Throughout history, many seemingly logical beliefs have been debunked through research and science. Alchemists once believed lead could be turned into gold. Physicians once assumed the flushed red skin that occurred during a fever was due to an abundance of blood, and so the “cure” was to remove the excess using leeches (Worsley, 2011). People believed that the earth was flat, that the sun orbited the earth, and until the discovery of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, they believed that epidemics and plagues were caused by bad air (Byrne, 2012). One by one, these misconceptions were dispelled as a result of scientific discovery. The same can be said for misconceptions in education, particularly in how children learn to read and how they should be taught to read.1

In just the last few decades there has been a massive shift in what is known about the processes of learning to read. Hundreds of scientific studies have provided us with valuable knowledge regarding what occurs in our brains as we read. For example, we now know there are specific areas in the brain that process the sounds in our spoken words, dispelling prior beliefs that reading is a visual activity requiring memorization (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001). Also, we now know how the reading processes of students who learn to read with ease differ from those who find learning to read difficult. For example, we have learned that irregular eye movements do not cause reading difficulty. Many clever experiments (see Rayner et al., 2001) have shown that skilled readers’ eye movements during reading are smoother than struggling readers’ because they are able to read with such ease that they do not have to continually stop to figure out letters and words. Perhaps most valuable to future teachers is the fact that a multitude of studies have converged, showing us which instruction is most effective in helping people learn to read. For instance, we now know that phonics instruction that is systematic (i.e., phonics elements are taught in an organized sequence that progresses from the simplest patterns to those that are more complex) and explicit (i.e., the teacher explicitly points out what is being taught as opposed to allowing students to figure it out on their own) is most effective for teaching students to read words (NRP, 2000).

As you will learn, word recognition, or the ability to read words accurately and automatically, is a complex, multifaceted process that teachers must understand in order to provide effective instruction. Fortunately, we now know a great deal about how to teach word recognition due to important discoveries from current research. In this chapter, you will learn what research has shown to be the necessary elements for teaching the underlying skills and elements that lead to accurate and automatic word recognition, which is one of the two essential components that leads to skillful reading comprehension. In this textbook, reading comprehension is defined as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (Snow, 2002, p. xiii), as well as the “capacities, abilities, knowledge, and experiences” one brings to the reading situation (p. 11).


1: For detailed information on scientifically-based research in education, see Chapter 2 by Munger in this volume. Return