By Susan Hall, Ed.D.
Parents are often advised to evaluate the reading instruction their child receives in the classroom, yet how can they recognize good instruction when they see it? Although delivering excellent early reading instruction requires a well-trained educator, recognizing whether a teacher is using a research-based approach is not that difficult if you know what to look for. Parents don't need to know how to teach reading - just how to evaluate the approach used and to identify whether it is working for their child.
Fortunately, parents can look to a federally funded report for a summary of the scientific research on reading. Teaching Children to Read, published in March 2000, is the result of the work of the National Reading Panel, 14 people commissioned by Congress in 1997 to assess research-based knowledge about reading, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teach children to read. The panel reached these critical conclusions about effective reading instruction based on convergence of significant data from reliable research studies.
Teachers who teach systematic phonics often use books with controlled vocabulary (sometimes called "decodable books" ) in the first few months of first grade. These books contain simple words that can use letters and sounds children have been taught. This enables children to read all the words successfully rather than resort to guessing strategies when given books that contain words with sounds they haven't yet learned.
Scientific research shows that the most skilled readers are efficient at reading single words accurately and fluently and that they rely on context very little for figuring out unknown words. Even though it appears they skip words and effortlessly absorb meaning in a global way, studies tracking eye movements confirm good readers read virtually every word and process the print letter-by-letter. Therefore, the most effective practice is to teach children to sound out words. Guessing a word from context or picture clues is not effective or efficient, especially once a child reaches fifth grade when most of the text contains no pictures and introduces considerably harder vocabulary. Therefore, parents should always encourage their child to sound out words rather than guess.
Although the conclusions of the National Reading Panel apply primarily to general education classroom instruction, effective instruction for the struggling reader incorporates the same components. Struggling readers especially need explicit and systematic instruction in both phonemic awareness and phonics. Children who don't easily make the associations between letters and sounds often benefit from a multisensory approach to teaching - one that uses all the senses - auditory, visual, and kinesthetic/tactile.
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