Research on Beginning Reading
In 1998, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the weight of empirical research evidence in beginning reading was sufficient to reach broad consensus within the field. Reflecting on the National Research Council’s (1998) final report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Kame’enui (1999) wrote that the “fact that the National Academy of Sciences agreed to establish a committee to address the prevention of reading problems represents a clear, serious, and momentous signal to the field that a ‘scientific’ basis does indeed exist that requires our full attention and consideration” (p. 6). Extending the work of the committee, the National Research Panel (2000) applied an objective quantitative review methodology to “undertake comprehensive, formal, evidence-based analyses of the experimental and quasi-experimental research literature relevant to a set of selected topics judged to be of central importance in teaching children to read” (p. 1).
The work of the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel has the potential to allow researchers and educators to move past the divisive and rancorous “reading wars” that plagued the field for more than 100 years (McPike, 1998; Kame’enui, 1993). We can now reject unsubstantiated rhetoric and point to scientific evidence to guide reading instruction that will promote a solid and successful start in reading and literacy for every child in America (see also What Works Clearinghouse, 2004).
One of the most salient conclusions from the research on beginning reading is the importance of learning to read in the early grades. As early as kindergarten, “meaningful differences” exist between students’ literacy experiences (Hart & Risley, 1995). While some children enter school with thousands of hours of exposure to books and a wealth of rich oral language experiences, other children begin school with very limited and impoverished knowledge of print and language. These diverse learners (i.e., those students at risk of reading disability and reading failure) already face the “tyranny of time,” the enormous task of constantly trying to catch up (Kame’enui, 1993).
Students disadvantaged in reading skills have an extremely difficult time catching up to their peers (Juel, 1988; Felton & Pepper, 1995). These initial differences in skills between students only grow larger over time. Stanovich (1986, 1999) described this phenomenon in reading as “Matthew effects,” referring to the biblical adage in the Book of Matthew declaring that the “rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” The consequences of establishing, or failing to establish, early reading skills are striking. Without strategic intervention, Juel’s (1988) longitudinal research found that good readers in first grade had a .88 chance of staying good readers in fourth grade while poor readers in first grade had a .87 probability of remaining poor readers.
After third grade, when the requirements of reading shift from learning to read to reading to learn, students’ trajectories of reading progress become even more stubbornly resistant to change (Good, Simmons, & Smith, 1998). From third grade onward, students who are in the bottom trajectory almost never become good readers in the top trajectory (Felton & Pepper, 1995; Juel, 1988). Children who are not competent and fluent readers by the end of grade 3 are at serious risk, not only for reading problems, but also for dropping out of school (Slavin, 1994).
Children with diverse learning needs face overwhelming odds from the outset of schooling. To close the reading gap between these students and their peers, and to help all children ultimately become successful readers, we are compelled to draw a clear and unwavering “line in the sand.” Children must be readers by the end of grade 3. This is a formidable goal that requires schools to commit to beginning reading as a top instructional priority in the primary grades beginning in kindergarten (Coyne, Kame’enui, & Simmons, 2004; National Research Council, 1998).
Moreover, to optimize the precious instructional period between kindergarten and third grade, beginning reading instruction must provide diverse learners with effective strategies based on validated principles of instructional design. These principles are central to designing reading instruction that responds to the acute instructional needs of diverse learners, those students who are vulnerable and need intensive and systematic methods to achieve the complex rules and strategies required of reading (Simmons & Kame’enui, 1998).
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