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The NICHD Research Program in Reading Development, Disorders and Instruction

Comprehension Skills-How to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills

Background and Purpose

Learning to read is critical to a child's (and an adult's) well-being. The child and adult who cannot read at a comfortable level experience significant difficulties mastering many types of academic content, are at substantial risk for failure in school, and are frequently unable to reach their potential in the vocational and occupational arena. Unfortunately, the rate of reading failure and illiteracy are unacceptably high in the United States. Over 40 percent of fourth grade students performed below basic levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both 1994 and 1998. Over 10% of fourth grade children could not even participate in the NAEP due to severe reading difficulties. Moreover, converging evidence from longitudinal, population- based data indicate that at least 17 percent to 20 percent of children have a significant reading disability. A real crisis revealed in these statistics is the disproportionate representation of children who are poor, racial minorities, and non-native speakers of English. However, it is also noteworthy that large numbers of school-age children from all social classes, races and ethnic groups have significant difficulties learning to read. Because reading is so critical to success in our society, reading failure constitutes not only an educational problem but also rises to the level of a major public health problem.

Since 1965, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has conducted and continuously supported research efforts to address three fundamental questions that must be answered if reading failure is to be understood and addressed successfully. These three questions are: (1) How do children learn to read? What are the critical environmental, experiential, cognitive, linguistic, genetic, neurobiological, and instructional conditions that foster reading development? (2) Why do some children and adults have difficulties learning to read? What specific cognitive, linguistic, environmental, and instructional factors impede the development of accurate and fluent reading skills, and what are the most significant risk factors that predispose youngsters to reading failure? (3) How can we help most children learn to read? Specifically, for which children are which teaching approaches and strategies most beneficial at which stages of reading development?


To answer these three questions, the NICHD has developed a research network consisting of 41 research sites in North America, Europe, and Asia to study reading development, reading disorders and other learning disabilities, and reading instruction. During the past 33 years, NICHD scientists have studied the reading development of 34,501 children and adults. Many studies have been devoted to understanding normal reading development, and 21,860 good readers have participated in these investigations, many for as long as 12 years. Significant efforts have also been deployed to understand why many children do not learn to read. Within this context, 12,641 individuals with reading difficulties have been studied, many for as long as 12 years. In addition, since 1985, the NICHD has initiated studies designed to develop early identification methods that can recognize those children during kindergarten and first-grade who are most at-risk for reading failure. These studies have provided the foundation for several longitudinal prevention and early intervention projects now underway at 11 sites in the U.S. and Canada. Since 1985, 7,669 children (including 1,423 good readers) have participated in these reading prevention, early intervention, and remediation studies, and 3,600 children are currently enrolled in longitudinal intervention trials in Texas, Washington, DC, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, and the state of Washington. These studies involve the participation of 1,012 classroom teachers, working in 266 schools and 985 classrooms.


The purpose of this report is to synthesize the major converging findings that have been obtained by NICHD scientists for each of the three questions that have guided the reading research program. This synthesis is derived from an analysis of over 2,500 publications generated by NICHD scientists since 1965.