Starting Your Journey with the Science of Reading

In my first blog post, I encouraged every elementary school leader to embrace the science of reading if they wanted to truly effect change in their buildings. I am hopeful you took some time to research the science of reading and see its value to you and your school. After learning about the reading research, you are ready for the next step: starting the change process. If you are interested in starting the change process and aligning your building’s reading block and instruction with the evidence base, I have some suggestions on where to start.

Start by Having a Conversation

Having a conversation with your faculty about reading is the first step in the change process. Ask your faculty the following question, “How do children learn to read?” I’m sure you will get a variety of answers. One of the answers might be “every student learns to read differently”. However, the science is clear, students learn to read proficiently in only one way. Proficient readers are able to phonically decode unfamiliar words and have the ability to remember the words they read. Our reading instruction has to align with the evidence base to support the growth of proficient reading.

Analyze Tier One Instruction

Knowing that proficient readers are able to phonically decode unfamiliar words and also have the ability to remember the words they read, it is time to look at your current tier one instruction. Effective tier one instruction which aligns with the evidence base will produce huge gains in supporting the growth of proficient readers. One of my mentors once told me, the best type of intervention is effective tier one instruction.

Question 1: Do you have time dedicated to phonological awareness instruction in K-2? If not, I strongly suggest you address this immediately as phonological awareness difficulties represent the most common source of word-level reading difficulties and is essential for proficient reading (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 65).   

Question 2: What does your phonics instruction look like? Phonics instruction should be systematic and explicit and a part of your daily tier one instructional routine. It’s been my experience throughout my educational career that phonics instruction has been fragmented because it was on an “as needed” basis. All students need daily practice working on cracking the code of the English language to become proficient readers.

Analyze High Frequency Word Instruction

This is a biggie for me and my building and it should be for you as well. To be clear, high frequency words are words like “the”, “like”, “some”, and “said” (more on “said” in a little bit). Some people refer to these words as sight words. The terms sight words and high frequency words are used interchangeably. However, I would suggest you refer to words such as “the”, “like”, “some”, and “said” as high frequency words. Sight-words are any word which is a part of one’s sight vocabulary. For example, I believe our school name is a sight word for our students. Now that we have that cleared up, let’s focus on the instruction of high frequency words. For my entire career, I “taught” high frequency words like this:

Me: Here is the word “said” boys and girls. What is this word? (“said” is on a flash card or white board)

Students: “said”

Me: That’s correct. You have to memorize this word. It is a sight word that you just have to know.

I put “taught” in quotations because I wasn’t really teaching. I was simply suggesting to students to rely on rote memorization to learn high frequency words. There is a better way to actually teach high frequency words. I like to use “said” as my example. Instead of relying on rote memorization, we should be explicitly teaching which parts of the word “said” follow the code and which parts do not. It should look something like this:

At McDonald Elementary, we utilize the heart word magic strategy from Really Great Reading.

We teach the boys and girls that the “s” and the “d” still make their /s/ and /d/ sounds respectively. However, the vowel team of “ai” in this word makes the /e/ sound and that is the part of the word we must know “by heart” (hence heart word magic). I have teachers in my building who, for the first time in their careers, are teaching high frequency words in a way other than rote memorization and they are seeing this have an impact on student learning. If you think about it, we dedicate so much time to teach our boys and girls how to segment and blend regularly decodable words like “cat”, “ship”, or “desk” and simply tell our boys and girls to memorize irregular high frequency words like “some”, “said”, and “from”. We should be dedicating just as much, if not more, time teaching irregular high frequency words as we do teaching regularly decodable words, not less!

Analyze Small Group Instruction

For 18 years I called this guided reading instruction. However, guided reading refers to Fountas and Pinnell and their leveled texts which are predictable in the beginning levels. Instead, I refer to this time as small group instruction where the focus should be on skill development, understanding, and transfer. During phonics instruction, the boys and girls are taught the code of the English language. Small group instruction should be providing our students the opportunity to practice reading books that align with the skills they were taught. If a student needs more skill development in phonological awareness (specifically phonemic awareness) or phonics, then that should be the emphasis during small group instruction, not reading predictable texts. For weak readers, predictable texts do not foster the growth to become proficient readers since so much of the text relies on context. Also, be mindful that small group instruction doesn’t hinder the progression of proficient reading. Proficient readers are more attuned to the letter sequence and sounds of each word. Be on the lookout for “strategies” that promote guessing and take students attention away from the precise spelling patterns within words.

Be on the lookout for these types of “strategies” which do not promote proficient reading.

Dedicate Professional Development Time 

As building leaders, we control building level professional learning. Inventory the precious time you have with your faculty and staff and identify where you can conduct professional learning with your faculty and staff. Faculty meetings, grade level meetings, and any other building based professional development time are excellent opportunities to have conversations, analyze instruction, and build the capacity of your teachers on aligning classroom practice with the evidence base.

How Much Does All of this Cost?

Budgets are always an issue, so I wanted to provide a breakdown of how much it will cost you to begin the change process:

These four things won’t cost you anything up front, but will have a huge impact on reading instruction and your school’s success. As the synergy and sense of urgency grows, you will eventually find yourself in a position to have to spend money.

Allocate Funds to Support Literacy Development

I understand some things might need to be purchased in order to facilitate and support the change process. Analyze your yearly building budget and see where you can dedicate funds to support the literacy development for both your teachers and students. At my building, the first thing we purchased were quality decodable readers for use in small group instruction. This allowed our students to practice the skills they were being taught during phonics instruction. I also invested in our teachers by purchasing books to help build their knowledge base. Here are the top 4 books I would recommend:

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties
By David Kilpatrick

Beginning to Read
By Marilyn Jager Adams

Language at the Speed of Sight
By Mark Seidenberg

Speech to Print
By Louisa Moats

Find your early adopters

Can’t afford to buy books for everyone? Then find your early adopters who will embrace the science of reading and who will be eager to start the change process. Every building has them! Your early adopter are teachers who will embrace the evidence based and dedicate their time and effort, in and out of school, to support a worthy cause such as improving reading instruction. They will help spread the message and be your informal leaders during this change process.

Your Journey Starts Now

I strongly recommend every K-5 building leader immerse themselves in the science of reading. As building leaders, we are in a position to truly impact systematic change in reading instruction. After witnessing the impact these changes have had at McDonald Elementary in just four months, I am truly proud of where we are heading. There is a synergy at McDonald and it is permeating through all grades. It is our responsibility to ensure the reading instruction happening in our buildings is of the highest quality and aligns with the evidence base. Changing pedagogical practices of one teacher is hard, and changing the pedagogical practices of an entire building might seem impossible. However, I’m telling you it is possible. It is heavy lifting for sure, but worth the effort. Embracing the science of reading and starting the change process will benefit your teachers, your students and your community.


Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons.


8 thoughts on “Starting Your Journey with the Science of Reading

  1. Well said!! I especially like your mentor’s advice, “The best type of intervention is effective tier one instruction.”


    1. Tier one instruction is where we can address a high number of needs. That’s why it is so important for literacy leaders to understand the science of reading. Thank you for your kind words and support.


  2. Excellent post! Your faculty is lucky to have you. You are paving the way to success and growth. I like the plan you furnished for school leaders. It’s all about commitment, openness to ongoing learning, and willingness to implement effective school-wide instructional strategies. The professional books you’ve referenced are excellent resources and should be part of every teacher’s and school leader’s professional library.


  3. If parents knew what a good principal should know about, all families would move to your district. If parents knew that there kid may be one of the unnecessary 40-60% who doesn’t learn because the system was going to fail them and let the child suffer through their emotions as a consequence, those parents would act or move or choose you. Maya Angelou says the most important virtue is courage- because when you do what is right despite any challenges- you have to have courage. I applaud your courage and professionalism. May all other leaders follow the science as you do!


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