Teaching Children to Read
In 1997, Congress asked the “Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.” This panel was charged with providing a report that “should present the panel’s conclusions, an indication of the readiness for application in the classroom of the results of this research, and, if appropriate, a strategy for rapidly disseminating this information to facilitate effective reading instruction in the schools. If found warranted, the panel should also recommend a plan for additional research regarding early reading development and instruction.”
Establishment of the National Reading Panel
In response to this Congressional request, the Director of NICHD, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, constituted and charged a National Reading Panel (the NRP or the Panel). The NRP comprised 14 individuals, including (as specified by Congress) “leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, reading teachers, educational administrators, and parents.” The original charge to the NRP asked that a final report be submitted by November 1998. When the Panel began its work, it quickly became apparent that the Panel could not respond properly to its charge within that time constraint. Permission was sought and received to postpone the report’s submission deadline. A progress report was submitted to Congress in February 1999. The information provided in the NRP Progress Report, this Report of the National Reading Panel, and the Report of the National Reading Panel: Reports of the Subgroups reflect the findings and determinations of the National Reading Panel.
NRP Approach to Achieving the Objectives of Its Charge and Initial Topic Selection
The charge to the NRP took into account the foundational work of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The NRC report is a consensus document based on the best judgments of a diverse group of experts in reading research and reading instruction. The NRC Committee identified and summarized research literature relevant to the critical skills, environments, and early developmental interactions that are instrumental in the acquisition of beginning reading skills. The NRC Committee did not specifically address “how” critical reading skills are most effectively taught and what instructional methods, materials, and approaches are most beneficial for students of varying abilities.
In order to build upon and expand the work of the NRC Committee, the NRP first developed an objective research review methodology. The Panel then applied this 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. An examination of a variety of public databases by Panel staff revealed that approximately 100,000 research studies on reading have been published since 1966, with perhaps another 15,000 appearing before that time. Obviously, it was not possible for a panel of volunteers to examine critically this entire body of research literature. Selection of prioritized topics was necessitated by the large amount of published reading research literature relevant to the Panel’s charge to determine the effectiveness of reading instructional methods and approaches. A screening process was therefore essential.
The Panel’s initial screening task involved selection of the set of topics to be addressed. Recognizing that this selection would require the use of informed judgment, the Panel chose to begin its work by broadening its understanding of reading issues through a thorough analysis of the findings of the NRC report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Early in its deliberations the Panel made a tentative decision to establish subgroups of its members and to assign to each of them one of the major topic areas designated by the NRC Committee as central to learning to read—Alphabetics, Fluency, and Comprehension.
Regional Public Hearings
As part of its information gathering, the Panel publicly announced, planned, and held regional hearings in Chicago, IL (May 29, 1998), Portland, OR (June 5, 1998), Houston, TX (June 8, 1998), New York, NY (June 23, 1998), and Jackson, MS (July 9, 1998). The Panel believed that it would not have been possible to accomplish the mandate of Congress without first hearing directly from consumers of this information—teachers, parents, students, and policymakers—about their needs and their understanding of the research. Although the regional hearings were not intended as a substitute for scientific research, the hearings gave the Panel an opportunity to listen to the voices of those who will need to consider implementation of the Panel’s findings and determinations. The regional hearings gave members a clearer understanding of the issues important to the public.
As a result of these hearings, the Panel received oral and written testimony from approximately 125 individuals or organizations representing citizens—teachers, parents, students, university faculty, educational policy experts, and scientists—who would be the ultimate users and beneficiaries of the research-derived findings and determinations of the Panel.
At the regional hearings, several key themes were expressed repeatedly:
- The importance of the role of parents and other concerned individuals, especially in providing children with early language and literacy experiences that foster reading development;
- The importance of early identification and intervention for all children at risk for reading failure;
- The importance of phonemic awareness, phonics, and good literature in reading instruction and the need to develop a clear understanding of how best to integrate different reading approaches to enhance the effectiveness of instruction for all students;
- The need for clear, objective, and scientifically based information on the effectiveness of different types of reading instruction and the need to have such research inform policy and practice;
- The importance of applying the highest standards of scientific evidence to the research review process so that conclusions and determinations are based on findings obtained from experimental studies characterized by methodological rigor with demonstrated reliability, validity, replicability, and applicability;
- The importance of the role of teachers, their professional development, and their interactions and collaborations with researchers, which should be recognized and encouraged; and
- The importance of widely disseminating the information that is developed by the Panel.
Adoption of Topics To Be Studied
Following the regional hearings, the Panel considered, discussed, and debated several dozen possible topic areas and then settled on the following topics for intensive study:
- Phonemic Awareness Instruction
- Phonics Instruction
- Vocabulary Instruction
- Text Comprehension Instruction
- Teacher Preparation and Comprehension Strategies Instruction
- Teacher Education and Reading Instruction
- Computer Technology and Reading Instruction.
In addition, because of the concern voiced by the public at the regional hearings that the highest standards of scientific evidence be applied in the research review process, the methodology subgroup was tasked to develop a research review process including specific review criteria.
Each topic and subtopic became the subject of the work of a subgroup composed of one or more Panel members. Some Panel members served on more than one subgroup. The subgroups formulated seven broad questions to guide their efforts in meeting the Congressional charge of identifying effective instructional reading approaches and determining their readiness for application in the classroom:
- Does instruction in phonemic awareness improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Does phonics instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Does guided oral reading instruction improve fluency and reading comprehension? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Does vocabulary instruction improve reading achievement? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Does comprehension strategy instruction improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Do programs that increase the amount of children’s independent reading improve reading achievement and motivation? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
- Does teacher education influence how effective teachers are at teaching children to read? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
Each subgroup also generated several subordinate questions to address within each of the major questions. It should be made clear that the Panel did not consider these questions and the instructional issues that they represent to be the only topics of importance in learning to read. The Panel’s silence on other topics should not be interpreted as indicating that other topics have no importance or that improvement in those areas would not lead to greater reading achievement. It was simply the sheer number of studies identified by Panel staff relevant to reading (more than 100,000 published since 1966 and more than 15,000 prior to 1966) that precluded an exhaustive analysis of the research in all areas of potential interest.
The Panel also did not address issues relevant to second language learning, as this topic was being addressed in detail in a new, comprehensive NICHD/OERI (Office of Educational Research and Improvement) research initiative. The questions presented above bear on instructional topics of widespread interest in the field of reading education that have been articulated in a wide range of theories, research studies, instructional programs, curricula, assessments, and educational policies. The Panel elected to examine these and subordinate questions because they currently reflect the central issues in reading instruction and reading achievement. The methodological processes described in the next section guided the Panel’s examination and analysis of the extant research.
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