Preschool Reading Teachers Misinformed by a Federally-Funded Agency

by a Federally-Funded Agency
by Dr. Patrick Groff
NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.


According to Education Week (November 22, 2000), the national conference in Atlanta last fall of the National Association for the Education of Young Children attracted close to 30,000 people who work in early-childhood education. A dominant theme of the large assembly was that many of those who work with young children don t have adequate preparation or professional development.

A major presenter of information to this gathering as to how to best conduct early literacy instruction was the federally-funded agency called Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), located at Aurora, Colorado. The self-declared motive for McREL s attendance at this meeting was to provide teachers more detailed guidance around early literacy instruction than afforded by currently available national and state standards documents.

In addition, McREL echoed the complaint that standardized testing of reading skills is an inaccurate and developmentally inappropriate way of measuring the progress of young children. Only teachers who are knowledgeable with, and strictly adhere to practices described in McREL s 1999 document, The Early Literacy Advisor (ELA), are qualified to decide if preschool children are developing reading skills at an appropriate pace, the agency implied.

It therefore is imperative to determine the extent to which advice to preschool reading teachers by ELA (whose subtitle is An Assessment System That Shapes Instruction) conforms to relevant experimental findings. To that end, the analysis of ELA to follow examines the four major areas of development in preschool children that ELA insists must occur prior to the start of formal literacy instruction. It will be demonstrated that in many respects ELA is an unreliable document.

A Critique of ELA

The first major area of development, cited by ELA as a prerequisite to young children s learning to read, is improvement of children s oral language. At one point, ELA avers that betterment in preschoolers oral language must be a primary concern to their teachers.

Quickly reversing itself, however, ELA concedes that there has been little [experimental] research that ties the two [the quality of children s oral language, and how well they learn to read] together directly. This is a significant admission since empirical research makes clear that children’s (1) effortless acquisition of oral language, and (2) difficulties they experience in learning to recognize written words accurately, signify that processes (1) and (2) are remarkably different in nature.

In spite of that well-established truth, ELA rashly speculates that the following seven oral language attributes in young children are causal influences on the facility with which they learn to recognize written words: (1) a large spoken vocabulary; (2) use of standard English grammar; (3) listening ability; (4) ability to participate in conversations; (5) knowing how to discuss events in a sequence ; and (6) being motivated to use oral language .

The second major area of development, according to ELA, is children s cognitive skill. It is true in this regard that children s mental energies must be focused when they learn to distinguish one letter from another one. The same is true for children s isolation of single letters in words, which is necessary in order to attach speech sounds to them (i.e., to decode them).

Uncorroborated by scientific findings, however, is ELA s contention that before being taught to read children must be able to remember previous words in spoken sentences, i.e., must use sentence context cues to recall these words. In point of fact, children acquire speaking ability in an instinctual manner. Consequently, the cognitive processes that take place in this unconscious, facile, and natural attainment of speech have not been empirically established.

As well, ELA contends there is a measurable cognitive skill in young children called thinking symbolically that they must attain before instruction in their identification of letters is begun. However, the supposed existence of this skill, whether it can be objectively assessed, and the extent of its effect on preschoolers attainment of letter knowledge, all remain empirical questions.

The third major development, that ELA contends is a prerequisite to young children being taught to read, is their understanding of concepts that underlie the act of reading. Listed in this category is students knowledge that: (1) speech represents inner thought; (2) reading is used to communicate something ; (3) book language is different from everyday language; (4) printed materials are always read the same way; (5) reading proceeds from left to right; (6) written words are divided one from the other by spaces; and (7) punctuation marks have meaning.

However, statistical correlations calculated between (1) objective test scores of preschoolers knowledge of the above seven items, and (2) these children s later progress in learning to recognize written words accurately, are too low to have much predictive usefulness. In any event, as noted, the authors of ELA oppose administration of standardized tests of the above seven items. This prohibition against the gathering of numerical data about the items makes it impossible to make statistical determinations as to how closely they relate to children s later progress in learning to read.

A reasonable question therefore emerges: Is young children s knowledge of these seven items (1) a prerequisite to these preschoolers learning to read words accurately, or (2) merely a normal corollary of their learning to recognize written words? Without any convincing proof for conclusion (1), the need for time-effective reading teaching makes conclusion (2) the more attractive one.

The fourth major area of development proposed by ELA is that preschool students must gain specific literacy skills before receiving any direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive instruction of a hierarchy of discrete reading skills. As it turns out, however, three of the five items in this category actually are written word recognition skills (not prerequisites to the learning of those skills). The other two items are uncorroborated by relevant experimental evidence.

That is to say, young children s: (1) phonemic awareness (conscious awareness of speech sounds); (2) ability to recognize letters accurately; and (3) knowledge of spelling rules (how letters regularly are used to represent speech sounds), all are integral parts of their ability to sound-out words (attach speech sounds to letters). These three skills thus are not antecedents to recognition of written words, but rather are essential and generic elements of it.

The remaining two specific literacy skills that ELA names must be rejected because they lack empirical legitimacy. These objectionable items are that before children receive formal instruction in reading they must (1) read sight words, and (2) use sentence context cues to recognize written words.

In these respects, there now are so many varied, often contradictory definitions of sight words that the term has become nonfunctional. Almost all so-called sight words are ones that are decodable through the application of phonics rules (generalizations as to how letters regularly represent speech sounds).

In addition, experimental findings consistently reveal that young fledgling readers must be warned not to use context cues, rather than be encouraged to do so. This use is found to be an unreliable means to recognize written words. That fact explains why able, mature readers apply context cues for word recognition only rarely.


It is clear that many statements in ELA do not conform to what experimental research findings consistently indicate young children, including preschoolers, need to learn in order to be able to recognize written words accurately and quickly (automatically), in the shortest period of instructional time possible. A primary fault in this regard is the failure of ELA to make clear what it means by the term, read.

That distinction is necessary since the task of learning to read for preschoolers is distinctly different from that which older children face. The cardinal goal in learning to read for children aged approximately 4-7 is to recognize individual words in an automatic manner. Thus, care is taken to make sure the vocabulary and meanings in the written material they are presented to read are highly familiar.

With these controls in effect, young children are able to devote their available mental energy exclusively to the correct identification of words, rather than to puzzling out their particular connotations. This stage of literacy development aptly is called learning to read.

After children have gained the ability to recognize words automatically, they move into a process of reading to learn. Henceforward, they utilize their powers of automatic word recognition as a means to comprehend an expanding number of unfamiliar words and concepts. It is at this later stage of reading development that improvement of children s vocabulary knowledge, their ability to draw various kinds of inferences about what they read, and their understanding as to how the content of written materials is organized, become the premier tasks of reading teachers.

The unfortunate shortcomings of ELA regrettably are compounded because its producer, McREL, is sponsored financially by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The intimate connection of McREL to the DOE therefore inevitably bequeaths to publications of the McREL an extraordinary aura of respectability, legitimacy, and authenticity. However, as the above critique reveals, this renown is not warranted in the case of ELA.

This negative conclusion about ELA thus suggests that taxpayers in the nation who are parents justly may protest that the expenditure of federal funds by McREL on producing ELA was not a financially prudent one. Indeed, whenever the federal government pays for educational documents that are scientifically inaccurate, and/or nonfunctional, an outcry against this wasteful practice should be taken up by the populace at large.