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Components of Effective Reading Instruction

There is no single “best” program for teaching reading. However, scientific investigators agree about the need for instruction to address certain key abilities involved in learning to read.

There is no single “best” program for teaching reading. However, scientific investigators agree about the need for instruction to address certain key abilities involved in learning to read. The importance of different reading-related abilities tends to shift somewhat with grade level and stage of development in reading; the abilities needed to be a successful middle- or high-school reader are not exactly the same as those required for success in first grade. Many authorities also agree that certain qualities can help to make reading instruction more effective with most youngsters, although students with learning disabilities in reading may have some special instructional needs.

Effective primary grade instruction

At the primary level, kindergarten through grade three, general education instruction should address five key reading-related abilities: phonemic awareness (awareness of individual sounds in spoken words); phonics knowledge (knowledge of sounds for letters and common letter patterns, and the ability to apply that knowledge to read unfamiliar words); fluency (ease and speed of reading); vocabulary (knowledge of meanings of individual words); and comprehension (understanding what has been read or heard). Instruction in the latter two areas includes development of oral abilities as well as actual reading, as when teachers read age-appropriate stories aloud to children and discuss stories orally.

Reading instruction also should be explicit and systematic. “Explicit” means that important skills and types of knowledge are taught directly by the teacher; children are not expected to infer key skills and knowledge only from exposure or incidental learning opportunities. “Systematic” means that there is a planned and logical sequence of instruction; for example, children are not expected to read long, complex words until they first can read simpler words. Moreover, reading instruction should attempt to motivate and engage both normally-achieving and struggling readers. For instance, children need access to books on a variety of topics and from a variety of reading levels, as well as opportunities to choose books that interest them and to share books with each other.

Effective general education reading instruction can prevent or improve reading problems in many youngsters. However, some children, including some of those with learning disabilities, may need much more intensive instruction and more opportunities for practice than do normally-achieving readers to learn to read well. Providing this kind of intensive help as early as possible is essential, because reading difficulties often become much harder to remediate over time.

Beyond the primary grades

For normally-achieving readers beyond grade three, reading instruction focuses increasingly on vocabulary and on a range of comprehension skills necessary for successful reading at upper grade levels. Comprehension instruction should include the use of comprehension strategies (e.g., summarizing what one has read or heard, or using sentence context as an aid to determining the meanings of words); using knowledge about text structure to aid comprehension (e.g., in an expository text such as a science book, headings and subheadings often contain important information that should be attended to); and developing appreciation of literary devices and themes. Vocabulary instruction should include both explicit methods, such as direct teaching of important words, and more indirect methods, such as encouraging wide reading by children to increase their exposure to new words.

Phonemic awareness is well developed in normally-achieving readers by the end of grade one and basic phonics knowledge by the end of grade three, so these areas are not usually included in regular-classroom instruction beyond the primary grades. However, for youngsters with learning disabilities in reading, difficulties with phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge often persist well beyond grade three. If a child with LD has deficits in these areas, skilled and intensive remediation is essential to his or her reading progress. In addition, poor reading fluency is extremely common among older youngsters with LD, even those whose difficulties with phonemic awareness and phonics have been successfully remediated. Poor fluency is especially problematic in the upper grades because it impairs comprehension, reduces motivation to read, and makes it difficult for children to keep up with the reading demands of their classes. Thus, instruction that specifically targets fluency is very important. Finally, the use of oral comprehension activities may continue to be valuable for older youngsters with reading disabilities, because their oral comprehension often far exceeds their reading comprehension. Oral activities may be a vehicle for students with LD to develop higher-level comprehension skills and to display abilities that would not be revealed in their reading and writing. However, oral activities should not substitute for intensive remediation of specific reading weaknesses; otherwise, students with LD will not develop the skills they need to be capable, independent readers.

Examples of sources

Peer-reviewed journal articles:

  • Bus, A. G., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 403-414.
  • Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching reading-comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research. Review of Educational Research, 71, 279-320.
  • Lovett, M. W., Lacerenza, L., Borden, S., Frijters, J., Steinbach, K., & DePalma, M. (2000). Components of effective remediation for developmental reading disabilities: Combining phonological and strategy-based instruction to improve outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 263-283.
  • Meyer, M. S., & Felton, R. H. (1999). Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions. Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283-306.
  • Rankin-Erickson, J. L., & Pressley, M. (2000). A survey of instructional practices of special education teachers nominated as effective teachers of literacy. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15, 206-225.
  • Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C., Voeller, K., & Conway, T. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 33-58.
  • Wolf, M., Miller, L., & Donnelly, K. (2000). Retrieval, automaticity, vocabulary, engagement with language, orthography (RAVE-O): A comprehensive fluency-based reading intervention program. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33, 375-386.

Other helpful sources:

  • Biemiller, A. (1999). Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  • Ehri, L. C. (2004). Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics: An explanation of the National Reading Panel meta-analyses. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.
  • National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health.
  • National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Peterson, C. L., Caverly, D. C., Nicholson, S. A., O’Neil, S., & Cusenbary, S. (2000). Building reading proficiency at the secondary level: A guide to resources. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
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