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The psychological, social, and economic consequences of reading failure are legion. It is for this reason that the NICHD considers reading failure to reflect not only an educational problem, but a significant public health problem as well. Within this context, a large, well coordinated network consisting of 18 NICHD-supported research sites across the country has been working extremely hard to understand: (1) the critical environmental, experiential, cognitive, genetic neurobiological, and instructional conditions that foster strong reading development; (2) the risk factors that predispose youngsters to reading failure; and (3) the instructional procedures that can be applied to ameliorate reading deficits at the earliest possible time. In some cases, these NICHD studies have been continuously ongoing since 1965. The majority, however, were initiated in the early and mid-1980 s with youngsters at five years of age and have studied these children longitudinally over the succeeding years. At one NICHD research site, the children are now young adults (21 years of age), with other sites following cohorts that span from elementary grade age through middle and high school.

Some children learn to read and write with ease. Even before they enter school, they have developed an understanding that the letters on a page can be sounded out to make words and some preschool children can even read words correctly that they have never seen before and comprehend what they have read. Research has shown that some of these children, before school, and without any great effort or pressure on the part of their parents, pick up books, pencils, and paper, and they are on their way, almost as though by magic.

However, the magic of this effortless journey into the world of reading is available to only a relatively small percentage of our Nation’s children. It is suggested in the research literature that about 50 percent learn to read relatively easily once exposed to formal instruction, and it seems that youngsters in this group learn to read in any classroom, with any instructional emphasis.

Unfortunately, it appears that for about half of our nation’s children, learning to read is a much more formidable challenge, and for at least 20 to 30 percent of these youngsters, reading is one of the most difficult tasks that they will have to master throughout their life. This is very unfortunate because if you do not learn to read and you live in America, you are not likely to make it in life. Reading skill serves as the major avenue to learning about other people, about history and social studies, the language arts, science, mathematics, and the other content subjects that must be mastered in school. When children do not learn to read, their general knowledge, their spelling and writing abilities, and their vocabulary development suffers in kind. Within this context, reading skill serves as the major foundational skill for all school-based learning, and without it, the chances for academic and occupational success are limited indeed. Because of its importance and visibility, particularly during the primary grades, difficulty learning to read squashes the excitement and love for learning that many youngsters have when they enter school. It is embarrassing and even devastating to read slowly and laboriously and to demonstrate this weakness in front of peers on a daily basis. It is clear from our NICHD-supported longitudinal studies that follow good and poor readers from kindergarten into young adulthood that our young poor readers are largely doomed to such failure from the beginning. By the end of the first grade, we begin to notice substantial decreases in the children’s self-esteem, self-concept, and motivation to learn to read if they have not been able to master reading skills and keep up with their age-mates. As we follow the children through elementary and middle school grades, these problems compound, and, in many cases, very bright youngsters are unable to learn about the wonders of science, mathematics, literature and the like because they can not read the grade-level textbooks. By high school, these children’s potential for entering college has decreased to almost nil, with few choices available to them with respect to occupational and vocational opportunities. These individuals constantly tell us that they hate to read, primarily because it is such hard work, and their reading is so slow and laborious. As an adolescent in one of our longitudinal studies remarked recently, “I would rather have a root canal than read.”

While failure to learn to read adequately is much more likely among poor children, among nonwhite children, and among nonnative speakers of English, recent data derived from the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals an alarming trend. In the State of California, 59 percent of fourth grade children had little or no mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to perform reading activities at the fourth grade level, compared to a national average of 44 percent below basic reading levels. Even more alarming is that this evidence of serious reading failure cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic strata. For example, the 1994 NAEP data summarizing national trends showed that 32 percent of Whites, 72 percent of African-Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of Asians, 36 percent of Pacific Islanders, and 55 percent of American Indians were reading below basic levels in the fourth grade. Moreover, 32 percent of the fourth grade children across the Nation who were reading below the basic levels were from homes where the parents had graduated from college. These data underscore the fact that reading failure is a serious national problem and can not simply be attributed to poverty, immigration, or the learning of English as a second language.

How do children learn to read?

Understanding how sounds are connected to print

In general, learning to read the English language is not as easy as conventional wisdom would suggest. Every type of writing system, whether it be a morphosyllabic system as used by the Chinese (where a written symbol represents a whole word) or an alphabetic system that is used in English, Spanish, and Scandinavian languages (to name a few), presents challenges to the beginning reader. In an English alphabetic system, the individual letters on the page are abstract and meaningless, in and of themselves. They must eventually be linked to equally abstract sounds called phonemes, blended together and pronounced as words, where meaning is finally realized. To learn to read English, the child must figure out the relationship between sounds and letters. Thus, the beginning reader must learn the connections between the approximately 44 sounds of spoken English (the phonemes), and the 26 letters of the alphabet. What our NICHD research has taught us is that in order for a beginning reader to learn how to connect or translate printed symbols (letters and letter patterns) into sound, the would be reader must understand that our speech can be segmented or broken into small sounds (phoneme awareness) and that the segmented units of speech can be represented by printed forms (phonics). This understanding that written spellings systematically represent the phonemes of spoken words (termed the alphabetic principle) is absolutely necessary for the development of accurate and rapid word reading skills. Unfortunately, children are not born with this insight, nor does it develop naturally without instruction. Hence, the existence of illiterate cultures and of illiteracy within literate cultures. Some children will discover the alphabetic principle prior to formal instruction by having parents or preschool teachers draw their attention to the connections between letters and sounds. Many children, however, are not afforded such opportunities to learn outside of formal schooling, and, for them, NICHD researchers have found that classroom instruction that explicitly addresses the connections between letters and sounds within a literature-rich classroom environment can make a difference between reading failure and reading success.

Why are phoneme awareness and the development of the alphabetic principle so critical for the beginning reader? Because if children cannot perceive the sounds in spoken words — for example, if they cannot “hear” the “at” sound in “fat” and “cat” and perceive that the difference lies in the first sound, they will have difficulty decoding or “sounding out” words in a rapid and accurate fashion. This awareness of the sound structure of our language seems so easy and commonplace that we take it for granted. But many children do not develop phoneme awareness, and for some interesting reasons that we are now beginning to understand. Unlike writing, the speech we use to communicate orally does not consist of separate sounds in words. For example, while a written word like “cat” has three letter-sound units, the ear hears only one sound, not three, when the word “cat” is spoken aloud. This merging and overlapping of sounds into a sound “bundle” makes oral communication much more efficient. Consider how long it would take to have a conversation if each of the words that we uttered were segmented or “chopped” into their sound structure. In essence we would be spelling aloud the words that we were speaking. From the NICHD studies that were initiated in 1965 to understand how the reading process develops, we now have strong evidence that it is not the ear that understands that a spoken word like “cat” is divided into three sounds and that these discrete sounds can be linked to the letters CAT. Rather, we know it is the language systems in the brain that performs this function. In some youngsters, the brain seems to have an easy time processing this type of information. However, in many children that skill is only learned with difficulty, and thus must be taught directly, explicitly, and by a well-prepared and informed teacher. It also has become clear that the development of these critical early reading-related skills, such as phoneme awareness and phonics, are fostered when children are read to at home during the preschool years, when they learn their letter and number names, and when they are introduced at very early ages to concepts of print and literacy activities.

Does this mean that children who have a difficulty understanding that spoken words are composed of discrete individual sounds that can be linked to letters suffer from brain dysfunction or damage? Not at all. It simply means that the neural systems that perceive the phonemes in our language are less efficient in these children than in other children. Other difference in neural efficiency can also be hypothesized to underlie the individual differences that we see every day if we observe people as they attempt to learn any skill such as singing, playing an instrument, constructing a house, painting a portrait, and the like. In some cases, our NICHD studies have taught us that the phonological differences we see in good and poor readers have a genetic basis, although it is important to note that genetic influences in reading can be modified significantly by environmental factors. In other children, the differences seem to be attributable to a lack of exposure to language patterns and literacy-based materials during the critical preschool years. In most cases however, the majority of children can be taught to read with appropriate and timely instruction, if the instruction is presented by properly trained teachers.

The development of phoneme awareness, the development of an understanding of the alphabetic principle, and the translation of these skills to the application of phonics in reading and spelling words are non-negotiable beginning reading skills that all children must master in order to understand what they read and to learn from their reading sessions. Printed letters and words are the basic data on which reading depends, and the emerging reader must be able to recognize with accuracy spelling patterns and their mappings to speech. These skills are supported nicely when children receive an abundance of early literacy experiences in the home and in preschool. But the development of phoneme awareness and phonics, while necessary, are not sufficient for learning to read the English language so that meaning can be derived from print. In addition to learning how to “sound out” new and/or unfamiliar words, the beginning reader must eventually become proficient in reading at a fast pace larger units of print such as syllable patterns, meaningful roots, suffixes, and whole words.

The development of reading fluency

While the ability to read words accurately is a necessary skill in learning to read, the speed at which this is done becomes a critical factor in ensuring that children understand what they read. As one child recently remarked, “If you don’t ride a bike fast enough, you fall off.” Likewise, if the reader does not recognize words quickly enough, the meaning will be lost. Although the initial stages of reading for many students require the sequential learning of phoneme awareness and phonics principles, substantial practice and continual application of those skills, fluency and automaticity in decoding and word recognition must be acquired as well. Consider that a young reader (and even an older reader for that matter) has only so much attentional capacity and cognitive energy to devote to a particular task. If the reading of the words on the page is slow and labored, the reader simply cannot remember what he or she has read, much less relate the ideas they have read about to their own background knowledge. Children vary in the amount of practice that is required for fluency and automaticity in reading to occur. Some youngsters can read a word only once to recognize it again with greater speed; others need 20 or more exposures. The average child needs between four and 14 exposures to automatize the recognition of a new word. Therefore, in learning to read, it is vital that children read a large amount of text at their independent reading level (with 95 percent accuracy), and that the text provide specific practice in the skills being learned. It is also important to note that spelling instruction fosters the development of reading fluency. Through spelling instruction, youngsters receive many examples of how letters represent the sounds of speech and also alert the young reader to the fact that written words are made up of larger units of print (like syllables). This insight lets the developing reader know that word recognition can be accomplished by reading words in larger “chunks” rather than letter-by-letter.

Constructing meaning from print

The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to enable children to understand what they read. Again, the development of phoneme awareness, phonics skills, and the ability to read words fluently and automatically are necessary, but not sufficient, for the construction of meaning from text. The ability to understand what is read appears to be based on several factors. Children who comprehend well, seem to be able to activate their relevant background knowledge when reading — that is, they can relate what is on the page to what they already know. Good comprehenders also must have good vocabularies, since it is extremely difficult to understand something you can not define. Good comprehenders also have a knack for summarizing, predicting, and clarifying what they have read, and they frequently use questions to guide their understanding. Good comprehenders are also facile in employing the sentence structure within the text to enhance their comprehension.

In general, if children can read the words on a page accurately and fluently, they will be able to construct meaning at two levels. At the first level, literal understanding is achieved. However, constructing meaning requires far more than literal comprehension. The children must eventually actively guide themselves through text by asking questions like, “Why am I reading this and how does this information relate to my reasons for doing so?,” “What is the author’ s point of view?,” ” Do I understand what the author is saying and why?,” “Is the text internally consistent?,” and so on. It is this second level of comprehension that leads readers to reflective, purposeful understanding of the meaning of what they have read.

The development of reading comprehension skills, like the development of phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency, needs to be fostered by highly trained teachers. Recent research shows that the teacher must arrange for opportunities for students to discuss the highlights of what they have read and any difficulties they have had when reading. Because the grammatical structures of written text are more varied and complex than those of casual, oral language (speaking to one another), regular exploration and explicit instruction on formal syntax is warranted. Children’s reflections on what they have read can also be directly fostered through instruction in comprehension strategies. These sorts of discussions and activities should be conducted throughout a range of literacy genres, both fiction and nonfiction, and should be a regular component of the language arts curriculum throughout the children’s school years.

Other factors that influence learning to read

Our research continues to converge on the following findings. Good readers are phonemically aware, understand the alphabetic principle, can apply these skills to the development and application of phonics skills when reading and spelling words, and can accomplish these applications in a fluent and accurate manner. Given the ability to rapidly and automatically decode and recognize words, good readers bring strong vocabularies and good syntactic and grammatical skills to the reading comprehension process, and actively relate what is being read to their own background knowledge via a variety of strategies. But what factors can provide a firm foundation for these skills to develop?

It is clear from research on emerging literacy that learning to read is a relatively lengthy process that begins very early in development and clearly before children enter formal schooling. Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts. Children who are read to frequently at very young ages become exposed in interesting and exciting ways to the sounds of our language, to the concept of rhyming, and to other word and language play activities that serve to provide the foundation for the development of phoneme awareness. As children are exposed to literacy activities at young ages, they begin to recognize and discriminate letters. Without a doubt, children who have learned to recognize and print most letters as preschoolers will have less to learn upon school entry. The learning of letter names is also important because the names of many letters contain the sounds they most often represent, thus orienting youngsters early to the alphabetic principle or how letters and sounds connect. Ultimately, children’s ability to understand what they are reading is inextricably linked to their background knowledge. Very young children who are provided opportunities to learn, think, and talk about new areas of knowledge will gain much from the reading process. With understanding comes the clear desire to read more and to read frequently, ensuring that reading practice takes place.

Why are so many children having difficulty learning to read?

Difficulties learning to read result from a combination of factors. In general, children who are most at-risk for reading failure are those who enter school with limited exposure to language and thus less prior knowledge of concepts related to phonemic sensitivity, letter knowledge, print awareness, the purposes of reading, and general verbal skills, including vocabulary. Children raised in poverty, youngsters with limited proficiency in English, children with speech and hearing impairments, and children from homes where the parent’s reading levels are low are clearly at increased risk of reading failure. Likewise, youngsters with subaverage intellectual capabilities have difficulties learning to read. However, it is very important to note that a substantial number of children from highly literate households and who have been read to by their parents since very early in life also have difficulties learning to read.

Given this general background, recent research has been able to identify and replicate findings which point to at least four factors that hinder reading development among children irrespective of their environmental, socioeconomic, ethnic, and biological factors. These four factors include

  • deficits in phoneme awareness and developing the alphabetic principle
  • deficits in acquiring reading comprehension strategies and applying them to the reading of text
  • deficits in developing and maintaining the motivation to learn to read
  • limitations in effectively preparing teachers

Deficits in phoneme awareness and developing the alphabetic principle

Invariably, it is difficulty linking letters with sounds that is the source of reading problems and children who have difficulties learning to read can be readily observed. The signs of such difficulty are a labored approach to decoding or “sounding” unknown or unfamiliar words and repeated misidentification of known words. Reading is hesitant and characterized by frequent starts and stops and multiple mispronunciations. If asked about the meaning of what has been read, the child frequently has little to say. Not because he or she is not smart enough; in fact, many youngsters who have difficulty learning to read are bright and motivated to learn to read — at least initially. Their poor comprehension occurs because they take far too long to read the words, taxing their memory and leaving little energy for remembering and understanding what they have read.

Unfortunately, there is no way to bypass this decoding and word recognition stage of reading. A deficiency in these skills cannot be appreciably offset by using context to figure out the pronunciation of unknown words. In essence, while one learns to read for the fundamental purpose of deriving meaning from print, the key to comprehension starts with the immediate and accurate reading of words. In fact, difficulties in decoding and word recognition are at the core of most reading difficulties. To be sure, there are some children who can read words accurately and quickly yet do have difficulties comprehending, but they constitute a very small portion of those with reading problems.

If the ability to gain meaning from print is dependent upon fast, accurate, and automatic decoding and word recognition, what factors hinder the acquisition of these basic reading skills? As mentioned above, young children who have a limited exposure to both oral language and print before they enter school are at-risk for reading failure. However, many children with robust oral language experience, average to above intelligence, and frequent interactions with books since infancy show surprising difficulties learning to read. Why?

In contrast to good readers who understand that segmented units of speech can be linked to letters and letter patterns, poor readers have substantial difficulty in developing this “alphabetic principle.” The culprit appears to be a deficit in phoneme awareness — the understanding that words are made up of sound segments called phonemes. Difficulties in developing phoneme awareness can have genetic and neurobiological origins or can be attributable to a lack of exposure to language patterns and usage during infancy and the preschool years. The end result is the same, however. Children who lack phoneme awareness have difficulties linking speech sounds to letters — their decoding skills are labored and weak, resulting in extremely slow reading. As mentioned, this labored access to print renders comprehension nearly impossible. Thus, the purpose for reading is nullified because the children are often too dysfluent to make sense out of what they read.

In studying approximately 10,000 children over the past 15 years, NICHD research has documented the following with respect to the role that phonemic awareness plays in the development of phonics skills and fluent and automatic word reading:

  1. Phonemic awareness skills assessed in kindergarten and first grade serve as potent predictors of difficulties learning to read. With a test that takes only 15 minutes to administer, we have learned how to measure phonemic awareness skills as early as the beginning of kindergarten, and over the past decade we have refined these tasks so that we can predict with approximately 92 percent accuracy who will have difficulties learning to read.
  2. We have learned that the average cost of assessing each child during kindergarten or first grade with the predictive measures is approximately $10 to $15. This cost estimate includes the costs of the assessment materials.
  3. We have learned that the development of phonemic awareness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for learning to read. A child must integrate phonemic skills into the learning of phonics principles, must practice reading so that word recognition is rapid and accurate, and must learn how to actively use comprehension strategies to enhance meaning.
  4. We have begun to understand how neurobiological factors influence how we learn to read. For example, we have learned genetics are involved in learning to read, and this knowledge may ultimately contribute to early identification efforts through the assessment of family reading histories. We have also learned that the environment plays a major role in learning to read and that environmental and genetic factors interact in complex ways yet to be fully understood.
  5. We have begun to learn how the brain itself carries out the different steps of the reading process. With new imaging technology, we can now “see” the actual neural systems used when both good and poor readers try to sound out novel words. Differences between neural patterns in these groups of readers may provide new insights into more precise and effective intervention strategies. While these new discoveries are indeed exciting, much research remains to be done in order to interpret the findings appropriately.
  6. We are entering very exciting frontiers in understanding how early brain development can provide a window on the reading process. Our studies are helping us understand how specific teaching methods change reading behavior and how the brain changes as reading develops. As we continue to conduct this type of research we are hopeful that this information may help us understand how to best tailor specific teaching strategies to individual children.
  7. We have learned that just as many girls as boys have difficulties learning to read. The conventional wisdom has been that many more boys than girls had such difficulties. Now females should have equal access to screening and intervention programs.
  8. We have learned that for 85 to 90 percent of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies provided by well-trained teachers can increase reading skills to average reading levels. However, we have also learned that if we delay early intervention until nine-years-of-age, (the time that most children with reading difficulties first receive services), approximately 75 percent of these children will continue to have difficulties learning to read throughout high school and their adult years. To be clear, while older children and adults can be taught to read, the time and expense of doing so is enormous compared to what is required to teach them when they are five or six years old.
  9. We have learned that no single method, approach, or philosophy for teaching reading is equally effective for all children. Rather the key to ensuring that all children reach their potential in learning to read rests with the formal training and experiences that teachers receive in assessing individual differences in learning to read during preschool, kindergarten, and primary grade years; in developing in-depth knowledge about reading development and difficulties; in having a clear understanding of the skills that are critical for learning to read and reading to learn; and having a depth and breadth of knowledge that will allow each teacher to develop tailored reading programs for those children who are having difficulty learning to read. In short, teacher preparation is the key to teaching our Nation’ s children to read, to learn from reading, and to enjoy reading.

Deficits in acquiring reading comprehension strategies

Some children encounter obstacles in learning to read because they do not derive meaning from the material that they read. In the upper grades, higher order comprehension skills become paramount for learning. Reading comprehension places significant demands on language comprehension and general verbal abilities. Constraints in these areas will typically limit comprehension. Specifically, deficits in reading comprehension are related to:

  1. inadequate background knowledge about the domains represented in the text;
  2. a lack of familiarity with the semantic and syntactic structures that can help to predict the relationships between words
  3. a lack of knowledge about different writing conventions that are used to achieve different purposes via text (humor, explanation, dialogue, etc.)
  4. a deficit in the verbal reasoning ability which would enable the reader to “read between the lines;” and
  5. a lack of the ability to remember verbal information.

If children are not provided early and consistent experiences that are explicitly designed to foster vocabulary development, background knowledge, the ability to detect and comprehend relationships among verbal concepts, and the ability to actively employ strategies to ensure understanding and retention of material, reading failure will occur no matter how robust word recognition skills are.

Our current understanding of how to develop many of these critical language and reasoning capabilities related to reading comprehension is not as well developed as the information related to phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency. We have not yet obtained clear answers with respect to why some children have a difficult time learning vocabulary and how to improve vocabulary skills. Our knowledge about the causes and consequences of deficits in syntactical development is sparse. A good deal of excellent research has been conducted on the application of reading comprehension strategies, but our knowledge of how to help children use these strategies in an independent manner and across contexts is just emerging.

Deficits in developing and maintaining the motivation to learn to read

A major factor that limits the amount of improvement that a child may make in reading is related to the motivation to continue the learning process. Very little is known with respect to the exact timing and course of motivational problems in the learning to read process, but it is clear that difficulties in learning to read are very demoralizing to children. In the primary grades, reading constitutes the major portion of academic activities undertaken in classrooms, and children who struggle with reading are quickly noticed by peers and teachers. Although most children enter formal schooling with positive attitudes and expectations for success, those who encounter difficulties learning to read clearly attempt to avoid engaging in reading behavior as early as the middle of the first grade year. It is known that successful reading development is predicated on practice reading, and obviously the less a child practices, the less developed the various reading skills will become. To counter these highly predictable declines in the motivation to learn to read, prevention and early intervention programs are critical. Over time, there will be an inverse relationship between the ease of learning to read and the effort required to learn to read — clearly, the need to exert enormous amounts of effort will take its toll on many would-be, but now discouraged, readers.

Deficits in effectively preparing teachers

As evidence mounts that reading difficulties originate in large part from difficulties in developing phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling skills, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies, the need for informed instruction for the millions of children with insufficient reading skills is an increasingly urgent problem. Unfortunately, several recent studies and surveys of teacher knowledge about reading development and difficulties indicate that many teachers are under prepared to teach reading. Most teachers receive little formal instruction in reading development and disorders during either undergraduate and/or graduate studies, with the average teacher completing only two reading courses. Surveys of teachers taking these courses indicate consistently that very few of them have ever observed professors demonstrating instructional reading methods with children; teachers also report that their course work is largely unrelated to actual teaching practices, that the theories they learn are rarely linked to the actual instruction of children, and that the supervision of student teaching and practicum experiences is frequently lacking in consistency and depth. At present, motivated teachers are often left on their own to obtain specific skills in teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and comprehension by seeking out workshops or specialized instructional manuals. As we survey teachers perceptions of their preparation, we find consistently that they are “method-driven” rather than conceptually prepared to teach the range of skills required to learn to read.

Clearly teachers instructing youngsters who display reading difficulties should be well versed in understanding the conditions that must be present for children to develop robust reading skills, and be thoroughly trained to assess and identify problem readers at early ages. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators have been caught between conflicting schools of thought about how to teach reading and how to help students who are not progressing easily. In their reading education, teachers are frequently presented with a “one size fits all” philosophy that emphasizes either a “whole language” or “phonics” orientation to instruction. No doubt, this parochial type of preparation places many children at continued risk for reading failure since it is well established that no reading program should be without all the major components of reading instruction (phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, fluency, and reading comprehension) and the real question is which children need what, when, for how long, with what type of instruction, and in what type of setting.

It is hard to find disagreement in the educational community that the direction and fabric of teacher education programs in language arts and reading must change. However, bringing about such change will be difficult. In addition, if teacher preparation in the area of language and reading is expected to become more thoughtful and systematic, it is a must that changes be made in how teaching competencies and certification requirements are developed and implemented. Currently in many states, the certification offices within state departments of education do not maintain formal and collaborative relationships with academic departments within colleges of education. Thus, the requirements that a student may be expected to satisfy for a college degree may bear little relationship to the requirements for a teaching certificate, and even more alarming is the fact that many of the requirements are not based upon the best research related to reading development and disorders.

How can we help children learn to read?

Learning to read is a lengthy and difficult process for many children, and success in learning to read is based in large part on developing language and literacy-related skills very early in life. A massive effort needs to be undertaken to inform parents, and the educational and medical communities of the need to involve children in reading from the first days of life; to engage children in playing with language through nursery rhymes, storybooks, and writing activities; and, as early as possible, to bring to children experiences that help them understand the purposes of reading, and the wonder and joy that can be derived from it. Parents must become intimately aware of the importance of vocabulary development and the use of verbal interactions with their youngsters to enhance grammar, syntax, and verbal reasoning.

Young preschool children should be encouraged to learn the letters of the alphabet, to discriminate letters from one another, to print letters, and to attempt to spell words that they hear. By introducing young children to print, their exposure to the purposes of reading and writing will increase and their knowledge of the conventions of print and their awareness of print concepts will increase.

Reading out loud to children is a proven activity for developing vocabulary growth and language expansion, and plays a causal role in developing both receptive and expressive language capabilities. Reading out loud can also be used to enhance children’s background knowledge of new concepts that may appear in both oral and written language. However, we must have a clear understanding that reading aloud to children is a necessary, but not sufficient means to teaching reading skills. Again, the ability to read requires a number of skills that, in most children, must be developed via direct and informed instruction provided by properly prepared teachers.

Our NICHD prevention and early intervention studies in Houston, Texas, Tallahassee, Florida, and Albany, New York, as well as other NIH supported research programs, all speak to the importance of early identification and intervention with children at-risk for reading failure. Procedures now exist to identify such children with good accuracy. This information needs to be widely disseminated to schools, teachers, and parents.

Kindergarten programs should be designed so that all children will develop the prerequisite phonological, vocabulary, and early reading skills necessary for success in the first grade. All children should acquire the ability to recognize and print both upper and lowercase letters with reasonable ease and accuracy, develop familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading and writing, and develop age-appropriate language comprehension skills.

Beginning reading programs should be constructed to ensure that adequate instructional time be allotted to the teaching of phonemic awareness skills, phonics skills, the development of spelling and orthographic skills, the development of reading fluency and automaticity, and the development of reading comprehension strategies. All of these components of reading are necessary, but not sufficient, in, and of, themselves. For children demonstrating difficulty in learning to read, it is imperative that each of these components be taught in an integrated context and that ample practice in reading familiar material be afforded.

A major impediment to serving the needs of children demonstrating difficulties learning to read is current teacher preparation practices. Many teachers lack basic knowledge and understanding of reading development and the nature of reading difficulties. Major efforts should be undertaken to ensure that colleges of education possess the expertise and commitment to foster expertise in teachers at both preservice and inservice levels. Strong competency-based training programs with formal board certification for teachers of reading should be developed.

We need to develop a formal procedure to assess the current status of scientific research-based knowledge relevant to reading development, reading disorders, and the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read. We also need to develop strategies for rapid dissemination of this information to facilitate teacher preparation and effective reading instruction in our Nation’s schools. The NICHD is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies to develop a reading research assessment initiative to meet this need. In addition to the assessment and dissemination activities, if warranted, the initiative would recommend a plan for needed additional research regarding early reading development and instruction.

Dr. Reid Lyon, Acting Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health (NIH)
This article is adapted from testimony given by Dr. Reid Lyon before the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 10, 1997.
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