Learning to read is an essential foundation for success in our society. Research shows that children who are not proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade have difficulties throughout the course of their schooling, perform poorly in other subjects and may never graduate. Further, the alternatives to reading achievement — grade retention, special education assignment and long-term remedial programs — are costly and typically less effective for students. In a technological society, the demands for higher literacy are ever increasing, creating more serious consequences for those who fall short.
The knowledge and practices exist to teach all but a small percentage of students to read at or above grade level. Unfortunately, what is known about teaching students to read and preventing and/or correcting reading problems is not disseminated to or used in all schools across the country. While not the sole reason, some experts believe that the intense debate between phonics and whole-language supporters has interfered with teachers' access to clear, helpful and adequate information about reading approaches and programs.
Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test show that some improvements have been realized since 1992 for 8th grade students, but that 4th-grade students' reading scores have remained largely unchanged. Between 1992 and 2003, even with gains for most student groups at both grades, gaps have changed little. Between 2007 and 2009, there have been no significant changes in the racial/ethnic gaps, gender gaps, or gaps by type of school at either grade. Compared to 1992, only the White-Black gap at grade 4 and the female-male gap at grade 8 have narrowed.
Researchers at the National Institutes for Health have studied how children learn using pure phonics, pure whole-language and combinations of both. Their conclusion is that children learn to read best if they are first given "phoneme awareness" (understanding that sounds heard in spoken words correspond to letters seen in print), and then taught the letter-sound relationships of traditional phonics. All along, teachers should expose children to literature by reading to them and giving them interesting books as in the whole-language method. Consequently, researchers and educators are urging policymakers to avoid mandating a particular reading method and allowing teachers to select the most appropriate approach.
When it comes to "what works," the greatest agreement seems to be that no approach alone works best for all children under all conditions, nor will one particular method reverse the troublesome NAEP scores. Many reading experts believe that the more strategies teachers have at hand, the more they are able to switch gears and adapt their approach to the student's needs, and the more likely children will learn to read well.
Despite the debate over phonics vs. whole language, there seems to be some general agreement about the basic reading skills that students should acquire during the primary grades, including the following:
Over the years, research and practical experience have yielded a "what's-needed" list to increase students' chances of mastering reading. This list includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Phonemic awareness (understanding that sounds heard in spoken words correspond to letters seen in print)
- Common sound-spelling relationships in words
- Decoding strategies (reading words by sounding out their parts and blending them together)
- Vocabulary development and building
- Comprehension strategies (understanding the meaning of reading materials).
Despite differing opinions on the most appropriate ways to teach reading, a fairly extensive research base exists on how children learn to read. If so much is known, why aren't more students reading at grade level? Several reasons have been suggested, including a lack of prevention, diagnosis and intervention related to reading problems; inadequate teacher preparation and professional development; and the absence of reading standards and accountability. Policymakers can have a positive impact on improving student reading, and many states are responding with policies targeted at student readiness, intervention, teacher quality and accountability. The most effective strategy is a comprehensive initiative that addresses all of these policy areas, closely tracks student progress and uses solid information to make adjustments so that all students read more successfully.
- Provide diagnostic and intervention services as early as possible
- Use a variety of reading strategies and materials to meet individual student needs, expand vocabulary and strengthen comprehension
- Provide high-quality preservice and professional development so teachers have sufficient knowledge and practical skills to teach reading to any student (especially those at risk), and can integrate the most appropriate practices into their classroom
- Keep groups or classes as small as possible through innovative staffing, for example, by using other certified building staff, teachers aides and tutors
- Set reading achievement as a top priority and devote as much time as possible to reading in the early grades
- Involve parents in developing their children's readiness, ability and desire to become good readers.