The Science of PUP Reading


At PUP Reading, we have a simple goal: to give parents the information, tools, and resources they need to learn more about their children’s developing reading skills today, and to track progress going forward.

How do we do this? It’s all based on the science of reading.

To figure out what skills children need to become successful readers, researchers looked hard at students who are successful readers, and tried to determine what specific things made them read well. They also looked at children who aren’t as successful, and figured out why they struggle to read. The science is clear: to read well, children need a combination of literacy skills and social-emotional skills.

Some of these skills are finite, and some are infinite and need to be continuously built up from infancy onwards. Children also need to be motivated to read, but motivation is complicated and needs to be understood as both a result of reading well, and a reason that children become even more capable readers.

Below is an overview of these components of successful reading, as well as links to learn even more about the skills and how parents specifically can help-- this is especially important, because some of these skills need to be built up at home, while others need just some foundational help from parents and then a strong and systematic program of instruction from schools.

Part 1a: Literacy Skills, 4+

Letters & Sounds

Letters & Sounds refers to mechanical skills: the reading of individual words based on a knowledge of letters and sounds, and how to blend individual letter/sound units into words, automatically and fluently.

For instance, children are beginning to understand Letters & Sounds when they know that B and b are both the letter b, and they know that the sound that the letter b makes is /b/, as in boy and bat. When children struggle with the foundational mechanical skills, they are so busy trying to decode words that they do not have the cognitive space to think hard about what the words mean and make sense of what they’re reading.

Letters & Sounds are often all that we think of when we think of reading: and while they are crucial and necessary to master, they are not sufficient on their own.

> read more & see the latest research

Vocabulary & Knowledge

Vocabulary & Knowledge refers to skills that are important for understanding books and other texts. When children can read words (i.e., they have Letters & Sounds skills), they still need to make sense of what the words really mean. To do that, they need a lot of background information, vocabulary, and experience that they can pull from as they attempt to make sense of what they’re reading.

This enables children to both use what they know about how words work when encountering challenging vocabulary, and get more information and understanding when reading about a topic they’re familiar with. So if a child has, for example, been to a whaling museum or gone on a whale watch or seen a movie about whales, then he or she will be better able to understand and learn from the preschool read-aloud of Pinocchio and the Whale, or later tackle an independent reading assignment of Eye of the Whale in middle-school.

> read more & see the latest research

Part 1b: Literacy Skills, 0-3

Building Language

Building Language focuses on younger children, ages 0 to three. This skill set refers to a child’s ability to understand and say many words, and many types of words, and later to understand and say more extended and complex sentences. Children who build strong language skills early are set up to be strong readers; they are more likely to enter school with the kinds of Vocabulary & Knowledge skills that support learning and academic achievement as they grow older.

Having a large vocabulary indicates that a child knows a lot of different things, as we all have to be familiar with a concept before we can become familiar with words related to that concept: and all this background knowledge helps children read well. When children have strong language skills, this means that they also have learned a lot about syntax (i.e., word order and agreement) and morphology (i.e., the meaningful small parts of words, such as “er” in player), which helps them make meaning of what they read in the years to come.

> read more & see the latest research

Book Experiences

Book Experiences also applies to younger children 0-3. The skill set encompasses all the skills that are built when parents and caregivers regularly read to and talk about print with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. These shared experiences are critical for building book-related routines, encouraging strong associations between books and cuddling or loving contact, and creating positive feelings about reading from the earliest days of a child’s life. But Book Experiences are also essential for building the types of literacy skills that set children up to read well: understanding concepts of print, letter and sound knowledge, vocabulary skills, and background knowledge.

> read more & see the latest research

Part 2: Social & Emotional Skills

Awareness & Regulation

Awareness & Regulation refers to the social and emotional skills that are critical to reading and academic success-- at all ages. They include a child’s ability to be aware of himself and others, an understanding of how empathy contributes to positive social dynamics, and regulation of both mind and body in order to stay engaged in reading or conversation. While social and emotional skills encompass other topics as well, Awareness & Regulation are some of the most important sub-skills that are critical to reading success and that should start accumulating from a child’s earliest days.

Awareness & Regulation skills might not sound like they relate to reading, but when children have these skills they are better equipped to take in the learning opportunities around them and to engage with more challenging books and texts. For example, a child can better control her thoughts, feelings and behaviors as she attentively listens to a story that is being read aloud. With well-developed social awareness, she can also empathize with the characters in these stories and become good at perspective taking more broadly.

> read more & see the latest research