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Learning to Read - Research Informs Us

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By Jan Baumel, M.S.

What Is Effective Instruction?

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) recognized that poor reading is not only an educational problem but also a public health issue. So they began a large-scale program to review research on the causes of reading failure and methods of teaching. From the NICHD Report of the National Reading Panel, we've learned that effective reading instruction should include all of the following:

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language and are different from the letters that represent them when writing words. Kids need to focus on and manipulate the sounds in spoken syllables and words without any letters. Phonemic awareness shouldn't be confused with auditory discrimination, the ability to recognize whether two spoken words are the same or different.


Instruction in phonics has been helpful to kids who struggle with reading. They're taught that sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can be blended together to form words. Sounds are linked to the individual letters and letter combinations and the symbols that stand for them. Kids with reading difficulties need to be taught explicitly to change letters into sounds and then blend the sounds to make words.

Skills must be taught systematically, in a carefully planned order. Reading material should be decodable. That means that it should contain sounds and words that already have been taught and avoid sounds and sight words that haven't been introduced.

Because kids vary in reading ability and the skills they bring to the classroom, no single phonics program is recommended for everyone. There are different approaches to teaching phonics. Instruction needs to be designed to meet the needs of particular kids or groups of students in a classroom.

Guided Oral Reading

Guided oral reading practice is necessary to develop efficiency and ease in reading. To become a more fluent reader, your child needs lots of opportunity to practice what he just learned. He should read out loud to you, the teacher, or other students and have mistakes corrected. If necessary, skills should be re-taught.

Vocabulary Comprehension

For kids who are fluent readers, strategies to increase vocabulary should be taught. New words can be learned as they are read in the text or introduced before an assignment. Being able to use a dictionary or thesaurus is an important skill. Computer technology, such as hypertext that links highlighted words to definitions, may be helpful, too.

Text Comprehension

It's important for your child to be aware of whether he understands what he's reading. Strategies to improve comprehension include using graphic and semantic organizers (including story maps), answering oral or written questions, asking himself questions about the story, and being able to summarize the story. Integrating new ideas and generalizing from what he's read are the ultimate goals.

Jan Baumel, M.S., Licensed Educational Psychologist, spent 35 years in education as a teacher, school psychologist, and special education administrator before joining Schwab Learning. Today she is a consultant to local school districts and university field supervisor for student teachers.

Comments from readers

"I have a daughter who struggles with reading. Her understanding of alphabetic principles and phoneme awareness is good, but she does not decode new words well and forgets words she just read in a previous sentence. Finally she had to repeat 2nd grade even though she has no problem with material in other subjects - because she could not read independently with comprehension. She was evaluated but did not meet criteria for an IEP. How can a school be allowed to let a child get so far behind in reading without intervention? Every child develops at different rates but you shouldn't wait until 2nd grade to provide extra reading help. "
"My son has difficulties spelling word and differentiating between b or d m and m."
"I found this information very helpful and informative. I will use this information throught out the period of my childs Kinergarten year. As i read the information it bothered me that the information only focused on if he enjoys stories, if he can sound out words clearly, and so on and so on. I have a five year old daughter not a son, does this pertain to her also. Who ever published this article seems a little one sided on their approach to this article. So this article doesn't seem so biased, i would appriciate it if this article could be revised to include male and female students. I thank you for reviewing and taking my thoughts an feelings into consideration. I hope to hear from you soon."