Broadening Our Understanding of the Science of Reading: Knowledge Matters 

One of the most impressive trends in K-12 education in recent years has been the call, growing louder every day, for elementary reading instruction to embrace the “Science of Reading.” Spawned by growing frustration on the part of parents of dyslexic children; some brilliant reporting, including a must-read American Public Media series by investigative reporter Emily Hanford; and now fueled by robust online Science of Reading communities, the movement has largely been associated with a call for more phonics instruction in schools and the need for teachers to be better informed about how children actually learn to read. 

This movement has real legs, with 18 states having passed legislation in the last two years that require teachers to use and/or learn the Science of Reading. Over the past year, the Tennessee Department of Education has trained over 30,000 teachers in what they call “sounds-first instruction” and other states have announced similar plans. 

Most of this “SoR” focus has centered on the need for children to learn to hear, recognize, and decode sounds and letters. But recently a group of reading researchers and cognitive psychologists have called on the field to expand its embrace of the full range of reading science, in particular to recognize—and utilize—the seminal science about the important role that background knowledge of the world plays in our ability to make meaning of the text we read.   

The statement argues: “There are other factors critical for literacy development, including those that address language, meaning, and communication. Among the most important is knowledge.  Knowledge is necessary to comprehend what we read. Foundational skills are literally meaningless unless readers can make sense of words and texts. This sense-making requires knowledge that must be systematically built (not just activated!) through instructional experiences and curricula that evoke curiosity and the desire to learn more. In short, knowledge matters.” 

Just as important as understanding the science is knowing what to do about it. I am proud to serve as Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign where we are increasingly focused on how teachers can put into practice what science tells us about how students learn to read. 

The newly relaunched website for the Knowledge Matters Campaign was designed to support  educators and policymakers as they learn more. The site curates blogs, interviews, social media posts, and news articles from visits to districts and schools around the country that have made the decision to embrace the Science of Reading in its more expanded, comprehensive form.  Over 130 interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, and students attest to the success of the approach. 

The site also introduces six English language arts/literacy curricula that do a particularly exceptional job of embracing all aspects of the science of reading.  We highlight three key ingredients research tells us are crucial in students’ ability and intrinsic desire to read well: 

1. Coherently building knowledge of words and the world. 

2. Teaching students to read through systematic foundational skills instruction until word recognition is automatic and students are fluent. 

3. Affording every student access to focused, close communal reading of content-rich complex texts.” 

Research tells us that a concentration on content, on building knowledge about the world, profoundly influences students’ intrinsic motivation to read and strengthens their self-efficacy.  The curricula featured on the new Knowledge Matters website all utilize high-quality, content-rich texts that invite students to learn together about the natural and human world in deep, connected, and meaningful ways. Complex texts (and thought) are at the center of all instruction. And unlike traditional ELA programs that label some readers as “weak” and deny them access to challenging texts and topics, knowledge-building curricula systematically provide all students with access to rich and important content. 

As we state clearly on the website, while these curricula share common virtues and are all solidly grounded in what matters most for literacy, each has a unique and compelling identity.  “While there is long standing science about the importance of knowledge to reading proficiency, there is no research showing what knowledge yields greater results. We hope this website will be used by school districts and parents to help choose curricula that best suit their community’s needs.

The Science of Reading movement has been responsible for bringing much-needed attention and broader public awareness to what should be a national campaign to raise reading proficiency. For that effort to succeed to the heights that it must, everyone involved in the K-12 educational enterprise must embrace the research imperatives about what constitutes strong literacy instruction and agree to put resources behind curriculum and professional learning that supports them. 

To see more of the latest content we’ve gathered relevant to both the K-12 and higher education spaces, including featured videos, case studies, and articles, please visit the CCC Academic Community Center. 

About Barbara R. Davidson

Barbara R. Davidson is a former classroom teacher of learning-disabled students who has worked for the past 35 years to advance three levers for producing K–12 academic improvements: the role that high-quality curriculum plays in supporting teacher excellence, the importance of building students’ background knowledge of the world as they learn to read and write, and the octane that specific evidence-based instructional practices can provide for learning. Barbara runs StandardsWork ( and serves as Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign ( which, among other things, sponsors the Knowledge Matters School Tour designed to “find the good and praise” districts that are utilizing these three levers to change outcomes for students.