Unpacking the science of reading – what the research says

There has been a lot of media coverage recently on the science of reading. But what does the evidence say? In their new paper on the topic, ACER Senior Research Fellow, Greta Rollo, and ACER Research Fellow Dr Kellie Picker, from the Effective Practice in Education team synthesise evidence reviews conducted by ACER researchers that unpack the science of reading.

In this 3-part series, Greta and Kellie will explain each of the components that make up the science of reading and share implications for teaching. This first article provides an overview of the 6 key components of the science of reading.

What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is generally used as a catch all expression for the body of research that helps teachers understand what students need to be taught to become effective readers. It is a multi-disciplinary body of research and knowledge from education, linguistics, cognitive psychology, special education, and neuroscience. This article unpacks the 6 key components that make up the science of reading which include:

  • Oral language
  • Vocabulary (and morphology)
  • Reading comprehension
  • Phonemic awareness (part of phonological awareness)
  • Phonics
  • Fluency

For a more detailed discussion please see ACER’s recent paper Unpacking the science of reading research.

These ‘Big 6’ components of the science of reading are inter-related and have different roles at different times in the development of early reading skills. Some, such as phonemic awareness and phonics are somewhat constrained skills (Paris, 2005). They are largely mastered by the time the child starts reading independently for meaning. Others, such as oral language, vocabulary and comprehension, require deep conceptual development and are unconstrained, which means they can continue to develop for the rest of the child’s life (Turner et al., 2018).

Constrained skills

Phonemic awareness is the ability to break down and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken language.’ (Stark et al., 2015). It is part of phonological awareness, which addresses wider spoken language and larger chunks of speech (for example, syllables). Phonemic awareness includes segmenting words into sounds. It includes blending sounds into words and articulating sounds sequentially to say a word. At its most sophisticated it refers to manipulation of phonemes – deletion, addition and swapping sounds from words to make new words. Phonemic awareness is important for reading development because it supports understanding of the alphabetic principle and orthographic mapping, critical parts of phonics.

Phonics involves combining knowledge of English phonemes (phonemic awareness) with knowledge of English letters (graphemes) to decode words (Rohl, 2000). There are 2 key parts to phonics – the alphabetic principle and word reading by decoding. The alphabetic principle requires mastery of all letter-sound relationships. Combining these skills to learn to decode allows students to read most words they typically encounter. Decoding skills in turn are critical to orthographic mapping, the process whereby students map decoded words and parts of words like morphemes to their current interpretation of their meaning, which supports their reading of irregular words.

Fluency requires accurate reading aloud with appropriate attention to phrasing, intonation and punctuation. Monitoring the development of fluency requires consideration of accuracy and speed, and prosody. Accuracy means reading words correctly. Speed is simply how quickly words are read. Prosody is the use of expression, intonation and phrasing that enhances meaning when reading and is highly correlated with reading comprehension. A students’ reading accuracy and speed can be recorded together in the number of correct words read per minute (CWPM), or their Oral Reading Fluency Assessment (ORFA).

Unconstrained skills

Oral language proficiency underpins communication and learning. This is especially evident in the early stages of learning to read. Research has demonstrated that children with larger oral vocabularies displayed greater reading and mathematics achievement, increased behavioural self-regulation and fewer externalising and internalising problems at school-entry. There is also a strong reciprocal relationship between oral language development and reading development including the obvious links between oral language development and the next Big 6 skill, vocabulary.

A student’s vocabulary is all the words they understand. A rich vocabulary is essential in developing reading comprehension because students must understand the meaning of almost all words in a text to accurately interpret its meaning. A deep and broad vocabulary can drive the development of reading comprehension. A more abundant vocabulary leads to a more comprehensive understanding of ideas, which may in turn enrich reading experiences. Vocabulary instruction must include morphology – the study of morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of a language. These morphemes can be joined together to create specific meanings. Knowing more about morphemes and having a bigger vocabulary supports the development of reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension involves an active process of making, constructing, or deciphering the meaning of a text. It involves elements of decoding, working out meaning, evaluating and imagining. The process draws upon the learner’s existing background knowledge and understanding, text–processing strategies and capabilities, and relies on the integration of all of the previously mentioned skills from the Big 6. At its most sophisticated, reading comprehension involves making inferences, critical analysis and applying knowledge of text types and social and cultural resources to evaluate or interpret a text.

Stay tuned: In the next article, Greta and Kellie will delve into phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency in greater detail.

This article was updated on 18 July 2024 to include a reference to Scott Paris’ 2005 paper. Teacher apologises for the error.

Related reading:

Kellie Picker and Greta Rollo have also published an online visual resource, Unpacking the science of reading, that explains the Big 6 pillars of learning to read. You can read it here.


Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184-202. https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.40.2.3

Rohl, M. (2000). Programs and strategies used by teachers to support primary students with difficulties in learning literacy. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 5(2), 17–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/19404150009546622

Rollo, G., & Picker, K. (2024). Unpacking the science of reading research. Australian Council for Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.37517/978-1-74286-742-7

Stark, H., Snow, P. C., Eadie, P. A., & Goldfeld, S. R. (2015). Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: The knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers. Annals of Dyslexia, 66, 28–54.

Turner, R., Adams, R., Schwantner, U., Cloney, D., Scoular, C., Anderson, P., Daraganov, A., Jackson, J., Knowles, S., O’Connor, G., Munro-Smith, P., Zoumboulis, S., & Rogers, P. (2018). Development of reporting scales for reading and mathematics: A report describing the process for building the UIS Reporting Scales. Australian Council for Educational Research. https://research.acer.edu.au/monitoring_learning/33/