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Highlights of Recent Research

Several years ago, the United States Congress commissioned a national review of recent research into the process of reading. Under the guidance of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Reading Panel (NRP) was formed to undertake the formidable task of reviewing thousands of research studies in all major aspects of the reading process:

  • alphabetics (sound awareness and phonics)
  • fluency
  • comprehension
  • teacher education
  • computer technology

In 2000, a summary report and reports from each of the subcommittees were delivered to Congress. You can read the complete text at The following paragraphs summarize the research findings and recommendations.

Words are Made of Individual Sounds

The NRP analysis of reading research says that children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to understand that:

  1. Words are made of individual sounds.
  2. These sounds can be manipulated.

For example the words "cat" and "sat" are different by only a single phoneme — the sound of the "c" or the "s". However, there is a huge difference between the meanings of the words: one is an animal, the other is an action.

Children who are aware of this system of sounds and words are much more likely to easily learn to read and spell. Therefore, teaching this skill needs to be an important component of classroom instruction.

Letters Represent Sounds and Words

Knowing what letters represent which speech sounds is a second critical task known as phonics instruction. Phonics also needs to be directly and systematically taught.

For example, good readers need to know that:

  • The word "pail" is made up of three sounds: /p/, /"long" A/ and /l/.
  • The /long A/ is spelled with two letters (ai) that together represent one sound.
  • If you change the /long A/ sound to a /short i/ sound, the word becomes "pill". This is an example of (phonemic awareness).
  • In the word "pill", the /l/ sound is spelled with two letters because the /l/ sound after a short vowel is usually represented by a double "l".

These are just two examples of phonetic spelling conventions of English speech.

Reading Aloud Helps Learning

The panel also determined that students should read regularly out loud to their teacher, parent or an older more accomplished reader who could correct any mistakes and discuss the meaning of new vocabulary words.

Reading out loud with discussion and corrections helps develop fluency (smooth, accurate reading), vocabulary, and comprehension.

Surprisingly, there was no research evidence to support significant gains in reading ability by having children read silently.

Teacher Training

Unfortunately, the panel found that many teachers are not adequately prepared to deliver instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics that it found necessary for children to learn. Classes in linguistics and grammar have not been common in teacher preparation programs.

The panel found little research on how to best prepare teachers to provide efficient reading instruction. Solving this challenge will be important if we want to improve the quality of reading instruction in this country.

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