader is to introduce them to rich vocabulary early and often. The truth is, young children can understand a lot more than they are capable of reading on their own. It isn't until late elementary school that a child's reaching comprehension catches up with their listening comprehension. This is one of the reasons that reading aloud to a child is so important—as is allowing them to ask, “What does that mean?” This exposure to language they don't already know introduces the background knowledge needed to understand more complex text later on.

Another way to help children grow a larger vocabulary is by pointing out academic and topic-specific vocabulary. The science of reading-based term for this kind of vocabular is Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. For example, in a conversation about how seeds grow, discussion of the word “germination” would help readers to decode and understand the word when they come across it in their own reading. 

Understanding more complex vocabulary is often one of the most significant elements of complete comprehension.

What Is Comprehension?

Whether a pillar of the science of reading or the ultimate goal of reading, comprehension is essential to a child’s reading success. Reading comprehension is the ability read text, process what has been read, and to understand its meaning.

One of the areas of reading that science of reading scientists have devoted attention to is understanding how meaning is determined while reading. What they have found is that reading is active, complex, and based on more than just skill mastery. That is why it is so important to create opportunities for children to practice comprehension strategies. 

Key comprehension strategies include:

  • Using background knowledge to bring meaning to the text.
  • Predicting what will happen
  • Identifying the main idea and summarizing the story by recalling the beginning, middle, end, and the story's main idea or problem.
  • Asking questions about the story.
  • Making inferences, or drawing on clues within the text to understand more than what is explicitly stated.
  • Visualizing the scenes described in the text.

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