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Learning To Read: What research says parents can do to help their children

Richard Allington and Sherry Guice

* This article appeared in the National PTA Magazine. For more information, visit http://www.pta.org.

Once again the nation is involved in a vigorous debate over beginning reading instruction.

In newspaper articles and state legislatures, people are hotly disputing how children should be taught to read. Educators and legislators often use the terms "whole language" or "phonics" when discussing ways to teach children to read. Some claim that systematic phonics instruction is the best way to teach young children to read. Others believe that children best learn to read by spending long periods of time independently reading books that are not too difficult for them, with lessons on sounds and letters given within the context of their reading (a part of whole language philosophy).

What's at stake

The debate over reading instruction has turned into a hot political issue in certain parts of the country. Some states have even developed laws governing how children will be taught to read. For example, California passed a law mandating direct, systematic phonics instruction that is not embedded in reading and writing instruction. Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin and other states are considering similar laws. The laws even name the specific commercial programs teachers must use to teach phonics. 

To complicate matters, both California and Texas are "adoption states" - that is, their state legislatures spell out the criteria schools and districts must follow when ordering textbooks. Because those two states are so large, textbook publishers shape their books to meet those criteria, and sell the books not only in California and Texas but in all the other states as well. Thus the decisions made in California and Texas affect the textbooks that children use all across the country. But what does research really say about the effectiveness of reading programs? 

The research record

The following conclusions are all born out by research done on how reading is being taught in our classrooms: 

1.      For the purpose of learning to read, it is important that children learn phonics. Most children have little difficulty learning how to do this. Roughly 80-85 percent do so successfully by the middle of 1st-grade; many children come to 1st-grade already knowing this. 

2.      Most children who have difficulty learning to read benefit greatly from intensive one-on-one or small group tutoring programs. A key to the success of such programs is extensive teacher instruction that focuses on the specific learning experiences children need and how to provide them. 

3.      Phonics is being taught and has been taught in our schools. In classrooms where all children learn to read, teachers balance phonics instruction with structured reading lessons, reading literature, listening to stories, and writing. Research shows that exemplary teachers rarely rely on a single approach or method. Instead they teach according to the needs of children, not by strictly following any one approach or set of materials. 

4.      While children do need to acquire effective and efficient strategies for pronouncing unknown words, there is no clear evidence supporting any particular approach to phonics instruction. 

5.      Children benefit from reading "manageable" texts-that is real books that they can read by themselves without too much difficulty. 

Learning to read: what matters 

1.      Reading many books. Listening to and reading stories influences children's learning for life. Some research suggests that the more stories children hear before entering school, the more likely they will be successful in school because of the benefits to their vocabulary, comprehension, and ability to understand how stories work. 

2.      Knowledgeable teachers. When it comes to reading, teachers must make the best use of the limited amount of time children are in school. This is more likely to happen when teachers are highly trained in appropriate ways to determine children's needs and provide appropriate instruction, including when and how to introduce sounds and letters. 

3.      Opportunities to talk and think about books and reading. Natural, spontaneous conversations with children at home and at school about what they are reading and how they are reading are critical to children's learning. 

4.      Writing. Writing is a wonderful way to learn how sounds and letters combine to form words. Writing literally forces children to pay close attention to sounds in words and how they are represented. Recent research has demonstrated that young children who have the opportunity to write a lot, while allowed to use invented spelling, develop both the ability to hear sounds in words and the aptitude to become good readers. 

5.      Independence. We all learn best by doing things ourselves. 
Encouraging children to figure out words independently helps them to become independent readers. 

What parents can do 

1.      Surround children with language through books, rhymes, stories, and conversations about books. Talking about books in ways that include conversations about particular words and sounds in books. Children are curious about how language works. Capitalize on what interests them and let stories and words become a part of your daily lives. 

2.      Provide your children with opportunities to play with the alphabet and experiment with sounds using magnetic letters, paper, and crayons for writing, and alphabet books and CD-ROM reading programs for reading.  Read books together and talk about how letters represent sounds and combine to form words. 

3.      As you read with your children, point to the words on the page and stretch out the sounds of the letters in some words. That way children can see and hear how language is put together. When they begin reading independently, focus on ways they can figure out things on their own. It helps to ask questions like, "How could you figure it out?" and "Does that make sense?" Questions like these have been shown to foster an independent sense of problem-solving. 

4.      Play phonics games. A wonderful place to start is with the letters and sounds in your children's name. Or, ask them to tell you all the "b" words on the dinner table (for example, bread, beans, bacon). 

5.      Most important of all, become partners with your children's teachers. 
Concerned, knowledgeable adults who work together have the power to greatly influence children's growth as readers and writers, which in turn influences the rest of children's lives.

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