READING: THE FIRST CHAPTER
Reading: The First Chapter In Education
No other skill taught in school and learned by school children is more
important than reading. It is the gateway to all other knowledge. If
children do not learn to read efficiently, the path is blocked to every
subject they encounter in their school years.
The past five years have brought major breakthroughs in our knowledge of
how children learn to read and why so many fail. These new insights have
been translated into techniques for teaching reading to beginning readers,
including the many students who would otherwise encounter difficulties in
mastering this fundamental skill. Researchers have come to appreciate that
early identification and treatment of such students can make all the
difference. Researchers have also documented the problemspersonal, social,
and educationalthat too often result when early attention and intervention
do not occur.
Reading to Learn
Students who do not "learn to read" during the first three years of
school experience enormous difficulty when they are subsequently asked to
"read to learn." Teaching students to read by the end of third grade is the
single most important task assigned to elementary schools. During the first
three years of schooling, students "learn to read." That is, they develop
the capacity to interpret the written symbols for the oral language that
they have been hearing since birth. Starting in fourth grade, schooling
takes on a very different purpose, one that in many ways is more complex and
demanding of higher-order thinking skills. If efficient reading skills are
not developed by this time, the English language, history, mathematics,
current events, and the rich tapestries of literature and science become
In addition, a strong body of evidence shows that most students who fall
behind in reading skills never catch up with their peers become to fluent
readers. They fall further and further behind in school, become frustrated,
and drop out at much higher rates than their classmates. They find it
difficult to obtain rewarding employment and are effectively prevented from
drawing on the power of education to improve and enrich their lives.
Researchers speak of this syndrome as the "Matthew Effect"the rich get
richer and the poor get poorer.
Most Americans know how central reading is to education. According to a
1994 poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the American
Federation of Teachers and the Chrysler Corporation, nearly 70 percent of
teachers believe that reading is the "most important" skill for children to
learn. Two years earlier, the same polling firm reported that 62 percent of
parents believed that reading was one of the most important skills for their
children to master. Both teachers and parents ranked reading as more
critical than mathematics and computer skills. In other words, there is
general agreement among researchers and the public that all children must
learn to read early in their academic careers.
The Challenges of Illiteracy
More students fail to learn to read by the end of the third grade than
many people imagine. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that all schools
encounter students who fall into this category and that all schools should
have plans for addressing the special needs of these students.
In its 1994 Reading Assessment, the National Assessment of Education
Progress (NAEP), a federally supported program that tracks the performance
of American students in core academic subjects, reported that more than four
out of 10 fourth-graders (42 percent) in American schools were reading at a
"below basic" level. This means that they could not understand
"uncomplicated narratives and high-interest informative texts." NAEP also
reported that such illiteracy persists in the higher grades. The report
found that nearly one-third (31 percent) of eighth-graders and nearly
one-third (30 percent) of twelfth-graders are also reading at a "below
basic" level. The latter figures probably understate the problem, because
many poor readers drop out of school before twelfth grade.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions regarding how
widespread students' reading problems really are. National longitudinal
studies have measured the ability of children to recognize individual words
in text. Their data suggest that more than one child in six (17.5 percent)
will encounter a problem in learning to read during the crucial first three
years of school. Further evidence comes from the sharp rise in the number of
students who are diagnosed as learning disabled or are referred to special
education because they cannot read at the proper grade level.
In contrast to popular belief, reading failure is not concentrated among
particular types of schools or among specific groups of students. To the
contrary, students who have difficulty reading represent a virtual
cross-section of American children. They include rich and poor, male and
female, rural and urban, and public and private school children in all
sections of the country. According to the NAEP assessment, for example,
nearly one-third (32 percent) of fourth graders whose parents graduated from
college are reading at the "below basic" level.
In short, the failure of a substantial number of students to learn to
read during the critical first three years of school is a national
problemone that confronts every community and every school in the country.
A Common Stumbling Block: Phonemic Awareness
Whatever the reason children fail to read by the end of the third grade,
most non-readers share a common problem. They have not developed the
capacity to recognize what reading experts call phonemes. Phonemes are the
smallest units of speechthe basic building blocks of speaking and writing.
The word "cat," for example, contains three phonemesthe /k/, /a/, and /t/
sounds. Phonemes are often identical to individual letters, but not always.
The word "ox," for example, has two letters but three phonemesthe /o/, /k/,
and /s/ sounds.
Researchers have demonstrated that accomplished readers are adept at
recognizing phonemes and putting them together to construct words and
phrases. They do this quickly, accurately, and automatically. The absence of
this critical linguistic skill makes it difficult for children to decode and
read single words, much less sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories.
Teaching phonemic awareness and discrimination among phonemes is imperative
for all students.
Solutions in the Classroom
Teaching beginners to read must be highly purposeful and strategic.
Effective techniques have been developed for helping students, including
those with learning disabilities, to develop phonological awareness, word
recognition, and other advanced skills required for reading.
Phonological awareness activities build on and enhance children's
experiences with written (e.g., print awareness) and spoken language (e.g.,
playing with words). A beginning reader with successful phonological
awareness and knowledge of letters ostensibly learns how words are
represented in print.
Intervention for learners who have difficulty with phonological awareness
must be early, strategic, systematic, and carefully designed. It must be
based on a curriculum that recognizes and balances the importance of both
phonics instruction and the appreciation of meaning.
For children who have difficulty reading, effective reading instruction
strategies should be used to build phonological awareness and alphabetic
understanding. These strategies should be explicit, making phonemes
prominent in children's attention and perception. For example, teachers can
model specific sounds and in turn ask the children to produce the sounds. In
addition, opportunities to engage in phonological awareness activities
should be plentiful, frequent, and fun.
Instructional strategies should consider the characteristics that make a
word easier or more difficult to read. These include: the number of phonemes
in the word; phoneme position in words (initial sounds are easier);
phonological properties of words (e.g., continuants, such as /m/, are easier
than stop sounds, such as /t/); and phonological awareness dimensions,
including blending sounds, segmenting words, and rhyming.
Many early readers will require greater teacher assistance and support.
Using a research-based strategy known as scaffolding, teachers should
provide students with lots of instructional support in the beginning stages
of reading instruction, and gradually reduce the support as students learn
more about reading skills. The ultimate goal is for students to read on
their own without the help of a teacher.
A Balanced Approach
Unfortunately, it is not always easy for teachers to recognize students
with reading difficulties. When they do, teachers sometimes find themselves
caught between conflicting schools of thought about how to treat reading
disabilities. One school of thought gives considerable attention to the
teaching of phonics in the early stages of reading. Another school of
thought emphasizes the whole language approach. Should teachers rely on
phonics instruction, whole language instruction, or a combination of the
The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Child
Health and Human Development (NICHD) have supported the review of hundreds
of studies done in recent years on reading instruction and disabilities.
This body of research suggests that the relatively recent swing away from
phonics instruction to a singular whole language approach is making it more
difficult to lift children with learning disabilities out of the downward
learning spiral and, in fact, may impede the progress of many students in
learning to read with ease.
Few dispute the value of giving children opportunities to write,
surrounding children with good literature, and generally creating a rich
literate environment for students. But for many children this is not enough.
Such children will have continued difficulty with reading unless they master
the decoding skills associated with phonics instruction.
Research makes clear that children do not learn to read the way they
learn to talk. Speech is a natural human capacity, and learning to talk
requires little more than exposure and opportunity. In contrast, written
language is an artifact, a human invention, and reading is not a skill that
can be acquired through immersion alone. Beginning readers benefit from
instruction that helps them understand that the words they speak and hear
can be represented by written symbolsand that letters and the sounds
associated with them, when combined and recombined, form wordsjust as they
benefit from experiences that make reading fun.
California's experience with a chosen reading approach is instructive. A
decade ago, the state became a leader in the movement to embrace whole
language instruction. However, as a result of low reading scores, a task
force was formed and has recently adopted a more balanced reading approach
that includes building phonological awareness along with the reading of
meaningful and engaging texts.
Research indicates that reading can be taught effectively with a balanced
approach that uses the best of both teaching approaches. Such an approach
incorporates phonics instruction with the rich literacy environments
advocated by whole language instruction.
The Learning to Read/Reading to Learn Initiative
Throughout the Learning to Read/Reading to Learn: Helping Children with
Learning Disabilities to Succeed initative, three leading researchers in the
field of reading instruction, Marilyn Jager Adams, author of Beginning to
Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, a book supported by the Office of
Educational Research and Improvement (OERI); Ed Kameenui of the University
of Oregon, a researcher supported by the Office of Special Education
Programs (OSEP); and Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development (NICHD) have identified what they believe are the most
important strategies for improving early reading instruction. These
strategies are effective for virtually every child but are absolutely
critical for children with learning disabilities. By evaluating the ways in
which students learn to read, researchers have identified nine skills
essential to the learning process. Identification of these skills will alert
teachers and parents to ways in which they can help children learn to read
Reading: The Key to Success
As already discussed, reading is the gateway to learning. Facility to
understand and use written language has always been a prerequisite to the
efficient acquisition of knowledge, and it is becoming increasingly
important in today's information society. In the past, it may have been
possible for persons who were illiterate to obtain a good job, support a
family, and live a comfortable life, but those days are gone. Children who
do not learn to read today can expect to live on the margins of society in
every way. Universal literacy is the ultimate "access" issue in American
American schools thus face a new and monumental challenge. For the first
time, educators are being asked to bring all students to a level of
performance that was demanded of only a relatively few students in the past.
Educational and political leaders understand this challenge, and a major
effort is underway to raise the standard of teaching and learning in
American schools. Improved reading instruction is crucial to this process.
Attainment of the National Education Goals by the year 2000 will require
enhanced reading skills in American students. Developments such as national
standards in core subjects, new forms of accountability, or decentralization
of school management will have few positive effects in the absence of
well-conceived reading instruction.
Attaining such goals also means that ways must be found to address the
learning needs of those students who, for whatever reasons, face
difficulties in learning to read. Doing so is not only a matter of equity;
it is also a practical necessity if the overall objectives of improving
American education as a whole are to be met.
Not only are American schools facing new demands, they also are being
asked to deliver more education without the addition of substantial new
resources. Thus they must become more efficient. Incorporating the new
knowledge we now possess about reading and how to teach it is imperative if
schools are to use their resources effectively and efficiently. All students
must start reading as soon as they are developmentally ready to do so, and
they must build on basic reading skills as they move into higher grades. In
the absence of such orderly progression, schools are put in a position of
having too many children in remedial or special education programs.
Toward a Nation of Readers
We are living at a pivotal time in the history of American education.
More than ever before, schools are being asked to deliver a higher level of
education and to do so for all students. Meeting this challenge requires
that the process of "learning to read" be securely underway for virtually
all students by the end of the third grade.
No American school would knowingly withhold a vaccine from students that
would prevent a childhood disease like measles. Yet this is, in effect, what
is happening when it comes to the teaching of reading. Recent gains in our
knowledge of the reading process have given us the tools to help the
majority of students, including those with learning disabilities, to learn
to read at the level required to function as effective individuals, workers,
parents, and citizens in today's world. The challenge is to put this new
knowledge in the hands of teachers, parents, and school administrators so
that millions of American students who otherwise would fail to learn to read
will gain access to this important skill.