Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action

By G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D.

The psychological, social, and economic consequences of reading failure are legion. It is for this reason that the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) considers reading failure to reflect not only an educational problem, but a significant public health problem as well. A large, well-coordinated network of 18 NICHD-supported research sites across the country has been working extremely hard to understand:

  1. the critical environmental, experiential, cognitive, genetic, neurobiological, and instructional conditions that foster strong reading development;
  2. the risk factors that predispose youngsters to reading failure; and
  3. the instructional procedures that can be applied to ameliorate reading deficits at the earliest possible time. Some of the NICHD studies have been continuously ongoing since 1965. The majority, however, were initiated in the early and mid-1980s with youngsters at five years of age, and have studied these children longitudinally over the succeeding years.

Some children learn to read and write with ease. Even before they enter school, they have developed an understanding that the letters on a page can be sounded out to make words. Some preschool children can even read words correctly that they have never seen before and comprehend what they have read. Research has shown that some of these children, before school, and without any great effort or pressure on the part of their parents, pick up books, pencils, and paper, and they are on their way, almost as though by magic.

However, the magic of this effortless journey into the world of reading is available to only a relatively small percentage of our nation's children. The research literature suggests that about 50 percent learn to read relatively easily once exposed to formal instruction, and that youngsters in this group learn to read in any classroom, with any instructional emphasis.

Unfortunately, the other half of our nation's children find learning to read to be a much more formidable challenge. It is one of the most difficult tasks that they will have to master throughout their life. Reading skill serves as the major avenue to learning about other people, about history and social studies, the language arts, science, mathematics, and the other content subjects that must be mastered in school. When children do not learn to read, their general knowledge, their spelling and writing abilities, and their vocabulary development suffer in kind. Reading skill serves as the major foundational skill for all school-based learning, and without it, the chances for academic and occupational success are limited indeed.

Because of its importance and visibility, particularly during the primary grades, difficulty learning to read squashes the excitement and love for learning that many youngsters have when they enter school. It is embarrassing and even devastating to read slowly and laboriously and to demonstrate this weakness in front of peers on a daily basis.

It is clear from our longitudinal studies that follow good and poor readers from kindergarten into young adulthood that our young poor readers are largely doomed to failure. By the end of the first grade, we begin to notice substantial decreases in their self-esteem, self-concept, and motivation to learn to read if they have not been able to master reading skills and keep up with their age-mates.

As we follow the children through elementary and middle school grades, these problems compound, and, in many cases, very bright youngsters are unable to learn about the wonders of science, mathematics, literature, and the like because they cannot read the grade-level textbooks. By high school, these children's potential for entering college has decreased to almost nil, severely limiting their occupational and vocational opportunities. These individuals repeatedly tell us that they hate to read, primarily because it is such hard work, and their reading is so slow and laborious. As an adolescent in one of our studies remarked recently, "I would rather have a root canal than read."

While failure to learn to read adequately is much more likely among poor children, among non-white children, and among non-native speakers of English, recent data suggest that reading failure cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic strata. Studies summarizing national trends including Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians showed that many 4th graders were reading below basic levels. A striking 32 percent of the fourth grade children across the nation who were reading below the basic levels were from homes where the parents had graduated from college. These data underscore the fact that reading failure is a serious national problem and can not simply be attributed to poverty, immigration, or the learning of English as a second language.

How Do Children Learn to Read?

Sounds are Connected to Print
Learning to read the English language is not as easy as conventional wisdom would suggest. Every type of writing system, whether it be a morphosyllabic system as used by the Chinese (where a written symbol represents a whole word) or an alphabetic system (such as English, French, and Spanish) presents challenges to the beginning reader. In an English alphabetic system, individual letters are abstract and meaningless, and must be linked to sounds called phonemes, blended together and pronounced as words, at which point meaning is finally realized. To learn to read English, children must learn the connections between the approximately 44 sounds of spoken English (the phonemes), and the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Our NICHD research has taught us that in order for a beginning reader to learn how to connect or translate printed symbols (letters and letter patterns) into sound, the would-be reader must understand that our speech can be segmented, or broken into small sounds (phoneme awareness), and that the segmented units of speech can be represented by printed forms (phonics). This understanding is absolutely necessary for the development of accurate and rapid word reading skills. Children are not born with this insight, nor does it develop naturally without instruction.

Why are phoneme awareness and the development of the alphabetic principle so critical for the beginning reader? Because if children cannot perceive the sounds in spoken words-for example, if they cannot hear the "at" sound in "fat" and "cat" and perceive that the difference lies in the first sound, they will have difficulty decoding or "sounding out" words in a rapid and accurate fashion. Unlike writing, the speech we use to communicate orally does not consist of separate sounds in words. For example, while a written word like "cat" has three letter-sound units, the ear hears only one sound, not three, when the word "cat" is spoken aloud. This merging and overlapping of sounds into a sound "bundle" makes oral communication much more efficient. For many children, this skill is only learned with difficulty, and thus must be taught directly, explicitly, and by a well-prepared and informed teacher. It has also become clear that the development of these critical early reading-related skills, such as phoneme awareness and phonics, are fostered when children are read to at home during the preschool years, when they learn their letter and number names, and when they are introduced at very early ages to concepts of print and literacy activities.

Does this mean that children who have difficulty understanding that spoken words are composed of discrete individual sounds that can be linked to letters suffer from brain dysfunction or damage? Not at all. It simply means that the neural systems that perceive the phonemes in our language are less efficient in these children than in other children. Differences in neural efficiency can also be hypothesized to underlie the individual differences that we see every day when we observe people attempting to learn skills such as singing, playing an instrument, or painting a portrait. In some children, phonological differences likely have a genetic basis, although it is important to note that genetic influences in reading can be modified significantly by environmental factors. In other children, the differences seem to be attributable to a lack of exposure to language patterns and literacy-based materials during the critical preschool years. In most cases however, the majority of children can be taught by properly trained teachers with appropriate and timely instruction.

The development of phoneme awareness, the development of an understanding of the alphabetic principle, and the translation of these skills to the application of phonics in reading and spelling words are non-negotiable beginning reading skills that all children must master in order to understand what they read and to learn from their reading. The development of phoneme awareness and phonics, while necessary, are not sufficient for learning to read the English language so that meaning can be derived from print. In addition to learning how to "sound out" new and/or unfamiliar words, the beginning reader must eventually become proficient in reading, at a fast pace, larger units of print such as syllable patterns, meaningful roots, suffixes, and whole words.

The Development of Reading Fluency
While the ability to read words accurately is a necessary skill in learning to read, the speed at which this is done becomes a critical factor in ensuring that children understand what they read. As one child recently remarked, "If you don't ride a bike fast enough, you fall off." Likewise, if the reader does not recognize words quickly enough, the meaning will be lost. If reading is slow and labored, the reader simply cannot remember what he or she has read, much less relate the ideas they have read about to their own background knowledge.

The amount of practice that is required for fluency and automaticity in reading to occur varies greatly and the average child needs between four and 14 exposures to automatize the recognition of a new word. It is therefore vital that children read a large amount of text at their independent reading level (with 95 percent accuracy), and that the text provide specific practice in the skills being learned. It is also important to note that spelling instruction fosters the development of reading fluency. Through spelling instruction, youngsters receive many examples of how letters represent the sounds of speech and are reminded that written words are made up of larger units of print (like syllables). This insight lets the developing reader know that word recognition can be accomplished by reading words in larger "chunks" rather than letter-by-letter.

Constructing Meaning from Print
The ultimate goal of reading instruction, enabling children to understand what they read, appears to be based on several factors. Children who comprehend well, seem to be able to activate their relevant background knowledge when reading-that is, they can relate what is on the page to what they already know. Good comprehenders also must have good vocabularies, since it is extremely difficult to understand something you can not define. Good comprehenders also have a knack for summarizing, predicting, and clarifying what they have read, and they frequently use questions to guide their understanding. Good comprehenders are also good at using sentence structure within the text to enhance their comprehension.

Once children can read the words accurately and fluently, they can begin to construct meaning at two levels. At the first level, literal understanding is achieved. Next, they can begin to guide themselves through text by asking questions like, "Why am I reading this and how does this information relate to my reasons for doing so?", "What is the author's point of view?", "Do I understand what the author is saying and why?", "Is the text internally consistent?" It is this second level of comprehension that leads readers to reflective, purposeful understanding of what they have read.

The development of reading comprehension skills, like the development of phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency, needs to be fostered by highly trained teachers. Research shows that teachers must arrange for opportunities for students to discuss what they have read and explore any difficulties they had when reading. Children's reflections on what they have read can be directly fostered through instruction in comprehension strategies. These sorts of discussions and activities should be conducted throughout a range of literacy genres, both fiction and nonfiction, and should be a regular component of the language arts curriculum throughout the children's school years.

Other Factors that Influence Learning to Read

Learning to read is a relatively lengthy process that begins very early in development. Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences well before they enter formal schooling appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts. Children who are read to frequently at very young ages become exposed in interesting and exciting ways to the sounds of our language, to the concept of rhyming, to other word and language play activities that serve to provide the foundation for the development of phoneme awareness, and the ability to recognize and discriminate letters. They will have less to learn upon school entry and will be better oriented to the alphabetic principle of how letters and sounds connect.

Ultimately, children's ability to understand what they are reading is inextricably linked to their background knowledge. Very young children who are provided opportunities to learn, think, and talk about new areas of knowledge will gain much from the reading process. With understanding comes the desire to read more and to read frequently, ensuring that reading practice takes place.

Difficulties Learning To Read

Difficulties learning to read result from a combination of factors. In general, children who are most at-risk for reading failure are those who enter school with limited exposure to language and, thus, less prior knowledge of concepts related to phonemic sensitivity, letter knowledge, print awareness, the purposes of reading, and general verbal skills, including vocabulary. Children raised in poverty, youngsters with limited proficiency in English, children with speech and hearing impairments, and children from homes where the parent's reading levels are low are clearly at increased risk of reading failure. Likewise, youngsters with sub-average intellectual capabilities have difficulties learning to read. However, it is very important to note that a substantial number of children from highly literate households and who have been read to by their parents since very early in life also have difficulties learning to read.

Deficits in Phoneme Awareness and Developing the Alphabetic Principle
Difficulty linking letters with sounds is the source of reading problems for many children. Their reading is hesitant and characterized by frequent starts and stops and multiple mispronunciations. If asked about the meaning of what has been read, they frequently have little to say because they take far too long to read the words, taxing their memory and leaving little energy for remembering and understanding what they have read.

Unfortunately, there is no way to bypass this decoding and word recognition stage of reading. A deficiency in these skills cannot to any meaningful extent be offset by using context to figure out the pronunciation of unknown words. While one learns to read for the fundamental purpose of deriving meaning from print, the key to comprehension starts with the immediate and accurate reading of words. There are some children who can read words accurately and quickly yet do have difficulties comprehending, but they constitute a very small portion of those with reading problems.

If the ability to gain meaning from print is dependent upon fast, accurate, and automatic decoding and word recognition, what factors hinder the acquisition of these basic reading skills? The main culprit appears to be a deficit in phoneme awareness-the understanding that words are made up of sound segments called phonemes. Whether genetic or neurobiological in origin, or whether attributable to a lack of exposure to language patterns and usage during infancy and the preschool years, children who lack phoneme awareness have difficulties linking speech sounds to letters-their decoding skills are labored and weak, resulting in extremely slow reading. This labored access to print renders comprehension nearly impossible.

In studying approximately 10,000 children over the past 15 years, NICHD research has documented the importance of phonemic awareness in the development of phonics skills and fluent and automatic word reading. We have learned that:

Phonemic awareness skills assessed in kindergarten and first grade serve as potent predictors of difficulties learning to read. With a test that takes only 15 minutes to administer, we have learned how to measure phonemic awareness skills as early as the beginning of kindergarten, and over the past decade we have refined these tasks so that we can predict with approximately 92 percent accuracy who will have difficulties learning to read.

The average cost (including materials) of assessing each child during kindergarten or first grade with the predictive measures is approximately $10 to $15.

The development of phonemic awareness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for learning to read. Children must integrate phonemic skills into the learning of phonics principles, must practice reading so that word recognition is rapid and accurate, and must learn how to actively use comprehension strategies to enhance meaning.

Genetics are involved in learning to read, and this knowledge may ultimately contribute to early identification efforts through the assessment of family reading histories. We have also learned that the environment plays a major role in learning to read and that environmental and genetic factors interact in complex ways yet to be fully understood.

The brain itself appears to carry out different steps of the reading process. We can now "see" the actual neural systems used when both good and poor readers try to sound out novel words. Differences between neural patterns in these groups of readers may provide new insights into more precise and effective intervention strategies.

Specific teaching methods change reading behavior and changes in the brain appear to emerge as reading develops. As we continue to conduct this type of research, we are hopeful that this information may help us understand how to best tailor specific teaching strategies to individual children.

Just as many girls as boys have difficulties learning to read. The conventional wisdom has been that many more boys than girls had such difficulties. Now, females should have equal access to screening and intervention programs.

For 85 to 90 percent of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies provided by well-trained teachers can increase reading skills to average reading levels. However, we have also learned that if we delay early intervention until nine-years-of-age, (the time that most children with reading difficulties first receive services), approximately 75 percent of these children will continue to have difficulties learning to read throughout high school and their adult years. The wasted time and expense of waiting is so enormous compared to what is required to teach them when they are five or six years old.

No single method, approach, or philosophy for teaching reading is equally effective for all children. Rather, the key to ensuring that all children reach their potential in learning to read rests with the formal training and experiences that teachers receive in assessing individual differences during preschool, kindergarten, and primary grade years.

Teachers who have in-depth knowledge about reading development and difficulties have a clear understanding of the skills that are critical for learning to read and reading to learn, and have a depth and breadth of knowledge that will allow them to tailor reading programs for those children who do not respond to reading methods selected by state, local, or school authorities are the answer. In short, teacher preparation is the key to teaching our nation's children to read, to learn from reading, and to enjoy reading.

Deficits in Acquiring Reading Comprehension Strategies
Some children encounter obstacles in learning to read because they do not derive meaning from the material that they read. Deficits in reading comprehension are related to: (1) inadequate understanding of the words used in the text; (2) inadequate background knowledge about the context of the text; (3) a lack of familiarity with the semantic and syntactic structures that help predict the relationships between words; (4) a lack of knowledge about different writing conventions (humor, explanation, dialogue, etc.); (5) a deficit in the verbal reasoning ability which would enable the reader to "read between the lines"; and (6) a lack of the ability to remember verbal information.

If children are not provided early and consistent experiences that are explicitly designed to foster these skills, reading failure will occur no matter how well-developed word recognition skills are.

Our current understanding of how to develop many of these critical language and reasoning capabilities related to reading comprehension is not as well developed as the information related to phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency. Our knowledge about the causes and consequences of deficits in syntactical development is sparse. A good deal of excellent research has been conducted on the application of reading comprehension strategies, but our knowledge of how to help children use these strategies in an independent manner and across contexts is just emerging.

Deficits in Developing and Maintaining the Motivation to Learn to Read
A major factor that limits the amount of improvement children may make in reading is related to motivation. Difficulties in learning to read are very demoralizing to children. In the primary grades, reading constitutes the major portion of academic activities undertaken in classrooms, and children who struggle with reading are quickly noticed by peers and teachers. Although most children enter formal schooling with positive attitudes and expectations for success, those who encounter difficulties learning to read attempt to avoid engaging in reading behavior as early as the middle of the first grade year. It is known that successful reading development is predicated on practice reading, and obviously, the less children practice, the less developed the various reading skills will become.

Deficits in Effectively Preparing Teachers
As evidence mounts that reading difficulties originate in large part from difficulties in developing phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling skills, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies, the need for informed instruction for the millions of children with insufficient reading skills is an increasingly urgent problem. Unfortunately, several recent studies and surveys of teacher knowledge about reading development and difficulties indicate that many teachers are underprepared to teach reading. Most teachers receive little formal instruction in reading development and disorders during either undergraduate and/or graduate studies, with the average teacher completing only two reading courses. Surveys of teachers taking these courses consistently show that very few have ever observed professors demonstrating instructional reading methods with children. They also report that their course work is largely unrelated to actual teaching practices, that the theories they learn are rarely linked to the actual instruction of children, and that the supervision of student teaching and practicum experiences is frequently lacking in consistency and depth.

At present, motivated teachers are often left on their own to obtain specific skills in teaching reading by seeking out workshops or specialized instructional manuals. Many teachers report that they are tied to "packaged" reading programs, regardless of the quality of the programs or their usefulness for all children, because they do not understand the reading process well enough to augment the programs or to select different instructional strategies for different children. As we survey teachers' perceptions of their preparation, we find consistently that they are "method-driven" rather than conceptually prepared to teach the range of skills required to learn to read.

Clearly, teachers of youngsters who display reading difficulties should be thoroughly trained to assess and identify problem readers at early ages and be well versed in understanding the conditions that must be present for these children to become efficient readers. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators have been caught between conflicting schools of thought about how to teach reading and how to help students who are not progressing. They are limited by a "one size fits all" philosophy that emphasizes either a "whole language" or "phonics" orientation to instruction. This parochial type of preparation places many children at continued risk for reading failure since it is well established that no reading program should be without all the major components of reading instruction (phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, fluency, and reading comprehension). The real question is, "which children need what, when, for how long, with what type of instruction, and in what type of setting?"

It is hard to find disagreement in the educational community that the direction and fabric of teacher education programs in language arts and reading must change. However, bringing about such change will be difficult. How teaching competencies and certification requirements are developed and implemented will have to become more thoughtful and systematic. In many states, the certification offices within state departments of education do not maintain formal and collaborative relationships with academic departments within colleges of education. Thus, the requirements that a student may be expected to satisfy for a college degree may bear little relationship to the requirements for a teaching certificate. Even more alarming, many of the requirements are not based upon the best research related to reading development and disorders. Fundamental changes must occur in the type and depth of knowledge that teachers have if we are to ensure literacy for all.

How Can We Help Children Learn To Read?

Learning to read is a lengthy and difficult process for many children, and success in learning to read is based in large part on developing language and literacy-related skills very early in life. A massive effort needs to be undertaken to inform parents, and the educational and medical communities, of the need to involve children in reading from the first days of life; to engage children in playing with language through nursery rhymes, storybooks, and writing activities; and, as early as possible, to bring to children experiences that help them understand the purposes of reading, and the wonder and joy that can be derived from it. Parents must become intimately aware of the importance of vocabulary development and the use of verbal interactions with their youngsters to enhance grammar, syntax, and verbal reasoning.

Young preschool children should be encouraged to learn the letters of the alphabet, to discriminate letters from one another, to print letters, and to attempt to spell words that they hear. By introducing young children to print, their exposure to the purposes of reading and writing will increase and their knowledge of the conventions of print and their awareness of print concepts will increase.

Reading out loud to children is a proven activity for developing vocabulary growth and language expansion, and plays a causal role in developing both receptive and expressive language capabilities. Reading out loud can also be used to enhance children's background knowledge of new concepts that may appear in both oral and written language. However, we must have a clear understanding that reading aloud to children is a necessary, but not sufficient means to teaching reading skills. Again, the ability to read requires a number of skills that, in most children, must be developed via direct and informed instruction provided by properly prepared teachers.

Kindergarten programs should be designed so that all children will develop the prerequisite phonological, vocabulary, and early reading skills necessary for success in the first grade. Children should acquire the ability to recognize and print both upper and lowercase letters with reasonable ease and accuracy, develop familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading and writing, and develop age-appropriate language comprehension skills.

Beginning reading programs should allot sufficient instructional time to the teaching of phonemic awareness skills, phonics skills, the development of spelling and orthographic skills, the development of reading fluency and automaticity, and the development of reading comprehension strategies. All of these components of reading are necessary, but not sufficient, in, and of, themselves. For children demonstrating difficulty in learning to read, it is imperative that each of these components be taught in an integrated context and that ample practice in reading familiar material be afforded.

A major impediment to serving the needs of children demonstrating difficulties learning to read is current teacher preparation practices. Many teachers lack basic knowledge and understanding of reading development and the nature of reading difficulties. Major efforts should be undertaken to ensure that colleges of education possess the expertise and commitment to foster expertise in teachers at both pre-service and in-service levels. Strong competency-based training programs with formal board certification for teachers of reading should be developed..

This article was adapted from statements made before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., July 10, 1997.

G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D. is Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch and Director, Research Programs in Learning Disabilities, Language Disorders, Disorders of Attention, and Developmental Neuroimaging, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.


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