What makes effective literacy instruction? The National Reading Panel has more than forty years of research on what works.
Findings of the National Reading Panel
- Phonemic awareness
- Phonics skills (Alphabetical principle, decode)
- The ability to read words in an accurate and fluent manner
- The ability to apply comprehension strategies consciously and deliberately as they read
The Panel found that many difficulties learning to read were caused by inadequate phonemic awareness and that systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness directly caused improvements in children's reading and spelling skills.
The evidence for these casual claims is so clear cut that the Panel concluded that systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness should be an important component of classroom reading instruction for children in preschool and beyond who have not been taught phoneme concepts or who have difficulties understanding that the words in oral language are composed of smaller speech sounds — sounds that will be linked to the letters of the alphabet. Importantly, the Panel found that even preschool children responded well to instruction in phonemic awareness when the instruction was presented in an age-appropriate and entertaining manner.
The Panel also concluded that the research literature provides solid evidence that phonics instruction produces significant benefits for children from kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read. The greatest improvements were seen from systematic phonics instruction. This type of phonics instruction consists of teaching a planned sequence of phonics elements, rather than highlighting elements as they happen to appear in a text.
Here again, the evidence was so strong that the Panel concluded that systematic phonics instruction is appropriate for routine classroom instruction. The Panel noted that, because children vary in reading ability and vary in the skills they bring to the classroom, no single approach to teaching phonics could be used in all cases. For this reason, it is important to train teachers in the different kinds of approaches to teaching phonics and in how to tailor these approaches to particular groups of students.
Children at risk of reading failure especially require direct, explicit and systematic instruction in these skills, and that instruction should be provided as early as possible. Children in kindergarten and in the first grade respond well to instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, provided the instruction is delivered in a vibrant, imaginative, and entertaining fashion. Children who experience early difficulty in reading respond well to language based instruction through the late elementary school years.
The Panel also concluded that guided oral reading has been clearly documented by research to be important for developing reading fluency — the ability to read with efficiency and ease. In guided oral reading, students read out loud, to a parent, teacher or other student, who corrects their mistakes and provides them with other feedback. Specifically, guided oral reading helped students across a wide range of grade levels to learn to recognize new words, helped them to read accurately and easily, and helped them to comprehend what they read.
By contrast, the Panel was unable to determine from the research whether reading silently to oneself helped to improve reading fluency. Although it makes sense that silent reading would lead to improvements in fluency, and the Panel members did not discourage the practice, sufficient research to conclusively prove this assumption has not been conducted. Literally hundreds of studies have shown that the best readers read silently to themselves more frequently than do poor readers. However, these studies cannot distinguish whether independent silent reading improves reading skills or that good readers simply prefer to read silently to themselves more than do poor readers.
The Panel concluded that if silent reading is used in the classroom as a method intended to develop reading skills and fluency, it should be combined with other types of reading instruction, such as guided oral reading. The Panel also recommends that substantial additional research be conducted on the effectiveness of silent independent reading and other instructional procedures to enhance fluency and the ability to read with proper expression.
To determine how children best learn to comprehend what they read, the Panel reviewed studies of three areas regarded as essential to developing reading comprehension: vocabulary development, text comprehension instruction, and teacher preparation and comprehension strategies instruction.
Although the best method or combination of methods for teaching vocabulary has not yet been identified, the Panel review uncovered several important implications for teaching reading. First, vocabulary should be taught both directly — apart from a larger narrative or text — and indirectly — as words are encountered in a larger text. Repetition and multiple exposure to vocabulary words will also assist vocabulary development, as will the use of computer technology. The Panel emphasized that instructors should not rely on single methods for teaching vocabulary, but on a combination of methods.
Likewise, the Panel also found that reading comprehension of text is best facilitated by teaching students a variety of techniques and systematic strategies to assist in recall of information, question generation, and summarizing of information. The Panel also found that teachers must be provided with appropriate and intensive training to ensure that they know when and how to teach specific strategies.
With respect to the overall preparation of teachers, the Panel noted that existing studies showed that training both new and established teachers generally produced higher student achievement, but the research in this area is woefully inadequate to draw clear conclusions about what makes training most effective. More quality research on teacher training is one of the major research needs identified by the Panel.
Finally, the Panel examined the use of computer technology to teach reading. The Panel noted that there are too few definitive studies to draw firm conclusions, but that the available information suggests that it is possible to use computer technology to improve reading instruction. For example, the use of computers as word processors may help students learn to read, as reading instruction is most effective when combined with writing instruction.
Teachers are key! They must know how children learn to read, why some children have difficulty learning to read, and how to identify and implement instructional approaches of proven efficacy for different children. They must know how to judge the quality of the reading research literature and to use it to develop curricula and teaching methods based on the soundest and most scientifically rigorous studies. Literacy instruction can and should be provided to all children beginning in kindergarten. In doing so, teachers must understand that such instruction should be integrated with the entire kindergarten experience in order to optimize their students' social and emotional development.