Learning to Read
by J.L Cook & G. Cook
Reading is perhaps the single most important academic skill we acquire. Western cultures tend to be reading- and writing-based, so we get much of our knowledge and information through books, magazines, newspapers, instruction manuals, print on the Internet and television, and other print media. An expert on reading development, Jeanne Chall, surmised that “the learning and uses of literacy are among the most advanced forms of intelligence, and, compared to other forms, depend more on instruction and practice” (1983, p. 2). Chall (1983) proposed six developmental stages that describe how children typically learn to read. Chall commented that many adults may never reach the most mature stage of reading, even after 4 years of college.
In fact, too many people have trouble reaching even Chall’s fourth stage, “Reading for New Learning.” Researchers estimate that in the United States 25% of people are poor readers and 38% of fourth graders score below the basic reading level for their grade (Adams, Treiman, & Pressley, 1998; Donahue, Voelkl, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999; Perie et al., 2005).
Two of the factors that best predict success in early reading arefamiliarity with letters of the alphabet and phonemic awareness (Adams et al., 1998). Preschoolers who show early familiarity with letters tend to be more successful in reading through the primary grades. In contrast, preschoolers who are less familiar with letters tend to have more difficulty learning to read. Children whose primary language is not English tend to be less familiar with letters and have greater difficulty learning to read in English in school.
Reading difficulty really emerges, however, when children cannot blend the printed letters together to form whole words. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of smaller units of sound, or phonemes. This understanding involves associating printed letters with the sounds that go with them. Phonemic awareness usually begins developing during the first year of formal schooling as children learn to make the speech sounds associated with each letter and with various letter combinations. Success with phonemic awareness is a strong predictor of later reading success-even stronger than the child’s overall IQ (Adams et al., 1998; Eldredge, 2005; Spira et al., 2005; Strattman & Hodson, 2005; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987). A major source of reading weakness is difficulty in decoding (or breaking down) printed words into their individual speech sounds. Instructional activities that emphasize phonemic awareness can facilitate reading growth. Even during the preschool years, play with letters and letter sounds is helpful. Popular TV programs like Sesame Street show young children how to link sounds to letters and to blend speech sounds (e.g., “Today’s program is brought to you by the letter T as in Toy, Tiger, and Teddy”).
Once children develop phonemic awareness, it is important that they pick up speed in recognizing whole words: They need to automatizetheir recognition of words. Strong readers quickly learn to recognize words, increasing their reading fluency. Reitsma (1983, 1989) studied second graders who were reading at and below grade level. After accomplished readers reread and decoded unfamiliar words a few times, they became significantly faster at recognizing those words. Less accomplished readers, however, showed little or no gain in recognition speed. When children fail to automatize word recognition, they must continue to decode words by sounding out the individual letters and speech sounds. The decoding process occupies a great deal of processing capacity, so struggling readers have less capacity available to attend to meaning. As a result, they get less out of their reading. These kinds of decoding and automaticity difficulties are common in children with learning disabilities in reading.
In sum, when it comes to reading, “the rich get richer.” Children with strong decoding skills and phonemic awareness are better able to sound out words. With repeated exposures, they automatize their word recognition. This makes it easier for them to read—and as a result they tend to read more. Increased reading practice further enhances their reading skills; it also exposes them to a broader array of knowledge and information, which, in turn, facilitates their cognitive development. When you consider all that we can learn through reading, you can see why it is critically important that children get off to a good start in the early reading stages (see Adams et al., 1998 for a review).
In our years as parents and educators, we have heard many times that the best way to promote children’s reading and academic success is to read aloud to them frequently. This advice has become so widespread that many parents consider it mandatory to read to their children daily, even beginning in infancy. When we reviewed the research literature, however, we were surprised to find that the evidence on this point is relatively weak. Scarborough and Dobrich (1994) reviewed all of the studies since 1960 that correlated the frequency or quality of parent-child reading with later measures of the children’s reading ability. Scarborough and Dobrich concluded that only about 8% of the variability in children’s reading scores is related to how much they were read to by their parents. Not all research agrees; some investigators report higher correlations than this, some lower, and some no correlation at all. An equal or greater amount of the variability in reading success correlates with such factors as the family’s socioeconomic status (SES), the child’s own interest in reading, and even the amount of educational television the child watches (Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994).
However, even though parent-child reading during the preschool years may have only a small direct effect on later reading ability, it may have several other indirect effects with a more substantial cumulative impact (Lonigan, 1994; Senechal & LeFevre, 2002). Preschool exposure to print correlates only .35 directly with reading achievement (Lonigan’s estimate from his review of the research). Preschool exposure also, however, contributes modest amounts (.23 to .42) to the child’s language skills, emergent literacy (prereading skills such as phonemic awareness), and interest in literacy. These factors, in turn, have their own positive association with reading achievement. So taken together, the direct and indirect effects of preschool exposure become substantial. Dunning, Mason, and Stewart (1994) argue further that even if parent-child preschool reading has only a small effect, it is still an effect that parents can control. Factors like family SES and the child’s own interest in reading are difficult to change, but parents can choose to exercise their “8%” influence on their children’s reading ability. And even small effects, when exerted early, can compound into larger differences later in the child’s life.
What is more clear is this: Once children begin reading, the amount of time they spend reading is a strong predictor of later strengths in reading, language ability, vocabulary, writing, storytelling, richness of ideas, content-area achievement, and overall knowledge (Adams et al., 1998 provide a review of this area of research). Because “practice makes perfect” and “the rich get richer” when it comes to reading, we agree with Adams and colleagues (1998) that “the firmest prescription from research is that children should read as often, as broadly, and as thoughtfully as possible” (p. 336).
|Stage and Age Range||Description of Activities and Skills|
|Prereading: Birth to kindergarten||Parents “read” to infants and toddlers by pointing to and naming objects and colors in books and reading simple stories. Many 3-year-olds pretend to read—flipping through pages, reciting memorized stories, and creating their own stories as they point to words and pictures. By kindergarten, many children can recite the alphabet, recognize written letters, and print their own name. These and other prereading skills lay the foundation for further development.|
|Reading/Decoding:Grades 1-2||Children learn to associate letters with their corresponding sounds. Using phonics, children sound out letters, decoding the word that is formed when they run the sounds together. With the whole word method, children recognize words based on context, pictures, and the shape of the word. Readers at this stage often focus on individual words and phrases and miss the larger meaning of the story.|
|Fluency: Grades 2-3||Children become more fluent in recognizing or decoding words. Rereading familiar books and reading stories with familiar or stereotyped structures, children gain speed, fluency, and confidence in their reading ability. Chall (1983) commented th~t children are “learning to read” by associating printed words with stories they already know and understand.|
|Reading for New Learning: Grades 4-8||Fluency with words allows children to move to less familiar material. With the decoding load reduced, children can focus on meaning and messages, gaining a new way to learn new information. Fourth graders typically begin using printed materials to study subjects like science, history, and geography. Now children are “reading to learn,” focusing on fact-based information.|
|Multiple Viewpoints: High school||Adolescents move beyond basic facts. They begin to appreciate layers of information representing different viewpoints or theories. Examples: History texts might describe events from differing perspectives; biology can be discussed at the cellular, organismic, and ecological levels. School assignments and free reading of more mature fiction and nonfiction facilitate this development.|
|Construction and Reconstruction:College and adulthood||Mature readers can read multiple sources, opinions, and views and then construct their own understanding. They read to suit their purpose, whether to gain understanding, enjoy entertainment, or consider views of others. They decide how fast or deeply to read and when to gloss, skim, or attend to detail. They know what not to read as well as what to read in order to suit their purposes.|