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Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Scientific Teaching of Reading

By Michael L. Kamil & Herbert J. Walberg — January 25, 2005 7 min read
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The importance to reading of language-stimulating home life is easy to underestimate.

Because learning in most subjects depends on reading skills, reading proficiency can be considered the most important goal in the early grades. Yet, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey shows, only 29 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading. Moreover, children who fall substantially behind in reading in the early grades are unlikely to catch up—meaning that the long process of dropping out of high school often starts in the early years.

The problem is more acute for children who live in poverty. By age 4, poor children have been exposed to about 13 million words used by their parents, mostly in simple sentences, whereas affluent children have been exposed to about 45 million words, often in more complex sentences. Affluent parents speak to their children in more encouraging language that fosters dialogue; poor parents more often use punitive, authoritarian language. Because reading depends on vocabulary, prior knowledge, experience, and encouragement, the teaching of at-risk students in poverty is all the more challenging.

For these reasons, the U.S. Department of Education, through the Institute of Education Sciences-sponsored Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success, asked us to organize a conference to synthesize the scientific findings on the teaching of reading. At that conference, held in Washington in November of 2001, policymakers, scholars, and educators considered the National Reading Panel findings on phonics, phonological awareness, and fluency, as well as equally important findings that the panel lacked the time to compile—the most important of which are summarized here. (The conference papers are available on the laboratory’s Internet site, and a downloadable and freely republishable booklet distributed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is available online.)

Participants in the conference credited the research of reading scholars over the past half-century for laying the factual groundwork for practical, scientifically based principles that can be applied today to help solve the nation’s problems in increasing students’ knowledge and skills. Scattered among the tens of thousands of anecdotal and opinion-based writings on reading is a small but significant set of control-group studies that show how reading can be most effectively promoted and taught. Synthesis of this work by the National Reading Panel along with continuing efforts by such groups as the federal What Works Clearinghouse can suggest teaching implications for rigorous implementation. As is true in the cases of agriculture and medicine, K-12 education has the potential for greater productivity.

What are the most important principles? Fortunately, they reflect practical wisdom and accord well with common sense. They can be stated in plain language and seem readily understandable. First, the importance of language-stimulating home life is easy to underestimate. Students spend roughly 12 years of 180 six-hour days in elementary and secondary schools. This adds up to approximately 13 percent of the waking hours of the first 18 years of life. While a focus has been on instruction in school settings, achievement can be raised impressively by making better use of the 87 percent of the student’s waking time spent outside school under the guidance of their parents.

Before and during the school years, youngsters can benefit greatly from constructive language experiences at home. Parents’ stimulation of their children can improve their vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and a general knowledge of the world. Parents can express affection, provide emotional stability, and encourage children’s academic work and related activities. Parents can help their children gain a key to accomplished adulthood by deferring immediate gratifications to invest in the accomplishments that lead to long-term academic and other life goals.

For comprehension, it is not enough merely to master effective reading procedures; knowledge in the conventional sense of the word is also essential.

Educators can describe the benefits of these parental practices. They can suggest home activities to enhance children’s language skills and point out stimulating materials to use. An intentional “curriculum of the home” can include direct teaching of children by parents, parent-child discussions about activities in and out of school, and encouragement and discussion about leisure reading. Parents can help their children by limiting, monitoring, and discussing television programs and out-of-school peer activities.

Parents, tutors, and teachers can carefully introduce children to the elements of reading—sound and letter recognition, knowledge of how letters combine to form sounds, and the sounding-out of words. Because adults can take in whole phrases at a quick glance, they may not realize that beginners may still be struggling to distinguish a “b” from a “d.” Children need practice, often repetitive practice, to gain fluency in oral reading. If 4th graders are struggling with sounding out words, if they need a tongue between their teeth to remember the sound blend of “th,” they are unlikely to comprehend well, enjoy reading, and thrive in school.

As readers progress, they need to learn procedures to understand what they read that are so familiar to adults that they hardly require deliberate thought. This includes, for example, measured amounts of instruction in how to pose questions that can be answered as children read. Practice in summarizing also promotes students’ coherent understanding of what they read. Such “comprehension strategies” efficiently guide students’ reading. They can be promoted by teacher- student discussions before and after reading.

At intermediate stages of mastery, readers need to learn how to skim material for a quick overview or to find a given fact, and they also need to learn to read a poem or scientific passage slowly, reflectively, intensively, or perhaps repeatedly until they have a deep and thorough understanding. In these ways, skilled readers have learned to adapt their speed to their purposes in reading.

For comprehension, it is not enough merely to master effective reading procedures (“procedural mastery”); knowledge in the conventional sense of the word (“declarative knowledge”) is also essential. Such knowledge derives from wide and deep experience and from extensive reading itself. Readers unfamiliar with such ideas as North, South, and slavery, for example, will not readily understand the causes of the Civil War.

Students need a sense that they are progressing—becoming capable of reading increasingly difficult texts. Classroom discussions and quizzes, and formal examinations, provide useful information about their mastery. Conversations with parents, peers, teachers, librarians, and others can also be informative.

Effective teachers know the inefficiency of teaching students what they already know and what they are not yet able to learn. Parents, teachers, and students themselves can make reading time more efficient by choosing material that is sufficiently but not overly challenging. This will keep children from becoming frustrated in attempting to read material they cannot master.

Choosing material that is inherently interesting for a given student may also enhance the student’s motivation. Though they are capable of reading, many students choose not to read as much as they should for schoolwork or for their own pleasure. For these students, motivation may be the key to improving their knowledge and reading ability. If they become sufficiently engaged, they are more likely to read, to perceive themselves as readers, and to opt to read more.

These issues of difficulty, interest, and knowledge embedded in reading content make clear the need for selecting the optimal teaching methods and content through scientific means. Syntheses by the National Reading Panel provide such guidance on the choice of reading content. And the ongoing syntheses by the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth and the Early Childhood Literacy Panel will extend these insights so that curriculum developers, teachers, and other educators can become more judicious in content choice.

To do their best, teachers can benefit from professional development in scientifically based reading teaching that raises student achievement.

To do their best, teachers can benefit from professional development in scientifically based reading teaching that raises student achievement. Effective professional development is related to specific teacher needs and is sustained over time.

Each of these principles has been identified as being capable of fostering at least one dimension of skilled, masterly reading. If all children were afforded the optimal kinds of instruction in reading, perhaps nine in 10, rather than three in 10, would be proficient readers by the 4th grade, and we could expect their success to be sustained in the later grades, in high school graduation rates, and in the workforce.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as The Scientific Teaching of Reading

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