The Scientific Basis of Teaching Reading

Published May 1, 2004

Because learning in most subjects depends on reading skills, reading proficiency can be considered the most important goal in the early grades. Yet, the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey shows only 29 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading. Children who fall substantially behind in reading in the early grades are unlikely to catch up–meaning the process of dropping out of high school often starts in the early years.

The problem is more acute for children who live in poverty. By age four, poor children are exposed to about thirteen million words used by their parents, mostly in simple sentences. The affluent child, by contrast, is exposed to about forty-five million words, often in more complex sentences.

Researchers have synthesized a great number of control-group studies that reveal scientific principles for effectively encouraging and teaching reading. Preschoolers, for example, benefit greatly from talking with and receiving coaching from their parents, from whom they learn vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and a general knowledge of the world. Their parents and teachers can also foster sound and letter recognition, knowledge of how letters combine to form sounds, and “decoding,” or sounding out words.

After mastering these elements, students need sufficient practice to gain fluency and meaningful oral reading. If fourth-graders are still struggling with sounding out words, if they need a tongue between their teeth to remember the sound blend of “th,” they are unlikely to enjoy reading and academically thrive. The more students read out loud and to themselves, the more they build their fluency as well as their vocabulary and the knowledge to understand new texts.

As readers progress, they learn “comprehension strategy”–the identification of questions or purposes–to guide their reading and measure their progress. They need explicit instruction in how to skim material for a quick overview or to find a given fact or idea, but they also need to learn to read a poem or scientific passage reflectively, intensively, and perhaps repeatedly until they have a deep and thorough understanding. Skilled readers have learned to adapt such methods to their purposes and to look for milestones of their progress.

Wise teachers know the inefficiency of teaching students things they already know and things they are not yet able to learn. Parents, teachers, and students themselves can make reading time more efficient by choosing material that is sufficiently but not overly challenging. Moreover, choosing material that is inherently interesting for particular students may enhance motivation.

Finally, students need to know how they are progressing. Conversations with teachers, parents, librarians, and others, classroom discussions and quizzes, and formal examinations can provide useful information about students’ mastery of texts and the strengths and weaknesses of their specific reading skills.

Each of these principles has an excellent record of fostering skilled, masterful reading. If all children were afforded their benefits, perhaps nine in 10 rather than three in 10 would be proficient readers by fourth grade, and we could expect their success to show in later grades and in high school completion rates.

Herbert J. Walberg is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; a member of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education; and University Scholar and research professor emeritus of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material was first published as a Hoover Institute Weekly Essay on January 26, 2004

© 2004 The Trustees of Leland Stanford