Reading education in the United States

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Reading education in the United States teaches American students to derive and understand literary patterns. Students that lack proficiency in reading after third grade may face obstacles for the rest of their academic career unless they are able to get extra assistance, such as remedial education. Fourth-graders encounter a broad range of literary topics, making the third grade a crucial checkpoint for American students.[1]


1905 edition cover of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland retold in words of one syllable

In colonial times, reading instruction was simple and straightforward: teach children the code then let them read. At that time, reading material was not written specifically for children but consisted primarily of the Bible and some patriotic essays; the most influential early textbook was The New England Primer published in the late 1680s. There was little consideration for how to best teach children to read and assess reading comprehension.[2]

Reading education changed significantly in the middle of the 19th century. Educators, in particular Horace Mann, began to advocate for changes in reading instructional methods. He observed that children were bored and "death-like" at school, and insisted that instruction needed to engage children's interest in the reading material by teaching them to read whole words.[2] The McGuffey Readers (1836) were the most popular of these graded readers. Rebecca Smith Pollard developed a sequential reading program of intensive synthetic phonics, complete with a separate teacher's manual and spelling and reading books.[3]

From the 1890s to at the latest 1910, A. L. Burt and other publishing companies published a series of books aimed at young readers that used simple language to retell longer classics. J. C. Gorham produced three works: Gulliver's Travels in words of one syllable (1896), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland retold in words of one syllable (1905), and Black Beauty retold in words of one syllable (1905). In the UK, Routledge published a similar series between 1900 and 1910.

The meaning-based curriculum did not dominate reading instruction until the second quarter of the 20th century. By the 1930s and 1940s, reading programs became very focused on comprehension and taught children to read whole words by sight. Phonics were taught sparingly used as a last resort.[2]

In the 1950s, Rudolf Flesch wrote a book called Why Johnny Can't Read addressed to American parents,[4] a passionate argument in favor of teaching children to read using phonics.[2] He hurled severe criticism at publishers' decisions that he claimed were motivated by profit and questioned the honesty and intelligence of experts, schools, and teachers.[2] The book was on the bestseller list for 30 weeks and spurred a movement in the general population. It also polarized the reading debate among educators, researchers, and parents.[2]

This polarization continues to the present time. In the 1970s, an instructional policy called the whole language method, which de-emphasized teaching phonics out of context, was introduced and became the primary method of reading instruction in the 1980s and 1990s.[5] During this time, researchers at the National Institute of Health conducted studies that showed early reading acquisition depends on the understanding of the connection between sounds and letters.[6]

The Whole Word method was invented by Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of the American Asylum at Hartford, in the 1830s.[7] It was designed to educate deaf people by juxtaposing a word with a picture.[8] In 1830, Gallaudet described his method to the American Annals of Education, which included teaching children to recognize a total of 50 sight words written on cards, and by 1837 the method was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee.[9] Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts, USA, favored the method, and it soon became the dominant method statewide.[10] By 1844 the defects of the new method became so apparent to Boston schoolmasters that they urged the Board to return to the intensive, systematic phonics.[10] Dr. Samuel Orton, a neuropathologist in Iowa in 1929, sought the cause of children's reading problems and concluded that their problems were being caused by the new sight method of reading. His findings were published in the February 1929 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology in the article "The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability."[11]

Government-funded research on reading and reading instruction in the United States began in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers began publishing findings based on converging evidence from multiple studies. However, these findings have been slow to move into typical classroom practice.[12]

Competencies for proficient reading[edit]

Proficient reading is equally dependent on two critical skills: the ability to understand the language in which the text is written and the ability to recognize and process text. Each of these competencies is dependent on lower-level skills and cognitive abilities.[13]

Children who readily understand spoken language and are able to fluently and easily recognize printed words do not usually have difficulty with reading comprehension. However, students must be proficient in both competencies to read well; difficulty in either domain undermines the overall reading process. After reading, children should be able to retell the story in their own words, including characters, setting, and the events of the story.[14] Reading researchers define a skilled reader as one who can understand the written text as well as understand the same passage if spoken.[15]

There is some debate as to whether print recognition requires the ability to perceive printed text and translate it into spoken language, or rather to translate printed text directly into meaningful symbolic models and relationships. The existence of speed reading and its typically high comprehension rate would suggest that the translation into verbal form as an intermediate to understanding is not a prerequisite for effective reading comprehension. This aspect of reading is the crux of much of the reading debate.

The purpose of reading is to have access to the literature of a specific language. Reading materials have traditionally been chosen from literary texts that represent 'higher' forms of culture. According to many traditional approaches, the learner aims to study vocabulary items, grammar, and sentence structures, with a concern for learning the syntax of these 'higher' cultures. These approaches assume that authentic reading material is limited to the work or experience of great authors.

Instructional methods[edit]

A variety of different methods of teaching reading have been advocated in English-speaking countries. In the United States, the debate is often more political than objective.[16] Parties often divide into two camps[clarification needed] which refuse to accept each other's terminology or frame of reference. Despite this, both camps often incorporate aspects of the other's methods. Both camps accuse the other of causing failure to learn to read and write.[16] Phonics advocates assert that reading a large vocabulary of words correctly and fluently requires detailed knowledge of the structure of the English language, particularly spelling-speech patterns.[17] Whole language advocates assert that students do not need to be able to sound out words, but should look at unknown words and figure them out using context.[17]


In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) issued a report based on a meta-analysis of published research on effective reading instruction. The report found varying evidence-based support for some common approaches to teaching reading.[18]

Phonemic awareness[edit]

The NRP called phonemic awareness (PA) instruction "impressive":

Overall, the findings showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to PA.

The report singles out PA instruction based on teaching children to manipulate phonemes with letters as highly effective. Phonemic awareness instruction also improved spelling in grade-level students, although it did not improve spelling in disabled readers.

Lexical reading[edit]

Lexical reading involves acquiring words or phrases without attention to the characters or groups of characters that compose them or by using whole language learning and teaching methodology.[19][20][21][22] Sometimes argued to compete with phonics methods, and that the whole language approach tends to impair learning how to spell.

Historically, the two camps have been called Whole Language and Phonics,[23] although the whole language instructional method has also been referred to as a "literature-based reading program" and "integrated language arts curriculum".[24] In 2007, the differing perspectives are frequently referred to as "balanced reading instruction" (whole language) and "scientifically-based reading instruction" (phonics).[25]

Whole Word[edit]

Whole word, also known as "Sight Word" and "Look and Say", teaches reading skills and strategies in the context of authentic literature. Word recognition accuracy is considered less important than meaning accuracy; therefore, there is an emphasis on comprehension as the ultimate goal.

Students that use this method memorize the appearance of words or learn to recognize words by looking at the first and last letter from rigidly selected vocabularies in progressive texts (such as The Cat in the Hat). Preliminary results often show that children taught with this method have higher reading levels than children learning phonics, because they learn to automatically recognize a small selection of words.[26] However, later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when they are exposed to longer and more complex words later.[17]

Sub-lexical reading[edit]

Sub-lexical reading associates characters or groups of characters with sounds or uses phonics learning and teaching methodology.[20][19][22][21] It is sometimes argued to be in competition with whole language methods.


Phonics refers to an instructional method for teaching children to read. The method associates sounds with letters and combinations of letters.[27][28][24][29] "Phonics" is distinct from the linguistics terms "phoneme" and "phonetics", which refer to sounds and the study of sounds respectively.[30][31]

Varieties of phonics include:

  • Embedded phonics – an instructional approach where letter sounds are taught as the need arises and in meaningful contexts, such as the reading of a storybook. Embedded phonics is often associated with a whole language approach to teaching reading.[citation needed]
  • Synthetic phonics and analytic phonics – instructional approaches that generally involve explicit, carefully sequenced instructions that teach a large body of phonics patterns.[citation needed]
    • Synthetic phonics emphasizes the one-to-one correspondences between phonemes and graphemes. In synthetic phonics programs, students say the sounds for the graphemes they see and orally blend them to produce a spoken word. In the context of phonics, the word "blend" takes on a different meaning from its use in linguistics.
    • In analytic phonics, students often learn phonograms, the rime parts of words including the vowel and what follows it. Students are taught to generalize the phonogram to multiple words. The phonogram -ail can be used to read fail, trail, mail, wail, sail, and other words.[citation needed]

The Orton phonography, originally developed to teach brain-damaged adults to read, is a form of phonics instruction that blends synthetic and analytic components. Orton described 73 "phonograms", or letter combinations, and 23 rules for spelling and pronunciation which Orton claimed would allow the reader to correctly pronounce and spell all but 123 of the 13,000 most common English words.[32]

Pronunciation guides[edit]

In contrast to phonics which teaches the pronunciation rules of English, a Google Chrome extension—Phonetically Intuitive English—directly shows English words' pronunciation by adding diacritical marks on them to disambiguate pronunciation rules (for example, "ea" has a wide range of diverse pronunciations in "speak", "steak", "bread", "Korea", "reality", "create" and "ocean").

The pronunciation-guide approach has proven to be very successful in reading education for languages with very complex orthography such as Chinese.[citation needed] Pinyin and Zhuyin are systems of phonetic transcription for Mandarin Chinese used in China and Taiwan respectively, and are printed above or next to Chinese characters in children's books, textbooks, and newspapers as a pronunciation guide. They have enabled Chinese-speaking countries to achieve high literacy rates for one of the most difficult languages in the world.[citation needed]

Other instructional methods[edit]

Guided reading[edit]

During guided reading teachers work with small groups of students with similar reading levels. Students read with teachers in books at their reading level; the teachers work with the students to practice decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.

Native reading[edit]

Native reading differs from phonics and whole word learning by teaching students to read at an early age to take advantage of the human brain's high receptivity to learning a language.[33] Native readers learn to read as toddlers roughly around the same time that they learn to speak.[34]

Reading Workshop[edit]

Reading Workshop is based on the premise that readers need time to read and discuss their reading. Readers need access to a wide variety of reading materials of their choice; as such, classrooms must acquire a wide variety of reading materials to accommodate this need. Readers need to respond to the text and demonstrate quality literate behaviors. Instead of a script, a framework is provided to guide instruction. Students are exposed to a variety of learning experiences and are given time for student collaboration and engaged reading.[35]

During Reading Workshop, the teacher models a whole-group strategy lesson and gives students large blocks of time to read and practice the strategy. This practice can occur independently, with partners, or in small groups with a book or text chosen by the student. The teacher talks with the students about their reading. The teacher can meet with small, flexible groups to provide additional needs-based instruction. At the end of the workshop, the whole group comes together to share their learning.[36]

Examples of improving reading[edit]

An adult or peer reads with the student by modeling fluent reading and then asking the student to read the same passage aloud with encouragement and feedback by the adult or peer. A student listens to a tape of a fluent reader reading text at the student's independent level at about 80–100 words a minute. The student listens to the tape the first time and then practices reading along with the tape until the student can read fluently. The student reads with a peer partner, and they both take turns reading to the other. A more fluent reader can be paired with a less fluent reader to model fluent reading, provide feedback, and encourage the less fluent reader. Students with similar reading skills can also be paired, particularly if the teacher has modeled fluent reading and the partner reading involves practice.[37]

The following is a list of the seven strategies that all readers must be able to apply to text in order to read and understand the content. The seven strategies are:[35][36][38]

  1. Making connections;
  2. Creating mental images;
  3. Making inferences/drawing conclusions;
  4. Asking questions;
  5. Determining what is important;
  6. Synthesizing; and
  7. Monitoring comprehension and Meaning.

Reading comprehension[edit]

Reading comprehension requires making sense of text, which allows a reader to gain knowledge, enjoy a story, and make connections with the larger world.[39] Several skills support reading comprehension, such as making predictions and inferences, monitoring understanding, using text structures, and using prior knowledge effectively.[39][40] Two of the most important aspects of successful comprehension are activation of prior knowledge and metacognition, which are identified in the National Research Council's report.[41]

Many studies have identified the importance of activating prior knowledge in reading comprehension.[42][40][43] Some authors specify two types of prior knowledge necessary for successful comprehension: world knowledge (aids in understanding fiction) and domain-specific knowledge (facilitates nonfiction comprehension).[44] Students who lack these request background information to make connections with and within the text.[45]

Metacognition greatly influences reading comprehension. The metacognitive approach to instruction can help students learn to master their learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.[41] Research indicates that accomplished readers "monitor their comprehension as they read by engag[ing] in strategic processing, such as rereading the previous text, to resolve comprehension failure".[39] Students who are unable to track their understanding gain neither information nor enjoyment from reading as they do not know how to obtain meaning from the text.[citation needed]

Many strategies have been applied.[44][45] Many studies recommend strategy instruction particularly for students who have poor comprehension skills.[44][45] Some helpful strategies are summarization, question generation, making predictions and inferences, image formation, knowledge and use of text structure, rereading, self-regulation, activation of prior knowledge, questioning the author, and using graphic organizers.[39][44][45][46] The variety of strategies allows the teacher to choose a strategy or strategies to suit the text and the needs of the student.[citation needed]

Researchers Annemarie Palinscar and Ann Brown utilized reciprocal teaching to model summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting.[47] The authors chose these skills due to their dual functions as "comprehension-fostering and comprehension monitoring activities."[47] The reciprocal teaching method, which involves the teacher modeling the designated activities and gradually turning the procedure over to the students themselves, uses Lev Vygotsky's idea of scaffolding. In this process, "children first experience a particular set of cognitive activities in the presence of experts, and only gradually come to perform these functions by themselves.[47] In this study, the students who participated in the reciprocal teaching intervention showed dramatic improvement in comprehension scores and maintained them for at least eight weeks.[47]

Non-traditional approaches[edit]

Programs have been established to provide certified therapy animals, such as dogs, as non-judgmental "listeners" to build motivation and help children build proficiency and gain confidence in their reading ability.[48]

Success rate of reading education in the US[edit]

National literacy rates range from about 10 percent to over 99 percent.

There are several approaches used to teach reading, which the U.S. Office of Education Cooperative Research Program has compiled.[49] For example, there is a list based on 29 individual studies that identify effective approaches to teach reading to beginners. Most of the studies revealed that successful instructional strategies include systematic phonics and approaches that focus on connected reading and meaning. These strategies were proven to be more effective than basal approaches alone. Specific studies showing instructional models that achieve high success rates in reading education include the Actual Community Empowerment (ACE) program—a small-group tutoring framework that focuses on fluency, word recognition, decoding, and comprehension that is based on the appropriate pace of learning according to individual learning profiles.[50] When ACE was implemented in 40 locations in Philadelphia, learners exhibited a 95 percent success rate for significant reading improvement.[50] Traditional reading instruction approaches that are considered effective include those under a cognitive-based model, which considers reading acquisition and reading comprehension to be dependent on cognitive development.[51]

Print exposure[edit]

Print exposure is the amount of time a person spends being visually aware of the written word (reading) through media like newspapers, magazines, books, journals, and scientific papers. Research has shown that the amount of print material that a child accesses has deep cognitive consequences.

Children who are exposed to large amounts of print often have more success in reading and have a larger vocabulary to draw from than children who see less print. The average conversations among college graduates, spouses, or adult friends contain less rare (advanced) words than the average preschool reading book. Other print sources have increasingly higher amounts of rare words, from children's books to adult books, popular magazines, newspapers, and scientific articles. Television, even adult news shows, do not have the same level of rare words that children's books do.[52]

An issue with spoken language is repetition. A child needs to have a large vocabulary in order to learn to read efficiently; without one, they have trouble following a sentence's idea when they encounter words that they do not know, which can lead to frustration and a dislike of reading. When a child is faced with this difficulty they are less likely to read, which further inhibits their vocabulary's growth.

Children who enjoy reading do it more frequently and improve their vocabulary. A study of out-of-school reading of fifth graders found that a student in the 50th percentile read books about 5 minutes a day, while a student in the 20th percentile read books for less than a minute a day. It also found that the amount of time a child in the 10th percentile spent reading in two days was the amount of time a child in the 90th percentile spent reading all year.[citation needed]

Print exposure can also be a big factor in learning English as a second language. The book flood program brought books in English to the classroom. Through focusing their English language learning on reading books instead of endless worksheets the teachers were able to improve the rate at which their students learned English.[citation needed]

Alphabetic principle and English orthography[edit]

Beginning readers must understand the concept of the "alphabetic principle" to master basic reading skills. A writing system is said to be alphabetic if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds. In comparison, logographic writing systems such as Japanese kanji and Chinese hanzi use a symbol to represent a word.

English is one of several languages that use Latin script. The orthographic depth of such languages varies: The Italian and Finnish languages have the purest or shallowest orthographies, while English orthography is the deepest or most complex. In the shallow Spanish orthography, most words are spelled the way they sound; that is, word spellings are almost always regular. English orthography, on the other hand, is far more complex in that it does not have a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and sounds. English has individual sounds that can be represented by more than one symbol or symbol combination. For example, the // diphthong can be represented by a-consonant-e as in "ate", -ay as in "hay", -ea as in "steak", -ey as in "they", -ai as in "pain", and -ei as in "vein". There are also many words with irregular spelling and homophones. Pollack Pickeraz (1963) asserted that there are 45 phonemes in the English language and that the 26 letters of the English alphabet can represent them in about 350 ways.[citation needed]

The irregularity of English spelling is largely an artifact of how the language developed. English is a West Germanic language with substantial influences and additional vocabulary from other languages like Latin, Greek, and French. Imported words usually follow the spelling patterns of their language of origin.[53] Advanced English phonics instruction includes studying words according to their origin, and how to determine the correct spelling of a word using its language of origin.

The complexity of English orthography makes it harder for children to learn decoding and encoding rules, and harder for teachers to teach them.[53] However, effective word recognition relies on the basic understanding that letters represent the sounds of spoken language; that is, word recognition relies on the reader's understanding of the alphabetic principle.[54]

Spelling reform[edit]

Attempts to make English spelling behave phonetically have given rise to various spelling reform campaigns; none have been generally accepted. Opponents of simplified spellings point to the impossibility of phonetic spelling for a language with many diverse accents and dialects. Several distinguished scholars, however, have thoroughly disproven all reasonable objections to spelling reform, including this objection; for example, the Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling was published.[55] Thomas Lounsbury presented a rebuttal to all reasonable objections to spelling reform in 1909.[56] A shorter rebuttal of all the reasonable objections to spelling reform was made by Bob C Cleckler in 2005.[57]

Linguists who document speech sounds use various special symbols, of which the International Phonetic Alphabet is the most widely known. Linguistics makes a distinction between a phone and phoneme, and between phonology and phonetics.[58] The study of words and their structure is morphology, and the smallest units of meaning are morphemes.[59] The study of the relationship between words present in the language at one time is synchronic etymology, part of descriptive linguistics, and the study of word origins and evolution is diachronic etymology, part of historical linguistics.

English orthography prioritizes morphology, etymology, and phonetics in descending order. Thus the spelling of a word is dependent principally upon its structure, its relationship to other words, and its language and origin. It is usually necessary to know the meaning of a word to spell it correctly, and its meaning will be indicated by the similarity to words of the same meaning and family.[60]

English uses a 26-letter Latin alphabet, but the number of graphemes is expanded by several digraphs, trigraphs, and tetragraphs. The letter "q" does not exist as a grapheme by itself; it is only used in the digraph "qu".[61]

Each grapheme may represent a limited number of phonemes depending on etymology and location in the world. Likewise, each phoneme may be represented by a limited number of graphemes. Some letters are not part of any grapheme, but function as etymological markers. Graphemes do not cross morpheme boundaries.[62]

Morphemes are spelled consistently, following rules inflection and word-formation, and allow readers and writers to understand and produce words they have not previously encountered.[63]

Initial teaching alphabet[edit]

This method was designed to overcome the fact that English orthography has a many-to-many relationship between graphemes and phonemes. The method fell into disuse because children still had to learn the Latin alphabet and the conventional English spellings to integrate with society outside of school. It also recreated the problem of dialect dependent spelling, which the standardization of spelling had been created to eliminate.[64]

Augmenting spelling with pronunciation information[edit]

Unlike spelling reforms, a word's original spelling can be kept intact but add pronunciation information to it, e.g. using diacritics.

Practical application[edit]

In practice, many children are exposed to both "phonics" and "whole language" methods which are coupled with reading programs.[65] For example, the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Siegfried Engelman, et al. (ISBN 0-671-63198-5), teaches pronunciation and simple phonics, and is supplemented with progressive texts and practice in directed reading. The result of a mixed-method is a casually phonetic student and a better first-time pronouncer and speller, who also has look-say acquisition, quick fluency, and comprehension.[66]

Speed reading continues where basic education stops. Reading speed generally increases significantly after constant practice. There are various speed reading techniques.[67] However, speed reading does not guarantee comprehension or retention of what was read.

Readability indicates the ease of understanding or comprehension due to the style of writing.[68] Reading recovery is a method for helping students learn to read.[69]

See also[edit]



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