Becoming a Nation of Readers

The Report of the Commission on Reading

This report was compiled from research on reading instruction and outcomes. The Commission on Reading was formed from representatives of three federal education agencies and the report was published in 1985. While we keep up with current research and new information, it is important not to forget select older volumes which contain information whose value has been proven over time. The following are some of the pearls from this publication.

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The reading teacher’s repertoire must draw upon the deepening knowledge of child development. I frequently see children who are referred for “problems” which are within the norms of development for their age but do not match the expectations of the curriculum. If their parents were doing this at their age, it would have been considered to be normal.

Mastery tests must not treat reading as a set of discrete skills when research has indicated that a closely integrated set of processes supports fluent reading. As adults it is easy to not recognize that the early stages of reading and writing require significant multitasking. Even after the discrete skills have become automatic in isolation, including a number of visual skills, rehearsal will still be necessary to develop their automatic integration.

Reading is a holistic act. A text is not so much a vessel containing information as it is a source of partial information that enables the reader to use already-processed knowledge to determine the intended meaning. (This calls into question the use of “cold reading” to assess reading ability.)

Five generalizations flow from the research of the past decade on the nature of reading:


    1. Skilled reading is constructive. Comprehension is highly dependent on prior knowledge and the ability to read with sufficient mastery to be free to simultaneously consider stored knowledge.
    2. Skilled reading must be fluent to free attention for the analysis of meaning.
    3. Skilled readers are strategic. They read for a purpose.  Becoming a skilled reader requires learning to sustain attention and learning that written material can be interesting and informative.
    4. Reading requires motivation. It will take most children years to learn to read well.
    5. Reading is a continuously developing skill.

Gisella and Ben reading

The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.

Such old-fashioned materials as chalkboards and paper and pencils can make a difference in children’s learning to read. When children who learned to read before going to school were compared to similar children who couldn’t read, the early readers were found to have greater access to chalkboards and paper and pencils and to do more writing.

Children’s proficiency in letter naming when they start school is an excellent predictor of their first- and second-grade reading achievement.

Familiar words are especially useful for teaching children letter names and letter-sound relationships, because children can learn to recognize familiar words prior to learning all the letters.

Phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships, because this is the sort of instruction that will most directly lay bare the alphabetic principle. Once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. Child_reading_at_Brookline_Booksmith.jpg

Blending may seem simple to an adult who already knows how to read, but in fact it is a difficult step for many children. Until a child gets over this hurdle, learning the sounds of individual letters and groups of letters will have diminished value.

Teaching phonics is a benefit to most children who are learning to read, but the relationships between the sounds and the print are not as clear as it appears to adults who already know how to read. Implicit phonics depends on “phonemic segmentation”. This is the ability to identify separate speech sounds in spoken words. There is evidence that many young children cannot extract an individual sound from hearing it within a word. (This is also very hard for adults. We have the illusion that we can do this due to our word knowledge. How many times do we misunderstand what someone says because they did not say what we expected them to say? “Phonemic segmentation” must also be coupled with “visual segmentation” which is dependent on language arts knowledge and figure-ground skills within a crowded letters of a word.) Implicit phonics may actually presuppose what it is supposed to teach. Also see Marilyn Jager Adams in Beginning to Read.

A problem with explicit phonics is that both teachers and children have a difficult time saying pure speech sounds in isolation. All that phonics can be expected to do is help children approximate pronunciations. These must be “tried out” to determine whether recognizable words have been produced which make sense in the context. Oral reading errors provide a window into what is going on inside children’s heads as they read. Research suggests that first graders taught through an explicit phonics approach make more nonsense errors than other children.

A clear finding from research of the past decade is that young readers and poor readers of every age do not consistently see relationships between what they are reading and what they already know.

There are qualitative differences in the experience of children in high and low reading groups that would be expected to place children in low groups at a disadvantage. Children in low groups do relatively more reading aloud and relatively less silent reading. They more often read words without a meaningful context on lists or flash cards, and less often read words in stories.

An indisputable conclusion of research is that the quality of teaching makes a considerable difference in children’s learning. Studies indicate that about 15 percent of the variation among children in reading achievement at the end of the school year is attributable to factors that relate to the skill and effectiveness of the teacher. In contrast, the largest study ever done comparing approaches to beginning reading found that about 3 percent of the variation in reading achievement at the end of first grade was attributable to the overall approach of the program. Thus, the prudent assumption for educational policy is that, while there may be some “material-proof” teachers, there are no “teacher-proof materials.

How We Read

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

Visual Factors in Reading

The Hidden Link Between Vision and Learning