The Challenges of Learning to Teach Reading

Teaching reading is a complex process that draws upon an extensive knowledge base and repertoire of strategies. This article argues that many novice teachers are underprepared to teach reading effectively, and examines some of the reasons why.

Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Contrary to the popular theory that learning to read is natural and easy, learning to read is a complex linguistic achievement.

For many children, it requires effort and incremental skill development. Moreover, teaching reading requires considerable knowledge and skill, acquired over several years through focused study and supervised practice.

The difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated. Consider what the classroom demands of the teacher:

  • Children's interest in reading must be stimulated through regular exposure to interesting books and through discussions in which students respond to many kinds of texts.
  • For best results, the teacher must instruct most students directly, systematically, and explicitly to decipher words in print, all the while keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of reading, which is to learn, enjoy, and understand.
  • To accommodate children's variability, the teacher must assess children and tailor lessons to individuals. She must interpret errors, give corrective feedback, select examples to illustrate concepts, explain new ideas in several ways, and connect linguistic symbols with "real" reading and writing.

No one can develop such expertise by taking one or two college courses, or attending a few one-shot inservice workshops.

Although reading is the cornerstone of academic success, a single course in reading methods is often all that is offered most prospective teachers. Even if well taught, a single course is only the beginning. Without deeper knowledge, the specific techniques of lesson delivery cannot be acquired, let alone knowledge of language, reading psychology, children's literature, or the management of a reading program based on assessment.

The demands of competent reading instruction, and the training experiences necessary to learn it, have been seriously underestimated by universities and by those who have approved licensing programs. The consequences for teachers and students alike have been disastrous.


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A. Liberman (1997). In April 1998, Dr. Liberman received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading for his work explicating the nature of phonological processing and its relationship to reading.

Moats, 1995; Moats & Lyon, 1996; Scarborough et al., 1998.

Shankweiler et al., 1996.


Beck et al., 1998; Pressley, 1998.

Corroborated by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing survey of reading courses in state universities in 1996.

Stanovich, 1994.

Report on the California State University Academic Senate's condemnation of the state legislature's reading initiative: 'Some Professors Resist State's Reform Formula' by Duke Helfand. Los Angeles Times, Oct. 25, 1998.

Summaries such as those by Adams, 1990; Pressley, 1998; Osborn & Lehr, 1998.

M. Adams, 1998.

Textbooks would need to be aligned with curriculum and content standards for teachers and research standards established by major consensus documents.

In 1996, the California Department of Education surveyed major instructional programs on its adoption list before determining that special funding was necessary to support districts' purchase of supplementary instructional materials in these domains. (See note 46)

Stein, 1993.

Stein, M., Johnson/ Gutlon, unpublished manuscript.

Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Learning First Alliance, 1998.

Adapted from: Moats, L. (June, 1999). Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. American Federation of Teachers.


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