Ensuring early literacy success is a wise investment because literacy skills are essential to success in all school subjects ---literature, social sciences, natural science, and mathematics. There is a strong research base for how children learn to read, how to prevent failure, and how to intervene when reading difficulties occur.
The Basics and Beyond: Aspects of a Successful Literacy Policy
A popular view of what is required to teach children to read is known as the Simple View of Reading, which states that reading comprehension is the product of the interaction of decoding with listening comprehension. Many people believe that once a child has mastered the way the alphabetic principle works to spell out words, understanding written language is not so different from understanding spoken language. This view suggests that early reading teachers should focus on teaching children how to "decode" letters to form spoken words --- and that the ability to understand what is written will occur naturally because almost all children already know how to understand spoken words and sentences.
However, research over the past three decades has provided a more complex view of how to ensure reading competence. Decoding is important, but we now know that systematic early attention must be paid to developing oral language skills if children are to be assured a "right to reading competence." Children will also need extensive practice in reading texts of increasing complexity for initial reading skills to blossom into full competence.
Beginning To Read
Knowledge of the alphabetic principle. Skilled readers now how written symbols connect with spoken units. In English, the majority of these correspondences are one to one, but many are not so transparent, such as the "longa sound in "lake," "rain," "great," "baby," and "vein."
Fluency in decoding. Students must be able to quickly map letters to sounds, and then into words, extremely fluently so they do not forget the early words in a sentence before they have gotten to the end of the sentence. This fluency is essential for understanding and becomes more important as sentences become longer.
Many students who struggle with reading have difficulty with the basic elements of the alphabetic principle. This difficulty is the defining characteristic of the majority of students identified with reading disabilities (often called "dyslexia"), a large group of students in special education.
Effective interventions for very young struggling readers usually consist of explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle with scaffolded practice in reading connected text and instruction in vocabulary and writing. When problems are identified and addressed in the early grade, the vast majority can be successfully remediated.
Developing Oral Language
The assumption that most students have oral language skills they can transfer into print understanding is ---according to current research ---not accurate. There are large differences in the extent and type of oral language experience that children have outside school.
A classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995 documents how early the gap in oral language skills begins. The researchers made monthly home visits to 42 children from 10 months old until 3 years old. Three types of families were included: professional, working class, and welfare. During each visit, the researchers videotaped the interaction between the child and the adults for one hour and transcribed and coded the data.
By age 3, children from professional families heard a total vocabulary of more than 30 million words compared to 10 million for children from welfare families. Working class children heard about 20 million words. Thus, students enter school with different exposure to language upon which to build literacy teaching and learning.
One way to close this gap is to provide language-intensive preschool programs aimed at mitigating the language gap created by poverty in the home. However, it is not just the amount but also the kind of oral language instruction in preschool that is important.
Catherine Snow and her colleagues studied 80 children from preschool to high school and found three distinguishing characteristics of preschool classrooms that predicted vocabulary and emergent literacy skills in kindergarten. What's more, kindergarten word reading and vocabulary skills predicted reading outcomes in the primary grades as well as reading comprehension skills through middle and high school. The critical characteristics are:
*Preschool teachers' unfamiliar word usage
*Teachers' ability to listen to children and extend the conversation, and
*Teachers' ability to engage children in cognitively challenging talk.
Reading a Lot Begets Reading Skill
Written language usually is not just a print transcription of everyday oral speech; it is typically more formal than spoken language. The written language of school is often called "academic language" to emphasize the importance of learning the specific vocabulary, grammar, and text structures required for academic success. Special techniques of teaching vocabulary that embed words in important academic content produce gains in academic English as measured by state and standardized tests.
Another important way to learn academic language is to have children do a lot of reading. A classic study by Richard Anderson and colleagues in 1988 described the number of minutes per day that fifth graders reported spending on a wide range of out-of-school activities. The activity that related most strongly to reading proficiency and growth in reading from second to fifth grade was book reading. Average students, those who scored at about the 50th percentile on tests of reading achievement, read less than five minutes a day --- roughly 282,000 words per year. In contrast, students at the 90th percentile read a little more than 20 minutes a day ---about 1.8 million words per year. Top-level readers, in other words, read five times more words than students in the middle of the pack ---and almost 30 times more than students in the lowest group, who read for little more than one minute a day ---about 106,000 words per year.
Thus, the amount of reading children do really matters in developing their skills as readers. Anderson's 1988 study showed that time spent reading books was the best predictor of a child's growth as a reader from the second to the fifth grade. This finding was confirmed by Cunningham and Stanovich a decade later using a somewhat different methodology.
Reading begets reading skill. And reading skill produces more reading practice. Scholars have termed this snowballing the Matthew Effect in reading after a quote from the Book of Matthew in the Bible (25:29), often paraphrased as "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer."
Reading more has a large payoff, but few children will read more on their own. Schools will need to directly encourage and find time for increased reading during the school day. Indeed, as Stephen Raudenbush suggests, inequality in academic achievement can be reduced only by increasing the amount and quality of schooling.
An important step in providing the reading experience children need to move beyond the assumption that difficulties in upper grades require more phonics and fluency instruction. For those who need such help, provide remedial work. For others, possibilities include:
* Provide an hour or more in each school day, or in structured after-school programs, for students to read materials that challenge them but are "within range" of what they can understand with effort and some help.
*Directly teach students to infer the author's meaning as they read.
*Include Internet and other new media reading.
*Set up incentives for out-of-school reading and visibly keep track of and celebrate the amount of reading each child does.
*Use classroom time to discussreadings under teacher guidance. Many programs have shown the effectiveness of such discussions.
*Use improved readability formulae, measures of semantic complexity, and measures of coherence to help teachers match readers to text.
What Should Policymakers Do?
First, establish policies in which schools are encouraged to organize primary grade instruction with a target of 90 percent of children being fluent decoders by third grade. Help schools use formative and diagnostic assessment to place K-2 children who are not on track in early interventions taught by qualified teachers.
Second, from third grade forward, focus instruction on comprehension, writing, and continued language development.
Third, treat oral language development and vocabulary enhancement as major functions of preschool, elementary, and middle school literacy development.
Fourth, ensure that school leaders, working with their communities, set up programs in which children read more and read increasingly challenging materials on a daily and weekly basis.
"Copyright AERA 2009"
Note: You may review the full article in Research Points,Winter 2009, Volume 6, Issue 1, published by the American Educational Research Association.