Date: March 18, 1998
Contacts: Dan Quinn, Media Relations Officer
Dumi Ndlovu, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>

Reforms Needed to Improve Children's Reading Skills

WASHINGTON -- Widespread reforms are needed to ensure that all children are equipped with the skills and instruction they need to learn to read, according to a new report from a committee of the National Research Council. An ongoing debate over which teaching method is best has diverted attention from the most important factors affecting how a child learns to read. Children need language-rich preschool opportunities, and teachers need better preparation and support to be able to guide students through the complex mix of skills that go into learning to read, the report says.

"We know what factors help prevent reading difficulties," said committee chair Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass. "We need the will to ensure that every child has access to excellent preschool environments and well-prepared teachers. Because reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity, no single method is the answer. It is time for educators, parents, and everyone else concerned with children's education to make sure that children have all the experiences that research has shown to support reading development."

The majority of reading problems faced by today's adolescents and adults could have been avoided or resolved in the early years of childhood, says the report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The committee outlined critical components of a child's education from birth through third grade. For example:

> Children must arrive in first grade with a strong basis in language and cognitive skills, and be motivated to learn to read in order to benefit from classroom instruction. Preschool children need high-quality language and literacy environments in their homes and in out-of-home settings.

> Kindergarten should focus on understanding that words have letters and that letters relate to sounds; the recognition of letters; knowledge of writing concepts; and familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading and writing. It should be designed to stimulate verbal interaction and build vocabulary.

> First-graders should be taught to identify words using their letter-sound relationships. To achieve fluency they should practice reading familiar text, sometimes aloud. Those who have started to read independently, typically at second grade and above, should be encouraged to sound out and identify unfamiliar words.

> Beginning in the earliest grades, instruction should promote reading comprehension by helping children develop a rich vocabulary and the knowledge to use it. Curricula should include explicit instruction on summarizing the main idea, predicting events and outcomes of upcoming text, drawing inferences, and other skills.

> Students should perform writing exercises every day to gain comfort and familiarity with writing. Instruction should be designed with the understanding that invented spelling does not conflict with teaching correct spelling, but can actually be helpful for developing understanding of the sounds that different combinations of letters create. Conventional spelling should be developed through focused instruction and practice, and primary-grade children should spell previously studied words correctly in their final writing products.

Children at Risk

Children who have successfully learned to read by elementary school have mastered three skills: They understand that letters of the alphabet represent word sounds, they are able to read for meaning, and they read fluently. Disruption of any of these components can throw off a child's development, the report says, and could lead to difficulties that ultimately will reduce the chances that the child will finish high school, get a job, or become an informed citizen.

Success in reading builds on the same complex set of skills for all children. Those running into difficulties do not need different instruction from other children, the report says, though they may need more focused, intense, and individual application of the same principles. Any special services they receive should be integrated into high-quality classroom instruction.

Reading problems are disproportionately high among minorities, non-English-speaking children, and those who grow up in poor or urban environments. A particularly thorny political problem has centered on how to educate children whose first language is not English. The report says that these children should first learn the skills of reading in their initial language -- the language in which they will best be able to discern the meaning of words and of sentences. If such instruction is not feasible in a given school system, the child should not be rushed prematurely into English reading instruction, but should be given an opportunity to develop a reasonable level of oral proficiency in English before learning to read. Children at risk of reading difficulties because of hearing impairment, language problems, or for other reasons must be identified quickly by pediatricians, social workers, and other early childhood practitioners.

To address these children's needs, the committee called for an increase in affordable, language-rich preschool programs. Programs designed as prevention for children at risk should focus on social, language, and cognitive development, not just on literacy. Organizations and government bodies concerned with the education of young children should target parents, care givers, and the general public in a campaign to promote public understanding of the way young children learn to read. The program should address ways of using books and creating opportunities for building language skills and literacy growth through everyday activities.

Teacher Preparation

Because major responsibility for preventing reading difficulties is borne by early childhood educators and elementary school teachers, it is critical that they are sufficiently trained for the task. However, many teachers are not adequately prepared, the report says. Practitioners dealing with children under the age of eight need better training in reading development, and primary school teachers need ongoing professional development and continuing opportunities for mentoring and collaborating with reading specialists.

State certification requirements and teacher education curricula should be changed to incorporate key concepts about the way language relates to reading, as well as information about the relationship between early literacy behavior and conventional reading, the report says. Local school officials need to improve their staff development opportunities, which are often weakened by a lack of substantive, research-based content and systematic follow-up.

Schools that lack or have abandoned the use of reading specialists should re-examine their need for them and provide the functional equivalent of these well-trained staff members. These specialists' roles should be designed to ensure an effective two-way dialogue with regular classroom teachers. Volunteer tutors can be helpful in giving kids practice in reading for fluency, but are unlikely to be able to deal effectively with children who have serious reading problems.

A committee roster follows. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

Copies of Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children are available at or by calling 202-334-3313  or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Division on Education, Labor, and Human Performance

Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children
Catherine Snow (chair)
Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Marilyn Jager Adams
GTE Internet Working Group
Cambridge, Mass.

Barbara T. Bowman
President, Erikson Institute for Advanced Study
on Child Development
Loyola University

Barbara Foorman
Director, Center for Academic and Reading Skills, and
Professor of Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics
University of Texas-Houston Medical School

Dorothy Fowler
Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences
Fairfax, Va.

Claude N. Goldenberg
Associate Professor of Teacher Education
Department of Teacher Education
California State University
Long Beach

Edward J. Kame'enui
Professor of Special Education, and
Director, Institute for the Development
of Educational Achievement
College of Education
University of Oregon

William Labov(*)
Professor of Linguistics and Psychology
Departments of Linguistics and Psychology
University of Pennsylvania

Richard K. Olson
Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of Colorado

Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar
Jean and Charles Walgreen Professor in
Reading and Literacy
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Charles A. Perfetti
Professor of Psychology and Linguistics, and
Chair, Department of Psychology
University of Pittsburgh

Hollis A. Scarborough
Visiting Associate Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
Brooklyn College
City University of New York

Sally Shaywitz
Professor of Pediatrics, and
Co-Director, Center for the Study of Learning and Attention
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Keith Stanovich
Professor of Applied Psychology
Ontario Institute for the Study of Education
University of Toronto

Dorothy Strickland
State of New Jersey Professor of Reading
Graduate School of Education
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

Sam Stringfield
Principal Research Scientist
Center for the Social Organization of Schools
Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth Sulzby
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor


M. Susan Burns
Study Director

(*) Member, National Academy of Sciences