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From beginning to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers

A consensus has emerged among researchers that five components are necessary for skillful reading. Ask parents what they want their children to learn at school, and they’re likely to put “learn to read” at the top of the list. No wonder: Reading is the cornerstone of a child’s education. Students who don’t have strong reading skills will struggle through school and may not be able to reach the college level. If their reading skills remain limited as adults, they are likely to be restricted to low-wage positions. To help start early readers off on the right foot, we include in this research review:

  • Stages of reading development
  • Components of skillful reading
  • Are teachers prepared to teach reading
  • How well are our students reading
  • Early diagnosis and intervention for reading problems
  • What the research means for your schools

Unfortunately, not all children come to school ready to learn to read, and too often, achievement gaps show up between different groups of students. It’s up to you and your school board to support sound reading instruction in your schools—instruction that draws on what we know about how children learn to read and that takes into account the diversity of students’ family backgrounds and socioeconomic status.

In recent years, research has gone a long way in identifying what goes into that kind of sound reading instruction. This is part one of a two-part series that looks at how children learn to read and what works in reading instruction in the early grades. The second part in the series will address how to develop more advanced reading skills in older students. Together, these reports provide information you can use as you deliberate policy decisions concerning curriculum, teacher preparation, and resource allocation.

Stages of reading development 

From the studies listed in Recent research on reading , we now have a clear conception of how reading skills progress, and we recognize that the building blocks for reading success are formed long before a child reaches first grade.

As toddlers and preschoolers, children develop oral language skills and cultivate what is known as print awareness or print concepts—that is, they come to understand the nature and purpose of print and recognize the unique properties of the alphabet or writing system they are learning about. 

This print awareness starts with the most basic skills—learning that letters have names and that letters represent individual speech sounds (known as phonemes) in spoken language. The young child’s awareness then builds to a greater understanding of text, such as learning to look at or “read” printed words from left to right.

Unfortunately, the achievement gap—particularly between low-income and middle-income children—can begin here, as middle- and upper-class kids develop print awareness earlier due to “rich home literacy experiences” compared with students from low-income families (Vellutino 2003). Effective pre-k programs may be one way to help close this gap: Children in such programs show improved vocabulary scores and gains in print awareness including letter recognition, letter sounds, and book concepts (Barnett, Lamy, and Jung 2005, see also the Center for Public Education’s research on pre-k education ).

The prominent reading researcher Jeanne Chall (1996) identified the following stages of reading development:

  • Prereading or emergent literacy stage: In preschool and kindergarten, children focus on oral language skills they will need to learn to read. By the end of kindergarten, they should know and be able to write all the letters and should have developed a vocabulary of about 6,000 words.
  • Stage 1, Initial reading: In first grade, children learn that letters represent sounds and use relationships between letter sounds and spelling, typically through the process known as “decoding.”
  • Stage 2, Confirmation and fluency: In grades one and three, children learn to integrate knowledge of sound-symbol relationships, to recognize "sight words", and broaden their knowledge of the language conventions of connected text to create smooth reading.
  • Stage 3, Reading for learning the new: In grades four through eight, students encounter a wide variety of texts and contexts and expand their vocabulary to learn information from text.
  • Stage 4, Multiple viewpoints: In high school, the language and cognitive demands on students increase, and they are expected to analyze texts critically and understand multiple points of view.
  • Stage 5, Construction and reconstruction: In college and beyond, students’ reading is considered constructive; they take in information and make their own sense of it based on analysis and synthesis.

Components of skillful reading

While these stages provide something of a chronology of reading development, a consensus has emerged among researchers (Snow, Griffin, and Burns 1998, NRP 2000) that 

Takeaway points

  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 34 percent of fourth graders and 27 percent of eighth graders in U.S. public schools read below the “basic” level—that is, they have not mastered the reading skills that are considered fundamental for their given grade.
  • NAEP reading assessments also indicate that white and Asian students perform at higher levels than other students. This gap in reading skills stems from an apparent disparity in vocabulary exposure that shows up even before children enter school.
  • The building blocks for reading success are formed long before a child reaches first grade. Reading develops in stages, beginning with print awareness and progressing through letter recognition, letter sounds, and book concepts; reading for learning; understanding multiple points of view; and analysis and synthesis.
  • Research has identified five components that are necessary for skillful reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. However, most teacher preparation programs do not teach all five.
  • The key to preventing reading failure is early identification and diagnosis of reading problems by testing letter names or sounds, phonemic awareness, fluency, and word-reading ability
  • School districts can support reading instruction by adopting research-based instructional techniques, providing professional development, and allocating sufficient human and financial resources to reading instruction.
five components are necessary for skillful reading. Under each of the link below you will find an array of effective tips for each of the five components that help beginning readers become skillful. Just follow the links to learn more about each one. 

  • Phonemic awareness: The ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words.
  • Phonics: The understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes -- the smallest parts of spoken words -- and graphemes -- the letters that represent those sounds in written language.
  • Handout: Fluency: The ability to read a text accurately and quickly.
  • Handout: Vocabulary: The words a reader must know to communicate effectively.
  • Handout: Comprehension: The ability to understand the text that is read.

Phonemic awareness and phonics are considered the foundational skills for reading—those typically learned in the early reading stage—while fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension are seen as more complex. All the components are interrelated, however. As a RAND report (2002) explained, “Fluency can be conceptualized as both an antecedent to and a consequence of comprehension. Some aspects of fluent, expressive reading may depend on a thorough understanding of a text. However, some components of fluency—quick and efficient recognition of words and at least some aspects of syntactic parsing—appear to be prerequisites for comprehension.”

Are teachers prepared to teach reading?

Despite the wealth of knowledge gained over the past decade about the five components of skillful reading, one study found that this information is not making its way into teacher education programs. Walsh, Glaser, and Wilcox (2006) examined required reading courses at a random sample of seventy-two elementary education programs and found that most of the teacher prep programs in the study did not teach all five components. Only eleven (or 15 percent) of the institutions taught all five components of reading, and the researchers called for greater inclusion of scientific research on reading in teacher education programs’ syllabi, textbooks, and assignments. For an-indept look at each of the five components, click on the links above.


Given all we’ve learned about reading development, you might assume all’s well with reading instruction. But many k-12 students nationwide—and probably some in your district—have trouble reading. Definitive estimates of the number or percentage of students who do not read on “grade level” are hard to come by, however. The main estimate comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationwide test often called The Nation’s Report Card. Although its standards are high and its content and results don’t always align with those of state assessments and other tests, NAEP is the only nationwide test that can compare student achievement across states.

In the 2007 reading assessment, 34 percent of fourth graders and 27 percent of eighth graders in U.S. public schools read below the “basic” level, meaning they have not mastered the reading skills that are considered fundamental for their given grade (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue 2007).

More disturbing, results of NAEP reading assessments also indicate that white or Asian students are performing at higher levels than other students. In 2007, only 23 percent of white and 24 percent of Asian fourth graders were considered reading at below basic levels, according to NAEP; yet about half of other minority fourth graders fell below basic levels (54 percent of black, 51 percent of Hispanic, and 49 percent of American Indian fourth graders).

Not surprisingly, similar disparities exist when comparing students from different socioeconomic groups, as measured by eligibility for free and reduced- price lunches. Fifty percent of fourth graders on free and reduced-price lunches read at a level below basic, compared with only 21 percent of noneligible fourth graders (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue 2007).

(For more on NAEP scoring, see NAEP Achievement Levels. See also At a glance: The proficiency debate.)

This gap in reading skills—at least, the gap across socioeconomic lines—stems from an apparent disparity in vocabulary exposure that shows up even before children enter school, according to Hart and Risley (2003). Based on intensive observations of preschool children in welfare families, working-class families, and professional families, these researchers found a dramatic gap in the vocabularies of three-year-olds. On average, children in welfare families knew 525 words. By comparison, on average, children in working-class and professional families knew 749 and 1,116 words, respectively. This disparity in home language environment can have a long-term impact.

Early diagnosis and intervention for reading problems

Fortunately, the growing body of research on early reading points the way to help for struggling young readers. The key to preventing reading failure is early identification and diagnosis of reading problems, argues Torgeson (1998), who suggests that districts, schools, and teachers focus on assessing potential reading difficulties as early as kindergarten and first grade. He recommends formal and informal assessments in the following four areas:

  • A test of knowledge of letter names or sounds: Torgeson notes that “letter-name knowledge is a more sensitive predictor for kindergarten children, while letter-sound knowledge is a better predictor for children in first grade.” Two tests that provide nationally standardized norms for performance on letter-name and letter-sound knowledge are the letter identification subtest of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised and the graphemes subtest of the Phonological Awareness Test.
  • A measure of phonemic awareness: More than twenty different tasks have been used to measure awareness of phonemes in words. These measures can be grouped into three broad categories: Sound comparison, phoneme segmentation, and phoneme blending. Three widely used tests are the Phonological Awareness Test, the Test of Phonological Awareness, and the Yopp-Singer Test of Phoneme Segmentation.
  • Fluency assessments: Informal fluency assessments simply require teachers to listen to students read aloud and gauge their progress in fluency. In more formal measures, teachers compute the number of words students read correctly per minute and compare that with published norms or standards for oral reading fluency.
  • Measures of word-reading ability: Torgeson notes that two assessments are often used to measure this skill; both call on students to read lists of unrelated words that “increase in length and complexity while decreasing in frequency of occurrence.” These include the word identification subtest of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test Revised and the reading subtest of the Wide Range Achievement Test-3.

When readers are struggling in the first or second grade, Snow et al. (2007) say the “range of possible solutions” may seem small and relatively simple—for example, trying supplementary instruction in phonological awareness, checking the student’s letter recognition and understanding of letter-sound relationships, practicing basic word-reading skills, focusing on common words that are irregularly spelled, and providing lots of practice in overall word recognition and oral reading to enhance fluency.

In a separate report, Snow, Griffins, and Burns (1998) suggest another possible solution: Enlisting help from people outside the school, such as pediatricians, social

The Reading First Program

The five components of reading are now so well accepted that they were written into the requirements of programs to be funded under the billion-dollar federal Reading First program. This program, building on the results of the National Reading Panel and enacted by Congress in 2002, was designed to support states and school districts that apply scientifically based reading research—and proven instructional and assessment tools based on the five components—to ensure that all children learn to read well by the end of third grade.

Reading First’s reputation was tarnished, however, by federal investigations and congressional hearings about conflicts of interest and inappropriate attempts to force schools to use specific curricula (Kennedy Manzo 2008). In response to complaints, the Department of Education’s Inspector General (IG) carried out several investigations and audits of the program’s administration.

In its final report on the Reading First grant application process, the IG determined that the Education Department had, among other findings, developed an application package that obscured the requirements of the statute; failed to identify possible conflicts of interest among expert review panelists; and intervened to influence the selection of reading programs by one state and several school districts (IG final inspection report 2006).

In fiscal 2008, the program’s budget was cut more than 60 percent (from almost $1 billion to $393 million. Further questions arose in May 2008, when a congressionally mandated study of Reading First found that, although both groups made gains, students enrolled in Reading First scored about the same on tests of reading comprehension as students who were not in the program (Glod 2008, Gamse 2008).

Then, in June 2008, U.S. House and Senate panels eliminated Reading First’s funding entirely from the fiscal 2009 budget (Kennedy, Manzo, and Klein 2008).

workers, speech language therapists, and other preschool practitioners. They suggest giving these professionals tips on identifying signs that children are having trouble acquiring early language and literacy skills, such as confusing letter sounds.

If reading difficulties are not identified early, several researchers (Lyon et al. 2001, Torgeson 1998) caution that intensive and expensive interventions are often needed. School districts typically do not test reading skills (or other skills) until third grade, when state and other assessments are administered. But that may be too late for the more simple interventions that can be helpful earlier.

If a student’s reading ability falls below the predicted level of performance, many schools administer some type of IQ assessment, which is used to determine whether the child has a reading disability. An estimated 7 to 9 percent of school-age children have reading disabilities, according to Gersten et al. (2001) and Riddle, Buly, and Valencia (2003). With such a diagnosis, students are eligible for special education services. Critics call this “IQ discrepancy approach” the “wait to fail” approach: If students have struggled with poor reading skills for several years, they may be so frustrated that they are turned off from reading altogether.

One alternative to this approach is the Response to Intervention program developed six years ago by Oregon’s Tigard-Tualamin School District (Dervarics 2007). Designed to help struggling readers, the RTI program provides for teachers with special training to screen all students regularly for reading problems—often as early as first or second grade. Instead of being placed in special education, struggling students receive intensive interventions.

The district uses screening instruments such (e.g.,  Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment) to evaluate the reading skills of all students three times a year. Those who score in the 30th percentile or below receive intensive small-group services. If the services are not effective, grade-level teams develop intensive individual instructional strategies to deal with the weaknesses of specific students.

The initiative has had a positive effect, with the district recording higher reading scores since implementation. Among third and fifth graders, Dervarics reports, 95 percent exceeded the state’s reading benchmark for 2005–2006, up 10 percentage points from five years ago.

What the research means for your schools

NAEP reading results indicate that not much has changed since 1992: A disturbing proportion of students fall below grade level, and the gap between white and minority students has not lessened significantly. As we learn more about the best forms of reading instruction, we may see gains in reading scores on national assessments such as NAEP.

In the meanwhile, your school district can take steps now:

  • Assess reading skills early and regularly: Early identification of struggling readers can help put young children on the path to skillful reading.
  • Use interventions that look beyond special education placement: Consider the kinds of individual instructional strategies suggested by Snow et al. (2007) and those that have shown promise in the RTI program.
  • Adopt research-based instructional techniques: Interventions funded under the federal Reading First program, which requires the use of scientifically based early reading instruction, may serve as useful models.
  • Provide professional development programs to help current teachers: According to Walsh, Glaser, and Wilcox (2006), most of today’s teachers did not receive a sufficient background in reading research.
  • Encourage local teacher education programs to include reading research in the curriculum: As reading science becomes more embedded in these programs, future teachers will be better prepared to provide sound reading instruction.
  • Allocate sufficient human and financial resources: Your school district’s budget should demonstrate that the school board and administrative team recognize the primacy of reading instruction in a child’s education.

If more school districts take these steps—and adopt the intensive instructional approaches necessary to help students with reading difficulties—more elementary school children will build robust reading skills, which serve as strong foundations for later learning.

The second part of this two-part series examines research on how children further develop reading skills as they enter middle and high school.

This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: October 17, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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