Washington’s Take on Reading Instruction

by Donna Harrington-Lueker


For more than a decade, a fractious debate over the best way to teach young children to read has raged. And while reports from national groups and conciliatory words from professional reading associations have tried to bring the camps together, the divide remains.

Should teachers teach phonics first and foremost, giving children the skills they need to decode words and become masterful readers? Or should meaning come first, and should children be taught to use a variety of so-called cueing systems, including, but not limited to, sounding a word out?

That debate is likely to enter a new chapter this year if Congress passes President George W. Bush's Reading First initiative.

Part of the mammoth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the $5 million Reading First initiative calls for making certain that every child can read by 3rd grade and would provide states with funding to implement so-called research-based reading programs for at-risk youngsters. It also calls for the development of early reading initiatives in preschools and Head Start programs and a large-scale federal effort to study the way the nation's youngest children learn.

The sticking point: Not everyone agrees what a "research-based" reading program looks like.

Research Support

A series of national reports in the late 1990s, including the National Research Council's "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children" and the National Reading Panel's “Teaching Children to Read,” have called for explicit instruction in phonics. And that demand continues today.

"Children need a knowledge of sounds, of the links between sounds and the alphabet, and they need practice applying both phonemic awareness and phonics to text and print," says Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and an adviser to President Bush.

Without explicit instruction in decoding words, Lyon says, research shows that more than a third of young children will have difficulty learning to read fluently. And the children most at risk are children from impoverished families, children of single mothers and inner-city children who attend high-poverty schools.

Research in Houston and more recently in Washington, D.C., testifies to the power of this approach, Lyon and others say. In the second year of a study involving nine District of Columbia public schools, students exposed to explicit instruction in phonology—the awareness of the speech-sound system that underlies language—increased their reading achievement.

At the end of the second year of the study, the most recent year for which data are available—students in the program all scored between the 50th and the 65th percentile, a significant achievement for a high-poverty district, says project director Louisa Moats. Similar gains were documented in Houston, which also adopted a systematic emphasis on decoding.

Such studies, NICHD researchers say, offer empirical evidence that the approach to reading works. And what works, says Lyon, is what the president wants to fund.

Specifically, Lyon continues, the federal government wants to make certain that federal dollars are tied to programs with a solid research base. To meet that requirement, programs will have to show that they've been tested for effectiveness on the children who'll be using them, Lyon says. Programs will also have to have been tested with a control group, and their component parts will have to be defined well enough so that the research can be replicated.

When it's applied, that new standard will mean much more rigorous peer review of programs, Lyon says, and in some cases the U.S. Department of Education will provide technical assistance for districts if their programs don't measure up.

Program Review

But what programs actually do measure up? Lyon says that the Open Court reading series, used in some high-poverty urban districts, has such a research base, including several clinical trials. Houghton-Mifflin's reading series is another program Lyon mentions.

According to Lyon, the Ohio-based Reading Recovery program and Johns Hopkins University's Success for All also have begun trials that could provide the research base the legislation would call for.

Members of the House and Senate gave their preliminary approval to the president's reading initiative last fall. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress had not approved the entire ESEA package.