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Preventing Reading Failure

As school teachers on the front lines, you don't need researchers to tell you that there's a literacy crisis in America. You're looking for solutions you can use in your daily teaching. We wrote this article to help teachers prevent reading failure by providing the most effective reading instruction.

Q How do children learn to read? Isn't learning to read like learning to talk? Doesn't reading emerge naturally out of interaction with adults in a print-rich environment?
A No. There are important differences. Children grow up learning to talk without someone trying to teach them. Reading, on the other hand, requires explicit instruction. That's why there are cultures with spoken, but no written languages.

Q So what needs to be explicitly taught?
A Children must become aware of the sounds of language--of words within sentences, of the syllables within words, and of the units within syllables called phonemes.

Q Why are phonemes important?
A Because they are the segments of sounds that the letters of the alphabet represent. For example, cat has three phonemes - /c/, /a/, and /t/ - these three phonemes are represented by the letters c, a, and t.

Q Is it important to teach the ABC's?
A Yes. Knowing the names and sounds of the letters, along with awareness of phonemes in spoken language, are the skills most predictive of reading success.

Q Can children in kindergarten and first grade be taught phonemic awareness and alphabetic skills, and consequently become successful readers?
A For the majority of children this is the case. Above all, children need the opportunity to apply these skills to the reading of connected text.

Q But doesn't English contain many irregular words that must be memorized?
A Approximately 13 percent of English words are highly unpredictable in their letter-sound relations, such as the au in the word laugh. In contrast, 50 percent of words are very predictable. The remaining 37 percent consist of complex spelling that can be taught (as the au in taught).

Q So is this where phonics comes in--with the 50 percent of words that are predictable and the 37 percent of words with complex spelling patterns?
A Yes. Phonics rules are letter-sound correspondence rules.

Q I've heard that it would take more than 2,000 phonics rules to program a computer to read English. Wouldn't memorizing all these phonics rules stifle the joy of reading?
A Research indicates that programs focusing on the most frequent spelling patterns for the approximately 44 phonemes of English can bring children at risk for reading failure to the national average in decoding words.

Q Won't phonics programs simply create good decoders, but not good comprehension?
A Good reading programs allow children to practice the letter-sound correspondences taught in decodable text and in good literature. Good programs and teachers enable children to develop efficient word recognition strategies so that attention and memory resources are more available for comprehension. Good reading programs always provide access to good literature.

Q What about comprehension?
A The goal of learning to read is understanding printed material. Efficient word recognition skills is a necessary but not sufficient component of comprehension. As children get older, comprehension strategies should be taught. From an early age, children need to enjoy reading, which can be facilitated by shared and guided reading, discussions of literature, and other practices that help children appreciate reading.

Q Can all children learn to read?
A All but a very small percentage of children can become successful readers and writers if we deliver effective reading instruction right from the start.