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Teaching Children to Read
As part of its Congressional charge, the NRP was directed to assess the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read and to further indicate the extent to which effective approaches were ready for application in classroom settings. The instructional topics of alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics), fluency, comprehension (vocabulary instruction and text comprehension), teacher education and reading instruction, and computer technology and reading instruction addressed in this Report were selected by the Panel from a candidate list of 35 topics generated from Panel members’ own expertise, from the report of the National Research Council on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), and from the input the Panel received in its regional hearings. Several additional factors contributed to the consensus decision to limit the number of topics that could be addressed and to evaluate the research literature relevant to these specific topics. These factors included (1) the hypothesized role that these topics play in reading instruction; (2) the availability of well-designed experimental or quasi-experimental studies of instructional effectiveness for each of these topic areas versus other topic areas; (3) the immensity of the research literature in reading development and reading instruction; and (4) constraints on time and Panel resources.
The Panel regrets that it could not evaluate all of the reading instructional topics that were identified by Panel members as well as by parents, educators, and policymakers at the regional meetings. The Panel emphasizes that omissions of topics such as the effects of predictable and decodable text formats on beginning reading development, motivational factors in learning to read, and the effects of integrating reading and writing, to name a few, are not to be interpreted as determinations of unimportance or ineffectiveness. Indeed, each of the reports of the subgroups identifies areas for future research. These can serve as checklists of important research opportunities for further analyses and evaluations of the kind conducted by the Panel on this first set of topics.
It is the Panel’s fervent hope that future evaluations of important reading research topics will include an analysis and assessment of correlational, descriptive, and qualitative studies that inform our understanding of the developmental reading process, and a determination of what instructional implications can be drawn from them. Moreover, it will be critical to understand better how quantitative, hypothesis-driven studies can best be integrated with qualitative approaches to obtain maximum reliability and ecological validity. Likewise, it will be critical to identify the most important methodological features inherent in qualitative and descriptive research approaches that lead to the collection of trustworthy evidence. Thus, the Panel recommends that the evaluation of these types of qualitative research approaches, methods, and evidence be guided by the development of a comparable methodologically rigorous review process similar to that employed by the NRP with procedures and criteria designated a priori and applied within an open and public forum.
With this information as background, it is clear to the Panel that at least four major tasks remain in developing a science of reading development and reading instruction. First, where possible, there should be meta-analyses of existing experimental or quasi-experimental research in topic areas not addressed by the NRP. Second, additional experimental research should be conducted on questions unanswered by the Panel’s analyses of the topics it did cover. Third, there should be an exhaustive and objective analysis of correlational, descriptive, and qualitative studies relevant to reading development and reading instruction that is carried out with methodological rigor following pre-established criteria. Fourth, experimental research should be initiated to test those hypotheses derived from existing correlational, descriptive, and qualitative research meeting high methodological standards.
Following are three illustrative examples of important reading research opportunities.
- Student Populations. An important question is whether students with learning disabilities have distinctive instructional needs and whether they benefit from instructional techniques that are different from those that are optimal for other low-achieving (non-disabled) students. The Panel was able to address this question with respect to phonemic awareness and phonics instructional programs and techniques. It found that both types of students benefit from similar phonemic awareness and phonics instructional programs and techniques. Because of the limited amount of research available, the Panel could not answer this question with respect to instructional programs and techniques aimed at developing reading fluency and comprehension. These important comparisons should be the focus of future research.
- Teacher Education. The primary purpose of teacher education research is to inform the effective practice of classroom teachers in order to improve student performance. Rigorous experimental and qualitative research that defines and characterizes effective teaching methodologies that demonstrate improved student performance is limited. This persistent and major gap in the extant knowledge base must be addressed. Efforts should be made to answer the important questions in this critical area.
- Uses of Technology in Teaching Reading. Here again, credible experimental and qualitative research is lacking. This is understandable in light of the recent development of the relevant technology and its application to reading instruction and student learning. Nevertheless, the Panel believes that this is an important and essentially unexplored field.