Schoolwide Model: Knowledge Base

Teaching reading is complex.


"Reading - an extraordinary ability, peculiarly human and yet distinctly unnatural...acquired in childhood, forms an intrinsic part of our existence as human beings, and is taken for granted by most of us" (Shaywitz, 2003; p. 3).
Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Neuroscientist and Professor of Pediatrics, Yale University
  • Teaching reading is a complex problem, therefore there is no simple solution.
  • Complex problems often require complex but systematic, reliable, and valid responses as a solution.

Where to Begin: The Printed or Written Word

Any discussion about teaching reading should begin with an examination of our reading and writing system. Not all reading and writing systems are the same. English (and Spanish) are both alphabetic systems, which means symbols (i.e., letters or graphemes) represent individual sounds. This is not the case in, for example, a logographic system like Chinese. In this system, individual symbols can represent an entire word.

The type of reading and writing system has enormous implications for how to teach reading. So in an alphabetic system, reading instruction must be focused on our alphabet, and how it represents oral language.

  • The place to begin an analysis of beginning reading is at the beginning of the reading process: The printed or written word.
  • Virtually all modern writing systems are designed to give verbatim (i.e., word for word) representations of spoken language.

Writing systems represent words in three major ways:

pictures: logographic Chinese
syllables: syllabic Japanese, Korean
phonemes and letters: alphabetic English, Spanish, Finnish, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian
Rayner & Pollatsek (1989)

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Teaching reading involves working simultaneously in three extremely complex systems.

Simple Observation: Teaching beginning reading is important.

Harsh Reality: Teaching beginning reading involves three complex systems:

  • System 1: The Symbolic System
  • System 2: The Organizational System
  • System 3: The Expert Knowledge System


System 1: The Symbolic System

The Symbolic System is the complex alphabetic code that humans have invented to capture language in print. Language develops naturally but reading must be taught.

  • All humans have a biological predisposition to develop oral language.
  • However, our alphabetic reading and writing system is a human invention.
  • Many children will not learn this complex system without explicit instruction.

Language comes naturally, but reading in a symbolic system, like the alphabetic writing system, must be taught. Therefore, we have to appreciate how children acquire this symbolic information and how this symbolic information gets mapped in to the neural circuitry of the brain. Paula Tallal and colleagues offer a set of five learning principles about how humans acquire information (below). First, if reading must be taught, then it requires that learners attend to the features of the task. Reading is a sensory-based task. Readers make visual contact with the print, which allows the visual system to grab the information and transform it in a phonological code. Once that information is transformed in a phonological code, it connects with meaning and how we think about words in our mental dictionary. Second, children's attention must be maintained, and they must be able to perform the task at a high level of accuracy. If they can't perform the task at a high level of accuracy, learning is not achieved. The third scientific learning principle states that the behaviors (i.e., attending to the task and performing the task at a high level of accuracy) must be reinforced. They must be reinforced consistently, and in a rewarding manner to ensure that the child is attending to the symbolic information. In addition, the child must be provided with corrective feedback when he or she makes an error. The fourth learning principle is perhaps the most important and insightful. There must be highly consistent and repetitive input given over an intense period of time, so that consistent patterns of neuronal activation occur. Patterns of neuronal activation that result from consistent and repetitive input build the specific stimulation blueprint that represents the input from the environment in the brain. Finally, once the behavior is established, the complexity and perhaps even the difficulty of the task can be increased. In short, the scientific learning principles permit us to present information in a highly consistent and systematic way, so that we can get the information mapped into the neural circuitry of the brain.

Scientific Learning Principles

  1. Must attend closely to features of sensory task.
  2. To maintain attention, must be able to perform task at a high level of accuracy (if the task is too difficult, learning cannot be achieved and changes in sensory map do not occur).
  3. Behavior must be reinforced in a highly consistent and rewarding manner to maintain motivation and drive learning through corrective feedback.
  4. Highly consistent, repetitive input must be given over an intense period of time so that consistent patterns of neuronal activation occur repetitively, building specific stimulation patterns to "represent" the input from the environment in the brain.
  5. Once a behavior is established (i.e., the response is accurate and consistent), learning can be driven most effectively by systematically increasing the difficulty of the task as performance improves.


Expert reading involves the seamless combination of many components, beginning first with listening comprehension and vocabulary/language development, then progressing to the sounds of words (phonemic awareness) and the ability to associate sounds with letters and use these sounds to form words (alphabetic principle), and culminating in fluency, which is the ability to translate letters-to-sounds-to-words effortlessly and automatically. The figure below represents the different reading skills, or Big Ideas, as strands that all come together and interact to form a rope that is reading in an alphabetic writing system. While reading in an alphabetic writing system has multiple parts, instruction should ultimately enable children to put these parts together and become successful readers.

The strands begin early, prior to the time children begin school. The vocabulary and comprehension strands are first. Those are primarily developed first through listening comprehension and receptive vocabulary. Next is the strand that introduces phonological awareness. In kindergarten and the beginning of first grade, phonological awareness is a critical set of skills that are going to be developed. Next is the strand that represents the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle is the awareness and understanding that letters represents sounds and that you can use those letter-sound relationships to build words. The last strand or skill to develop is fluency, the ability to effortlessly, unconsciously, and automatically decode words, which in turn frees up resources for comprehension.

System 2: The Organizational System

The Organizational System is the complex school in which teaching must take place.

  • The act of teaching reading occurs within another complex system, a school.
  • Too often, teaching reading is considered abstractly, separate from the "real world" classrooms and schools within which it occurs.
  • Each individual school consists of a multitude of factors and is influenced by countless forces that all interact in complicated ways and that result in a truly distinctive system.
  • We must consider the fit between the unique characteristics of a school and reading instruction.


System 3: The Expert Knowledge System

Teaching reading requires expertise (see next page).


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