Reforms Needed To Improve Children's Reading Skills

March 18, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Widespread reforms are needed to ensure that all children are equipped with the skills and instruction they need to learn to read, according to a new report from a committee of the National Research Council. An ongoing debate over which teaching method is best has diverted attention from the most important factors affecting how a child learns to read. Children need language-rich preschool opportunities, and teachers need better preparation and support to be able to guide students through the complex mix of skills that go into learning to read, the report says.

"We know what factors help prevent reading difficulties," said committee chair Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass. "We need the will to ensure that every child has access to excellent preschool environments and well-prepared teachers. Because reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity, no single method is the answer. It is time for educators, parents, and everyone else concerned with children's education to make sure that children have all the experiences that research has shown to support reading development."

The majority of reading problems faced by today's adolescents and adults could have been avoided or resolved in the early years of childhood, says the report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The committee outlined critical components of a child's education from birth through third grade. For example: Children at Risk

Children who have successfully learned to read by elementary school have mastered three skills: They understand that letters of the alphabet represent word sounds, they are able to read for meaning, and they read fluently. Disruption of any of these components can throw off a child's development, the report says, and could lead to difficulties that ultimately will reduce the chances that the child will finish high school, get a job, or become an informed citizen.

Success in reading builds on the same complex set of skills for all children. Those running into difficulties do not need different instruction from other children, the report says, though they may need more focused, intense, and individual application of the same principles. Any special services they receive should be integrated into high-quality classroom instruction.

Reading problems are disproportionately high among minorities, non-English-speaking children, and those who grow up in poor or urban environments. A particularly thorny political problem has centered on how to educate children whose first language is not English. The report says that these children should first learn the skills of reading in their initial language -- the language in which they will best be able to discern the meaning of words and of sentences. If such instruction is not feasible in a given school system, the child should not be rushed prematurely into English reading instruction, but should be given an opportunity to develop a reasonable level of oral proficiency in English before learning to read. Children at risk of reading difficulties because of hearing impairment, language problems, or for other reasons must be identified quickly by pediatricians, social workers, and other early childhood practitioners.

To address these children's needs, the committee called for an increase in affordable, language-rich preschool programs. Programs designed as prevention for children at risk should focus on social, language, and cognitive development, not just on literacy. Organizations and government bodies concerned with the education of young children should target parents, care givers, and the general public in a campaign to promote public understanding of the way young children learn to read. The program should address ways of using books and creating opportunities for building language skills and literacy growth through everyday activities.

Teacher Preparation

Because major responsibility for preventing reading difficulties is borne by early childhood educators and elementary school teachers, it is critical that they are sufficiently trained for the task. However, many teachers are not adequately prepared, the report says. Practitioners dealing with children under the age of eight need better training in reading development, and primary school teachers need ongoing professional development and continuing opportunities for mentoring and collaborating with reading specialists.

State certification requirements and teacher education curricula should be changed to incorporate key concepts about the way language relates to reading, as well as information about the relationship between early literacy behavior and conventional reading, the report says. Local school officials need to improve their staff development opportunities, which are often weakened by a lack of substantive, research-based content and systematic follow-up.

Schools that lack or have abandoned the use of reading specialists should re-examine their need for them and provide the functional equivalent of these well-trained staff members. These specialists' roles should be designed to ensure an effective two-way dialogue with regular classroom teachers. Volunteer tutors can be helpful in giving kids practice in reading for fluency, but are unlikely to be able to deal effectively with children who have serious reading problems.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

*Pre-publication copies of Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children are available from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $45.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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