How can children become good readers?

In a paper titled Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement, the Ohio Department of Education recently wrote that districts have “a limited understanding of how to build early literacy in young children.” This is manifestly troubling, as so much in life hinges on reading fluency—and it’s not as if there were a dearth of quality research on how kids learn to read. This is, in fact, one of the most thoroughly analyzed parts of schooling. (Fordham’s new literacy lifelines offer concise practical advice based in research.)

If this what-is-known and how-to-do-it knowledge isn’t well-lodged in the minds of district leaders and practitioners in Ohio schools, something needs to change. One can go back to Jeanne Chall’s 1967 book or the report in 2000 from the National Reading Panel. But a more recent and accessible review is a fine paper by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation. In what they call a “comprehensive tutorial review on the science of learning to read,” the authors review the major research findings and offer insight on how evidence can inform practice. The paper is organized around three general phases of literacy development, which they define as: (1) cracking the alphabetic code; (2) becoming a skilled word reader; and (3) learning to comprehend text.

The first building block of literacy is the ability to translate letters into sounds (or “decoding”). But studies indicate that children do not naturally intuit the relationship between letters and sounds; this must be taught explicitly through systematic phonics instruction. But why is phonics such a crucial foundation? Here, Castles and colleagues helpfully explain that an emphasis on phonics is not so much based on a “pedagogical philosophy,” but on the features of English itself. In an alphabetic language like ours, phonics enables children to pronounce the majority of words fairly rapidly. Once children can decode written symbols, they can direct their attention to making sense of word meanings.

A successful transition from decoding to skilled reading rests in large part on youngsters’ “lexical quality.” This term, the authors note, refers to readers’ ability to differentiate meanings precisely when spellings may be similar (face versus lace) or even the same (jam). How can schools promote strong lexical quality? Straight-up vocabulary instruction can help, but with thousands of words to learn, this can also be a daunting task. One approach the authors recommend is explicitly teaching “morphological awareness”—building a strong understanding of the predictable ways in which roots can be altered to change meanings (e.g., adding “–ed” to most verbs). The authors also make the commonsense point that more reading grows one’s vocabulary. “The single most effective pathway to fluent word reading,” they write, “is print experience: Children need to see as many words as possible, as frequently as possible.”

The ability to decode and understand word meanings is necessary but not sufficient for comprehending text. But how exactly do children learn comprehension skills? The authors admit that this is a complex question, in part because children’s background knowledge, cognitive processes, and memory interact and all bear on comprehension. Yet they offer useful insights here, too. First, they review the research on comprehension strategies and conclude that these can be effective in small doses—akin to learning reading “tricks.” Second, Castles and colleagues emphasize that “knowledge is fundamental to comprehension.” They make a helpful distinction between general background knowledge, such as familiarity with relevant historical contexts that can support inference making, and more specific linguistic knowledge—e.g., an understanding of idiom and figurative speech or grammar rules that help readers process text efficiently. Developing this knowledge base can be done through direct instruction. Moreover, as noted by the authors, it’s also closely intertwined with children’s own reading abilities, as well as their opportunities to read widely across various areas. 

This timely paper reminds us that learning to read is complicated and gradual. But essential elements of it are firmly grounded in quality research, which provides a compass for educators and parents. Explicit phonics instruction is the critical foundation for fluent reading. Beyond decoding, children must build a rich vocabulary and broad knowledge base. While the authors don’t advocate for many specific reading strategies or interventions, their central message throughout is clear: To become good readers, children must read, read, read—and then read some more.

SOURCE: Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation, “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2018).

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.