Ten Myths of Reading Instruction

Published March 1, 2003

Managing Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of a more detailed article available under the same title at the Web site of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory at http://www.sedl.org/reading/topics/myths.html.

It has often been suggested that children will learn to read if they are simply immersed in a literacy-rich environment and allowed to develop literacy skills in their own way. This belief that learning to read is a natural process that comes from rich text experiences is surprisingly prevalent in education despite the fact that learning to read is about as natural as learning to juggle blindfolded while riding a unicycle backwards.

Myth #1 – Learning to read is a natural process

Learning to understand speech is a natural process and, given the opportunity, children will naturally develop rudimentary language comprehension skills with little structured or formal guidance. Reading acquisition, by contrast, is not at all natural.

While the ability to understand speech evolved over many, many thousands of years, reading and writing were invented by man and have only been around for a few thousand years. Reading and writing simply have not existed long enough to be described as a “natural” phenomenon.

Clearly, if reading was natural, everybody would be doing it, and we would not have to worry so much about dealing with a “literacy crisis.”

Myth #2 – Children will eventually learn to read if given enough time

Many who claim reading is natural also claim children need to be given time to develop their reading skills at their own pace. But over time, the gap between children who have well-developed literacy skills and those who do not gets wider and wider.

At the early grades, the “literacy gap” is relatively easy to cross. However, if literacy instruction needs are not met early, then the gap widens until it gets so wide that bridging it requires extensive, intensive, expensive, and frustrating remedial instruction.

The gap reaches this nearly insurmountable point very early, and research has shown that if a child is not reading grade-appropriate materials by the time he or she is in the fourth grade, the odds of that child ever developing good reading skills are very slim.

Myth #3 – Reading programs are “successful”

There is no reading program that, by itself, will even come close to ensuring high levels of reading success for all children. There are a few programs that, if properly implemented, could help a school to move in the right direction, but nothing could ever take the place of a knowledgeable and talented teacher.

Myth #4 – We used to do a better job of teaching children to read

Nothing illustrates this better than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been given to children across the country aged 9, 13, and 17 since 1970.

Student performance at those three age levels has not changed substantially in more than 30 years–consistently, depending on the age tested, between 24 and 39 percent of students have scored in the “below basic” category, and between 3 and 7 percent have scored in the “advanced” category.

Myth #5 – Skilled reading involves using syntactic and semantic cues to “guess” words, and good readers make many “mistakes” as they read authentic text

Research indicates that both of these claims are quite wrong. Repeated studies have shown that only poor readers depend upon context to try to “guess” words in text–good readers depend heavily upon the visual information contained in the words themselves (i.e. the letter / word cues) to quickly and automatically identify the word. Good readers make virtually no mistakes as they read because they have developed extremely effective and efficient word identification skills that do not depend upon semantics/context or syntax.

Myth #6 – Research can be used to support whatever your beliefs are: Lots of programs are “research based”

It is true that new “research-based” fads and programs come and go, but that stems from a misuse of the term “research-based.” All of us need to adopt a bit of healthy skepticism, and we need to demand that a substantial research base be provided as evidence to support claims.

Myth #7 – Phoneme awareness is a consequence (not a cause) of reading acquisition

The evidence showing the importance of phoneme awareness to literacy acquisition is overwhelming. It is quite clear that phoneme awareness is a necessary pre-requisite for developing decoding skills in an alphabetic writing system such as English.

Phoneme awareness in the early grades is one of the best predictors of future reading success. All successful readers have phoneme awareness. People who do not have phoneme awareness are always poor readers, and poor readers almost never have phoneme awareness.

Myth #8 – Some people are just genetically “dyslexic”

Frankly, the term “dyslexia” is basically meaningless. The term simply means “difficulty with words,” and anybody who has not learned to read could be called “dyslexic.”

Myth #9 – Short-term tutoring for struggling readers can get them caught up with their peers, and the gains will be sustained

The gains made by children in pull-out tutoring programs are not sustained for very long once they are exited from the program. This suggests there is something about the classroom environment that is not supporting and scaffolding these children as they learn to read. Studies have shown that the best hope for these children is to place them with a “strong” reading teacher full time.

Myth #10 – If it is in the curriculum, then the children will learn it, and a balanced reading curriculum is ideal

This is only a half-myth. Clearly, if something is not a part of the curriculum, then children are very unlikely to learn it, but just because a concept or skill is taught, there is no guarantee every child will learn it.

According to data collected for the NAEP in reading, the prevalent instructional philosophy shifted in 1996 from Whole Language to Balanced Literacy, but NAEP scores have been unaffected by this shift. When the prevalent philosophy shifted in the late ’80s and early ’90s from Phonics to Whole Language, NAEP scores did not change then either. It would seem the philosophies that drive the curricula simply do not in themselves have an impact on student performance.

What does have an impact on student performance is the quality, strength, knowledge, and sophistication of the teacher. That is what really matters for helping children to become proficient readers.

Sebastian Wren is a program associate with the Southwestern Educational Development Laboratory, where he develops and tests resources for reading instruction. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Sebastian Wren’s article on the mechanics of reading, “The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework,” is available at the Web site of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory at http://www.sedl.org/reading/framework.