Learning to read or reading to learn: When to intervene

Parents often wonder if early intervention will solve all reading problems, or whether new skills are needed after third grade. An expert answers these questions.

By Kevin Feldman, Ed.D.

Parents often wonder if early intervention will solve all reading problems, or whether new skills are needed after third grade. In this article, Kevin Feldman, Ed.D., answers these questions.

No, we haven't learned everything that we need to learn by third grade. There's this dichotomy which is often utilized which is: you learn to read K-3 and you read to learn grades four and above. But reading people will tell you that's an oversimplification, that you're literally learning how to read in ever more sophisticated and nuanced ways all the way through. I mean, when I was working with graduate students - and these were people working on master's degrees - they were still learning how to read. Only now, they were learning how to read research articles and how to deal with abstracts and tables. What shifts, though, is the amount of vocabulary that you have to process and the way that books and texts are organized.

That fourth-grade-and-above kind of reading that we do, which is referred to as expository reading - informational kinds of materials, whether they be articles on a website or classical textbooks - is tremendously more challenging than reading stories. And students do need direct instruction in the kinds of strategies that are helpful in reading this more complex expository, or informational, material. For example, teaching them how to pre-read a chapter: How to look at the title and predict what kinds of questions will be answered and what kinds of topics will be covered; to read the introduction; to read the major boldfaced headings; to look at the pictures, the charts, and the graphs; to go to the very end, read the summary; to look at if there are any questions, and to read the questions before they read the chapter. To really orient their thinking about what they're going to be learning before they read is a very effective reading strategy that good readers utilize in this more challenging text and material. It's very different from, say, reading a chapter from Harry Potter or Baby-sitter's Club, which you just dive into and are swept away by the story.

There is a lot to be learned and a lot that can be taught, and students who struggle, we find, often don't have these strategies. It's not that they can't be taught. I mean, Don Deshler and his group at the University of Kansas have 20 years of good research evidence that these specific learning strategies can be discretely taught and that adolescents can be very, very successful. But they need good direct instruction in the strategies, and they need specific assistance initially in generalizing them to their science text, their history text, their math text. And then over time, they can really incorporate them into their own independent repertoires.

And it's really [a skill you develop] all the way through, as long as you're engaged in school or any kind of academic pursuit. If you're reading the manual for a new piece of software on the job, oftentimes that's a real different kind of reading than reading the newspaper. So it never ends.