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Skillful Readers and Poor Readers: Research and Theory

One of the earliest efforts in the recent trend to synthesize what we know from reading research, Marilyn Adams' 1990 book, "Beginning To Read" was a landmark review of the research on phonics and reading acquisition. Read her description of what she did and what she learned as she went through the process of producing this report.

A hallmark of skillful readers is the speed and relative effortlessness with which they typically progress through the words of written text. Laboratory research indicates that, in doing so, they visually process virtually each and every letter of the text. Further, as their eyes pass over the words of the text, their minds automatically and rather irrepressibly translate the spellings of the words into pronunciations. (This happens at the level of mental activity though not necessarily at the level of tongue activity.)

Theory and research affirm that both the speed and effortlessness of these activities are integral to the capacity to read with skillful comprehension.

Skillful readers' speed of fluency enables them to think about whole phrases or sentences at once. The effortlessness of the word recognition process allows skillful readers to focus their active attention on the process of comprehension – on monitoring and assessing the message of the passage.

Research demonstrates that the ability to read English – like nonsense words, such as zust and nell, is a uniquely powerful discriminator of good from poor readers. Most poor readers have not learned to recognize frequent spelling patterns or to translate spelling patterns to speech patterns.

Indeed, many of the symptoms that have variously been ascribed to neurological dysfunction or perceptual deficits are now being traced to insufficient familiarity with the visual forms of individual letters and the ordered, letter-by-letter composition of common English spelling patterns. Similarly, many problems that appear on the face of it to reflect comprehension difficulties are frequently traced to unaffordable efforts, slowness, or incompleteness in the word recognition processes.


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Adams, Marilyn Jager. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990, 494 pp.

Adams, Marilyn Jager, et al. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. A Summary. Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading, 1990, 148 p.

Adams, Marilyn Jager. "Beginning Reading in the United States." Paper presented at the Educational Policy Group Conference, Washington, DC, May 16, 1990, 7 pp.



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Excerpted from: Adams, M. A. (October, 1990). Beginning Reading Instruction in the United States. ERC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills.

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"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain