Third Education Group ReviewA peer-reviewed electronic journal.   ISSN 1557-2870

Early Reading Instruction

As reflected in NAEP scores, progress in reading skills has been stubbornly resistant to improvement. In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on assuring that students gain the skills need for effective reading in kindergarten and the early elementary grades, with some arguing that students who don't do so by third grade are likely to never fully recover. Without these reading skills students are more likely to suffer lack of success in their later academic careers and be more likely to be labelled as "learning disabled."

The scientific consensus about effective early reading instruction is reflected in the Common Core reading standards that have been adopted by most states. These include an emphasis on phonemic and phonological awareness, phonics, decoding skills, comprehension, and fluency. Instruction in reading should be explicit.

In their turn, the standards reflect the recommendations of the National Reading Panel from 2000. A highly influential summary of research was published in 1998 by the National Research Council entitled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.

The growing field of Response to Intervention (RtI) also incorporates this scientific consensus, adding on a 3-tier structure, where students struggling under the first tier, receive more intense instruction under the two top tiers. The What Works Clearinghouse issued a practice guide with recommendations on reading.

States commonly identified as incorporating this research in their standards include Massachusetts, Florida, Connecticut, and Delaware. Massachusetts requires potential reading teachers to pass a test measuring their knowledge of reading research. (Click here for the practice booklet. Particularly interesting are the questions that ask potential teachers to analyze sample reading lessons.)

The What Works Clearinghouse has issued a "practice guide" on Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade.

The Ongoing Controversy

Since early in the twentieth century, there has been an ongoing controversy about the best way to teach reading. The sides in this controversy have been described using a number of terms, including teacher-centered versus student-centered, trational versus progressive, explicit teaching versus discovery learning or phonics versus whole language. Since these and other terms are designed to appeal to their audiences' value systems, it is often hard to get clear answers as to which approaches best promote student learning. In many cases controversy over the best way to teach reading may be resolved by an appeal to ideology, rather than empirical evidence.

Jeanne Chall wrote several books describing this controversy. She is one of a number of authors to criticize the education establishment, particularly the schools of education, for ignoring research on reading.

The split between groups that support explicit instruction, often dominated by individuals with dyslexia or parents whose children suffer from dyslexia, and those opposed, often with ties to the reading establishment, seems to be widespread. For example, in Wisconsin, a group called the Wisconsin Reading Coalition has taken the lead in calling for a "scientifically-based core early reading curriculum," often taking to task the more establishment-based Wisconsin Reading Association.