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Over 40% of 4th graders performed below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress

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Preventing Reading Failure by Ensuring Effective Reading Instruction

By Barbara R. Foorman, Jack M. Fletcher, David J. Francis

(From The Keys to Literacy. Council for Basic Education, 1998)

Is there really a reading crisis to justify the national, state, and local initiatives emphasizing reading? Consider these facts:

Over 40% of 4th graders performed below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that is, they did not demonstrate understanding of 4th grade level texts.

10% of 4th graders did not participate in the NAEP because they could not read well enough to take it.

According to epidemiological data, 17-21% of children have a reading disability.

And few would disagree with the prediction that the gap between the U.S. workforce’s current literacy levels and the level required by technological advances will increase dramatically in the next decade.

The real crisis in these statistics is the disproportionate representation by minority children. In the NAEP data just presented, the percentages of African-American and Hispanic 4th graders reading below the basic level are 69% and 64%, respectively. Nationwide, these percentages translate into

approximately 4.5 million African-American and 3.3 million Hispanic students reading very poorly in grade 4 (1). To not be alarmed by these numbers is to abrogate responsibility for public education’s role in providing the most basic skill of all—the skill of learning to read so that reading to learn is an option to enhance one’s opportunities in life. For children from low print environments, every minute of effective reading instruction in school counts. But what constitutes "effective" reading instruction in this era of bitterly fought reading wars over phonics and whole language instruction? We will address this question in a tutorial, Q & A format. Then we will propose a rapprochement between the extremists in the whole language and phonics camps so that we can indeed provide a "nation of readers" (2.)

^ Effective Reading Instruction

Q: What is effective early reading instruction?

 A: Effective early reading instruction is instruction that promotes reading success, specifically success in identifying words and understanding text.

 Q: Is phonics or whole language more effective in teaching children to read?

 A: It’s not a question of either phonics or whole language. Both play an important role in helping children learn to read.

 Q: But how can you have both phonics and whole language? Doesn’t phonics stress the rules for relating letters to sounds, while whole language stresses the process of extracting meaning from written language? Aren’t these views incompatible because one emphasizes going from part to whole

and the other emphasizes whole to part?

 A: Yes, phonics and whole language approaches are incompatible when viewed as exclusive instructional approaches to beginning reading. That is why advocates of both approaches to beginning reading need to look at research on how children learn to read.

 Q: How do children learn to read? Isn’t learning to read much like learning to talk? That is, doesn’t reading emerge naturally out of interaction with parents and other adults in a print-rich environment, just as language emerges naturally out of interaction with parents and other adults?

 A: No. There are important differences between learning to read and learning to talk. Learning to talk is natural in that children grow up learning to talk like the adults around them without someone trying to teach them to talk. Reading, on the other hand, requires explicit instruction, and that’s why there are cultures with spoken but no written languages.

 Q: So what needs to be explicitly taught so that children learn to read?

 A: An early necessary step for children is to become aware of the sounds of language—of the words within sentences, of the syllables within words, and of the units within syllables called phonemes.

 Q: Why are phonemes important?

 A: They are important because they are the segments of sounds that the letters of the alphabet represent. For example "cat" has 3 phonemes--/c/, /a/, and /t/--and these 3 phonemes are represented by the letters c, a, and t.

 Q: Is that why it’s important to teach children the ABC’s?

 A: Yes, knowing the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet, along with awareness of phonemes in spoken language, are the skills most predictive of reading success.

Q: Does this mean that children in kindergarten and grade 1 can be taught phonemic awareness and alphabetic skills and consequently become successful readers?

A: Yes, for the majority of children that is the case. Above all, children need the opportunity to apply their phonological and alphabetic skills to the reading of connected text.

Q: But doesn’t English contain many irregular words that must be memorized?

A: Approximately 13% of English words are highly unpredictable in their letter-sound relations, such as the au in the word laugh. In contrast, 50% of words are very predictable. The remaining 37% consist of complex spelling that can be taught (as the au in taught and caught is likely to be introduced).

Q: So is this where phonics comes in—with the 50% of word that are predictable and the 37% of words with complex spelling patterns?

A: Yes, phonics rules are letter-sound correspondence rules. The names and sounds of the alphabet are phonics rules. Beyond the single letter-sound correspondences for consonants and vowels, phonics instruction typically covers long vowel correspondences such as ay and "magic -e for long "a,"

digraphs such as sh in ship, initial consonant blends such as sl in slap, and final consonant digraphs such as ck in back.

Q: But I’ve heard that it would take over 2,000 phonics rules to program a computer to read English. Having children memorize lists of phonics rules would stifle the joy of reading, wouldn’t it?

A: Research indicates that programs focusing on the most frequent spelling patterns for the approximately 44 phonemes of English can bring children at risk for reading failure to national average in decoding words.

Q: But won’t good phonics programs simply create good decoders—"word callers"—and not good comprehenders?

A: Remember, good reading programs are not simply phonics programs. ^ Good reading programs allow children to practice the letter-sound correspondences taught in decodable text and in good literature. In addition, good programs and teachers enable children to develop efficient word

recognition strategies so that attention and memory resources are more available for comprehension. Good reading programs always provide access to good literature and encourage children to read as much as possible material with which they are comfortable.

Q: There’s so much jargon in education. Now you’re switching from "decoding" to "word recognition strategies". Are these the same thing?

A: In a strict sense, the word "decoding" emphasizes the letter-to-sound rules that even skilled readers use when they come to an unknown word (e.g. cacophony). "Word recognition", on the other hand, is a term that emphasizes the role of groups of letters (e.g. eight has the "long a" sound) or meaningful units such as prefixes and suffixes and inflectional endings (e.g., plural, past tense).

Q: Isn’t that really spelling instruction?

A: Yes, traditionally it is through spelling instruction that students go beyond phonics to learn about word meaning and writing conventions, such as q is always followed by u, and when to double the final consonant when adding inflections (e.g., running versus writing). Spelling skill is not only relevant

to writing, it is also important to the rapid recognition of words required for comprehension.

Q: What about vocabulary? Isn’t it important to reading and spelling?

A: Absolutely. It’s hard to read or spell a word when you don’t know its meaning. And vocabulary needs to be taught, along with listening comprehension, right from the beginning of school.

Q: What about comprehension?

A: The goal of learning to read is understanding printed material. Efficient word recognition skills is a necessary but not sufficient component of good comprehension. As children get older, comprehension strategies should be taught. From an early age, children need to enjoy reading, which can be facilitated by shared and guided reading, discussions of literature, and other practices that help children appreciate reading as a tool for understanding and learning.

Q: But what about the most important part of learning to read—the teacher?

A: Parents and teachers are crucially important to a child’s success in learning to read. Teacher training needs to provide generic information about how children learn to read and spell and how to use instructional materials effectively.

Q: Should classroom teachers know how to identify and teach children with dyslexia to read?

A: Classroom teachers need to determine whether children are learning the reading skills being taught. For children who fall behind in those skills, additional help by a teacher or tutor may be necessary.

Q: Is there a particular tutorial approach that works best?

A: Research supports the benefit of 30 minutes of daily one-to-one tutoring by a tutor, knowledgeable in the components of learning to read—phonemic awareness, alphabetic decoding, word recognition strategies, spelling, and comprehension. The best programs provide ample opportunities to read and

discuss literature.

Q: But doesn’t intervention need to be tailored to the learning styles of children?

A: People mean a lot of different things by "learning styles." Instead, the focus should be on learner characteristics that predict reading success. For example, beginning levels of phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and reading skills will determine how to intervene and for how long.

Q: Can all children learn to read?

A: All but a very small percent of children can become successful readers and writers if our goal is to deliver effective reading instruction right from the start.

^ Confusion of Process with Product

So why is there so much conflict about beginning reading instruction if learning to read is a process of a) accessing the meaning of the word by becoming aware that spoken language consists of segments (phonemic awareness) onto which letters of the alphabet map (the alphabetic principle) and b) accessing the meaning of sentences by fluently decoding the words so that memory and attention are freed to construct the author’s message? According to the "simple view of reading"(3), reading comprehension is the product of decoding and listening comprehension skills. Word recognition and language comprehension skills are both crucially important to the process of learning to read. Who could disagree?

Disagreement—actually, misunderstanding—comes from educators and policy makers who translate discussions regarding processes of learning to read into products that demonstrate reading mastery. Thus, if researchers point to the importance to reading comprehension of skill in phonemic awareness, decoding, and spelling in learning to read, then educators conclude that instruction should focus first on phonemic awareness, then on alphabetic coding through decodable books of phonetically regular words, and finally on spelling of all orthographic patterns.

Such bottom-up, discrete skill instruction leads to production of separate commercial kits. Many of the basal series in the late 1990’s are the literature-based programs of the early 1990’s with add on kits. The teacher editions provide little guidance to the teachers as to how to integrate these kits into the literature selection. Thus, the basals become unwieldy and the decision of what skills to integrate into the literature, how to integrate them, and for how long are left up to the teacher. Given such a smorgasbord of literacy and skill-based activities, it is not surprising that time spent on actual literacy instruction is limited (4), or that disproportionate amounts of time are spent on less relevant activities. Furthermore, given the reality of one teacher and 25 or so children in the primary grades and the taboos against "ability" grouping and Round Robin reading, it is not surprising that the basals assume whole-class instruction. Finally, given that the design of the curriculum is orchestrated by individual teachers teaching whole classrooms of students, it is not surprising that curriculum-based assessment of individual children is not characteristic of current basals.

A common expectation is that teachers will master techniques for "kid-watching" (5) and for analyzing reading errors in real books [referred to as "running records"(6), or "miscue analysis"(7) ] and individualize instruction as needed. The reality is that these "best practices" are exhibited by a relatively small proportion of the nation’s teachers who have had highly specialized master’s level training in diagnostic techniques. Unfortunately, these diagnostic techniques are available only in expensive one-on-one tutorials after the student has fallen behind in reading. Training classroom teachers in

these diagnostic techniques requires massive amounts of staff development and complex interpretation of how running records or miscue analyses relate to the next day’s lesson plan.

Stop! How can our discussion of effective reading instruction that prevents reading failure have disintegrated into a lament about poor products that evoke bad practice? The answer is that the research on how children learn to read has been largely ignored or misapplied by developers of commercial curriculum programs. For example, key to the phonological awareness training programs developed by researchers (8, 9) is the idea of manipulating syllables and phonemes in speech. But speech sounds—being auditory stimuli—have no place in a pupil edition and so they are omitted or changed into picture or letter writing worksheets. Phonics instruction, often accomplished by researchers through word building activities (10) that require manipulation of a subset of vowels and consonants, becomes translated

into worksheets. And spelling research which lays out the organizing principles of English orthography (11, 12) is translated into endless spelling lists.

So what’s the solution? Forget doing research so that vendors won’t distort research findings into commercial profit? No, particularly since there is an extraordinarily rich body of data on how children learn to read (13). The answer is to support accurate translation of research to practice and to support empirical tests of efficacy, where the multi-way interactions of processes and products are addressed by asking: Which students need what, when, for how long, with what type of instruction, and in what type of setting?

The good news is that there are classroom reading programs where sound pedagogy has been shown to have empirical efficacy. ^ Prominent examples are Success for All (14), Open Court Reading (15, 16), and SRA Reading Mastery

(17, 18). The latter has added a literature component so that all three of these programs can be described as balanced and comprehensive. Many more programs are currently being developed but they too will need to withstand

the test of efficacy.


It is clearly possible for research on how children learn to read to inform instructional practice and curriculum products. But the biggest challenge of all may be to confront the bias that these are not all our children. How many

times have we heard the comment, "But these approaches work only for learning disabled (LD), at-risk (Title 1), or English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students." Conceptually sound and empirically-based instructional approaches work for all children. However, some children will need more opportunity to practice what they are taught.

All children benefit from instruction rich in oral and written language activities.

All children benefit from listening to intellectually challenging text and reading from text at their instructional and independent level.

All pre-readers will benefit from attending to and manipulating sound units in oral language and then writing down graphic representations for these sound units, through phonetic spellings.

All beginning readers will benefit from decodable and believable text, along with other books that may be narratives or expository text, poetry, or fairy tales.

All beginning writers will benefit from information about the orthographic principles of English spelling.

Teachers of regular education and teachers of special education, Title 1, and ESL need to unite forces and work towards preventing reading difficulties. Reading skills fall on a continuum and where categorical slices are made in

the distribution for the purpose of identification for special services is arbitrary. Reading problems after age 8 are refractory to treatment (19, 20). The time to assist children is before they accumulate sufficient failure to qualify for special services or retention. This is every teacher’s job—indeed, every educator’s job. There can be rapprochement between whole language and phonics extremists and it is summed up by one word: Prevention. Most reading problems can be prevented through effective classroom instruction in kindergarten and early elementary school. The key is to translate and implement what we know from research into the classroom (21).


1. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. National Academy Press: Washington, D.C.

2. Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers. Champaign, IL: Center for the

Study of Reading.

3. Gough, P.B., & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.

4. Allington, R.L. (1991). Children who find learning to read difficult: School responses to diversity. In E.H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society (pp. 237-252). NY: Teachers College Press.

5. Goodman, K., Goodman, Y., & Hood, W.J. (1989). The whole language evaluation book. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

6. Clay, M. (1993). An observation survey. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

7. Goodman, K.S. (1965). A linguistic study of cues and miscues in reading.

Elementary English, 42, 639-643.

8. Adams, M.J., Foorman, B.R., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1998). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

9. Ball, E.W., & Blachman, B.A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and

developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 49-66.

10. Beck, I.L., & Juel, C. (Summer, 1995). The role of decoding in learning to read. American Educator, 8-42.

11. Moats, L.C.. (1995). Teaching spelling: Development, disability, and instruction. Baltimore, MD: York Press.

12. Henderson, E. (1990). Teaching spelling (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

13. Stanovich, K.E. (December, 1997). Twenty-five years of research on the reading process: The grand synthesis and what it means for our field. Oscar S. Causey Research Award Address presented at the National Reading Conference, Scottsdale, Arizona.

14. Slavin, R.E., Madden, N.A., Dolan, L.J., Wasik, B.A., Smith, L., & Dianda, M. (1996). Success for All: A summary of research. Journal of Education for

Students Placed At Risk, 1, 41-76.

15. Open Court Reading. (1995). Collections for young scholars. Chicago and Peru, IL: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

16. Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Fletcher, J.M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P.

(1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 37-55.

17. Englemann, S., & Bruner, E.C. (1995). SRA Reading Mastery Rainbow Edition. Chicago, IL: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

18. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. National Academy Press: Washington, D.C.

19. Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, S.E., Stuebing, K.K., Shaywitz, B.A., & Fletcher, J.M. (1996). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A

longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational

Psychology, 88, 3-17.

20. Torgesen, J.K. (1997). The prevention and remediation of reading disabilities: Evaluating what we know from research. Journal of

Academic Language Therapy, 1, 11-47.

21. Stanovich, K.E. (December, 1997). Twenty-five years of research on the reading process: The grand synthesis and what it means for our field. Oscar S. Causey Research Award Address presented at the National Reading Conference, Scottsdale, Arizona.


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