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Top 10 Things to Know About Reading

How Organization Affects Learning in Kids | Executive Skills

At a Glance

  • Learning to read is a complex process.
  • What kids learn before they enter school is important.
  • Early intervention can help struggling readers.

Here are 10 things you need to know about reading—what it takes to learn to read and how to help struggling readers.

Too many American children don’t read well.

Thirty-three percent of American fourth graders read below the “basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. The “basic” level is defined as “partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”


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An achievement gaps exists.

Many students enter kindergarten performing below their peers. And they remain behind as they move through the grades. Differences in language, exposure to print and background experiences multiply as students confront more challenging reading material in the upper grades. There is a well-established correlation between prior knowledge and reading comprehension: Students who have it, get it. Students who don’t, don’t. The differences are quantifiable as early as age 3. For some subgroups of students, the reading failure rate is even higher than their same-age peers: 52 percent of black students, 51 percent of Hispanic students, and 49 percent of students in poverty all scored Below Basic on the NAEP assessment.

High-need students have chronic difficulty in the classroom. Teachers must be prepared to meet the challenges they face.

Learning to read is complex.

Reading is a complex process. It draws upon many skills that need to be developed at the same time. Dr. Marilyn Adams of Brown Univeristy compares the operation of the reading system to the operation of a car. Unlike drivers, though, readers also need to:

  • Build the car (develop the mechanical systems for identifying words)
  • Maintain the car (fuel it with print, fix up problems along the way and make sure it runs smoothly)
  • And, most importantly, drive the car (which requires us to be motivated, strategic and mindful of the route we’re taking)

Cars are built by assembling the parts separately and fastening them together. Adams says:

“In contrast, the parts of the reading system are not discrete. We cannot proceed by completing each individual sub-system and then fastening it to one another. Rather, the parts of the reading system must grow together. They must grow to one another and from one another.”

The ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning from print. A “vehicle” in good working order is required to help us reach that goal.

Teachers should teach with the end goal in mind.

The most accomplished teachers learn to teach with the end goal of readers and learners in mind. Teachers working with young children learn to balance the various components of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension—in their everyday teaching. The very best teachers integrate the components while fostering a love of books, words and stories.

Kids who struggle usually have problems sounding out words.

Difficulties in decoding and word recognition are at the core of most reading difficulties. Poor readers have difficulty understanding that sounds in words are linked to certain letters and letter patterns. This is called the “alphabetic principle.” Many poor readers don’t attain the alphabetic principle because they haven’t developed phonemic awareness. This means being aware that words are made up of speech sounds, or phonemes. When word recognition isn’t automatic, reading isn’t fluent. And comprehension suffers.

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