Top 10 Things You Should Know About Reading

By: Diane Henry Leipzig

1. Learning to read is complex

Reading is a complex process that draws upon many skills that need to be developed at the same time. Marilyn Adams (1990) compares the operation of the reading system to the operation of a car. Unlike drivers, though, readers also need to:

  • Build the car (develop the mechanical systems for identifying words)
  • Maintain the car (fuel it with print, fix up problems along the way, and make sure it runs smoothly)
  • And, most importantly, drive the car (which requires us to be motivated, strategic, and mindful of the route we're taking)

Cars are built by assembling the parts separately and fastening them together. "In contrast, the parts of the reading system are not discrete. We cannot proceed by completing each individual sub-system and then fastening it to one another. Rather, the parts of the reading system must grow together. They must grow to one another and from one another" (Adams et al., 1990, pp.20-21).

The ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning from print – we require a vehicle in good working order to help us reach that goal.

2. Teaching reading requires an integration of methods

In past years, the merits of phonics instruction (which focuses on decoding skills) and whole language instruction (which focuses on meaning-making) have been hotly debated. Recently, most people have come to agree that effective teachers integrate both skills and meaning into a balanced program. Constructing an integrated and effective reading program, however, is challenging.

In their report "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," the National Research Council (1998) stated that it does not endorse "balance" if it means simply mixing together a hodgepodge of phonics and whole language activities.

Instead, the council argued for integrating alphabetics and comprehension (as well as fluency) in a comprehensive approach to instruction. They explained, "The opportunities to learn these two aspects of skilled reading should be going on at the same time, in the context of the same activities...The choice of instructional activities should be part of an overall, coherent approach to supporting literacy development" (pp. vii-viii).

3. A lot of American children don't read well

Thirty-three percent of fourth graders read below the "basic" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. The "basic" level is defined as "partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade" (NAEP 2009 Reading Report Card).

4. Kids from all kinds of families have reading problems

About 20 percent of elementary students have significant reading difficulties. The rate of reading failure for African-American, Hispanic, limited-English speakers, and poor children ranges from 60 to 70 percent.

Reading problems cut across ethnic and socioeconomic lines. One third of poor readers nationwide are from college-educated families (AFT, 1999).

5. Kids who struggle usually have problems sounding out words

Difficulties in decoding and word recognition are at the core of most reading difficulties. Poor readers have difficulty understanding that sounds in words are linked to certain letters and letter patterns? This is called the "alphabetic principle."

The reason many poor readers don't attain the alphabetic principle is because they haven't developed phonemic awareness – being aware that words are made up of speech sounds, or phonemes (Lyon, 1997). When word recognition isn't automatic, reading isn't fluent, and comprehension suffers.

6. What happens before school matters a lot

What preschoolers know before they enter school is strongly related to how easily they learn to read in first grade. Three predictors of reading achievement that children learn before they get to school are:

  • The ability to recognize and name letters of the alphabet
  • General knowledge about print (understanding, for example, which is the front of the book and which is the back and how to turn the pages of a book)
  • Awareness of phonemes (the sounds in words)

Reading aloud together builds these knowledge and skills. As a result, reading aloud with children is the single most important activity for parents and caregivers to do to prepare children to learn to read. (Adams, 1990).

7. Learning to read is closely tied to learning to talk and listen

Families and caregivers need to talk and listen to young children in order to help them learn a lot of the skills they will need for reading. When a child says "cook" and her father says, "You want a cookie?" he is building her knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure, syntax, and purposes for communication – all of which will help her become a reader in later years. When a caregiver sings rhymes and plays word games with the children she cares for, she is helping them recognize the sounds in words (phonemic awareness).

Children with language, hearing, or speech problems need to be identified early so they can receive the help they need to prevent later reading difficulties. Recent research concluded that children born with a hearing loss who are identified and given appropriate intervention before six months of age had significantly better language skills than those identified after six months of age (ASHA, 1999).

8. Without help, slow starters don't improve

Many children learn to read by first grade regardless of the type of instruction they receive. The children who don't learn, however, don't seem able to catch up on their own.

More than 88 percent of children who have difficulty reading at the end of first grade display similar difficulties at the end of fourth grade (Juel, 1988). And three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school (Shaywitz et al., 1997).

9. With help, slow starters can succeed

For 85 to 90 percent of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs can increase reading skills to average reading levels. These programs, however, need to combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies, and must be provided by well-trained teachers (Lyon, 1997).

As many as two-thirds of reading disabled children can become average or above-average readers if they are identified early and taught appropriately (Vellutino et al., 1996; Fletcher & Lyon, 1998).

10. Teaching kids to read is a collaborative effort

Parents, teachers, caregivers, and members of the community must recognize the important role they can play in helping children learn to read. The research shows that what families do makes a difference, what teachers do makes a difference, and what community programs do makes a difference. It's time for all those who work with children to work together to ensure that every child learns to read. It is our shared responsibility.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning Reading Instruction in the United States. ERIC Digest.

Adams, M. J. et al. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. A Summary. Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading.

American Federation of Teachers (1999). Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What expert teachers of reading should know and be able to do. American Federation of Teachers: Washington, DC.

American Speech-Language Hearing Association (1999). Facts on Newborn Hearing Loss & Screening.

Fletcher, J.M. & Lyon, G.R. (1998). Reading: A Research-Based Approach. In What's Gone Wrong in America's Classrooms, ed. W.M. Evers, 49-90. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to Read and Write: A Longitudinal Study of Fifty-four Children from First through Fourth Grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80:437-447.

Lyon, G. R. (July 10, 1997). Report on Learning Disabilities Research, Congressional testimony.

NAEP 2009 Reading Report Card for the States (2009). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Shaywitz, B.A., et al. (1997). The Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention: Longitudinal and Neurobiological Studies. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8:21-30.

Vellutino, F.R., Scanlon, D.M., Sipay, H., & Denckla M. (1996). Cognitive Profiles of Difficult�to-remediate and Readily Remediated Poor Readers: Early Intervention as a Vehicle for Distinguishing between Cognitive and Experiential Deficits as Basic Causes of Specific Reading Disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88:601-636.

Leipzig, D. H. (January, 2001). The Top 10 Things You Should Know About Reading. WETA.