Most children will learn to read,
no matter what method is used to teach them. But unless they receive special help, at
least 20 percent of them cannot master this simple task that the rest of us take for
Their difficulty is painfully
obvious when they try to read out loud. Children with reading difficulties stop and start
frequently, mispronouncing some words and skipping others entirely.
first casualty is self esteem: they soon grow ashamed as they struggle with a skill their
classmates master easily. In the later grades, when children switch from learning to read
to reading to learn, reading-impaired children are kept from exploring science, history,
literature, mathematics and the wealth of information that is presented in print.
what, to the rest of us, are everyday conveniences--a road map, the instructions for a
microwave pizza--become daunting tasks for those with reading difficulties. And as more
information becomes available on the Internet, those who can't read will be left behind by
an information revolution that is largely text based.
million children have difficulties learning to read. From 10 to 15 percent eventually drop
out of high school; only 2 percent complete a four-year college program. Surveys of
adolescents and young adults with criminal records show that about half have reading
difficulties. Similarly, about half of youths with a history of substance abuse have
people with a mild reading impairment do not read for fun. For them, reading requires so
much effort that they have little energy left for understanding what they have just read.
to what many people believe, NICHD research has shown that reading disability affects boys
and girls at roughly the same rate. Reading disabled boys, however, are more likely to be
referred for treatment, as they are more likely to get the teacher's attention by
misbehaving. Reading disabled girls may escape the teacher's attention, as they may
withdraw into quiet daydreaming.
common misconception is that reading disabled people reverse letters and write in mirror
image. In fact, such reversals are common among all beginning writers--reading impaired
and non-reading impaired alike.
studies have shown, however, that in many cases, reading impairment can be related to
deficiencies in the way that the brain processes letter sounds, a language-based task. If
no steps are taken to compensate for this defect, reading disability will persist through
life. Fortunately, treatment is available.
and school administrators are the best qualified to determine the specific curricula and
lesson plans appropriate to their students' needs. The NICHD research has determined,
however, that a particular over all approach to teaching reading offers the
greatest chances of success for overcoming reading difficulties. Long- term studies funded
by NICHD have shown that from 90 to 95 percent of reading impaired children can overcome
their difficulties if they receive appropriate treatment at early ages.
words we speak are made up of individual pieces of sound that scientists refer to as phonemes.
The word "bag," for example, has three phonemes, "buh, ah, guh." To
make normal conversation possible, such sound pieces are strung together rapidly--about 8
to 10 per second--and blended so thoroughly that it's often impossible to separate them.
oscilloscope (a device for measuring sound) registers the spoken word "bag," as
a single sound. Thus, the human ear also hears only one sound when "bag" is
spoken. The brain, however, can isolate these pieces of sound and combine them with other
such sound pieces to make thousands of words. For the most part, this process is
unconscious and automatic, and human beings are unaware of it as they engage in normal
words we speak are made up of individual pieces of sound that are strung together so
rapidly it's often impossible to separate them.
For many, though, the problem arises in converting this natural process to print. Written
English is a kind of code: The 26 letters of the alphabet, either singly or in combination
with other letters, stand for the 44 phonemes in spoken English.
children learn to read, they must first become aware that spoken words are made of these
pieces of sound. After they gain this knowledge (known as phonological awareness) then
they must be taught that letters or combinations of letters are the way in which we
represent these sounds on paper. Most children grasp this concept easily, no matter what
method is used to teach them.
studies have found, however, that at least 20 percent of children must be taught this
letter-sound system directly in order to learn to read successfully. The greatest
possibility for success lies in identifying and treating these children before they reach
third grade. This does not mean that older children cannot be helped; only that teaching
them to read at an appropriate level for their age becomes progressively more difficult as
they get older.
to read involves gaining the understanding that the letters on a page stand for the
individual pieces of sound in speech. Some children will develop reading
difficulties unless they are explicitly taught this relationship.
a reading disability
NICHD-sponsored research has shown that approximately 85 percent of those children likely
to become poor readers can be identified with tests of their abilities to manipulate
letter sounds, to rapidly name letters and numbers, and to demonstrate an awareness of the
concepts of print. For example, when asked to say the word "cat" without the
"kuh" sound, these children will be unable to respond by answering
"at." This test and others like it can be performed on children as early as 5
years of age.
working in small groups, can explicitly show children that words are made up of tiny sound
segments. There are many ways to impart this knowledge. One way is to have children clap
in sequence as each speech sound in a word is slowly pronounced. Other methods may involve
having children move a small plastic tab or other marker as each sound is made.
the students master this step, instructors can then teach them that the letters in words
stand for the tiny sounds in speech. This teaching technique, commonly referred to as
"phonics" instruction, is usually again introduced slowly at first, perhaps in
combination with putting plastic markers beneath letters on a page in sequence with each
letter the student "sounds out".
this phase of instruction is completed, and when children can read the words on the page
in an accurate and rapid manner, the student can then be exposed to teaching methods that
emphasize immersing children in good literature. In the past, controversy has existed over
whether such methods, commonly lumped under the term "whole language," are more
suited to reading instruction than the practice commonly associated with phonics training.
Critics of whole language often say that this method omits the fundamentals that children
need to sound out words. Phonics critics maintain that phonics training stresses boring
memorization at the expense of meaning and exposure to good literature.
instructors can teach that words are made up of smaller sounds is by having children move
a small plastic marker across the written letters of the word in sequence, as each letter
sound is pronounced.
In fact, NICHD research has shown that children taught with a combination of both methods
make the greatest gains in reading and fare better than children taught with only one
method at the exclusion of the other. If a reading impaired student is to be successful,
however, the three methods should be taught in an integrated manner.
Research in Progress
NICHD is funding a number of projects to gain additional insight into the nature of
reading disability. Several research teams continue to refine treatment methods,
attempting to find which techniques, used alone or in combination, offer the greatest
improvements in reading skills acquisition.
results of other NICHD-funded studies suggest that key areas of the brains of people with
reading disabilities function differently than in people who read easily. NICHD-funded
scientists are also taking advantage of powerful new technologies that allow them to
observe the inner workings of the brain. One such method, functional magnetic resonance
imaging, uses a computer-directed, magnetic device to obtain brain images. Using this
technique, researchers are comparing the brain function of people with reading
disabilities to the brain functioning of skilled readers. It is hoped that the technique
will allow them to observe the changes that take place in the brain as individuals learn
to overcome their reading impairment. These research projects may one day provide the
basis for effective new treatments for reading disabilities.
--Prepared for the NICHD
Extramural Program in Learning Disabilities by Robert Bock, Public Information and
Communications Branch, NICHD. For a listing of other NICHD informational materials, write
P.O. Box 3006, Rockville, MD 20847. Phone: 1-800-370-2943. Email: NICHDClearinghouse@mail.nih.gov.
The Alphabetic Principle and
Learning to Read. Isabelle Y. Liberman, Donald Shankweiler, and Alvin M. Liberman.
Reprinted from Phonology and Reading Disability: Solving the Reading Puzzle. The
International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities Monograph Series.
Getting Ready to Read: Learning How Print Maps to Speech. Reprinted from The Language Continuum: From
Infancy to Literacy. Edited by James F. Kavanagh, The Communication by Language