Current Issues in Beginning Reading
“Reading is essential to success in our society” (National Research Council, 1998, p. 1). Reading opens up the world for children and is the doorway to learning. Unlike any other ability, the capacity to read allows children access to the collective knowledge, history, and experiences of our shared symbolic humanity.
The benefits of learning to read in the early grades are significant. Research suggests consistently that the establishment of strong beginning reading skills is fundamental to cognitive development and later school success (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1997; Stanovich, 1986). Children who become confident, independent readers are not only well-prepared for the academic tasks they will encounter, but also well-positioned with the essential skills necessary to enter into a technological society with ever-increasing literacy requirements (National Research Council, 1998). At no other time in our history has the ability to read been so important to all members of society.
As the need for early established reading increases, there exists a significant portion of our children who do not gain entry to the world of reading. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, approximately 40 percent of U.S. fourth-grade students read below a “basic level” and have “little or no mastery of the knowledge or skills necessary to perform work at each grade level” (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005). Almost 20 percent of the nation’s children encounter severe reading problems before third grade, which translates into more than 10 million children in America who are struggling, unsuccessfully, to read (National Reading Panel, 2000). The magnitude of this reading problem in the United States results in increasing numbers of students that become eligible for special education services under the category of specific learning disabilities. A full 80–85 percent of students with learning disabilities have reading as their primary area of difficulty. Moreover, there is consistent evidence that children with low reading achievement in the early grades have greater likelihood of school dropout, pregnancy, and unemployment (McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1991; Slavin, 1989), and consequently face great risks of negative academic, social, and economic outcomes.
Currently, the convergence of two factors has the potential to impact significantly the pervasiveness and seriousness of reading failure among children in the United States (Coyne, Kame’enui, & Simmons, 2001). The first factor is a growing coalition of support for research-based efforts directed at improving reading outcomes for all students, and especially students at risk of reading disability and reading failure (e.g., Learning First Alliance, 1998; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). This broad coalition spans multiple segments of society and includes parents, educators, policy makers, and leaders in business and technology. The growing support for reading reform can be seen in increased calls for school accountability and is reflected in the proliferation of ambitious reading standards and reading assessments at the local, state, and national level (e.g., California Department of Education, 1999; Texas Department of Education, 1997).
The second factor is the consolidation of a substantial knowledge base built on the sizable body of converging, multidisciplinary research evidence accumulated over the past 40 years (e.g., McCardle & Chhabra, 2004; National Reading Panel, 2000; National Research Council, 1998). This scientific knowledge base reflects a significant advancement in our understanding of both the nature of reading difficulties and the ways in which educators can work to ensure that all children become successful readers. In this chapter, we highlight the extensive convergence of research on beginning reading and summarize one of its most significant conclusions, the importance of learning to read in the early grades.
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