Preventing Reading Difficulties

Letter to the editor of the Circleville Herald by Stephanie Metzger

January 16, 2001

Dear Editor:

After reading several articles submitted to your educational columns, I am compelled to comment on those that surround reading instruction in our schools.

For over thirty-five years, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), has studied normal reading development and reading difficulties in more than 10,000 children. Conclusions from these carefully controlled studies reveal that effective reading programs incorporate instruction designed to prevent reading difficulties in children. Although the submitted articles state that children receive “phonics” instruction every day as they encounter real text, it is important to stress that many children need a much more systematic, cumulative instructional approach.

About 50% of children are “hard-wired” at birth to dissect speech into individual sounds, and learn to read easily. Half of the remaining group will learn to read, but struggle, and fall behind “good readers” without systematic instruction. The remaining 25% of children will encounter learning to read as one of the greatest challenges they will face in life. Systematic instruction of the patterns of the English language for these children, says Dr. Reid Lyon, acting NICHD chief, is “nonnegotiable.”

One of the articles suggested that “only one of every eight words in the English language follows phonetic patterns for sounding out to work.” This statement is false. Roughly 88% of what appears on a given page follows the phonetic-syllabic cueing structure of English. The article continues that children are taught to find “chunks” of letters that work together, such as “th-” or “-ank” and to “look for little words they know” within bigger words. These “chunks” have a distinct structure and for many, must be taught systematically. Children should never be prompted to “look for little words they know” as a strategy to figure out words. Consider the word “washed.” Found in this word are the words “was,” “ash,” “she,” “shed,” “he,” and “ed.” Prompting children to do this often confuses them as they try to make sense of the syllable structure of our language.

A quality structured language program would never propose teaching children to decode words such as “Saturday, letter by letter,” as was recently suggested by a Reading Recovery teacher leader to a group of concerned parents. Instead, a structured approach ensures that children master the six basic syllable patterns of English. The word “Saturday” contains three of these basic patterns.

Multisensory structured language programs are not well understood, and their use is often rejected by those who believe that all children can learn to read if we guide them to study sounds and letters as they encounter authentic text. Multisensory structured language approaches can, and often do, prevent children from being identified as “reading disabled,” if they are used early, consistently and rigorously. Of course, the goal of any useful program is to develop a student’s independent ability to read, write and understand the language studied. A coach would never teach children to play basketball or football without teaching individual moves through drills of subskills in isolation, before turning them loose in “real” games. Not all, but many, children need a similar instructional approach as they learn to read our language. Reading comprehension comes as children learn how to decode individual words automatically. Decoding skills of good readers are so automatic, they rarely need to rely on context clues to figure out words. Conversely, poor readers depend heavily on meaning to figure out words because their decoding skills are so deficient. Like it or not, reading comprehension cannot develop without fluency, and fluency comes only with rapid, robust decoding skills.

A truly “balanced” program makes use of all of the tools we might need for all of our children. It occurs when each child is the fulcrum for the balance, and not a “theory.” Teachers deserve access to materials they can use that go beyond those grounded in the “whole language” framework so popular at our state’s largest university. While the whole language strategies of “read aloud,” “guided reading,” “shared reading,” and “independent reading,” are useful, they fall short for children who need systematic, explicit instruction in the structure of our language.

Parents and educators who want to learn more about literacy are encouraged to visit the LDONLINE.ORG Web site or to attend COSERRC workshops, where they can learn more about NICHD studies, multisensory structured language programs and advocacy.