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How to Help Every Child Become a Reader

When communities work together, they can improve the reading achievement of their children. Learn what efforts need to be made with preschool and school-aged children in order to improve reading achievement in America.

A significant reading breakthrough is within our grasp if we start early (with quality preschool experiences) and finish strong (with excellent reading instruction).

Start early

By starting early, we address the fact that the roots of reading take hold well before children go to school. We cannot focus only on fourth-grade reading scores as the problem, because children's reading habits and skills are already well established by that age. We now know we should start much earlier – even from birth – to develop a child's reading ability. Research shows we can improve reading achievement by starting in early childhood to build cognitive and language skills.

Parents and early caregivers play an essential role in laying the foundations for literacy by talking and reading daily to babies and toddlers. A recent parent survey offers a hopeful sign: more preschoolers are being read to daily by family members than in recent years. Yet more than four in ten preschoolers, five in ten toddlers, and six in ten babies are not read to regularly. All parents of young children need encouragement to read to their children. Grandparents and other adults can become a child's daily reader too.

Six in ten children spend a substantial part of each day in the care of someone other than a parent. Child care providers and early childhood teachers can do much more to prepare young children for reading success.

Working in preschools, child care centers, nursery schools, and home-based care settings, this corps of adults has tremendous potential to enhance young children's language development and thus prepare them to read better. Many of these providers and teachers, however, need better training and higher wages to more effectively promote the cognitive, language, social, and emotional development that are the foundations of reading success.

Finish strong

When a child enters school ready to read, what happens next? That's when all adults in the child's life must be prepared – to "finish strong." Schools can't do it alone. But improvements in primary school – kindergarten through third grade – present a tremendous opportunity to boost reading achievement. We now know how to finish the job that parents and caregivers start: parents must stay involved, and nothing is more important than a highly skilled, well-prepared teacher.

Universities, colleges of education, state teacher licensing boards, and legislatures must raise standards for proficiency in reading instruction for teacher candidates. Veteran teachers need high-quality, ongoing professional development in research-based reading instruction. Teachers need time to work together to improve their teaching techniques, and elementary school principals can integrate a schoolwide focus on reading achievement. Parents and community members can form reading compacts with schools to marshal all their resources to help more children succeed.

A key factor for a strong finish is the involvement of the whole community in the pro-literacy crusade. The seeds of this crusade are already sprouting in cities and towns nationwide, and these examples can be shared with and replicated in many communities.

Every elementary school child who needs a tutor should have one, for extra reading practice during or after school. All students, but especially poor children, benefit from summer reading programs to prevent erosion of reading skills and promote the joy of reading. Many more children need books to read and adults to read to them. Every citizen can help and millions more can contribute to make every child a proficient reader.

The momentum is with us for a breakthrough in student reading achievement. To seize this moment in history, we must lay down our weapons in the old reading war and engage new troops in the right kind of reading war – the war on illiteracy. If we all commit to "start early, finish strong," we can achieve a breakthrough and help every child become a good reader.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Counting, number concepts, letter names and shapes, associating sounds with letters, interest in reading, and cooperation with other children are all relevant to learning to read. Wells, C. G. (1985). Preschool Literacy-Related Activities and Success in School. Literacy, Language, and Learning. London: Cambridge University Press.

About 57 percent of children ages 3 to 5 were read to daily by a family member in 1996, up from 53 percent in 1993. U.S. Department of Education. (1996). National Household Education Survey, 1995. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Only 48 percent of parents of toddlers ages 1 to 3, and 39 percent of parents of infants reported reading daily to their children in 1996. Young, K. T., Davis, K., and Schoen, C. (1996). The Commonwealth Fund Survey of Parents with Young Children. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1996). Child Care and Early Education Program Participation of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers. Statistics in Brief. NCES 95-824. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Higher education and specialized training enhance the ability of early childhood teachers to do a better job of advancing children's language skills, a key predictor of later reading success. Whitebook, M., Howes, C., and Phillips, D. (1990). The National Child Care Staffing Study. Oakland, CA: National Center for Early Childhood Workforce.

Inadequate funding is the primary reason for the low quality of care experienced by most children. Gomby, D., Larner, M., Terman, D., Krantzler, N., Stevenson, C., and Behrman, R. (1996). Financing Child Care: Analysis and Recommendations. The Future of Children: Financing Child Care, 6(2), 5-25.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Effective compacts between parents and schools increase parental involvement in their children's education, with positive student outcomes, particularly in high-poverty schools. D'Agostino, J., Wong, K., Hedges, L., and Borman, G. (1998). The Effectiveness of Title I Parent Programs: A Multilevel Analysis of Prospects Data. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, Calif., April 1998. Note: A new Compact for Reading Guide is available free from the U.S. Department of Education. See Reading Resources, Appendix I at the end of this document.

An analysis of 65 studies of high-quality tutoring programs found positive, modest achievement effects across all the studies. Structured tutoring programs demonstrated higher achievement gains than unstructured programs. Students tutored in reading showed positive results for self-confidence, motivation to read, and views of their control over their reading abilities. Cohen, P.A., Kulik, J.A., and Kulik, C.L.C. (1982). Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-analysis of Findings. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 237-248.

Alexander, K. and Entwisle, D. (1996). Early Schooling and Educational Inequality: Socioeconomic Disparities in Children's Learning. In J.S. Coleman (ed.) Falmer sociology series, 63-79. London: Falmer Press.

For America's poorest children, the biggest obstacle to literacy may be the scarcity of books and appropriate reading material. Needlman, R., Fried, L., Morley, D., Taylor, S., and Zuckerman, B. (1991). Clinic Based Intervention to Promote Literacy. American Journal of Diseases of Children, Volume 145, August, 1991, 881-884.

Adapted from: Executive Summary. (July, 1999). Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader. America Reads Challenge, U.S. Department of Education.

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