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3 cognitive hacks to help readers accelerate learning 

Implementing an approach grounded in the science of reading, gauging students’ cognitive load and connecting to the joy of learning will help students catch up.

5 min read


accelerate learning reading hacks Hurst


Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

Summer is here, and test data is showing many students are still below grade level in reading, especially in the key K-2 age range. To help these young students accelerate learning, catch up and reach mastery in reading by the time they leave third grade, teachers might consider what I call cognitive hacks. These strategies, which include incorporating writing into your reading instruction, being aware of students’ cognitive load and adjusting educators’ mindset, can help students master reading skills. Here’s how to incorporate these hacks into your classroom. 

Incorporating writing into reading lessons 

accelerate learning reading hacks Hurst

There’s plenty of research showing that spelling informs reading ability more than reading ability informs spelling. Admittedly, most of us would agree that our ability to accurately read words exceeds our ability to accurately spell words. What does this mean for reading instruction? If you are aligning reading instruction with science, you are using explicit phonics instruction to help students become strong readers. Make sure you are including writing with every phonics lesson. 

Reading is a receptive skill — students see all the letters on the page and use them as information to make meaning. Conversely, when students are writing, they’re producing the information from the inside out. In other words, writing is an expressive skill. Cognitively speaking, expressive skills are more demanding and solidifying. 

Tools such as Reading Horizons Discovery align with the science of reading by including word and sentence dictation in every lesson. Since writing is included during reading instruction, students become more fluent at reading and writing, freeing up cognitive resources to focus on the meaning of text. If reading and writing are taught in tandem, it ultimately improves reading comprehension and helps accelerate learning. The more you incorporate writing into your reading lessons, the better readers you’ll have. 

Attending to students’ cognitive capacity 

This may not seem like a hack, but you’ll begin to see your students and lessons differently once you become aware of each student’s cognitive capacity. Sometimes, educators’ own reading proficiency gets in the way of their instruction. You’ve been a proficient reader for so long that you’ve forgotten what it takes to learn to read, and you might expect too much too soon from students when trying to accelerate learning. As cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker said in Why Our Children Can’t Read — And What We Can Do About It: “Children’s brains are wired for sound but reading has to be painstakingly bolted on. …We need to understand how the contraption called writing works, how the mind of the child works, how to get the two to mesh.” Instruction can seem painstaking to students if you expect too much too soon or if you don’t scaffold instruction in ways that make it easier for students to learn to read. 

Every student has a different capacity for information, but you can simplify the way you differentiate instruction by focusing on providing students with more instructional time, more practice opportunities and/or more feedback. Part of this hack involves knowing each student in your class as an individual and knowing how they uniquely contribute to your classroom community. In addition, you can help students be aware of their own learning and encourage them to communicate when they need more instruction, more practice or more feedback. 

Staying connected to the joy of learning 

Teachers are learners first and always. When you find the process of learning the science of reading fun and motivating, your teaching is affected in powerful ways, and your practice will constantly evolve to reflect what you’ve learned. A teacher who identifies as a learner first comes to focus on the opportunities over the challenges presented by changes in curriculum, leadership, technology and any of the million other facets of teaching. Fortunately, that teacher is also better equipped to manage the obstacles that these changes can present. 

Most important, as a learner, you’re better positioned to make meaningful differences in the lives of students and colleagues as you apply and communicate what you’ve learned. That is what makes learning fun! Not only do you learn and grow, but you’re able to model the joy of learning for your students, who are then able to take more initiative in their own learning. This is a hack that makes a teacher’s influence exponentially impactful. 

Everyone in education is working together to accelerate learning to get students caught up to where they need to be. Building a strong foundation for students by implementing what you have learned about the science of reading, becoming aware of our students’ cognitive load and modeling the joy of learning create a safe, effective environment for students to continue their reading journey.

Stacy Hurst is the chief academic officer of Reading Horizons. She can be reached via email.



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