Back in September 2018 I was starting my second year as the principal of McDonald Elementary School, a K-5 elementary school in southeast Pennsylvania. At the same time, Emily Hanford released an article titled Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids being taught to read? which turned out to be an “Aha!” moment for me in my career. After reading Emily’s article, I felt like Neo in The Matrix. I had a decision to make: take the blue pill or the red pill. I could simply take the blue pill and return to my life as an educator who believed in 3-cueing, MSV analysis, and leveled readers. I could take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole went in terms of the science of reading. I took the red pill and embraced the science of reading—and you should too.
Like Neo in The Matrix, I took the red pill when deciding
to learn about the science of reading.
After taking the red pill I spent an entire year immersing myself in the science of reading, and I have to admit, I was overwhelmed! Topics such as the simple view of reading, Scarborough’s reading rope, Seidenberg’s four-part processing system, Ehri and orthographic mapping, the phonological core deficit, Kilpatrick and word level reading, Share’s self-teaching hypothesis…it was a lot to take in! Luckily, I found my affinity space on Twitter with the science of reading community to help navigate through the research and evidence base. I learned (and am still learning) the truth about what real reading instruction SHOULD look like.
Why am I sharing this with you?
As building leaders, we ARE the instructional leaders of our schools. We are tasked with this huge responsibility; however, this is what we signed up for, right? With that being said, I feel compelled to share my story and journey learning about the science of reading from the lens of a building leader. The majority of stories I see are from the teachers’ lenses. This is not to say teachers are not leaders, because they absolutely are. However, as building leaders we are the people who decide where and how to dedicate resources, how money is allocated and spent, and we set the tone for the instructional direction of our buildings. I have heard stories of teachers who bring up the science of reading to their building principal only to be told “yes” to death and dismissed. Trust me, I get. As a building principal we have a lot going on. I have shared with people that being a building principal is like always having a low grade fever. We deal with so much. However, the importance of understanding how reading works, especially as an elementary principal, should not—and cannot—be dismissed.
Why should you embrace the science of reading?
1. Improved Teacher Knowledge in Reading Instruction
By building the capacity of our teachers in the science of reading with frameworks like the simple view of reading, we would ensure that tier 1 instruction covers each of the key components involved in learning to read (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 77). Once teachers gain a level of understanding with a framework like the simple view of reading (and other aspects of the science of reading such as Scarborough’s reading rope and orthographic mapping), they will have the knowledge base and understanding of how they can effectively teach ALL students to read. Collective teacher efficacy is what John Hattie identifies as the number one factor influencing student achievement (Donohoo, Hattie, & Eells, 2018). When we know better, we do better—and it is up to building leadership to help make this happen.
2. Understanding How Skilled Readers Read
Did you know 50% of English words are fully decodable? Another 37% of words are mostly decodable with one irregular grapheme-sound connection (EAB, 2019). It is uncommon for an irregular word to have more than one irregular grapheme-sound connection (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 105). When considering other information such as the morphology and etymology of words, only 4 percent of English words are truly irregular (Joshi et al., 2009). The English language is mostly regular and can be sounded out. Skilled readers understand this and rely on their letter-sound knowledge to phonically decode unfamiliar words. Skilled readers also have the ability to remember the words they read through the process of orthographic mapping. To support skilled reading, we must do two things:
- Provide effective direct instruction in word decoding
- Support orthographic connections between spelling patterns and sounds in the word
With this knowledge, we can also pinpoint which skill we need to focus on during tier 2 and/or tier 3 intervention. This allows us to approach and address reading difficulties with confidence.
3. Current Reading Practices are an Equity Issue
As building leaders, we are mindful of equity issues pertaining to access to technology, discipline, and even finances. However, what about learning how to read? One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers (Hernandez, 2012, p. 4). Graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lag far behind those for White students with the same reading skills (Hernandez, 2012, p. 4). Being able to read is the equity issue of our time! However, the dominant approach to teaching reading in most schools relies on a model (three cueing) which provides no avenue for weak readers to close the gap with their same age peers (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 41).
The three cueing systems model (also known as MSV or multicueing) encourages students to use meaning, structure, and/or visual cues to identify unfamiliar words. However, skilled readers do not rely on cues to identify unfamiliar words, they rely on sounding out the word. Their phoneme & grapheme knowledge is what helps them read unfamiliar words. As building leaders, it is imperative we support this understanding (and more) when it comes to reading instruction in order to help support ALL students to become skilled readers.
Immerse Yourself in the Science of Reading
It is time building leaders became as active as our teachers in embracing the science of reading. The simple view of reading is an excellent place to start. My friend, Tiffany Peltier, has an excellent blog detailing the simple view of reading which you can visit here. As building leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure the reading instruction happening in our buildings is effective and aligns with the reading research. Embracing the science of reading will allow us to truly impact systematic change with reading instruction.
Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., and Eells, R. (2018, March). The Power of Collective
Efficacy. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 40–44. Retrieved from
EAB (2019). Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap. (2019). Retrieved from
Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty
InfluenceHigh School Graduation.
Joshi, R. M., Treiman, R., Carreker, S., & Moats, L. C. (2009). How Words Cast Their
Spell. American Educator. Retrieved from
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading
Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons.
18 thoughts on “I Embraced the Science of Reading and Why You Should Too”
Thank you for sharing your journey. I work in a neighboring district and we are forging ahead in training our teachers in a deeper understanding of this important cognitive research. It’s a mind shift for many, and it will pose it’s challenges, but will be with it in the end. We do what we need to for the betterment of our students. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.
This is a lot of work, but so worth our time and effort. I appreciate your interest in our journey and look forward to hearing more about your journey as well. I agree with you, we want what is best for our kids!
Great to see this from an administrator’s point of view.
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Great article Ernie. You should publish in ASCD.
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You are so kind Lenore! Thank you for filling my bucket.
Wow!! I love this so much!! I am trying to bring this same knowledge to my district. I love seeing administration care and research on what is best for students! Keep up the amazing work!!
Thank you! If I can be of any help with your journey please reach out.
YES, YES, YES! I am a building principal who has been saying this as well! Our leaders need to take ownership of this. I am currenlty pursuing an Ed.D. at UPENN and writing a dissertation about schools/family relationships around students with dyslexia. Would love to connect with you further on this.
Yes! Let’s connect. I would love to collaborate. My email is email@example.com. look forward to connecting with you.
Very interesting insights on Literacy.
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Thank you Lois!
Reading this from an admin point of view is like a DREAM for me. I sent my principal all of Emily Hanford’s articles at the beginning of the school year. I had the same Aha! moment when I listened to all of her research. Although I ALWAYS believed in the science of reading, I saw it working in my classroom, but I was being told and forced to teach reading differently. I am still trying to convince fellow admin and colleagues that it is our responsibility to be teaching to the science. Our babies deserve to learn how to read, and read effectively! I am such a firm supporter and believer in all of this and very passionate. I appreciate you starting this blog! Amazing!
Thank you for the kind words. It is heavy lifting for sure, but worth the work! I am hopeful my perspective and my school’s journey will motivate other building leaders to embrace the science and impact change.
Hi Ernesto! This is such a great post. You touch on so much in a clear, concise, and relatable way. Thank you for sharing your experience this way so we can begin to share it with others in your role!
Matt, thank you for the feedback. I appreciate you taking the time to read.
As a language development / EL teacher who has learned a lot about the power of Science of Reading, what would you suggest teachers like myself should do to help move their district away from old instructional method/ materials/ habits and towards SoR research? How do we move our state (Illinois) to take a leadership role in this discussion?
First, start with your building leadership and I do not mean simply the people with the formal titles of leadership. Speak about the SoR with your Reading Specialist, Building Principal, and other leaders within your building. Also, if you have district coaches, those people would be good to connect with as well.
In terms of your state education department, write to your state’s secretary of education. Also, see if your state has laws for dyslexia screening. Most states do and that could be a good place to start as well in terms of pushing for a shift. I hope this helps!