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The Challenge of Learning to Read

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The Challenge of Learning to Read

Children from a variety of backgrounds struggle with learning to read. However, as described in this article, research points to one common reason they struggle, and common strategies to help them succeed.

No other skill taught in school and learned by school children is more important than reading. It is the gateway to all other knowledge. If children do not learn to read efficiently, the path is blocked to every subject they encounter in their school years.

The past five years have brought major breakthroughs in our knowledge of how children learn to read and why so many fail. These new insights have been translated into techniques for teaching reading to beginning readers, including the many students who would otherwise encounter difficulties in mastering this fundamental skill.

Researchers have come to appreciate that early identification and treatment of such students can make all the difference. Researchers have also documented the problems-personal, social, and educational-that too often result when early attention and intervention do not occur.

Reading to learn

Students who do not “learn to read” during the first three years of school experience enormous difficulty when they are subsequently asked to “read to learn.” Teaching students to read by the end of third grade is the single most important task assigned to elementary schools.

During the first three years of schooling, students “learn to read.” That is, they develop the capacity to interpret the written symbols for the oral language that they have been hearing since birth.

Starting in fourth grade, schooling takes on a very different purpose, one that in many ways is more complex and demanding of higher-order thinking skills. If efficient reading skills are not developed by this time, the English language, history, mathematics, current events, and the rich tapestries of literature and science become inaccessible.

In addition, a strong body of evidence shows that most students who fall behind in reading skills never catch up with their peers to become fluent readers. They fall further and further behind in school, become frustrated, and drop out at much higher rates than their classmates. They find it difficult to obtain rewarding employment and are effectively prevented from drawing on the power of education to improve and enrich their lives.

Researchers speak of this syndrome as the “Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Most Americans know how central reading is to education. According to a 1994 poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the American Federation of Teachers and the Chrysler Corporation, nearly 70 percent of teachers believe that reading is the “most important” skill for children to learn. Two years earlier, the same polling firm reported that 62 percent of parents believed that reading was one of the most important skills for their children to master. Both teachers and parents ranked reading as more critical than mathematics and computer skills.

In other words, there is general agreement among researchers and the public that all children must learn to read early in their academic careers.

The challenges of illiteracy

More students fail to learn to read by the end of the third grade than many people imagine. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that all schools encounter students who fall into this category and that all schools should have plans for addressing the special needs of these students.

In its 1994 Reading Assessment, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a federally supported program that tracks the performance of American students in core academic subjects, reported that more than four out of 10 fourth-graders (42 percent) in American schools were reading at a “below basic” level. This means that they could not understand “uncomplicated narratives and high-interest informative texts.”

NAEP also reported that such illiteracy persists in the higher grades. The report found that nearly one-third (31 percent) of eighth-graders and nearly one-third (30 percent) of twelfth-graders are also reading at a “below basic” level. The latter figures probably understate the problem, because many poor readers drop out of school before twelfth grade.

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions regarding how widespread students’ reading problems really are. National longitudinal studies have measured the ability of children to recognize individual words in text. Their data suggest that more than one child in six (17.5 percent) will encounter a problem in learning to read during the crucial first three years of school. Further evidence comes from the sharp rise in the number of students who are diagnosed as learning disabled or are referred to special education because they cannot read at the proper grade level.

In contrast to popular belief, reading failure is not concentrated among particular types of schools or among specific groups of students.

To the contrary, students who have difficulty reading represent a virtual cross-section of American children. They include rich and poor, male and female, rural and urban, and public and private school children in all sections of the country. According to the NAEP assessment, for example, nearly one-third (32 percent) of fourth graders whose parents graduated from college are reading at the “below basic” level.

In short, the failure of a substantial number of students to learn to read during the critical first three years of school is a national problem-one that confronts every community and every school in the country.

A common stumbling block: phonemic awareness

Whatever the reason children fail to read by the end of the third grade, most non-readers share a common problem. They have not developed the capacity to recognize what reading experts call phonemes.

Phonemes are the smallest units of speech-the basic building blocks of speaking and writing. The word “cat,” for example, contains three phonemes-the /k/, /a/, and /t/ sounds. Phonemes are often identical to individual letters, but not always. The word “ox,” for example, has two letters but three phonemes-the /o/, /k/, and /s/ sounds.

Researchers have demonstrated that accomplished readers are adept at recognizing phonemes and putting them together to construct words and phrases. They do this quickly, accurately, and automatically. The absence of this critical linguistic skill makes it difficult for children to decode and read single words, much less sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories.

Teaching phonemic awareness and discrimination among phonemes is imperative for all students.

Solutions in the classroom

Teaching beginners to read must be highly purposeful and strategic. Effective techniques have been developed for helping students, including those with learning disabilities, to develop phonological awareness, word recognition, and other advanced skills required for reading.

Phonological awareness activities build on and enhance children’s experiences with written (e.g., print awareness) and spoken language (e.g., playing with words). A beginning reader with successful phonological awareness and knowledge of letters ostensibly learns how words are represented in print.

Intervention for learners who have difficulty with phonological awareness must be early, strategic, systematic, and carefully designed. It must be based on a curriculum that recognizes and balances the importance of both phonics instruction and the appreciation of meaning.

For children who have difficulty reading, effective reading instruction strategies should be used to build phonological awareness and alphabetic understanding. These strategies should be explicit, making phonemes prominent in children’s attention and perception. For example, teachers can model specific sounds and in turn ask the children to produce the sounds.

In addition, opportunities to engage in phonological awareness activities should be plentiful, frequent, and fun.

Instructional strategies should consider the characteristics that make a word easier or more difficult to read. These include: the number of phonemes in the word; phoneme position in words (initial sounds are easier); phonological properties of words (e.g., continuants, such as /m/, are easier than stop sounds, such as /t/); and phonological awareness dimensions, including blending sounds, segmenting words, and rhyming.

Many early readers will require greater teacher assistance and support. Using a research-based strategy known as scaffolding, teachers should provide students with lots of instructional support in the beginning stages of reading instruction, and gradually reduce the support as students learn more about reading skills. The ultimate goal is for students to read on their own without the help of a teacher.


Excerpted from: Learning to Read/Reading to Learn: Helping Children with Learning Disabilities to Succeed. (1996). National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, Council for Exceptional Children.

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