In 1997, the U.S. Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. For over two years, the National Reading Panel reviewed research-based knowledge on reading instruction and held open panel meetings in Washington, DC, and regional meetings across the United States. On April 13, 2000, the NRP concluded its work and submitted "The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read."
Below are edited excerpts from the report, regarding their findings on a variety of reading instruction strategies.
Phonemes are the smallest units composing spoken language. For example, the words “go” and “she” each consist of two sounds or phonemes. Instruction in phonemic awareness (PA) involves teaching children to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words. PA instruction should not be confused with phonics instruction (see below), or with auditory discrimination, which refers to the ability to recognize whether two spoken words are the same or different.
An extensive and rigorous analysis of studies involving PA training found that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to PA.
The evidence seems very clear that PA training caused improvement in students’ phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling. PA instruction also helped normally achieving children learn to spell, but was not effective for improving spelling in disabled readers.
The characteristics of PA training found to be most effective in enhancing PA, reading, and spelling skills included:
- explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes with letters,
- focusing the instruction on one or two types of phoneme manipulations rather than multiple types,
- teaching children in small groups.
It is important to note that PA instruction is a component of a successful reading program, not a complete reading program.
It is also important to note that there are many ways to teach PA effectively, and that the motivation of both students and their teachers is a critical ingredient of success.
Phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that stresses the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences and their use in reading and spelling. The primary focus of phonics instruction is to help beginning readers understand how letters are linked to sounds (phonemes) to form letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns and to help them learn how to apply this knowledge in their reading. Phonics instruction may be provided systematically or incidentally. A variety of systematic approaches are listed below. In incidental phonics instruction, the teacher simply highlights particular elements opportunistically when they appear in text.
The detailed analysis of studies involving phonics instruction revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.
The ability to read and spell words was enhanced in kindergartners who received systematic beginning phonics instruction. First graders who were taught phonics systematically were better able to decode and spell, and they showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text. Older children receiving phonics instruction were better able to decode and spell words and to read text orally, but their comprehension of text was not significantly improved.
Systematic synthetic phonics instruction also had a positive and significant effect on disabled readers’ reading skills. Additionally, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving low socioeconomic status children’s alphabetic knowledge and word reading skills than instructional approaches that were less focused on these initial reading skills.
Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. The impact was strongest for kindergartners and decreased in later grades. For poor readers, the impact of phonics instruction on spelling was small.
Although conventional wisdom has suggested that kindergarten students might not be ready for phonics instruction, this assumption was not supported by the data. The effects of systematic early phonics instruction were significant and substantial in kindergarten and the 1st grade, indicating that systematic phonics programs should be implemented at those age and grade levels.
While the findings provide converging evidence that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is a valuable and essential part of a successful classroom reading program, there is a need to be cautious in giving a blanket endorsement of all kinds of phonics instruction. In particular, to be able to make use of letter-sound information, children need phonemic awareness. Programs that focus too much on the teaching of letter-sound relations and not enough on putting them to use are unlikely to be very effective. Systematic phonics instruction is only one component—albeit a necessary component—of a total reading program; systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension strategies to create a complete reading program. Unfortunately, there is as yet insufficient research to tell us exactly how phonics instruction can be most effectively incorporated into a successful reading program.
Phonics Instructional Approaches
Analogy Phonics —Teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., recognizing that the rime segment of an unfamiliar word is identical to that of a familiar word, and then blending the known rime with the new word onset, such as reading brick by recognizing that -ick is contained in the known word kick, or reading stump by analogy to jump).
Analytic Phonics—Teaching students to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.
Embedded Phonics—Teaching students phonics skills by embedding phonics instruction in text reading, a more implicit approach that relies to some extent on incidental learning.
Phonics through Spelling—Teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., teaching students to spell words phonemically).
Synthetic Phonics —Teaching students explicitly to convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words.
Fluency is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension. Despite its importance as a component of skilled reading, fluency is often neglected in the classroom. Reading practice is generally recognized as an important contributor to fluency. Two instructional approaches, each of which has several variations, have typically been used to teach reading fluency:
- guided repeated oral reading - encourages students to read passages orally with systematic and explicit guidance and feedback from the teacher
- independent silent reading - encourages students to read silently on their own, inside and outside the classroom, with minimal guidance or feedback
On the basis of a detailed analysis of the available research that met NRP methodological criteria, the Panel concluded that guided repeated oral reading procedures that included guidance from teachers, peers, or parents had a significant and positive impact on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension across a range of grade levels. These studies were conducted in a variety of classrooms in both regular and special education settings with teachers using widely available instructional materials.
These results apply to all students—good readers as well as those experiencing reading difficulties. Nevertheless, there were important gaps in the research. In particular, the Panel could find no multiyear studies providing information on the relationship between guided oral reading and the emergence of fluency.
Independent Silent Reading
There has been widespread agreement that encouraging students to engage in wide, independent, silent reading increases reading achievement. Literally hundreds of correlational studies find that the best readers read the most and that poor readers read the least. These correlational studies suggest that the more that children read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. However, these findings are correlational in nature, and correlation does not imply causation.
Unfortunately only 14 of the studies that examined the effect of independent silent reading on reading achievement could meet the NRP research review methodology criteria, and these studies varied widely in their methodological quality and the reading outcome variables measured. Thus, a meta-analysis could not be conducted. Rather, the 14 studies were examined individually and in detail to identify converging trends and findings in the data.
With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency.
In other words, even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills.
The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills.
The importance of vocabulary knowledge has long been recognized in the development of reading skills. For various reasons, a formal meta-analysis could not be conducted. Instead the vocabulary instruction database was reviewed for trends across studies. Fifty studies dating from 1979 to the present were reviewed in detail. There were 21 different methods represented in these studies.
The studies reviewed suggest that vocabulary instruction does lead to gains in comprehension, but that methods must be appropriate to the age and ability of the reader.
The following approaches appeared to be helpful:
- learning words before reading a text
- techniques such as task restructuring and repeated exposure (including having the student encounter words in various contexts)
- substituting easy words for more difficult words can assist low-achieving students.
- use of computers in vocabulary instruction was found to be more effective than some traditional methods in a few studies
- vocabulary also can be learned incidentally in the context of storybook reading or in listening to others
The Panel concluded that:
- vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly
- repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important
- learning in rich contexts, incidental learning, and use of computer technology all enhance the acquisition of vocabulary
- direct instruction should include task restructuring as necessary and should actively engage the student
- dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning.
They also concluded that, while much is known about the importance of vocabulary to success in reading, there is little research on the best methods or combinations of methods of vocabulary instruction and the measurement of vocabulary growth and its relation to instruction methods.
Text Comprehension Instruction
Comprehension is defined as “intentional thinking during which meaning is constructed through interactions between text and reader” (Harris & Hodges, 1995). Thus, readers derive meaning from text when they engage in intentional, problem solving thinking processes. The data suggest that text comprehension is enhanced when readers actively relate the ideas represented in print to their own knowledge and experiences and construct mental representations in memory.
In its review, the Panel identified 16 categories of text comprehension instruction of which 7 appear to have a solid scientific basis for concluding that these types of instruction improve comprehension in non-impaired readers. Some of these types of instruction are helpful when used alone, but many are more effective when used as part of a multiple-strategy method. The types of instruction are:
- Comprehension monitoring, where readers learn how to be aware of their understanding of the material;
- Cooperative learning, where students learn reading strategies together;
- Use of graphic and semantic organizers (including story maps), where readers make graphic representations of the material to assist comprehension;
- Question answering, where readers answer questions posed by the teacher and receive immediate feedback;
- Question generation, where readers ask themselves questions about various aspects of the story;
- Story structure, where students are taught to use the structure of the story as a means of helping them recall story content in order to answer questions about what they have read; and
- Summarization, where readers are taught to integrate ideas and generalize from the text information.
In general, the evidence suggests that teaching a combination of reading comprehension techniques is the most effective. When students use them appropriately, they assist in recall, question answering, question generation, and summarization of texts. When used in combination, these techniques can improve results in standardized comprehension tests.
Nevertheless, some questions remain unanswered. More information is needed on ways to teach teachers how to use such proven comprehension strategies. The literature also suggests that teaching comprehension in the context of specific academic areas—for example, social studies—can be effective. If this is true of other subject areas, then it might be efficient to teach comprehension as a skill in content areas.
Questions remain as to which strategies are most effective for which age groups. More research is necessary to determine whether the techniques apply to all types of text genres, including narrative and expository texts, and whether the level of difficulty of the texts has an impact on the effectiveness of the strategies. Finally, it is critically important to know what teacher characteristics influence successful instruction of reading comprehension.