Spurred by conservative lawmakers supporting the “skills” approach to teaching reading, Congress convened a group of experts in 1997 to study the effectiveness of different instructional approaches.
Called the National Reading Panel, the group found that the most effective way combines explicit instruction in a variety of areas, including phonics and the “higher-order” skill of comprehension. Published in 2000, its report, “Teaching Children to Read,” has influenced state and federal policies on literacy instruction.
The panel researched both instructional methods and supports for teachers, such as training and computer technology, but its findings in the support areas were inconclusive. Teacher training generally produces higher student achievement, the panel found, but what makes it effective is unclear. Similarly, computer technology may help in teaching reading, but its benefits have yet to be studied in depth.
Looking at instruction, the panel focused on four areas:
phonemic awareness, which means knowing that words are made up of sounds or “phonemes.”
phonics, which is the correspondence between letters and sounds.
fluency, which is the ability to read text quickly, accurately and with expression.
comprehension, which means understanding written text.
Here are the highlights of its findings:
Children learn that words are made up of sounds through games, songs, rhymes or other strategies that encourage them to break words into their component sounds and reassemble them into new words. A classic example is “pig Latin,” the children’s game that plays with words by taking off the initial sound, sticking the sound at the end and adding the “ay” sound, as in “oneme-phay” for phoneme.
“Teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading,” the panel found. The best way to do it, according to the panel, is to work with small groups of children and focus instruction on one or two specific ways to play with sounds, such as saying consonant-vowel-consonant words backwards or making up rhymes.
Phonics instruction involves teaching children the correspondence between letters and sounds. The approach to phonics lies at the core of the “reading wars,” the longstanding argument between those who focus on skills to reading instruction and “whole language” enthusiasts who integrate skill development into the broader goal of engaging children’s interest in reading.
“Systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for children in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read,” the panel found. To be systematic, teachers should teach a planned sequence of phonics elements. However, more research is necessary to determine whether phonics should routinely be taught beyond 2nd grade and what specific sequences are best, the panel said.
The panel also warns against relying only on phonics to teach children to read. “While phonics skills are necessary in order to learn to read, they are not sufficient in their own right. Phonics skills must be integrated with the development of phonemic awareness, fluency and text-reading comprehension skills.”
Fluency is the ability to read quickly and with expression. Without fluency, “it will be difficult for the child to remember what has been read,” which interferes with comprehension, the panel notes. Further, “fluency is often neglected in the classroom.”
The panel examined the effectiveness of two approaches to developing fluency: guided oral reading and independent, silent reading. The panel did not find that independent, silent reading improved fluency. It did find that reading aloud with guidance from a peer, parent or teacher did.
Understanding the meaning of written text is a complex process that involves a variety of skills. Vocabulary is an important one. The panel found that vocabulary instruction geared to the age and ability level of the student improves comprehension. Vocabulary should be taught both directly, as with word lists, and indirectly, as when words must be used in conversation. Students should be exposed multiple times to the same word, and vocabulary review is important.
The panel identifies seven strategies that have been shown to boost ordinary readers’ comprehension:
Comprehension monitoring, called meta-cognition, where students become aware of their level of understanding of the material. For example, students can “think aloud” about what they are reading by describing the mental pictures they form as they read or making predictions about what will happen next.
Cooperative learning, or working together to understand text.
Use of graphic organizers or story maps.
Answering questions posed by the teacher.
Readers asking themselves questions about the text.
Story structure, where readers learn to use the structure of a story to help them remember what happened. For example, children can stop in the middle of a story to identify the characters, setting and problem in the story. Then they predict how that problem might be solved.
All these strategies work more effectively when used together rather than when used separately.
The panel reached these conclusions by analyzing previous studies, not conducting its own research.
More than 100,000 reading studies have been published since 1966. To narrow the pool, the panel looked only at studies with research methods most similar to those of the “hard” sciences, like medicine. For example, an acceptable study might compare changes in reading test scores between similar groups of children, where one group received phonics instruction while the other did not. Studies also had to be published in peer-reviewed journals, which insist on valid research methods.
The panel chose to focus on these kinds of studies because they most clearly demonstrate a causal relationship between a teaching strategy and increased reading achievement. This methodology, called quantitative research, compares closely to the standard of evidence used in medicine and psychology.
However, most education research is not conducted this way. Education research, a “soft” science like anthropology and sociology, frequently relies on observations in particular settings. Such “qualitative research” does not compare results between children receiving or not receiving a particular instructional technique. Instead, it typically focuses on observing a slice of life in a classroom and explaining its significance.
Some researchers believe the panel’s approach left out the best of what happens in classroom instruction.
“Qualitative [research] is very good at informing about the possibilities of instruction,” says Michael Pressley, a professor of Catholic education and psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “The cutting edge gets discovered in qualitative [research] before it gets studied in experimental designs. There was no real new thinking that came out of the National Reading Panel. It was a huge bill for no important new insights.”
As a follow-up to the report, The National Institute for Literacy is forming a panel to study qualitative reading research.
To read the full report, click here.