As the scope of reading failure in the United States becomes increasingly apparent, calls for improved standards in teacher preparation and in classroom achievement are being urged by growing numbers of educators, parents and politicians. Their recommendations stem from recognition of the need to eliminate the personal and social costs of literacy problems and to prepare our young people for the global economy of the 21st century. Yet specification of what the new standards should include is missing from the calls for change: we need to be doing something differently, but what? This critical paper, Informed Instruction for Reading Success, provides a much-needed answer. Drawing on solid scientific research, for the first time master educators bridge the gap between research and practice and delineate an informed approach to reading instruction, clearly detailing what teachers need to know in order to teach children to read and how teachers should be prepared. If the recommendations in this paper are adopted and implemented nationwide, we can become a “nation of readers” once again.
The need to change the way children are taught to read
A sobering percentage of children in the United States encounter difficulty in learning to read. Results from a 1994 national survey of reading achievement by fourth graders (National Assessment of Educational Progress) indicate that 44% of school children are reading below a basic level of achievement (described as having “little or no mastery of knowledge and skills necessary to perform work at grade level”). Of those identified as having learning disabilities, at least 80% have language-based reading problems.
The lessons from research
More than two decades of sophisticated, convergent research funded by the National Institutes of Health has led to the following conclusions about reading acquisition and reading failure.
- Insufficient awareness of the sound structure of words (phoneme awareness) is a central deficit in failing readers.
- Poor and inaccurate decoding of single words (inability to read new words) is a major difficulty for those who struggle with reading.
- Poor decoding in the early grades predicts weak reading comprehension in the later grades.
- In contrast, successful readers are adept at identifying the component sounds of words and at rapid and accurate word identification. Their automaticity at word identification allows good readers to reflect more on the meaning and structure of text.
- Reading problems often have a biological basis and affect individuals of all levels of intelligence and ethnic backgrounds.
- Children from disadvantaged backgrounds where books and word games are less evident are at greater risk for reading failure.
- Failure to provide appropriate reading instruction can exacerbate reading difficulties.
- The majority of children find it easier to learn to read and spell if they are given systematic instruction that matches their current reading level.
An informed approach to reading instruction
Research results and teaching practice indicate that the best instruction is explicit, systematic, sequential, active, and engaging. Effective teaching emphasizes discovery and understanding, and is aided by frequent opportunities to practice spelling, writing, and reading skills in meaningful contexts.
What teachers need to know for informed reading instruction
Teachers must be given a foundation of the theoretical and scientific underpinnings for understanding literacy development.
Teachers must understand the content of instruction, the linguistic units of speech and print, and be able to apply the content to designing teaching activities and giving students corrective feedback.
Therefore, teachers must be taught the structure of the English writing system and its relationship to sounds and meaning. They must learn the English speech sound system, including how speech sounds are produced. They must have a knowledge of semantic patterns (or morphemic patterns) such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots, as well as knowledge of grammatical and text structures.
Teachers need supervised experience with one-on-one instruction and with larger groups. They should have experience with learners who are diverse in age and level of proficiency, and opportunities to observe peer models at work.
Teachers must practice translating the knowledge of how children learn to read into relevant activities. They need opportunities to team teach, to consult with a mentor, and to participate in dialogues with fellow professionals.
A call for action
Teachers and other professionals face a serious responsibility to help children become successful readers, but at the present most Schools of Education are not providing teachers with an important body of knowledge and techniques currently available that would help teachers accomplish this task.
The myth that one does not need to know much to teach reading must be dispelled. State Departments of Education need to mandate the training described in this paper for teacher certification.
Universities need to update/change their training programs to include the content recommended.
Federal and State Agencies need to provide funding to develop model training programs that could serve as blueprints for other training facilities and as centers for re-training the trainers (university faculty).
The teaching of reading has been subject to enormous swings based on various ideologies, clearly to the detriment of children. The pendulum approach to reading instruction should be discarded and this informed approach, based on solid research evidence, should be the highest educational priority. The investment now in teacher education will stem the tide of illiteracy and educational failure.
Copies of “Informed Instruction” are available for $5.00 each (plus 10% postage for domestic orders, 15% for international orders) from
The International Dyslexia Association
(formerly The Orton Dyslexia Society)
8600 LaSalle Road, Chester Building, Suite 382
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044
Phone (410) 296-0232 Fax (410) 321-5069,
www.interdys.org (under “The Bookstore” section)
E-mail: [email protected]