Developing Reading Skills in Young Children

Dr. Reid Lyon discusses how children develop reading skills and what parents can do to help.

By Diana Moore, M.L.S.

Dr. Reid Lyon is a research psychologist and serves as Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also serves as the Director of Research Programs in Reading Development and Disorders, Learning Disabilities, Language Development and Disorders, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr. Lyon delivered this lecture on February 20, 1999 in San Francisco.

How many children experience difficulties learning to read?

Approximately 20 to 30 percent of school-age children have difficulties learning to read. About 15 million youngsters do not have access to the wonders of books and other kinds of texts for learning and enjoyment. Almost as many girls as boys experience difficulties learning to read. Boys seem to be identified as reading disabled more readily because they tend to be more active and boisterous than their female agemates. While these estimates are alarming, they are on the conservative side.

Are there social and emotional consequences of not learning to read?

Indeed there are. If you observe children with reading difficulties, many negative effects become apparent. During the early grades, their difficulties are quite embarrassing to them. This humiliation leads to a predictable decrease in motivation and self-esteem. Children are easily frustrated and ashamed of their difficulties once they notice that many of their classmates read so effortlessly. As the youngsters mature, many of them drop out of school, and of those who manage to graduate from high school, less than two percent attend a four-year college.

What kinds of skills are required to learn to read?

Skilled reading requires the integration of several skills and abilities. You cannot learn to read an alphabetic language like English unless you understand that the words that you hear contain smaller sounds called "phonemes." Phonemes cannot actually be "heard" by the ear because when we speak, the sounds in each syllable and word are folded into one sound to permit rapid communication. Thus, when speaking the word /cat/, the ear hears one sound, not three as in /c/ /a/ /t/. Many readers must be taught "phoneme awareness" if it does not come easily to them.

Understanding that spoken words are composed of phonemes is critical because in beginning reading, new words are decoded by linking the phonemes to the letter symbols. Once children learn how to apply sounds to letter symbols, they must practice the process to ensure that their reading becomes rapid and fluent. Reading requires phoneme awareness, phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension skills. Each of these skills is necessary and none are sufficient in their own right. They must be integrated and applied in text through consistent and frequent practice. Learning to read is not a natural process - it requires systematic and well-informed instruction.

What are some common signs of reading problems?

Most reading problems can be observed when the child attempts to read out loud. You will notice a labored approach to decoding or "sounding out" unknown or unfamiliar words. Reading is typically hesitant and characterized by frequent starts and stops. If asked about the meaning of what was just read, the individual frequently has little to say. Not because he or she isn't smart enough: in fact, many people with reading problems are very bright. Poor comprehension occurs because they take too long to read the words, leaving little energy for remembering and understanding what was read.

Why do some children have difficulties learning to read?

Individuals who are most at-risk for reading difficulties are those who enter school with limited exposure to oral language interactions and little prior understanding of concepts related to the sounds of our language, letter knowledge, print awareness, and general verbal skills. Children raised in poverty, with limited proficiency in English, speech and hearing impairments, or from homes where little reading takes place are especially at-risk for reading failure. However, there are a substantial number of children who have had substantial exposure to language, literacy interactions, and opportunities to learn to read who have significant difficulties acquiring reading skills. Whether the causes are environmental or genetic in nature, the reading problems occur due to deficits in phoneme awareness, phonics development, reading fluency, reading comprehension, or combinations of these.

Can reading problems be prevented?

Most children can learn to read if difficulties are detected in kindergarten and first grade and the appropriate early interventions are applied. Prevention and early intervention programs that teach phoneme awareness and phonics skills and develop reading contexts where children have an opportunity to practice skills are more beneficial than approaches that are less structured and direct. Help needs to be provided before nine years of age; after that time, children respond more poorly to reading instruction.

What can parents do to ensure that their children develop a strong foundation for reading?

The most important thing that parents can do is talk and read to their children. During the toddler and preschool years it is critical to provide children with many different language and reading experiences that are playful and fun, to include nursery rhymes and rhyming games to expose youngsters to the sounds of our language, lap-time reading, and bed-time reading. It is critical that young children observe their parents reading and learn why reading is so important in our lives. A major thing to remember is to make all of the language and literacy interactions in the home positive and enjoyable experiences.