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Here are the three powerful predictors of preschoolers’ eventual success in learning to read:

  1. Their ability to recognize and name letters of the alphabet
  2. Their general knowledge about text (which is the front of the book and which is the back, whether the story is told by the pictures or the print, and which way to turn the pages of a book)
  3. Their awareness of phonemes (the speech sounds that correspond roughly to individual letters)

While, however, a preschooler’s phonemic awareness may be the best single predictor of how much that child will learn about reading in school, the best predictor of a preschooler’s awareness is found to be how much she or he has already learned about reading.

The most important thing to do

Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.

Adding regular doses of Sesame Street, reading/writing/language activities in preschool, and time spent fooling around with magnetic letters on the refrigerator or playing word and “spelling” games in the car, on the computer, with crayons, and so on, such children will have experienced several thousand more hours of literacy preparation before entering first grade.

Before formal instruction is begun, children should possess a broad, general appreciation of the nature of print. They should be aware of how printed material can look and how it works; that its basic meaningful units are specific, speakable words; and that its words are comprised of letters. Of equal importance, they should have a solid sense of the various functions of print – to entertain, inform, communicate, record — and of the potential value of each of these functions to their own lives.

To learn to read, a child must learn first what it means to read and that she or he would like to be able to do so. Our classrooms, from preschool on up, must be designed with these concepts in mind.

What do these findings mean?

In all, a child’s success in learning to read in the first grade appears to be the best predictor of her or his ultimate success in schooling as well as all of the events and outcomes that correlate with that. Yet, across the literature I reviewed, children’s first-grade reading achievement depends most of all on how much they know about reading before they get to school.

In a way, this conclusion seems disheartening; it seems somehow to beg the American Dream. In another way, however, this conclusion is heartening. Differences in reading potential are shown not to be strongly related to poverty, handedness, dialect, gender, IQ, mental age, or any other such difficult-to-alter circumstances. They are due instead to learning and experience — and specifically to learning and experience with print and print concepts. They are due to differences that we can teach away — provided, of course, that we have the knowledge, sensitivity, and support to do so.


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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