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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Research Says / Address Reading Problems Early

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The good news is that with early detection and intervention, we can get students back on track.

Student reading difficulties can be like many forms of cancer: relatively easy to treat if detected early, but more and more difficult to remedy if allowed to persist. By the late elementary grades, what started as minor reading deficiencies often metastasize to all areas of student learning. At that point, it's an overwhelming challenge to get students back on track, even with strong interventions.
The good news is that studies over the last few decades offer important insights into the early diagnosis and treatment of reading problems.

Where Do Reading Difficulties Begin?

Students must develop many different competencies when learning to read—from understanding print conventions (for example, that pages turn right to left); to becoming aware that speech consists of different sounds; to understanding that letters symbolize the sounds of speech. Students must also develop large enough working vocabularies to, among other things, become proficient at discerning phonemes—for example, hearing the difference between elevator and alligator (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Sadly, many students enter kindergarten already behind in these crucial precursors to reading. Researchers have documented large gaps, for example, between incoming kindergartners' ability to recognize letters or identify beginning sounds of words, as well as gaps in the number of words they have encountered verbally and in print, resulting in stark differences in vocabulary development (Neuman, 2009). These factors slow some students' reading progress.

A Downward Spiral

Education researchers have long observed what they call a Matthew effect—drawn from the passage in the Gospel of Matthew that refers to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In reading, students who enter school rich in alphabetic and phonemic awareness progress more quickly through the laborious stages of early reading toward automaticity, when reading becomes enjoyable. As a result, they begin reading more, learning more concepts and vocabulary, and becoming better (richer) readers (Stanovich, 1986). Conversely, poor readers tend to read less and thus become, in relative terms, ever poorer.
Over the course of their academic careers, students must learn tens of thousands of words—too many to be taught directly. Through repeated exposure to these words in reading materials, students learn the vocabulary and general knowledge they need to succeed in school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001). As a result, differences in independent reading volume drive the Matthew effect.
For example, a student in the 90th percentile of reading volume (who reads 21.1 minutes per day) encounters 1.8 million words a year, whereas a student in the 10th percentile (who reads less than one minute per day) sees only 8,000 words a year. Put another way, the first student sees more words in two days than the second reads all year (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001). It's no wonder that students with limited practice in reading (and thus, limited vocabularies and general knowledge) often struggle when they are expected to progress from reading relatively easy passages to increasingly difficult texts that require larger vocabularies, greater fluency, and more prior knowledge.
On top of this, struggling readers may begin to internalize their lack of reading ability and develop learned helplessness (Stanovich, 1986). They may become unmotivated as learners and fall into what Torgesen (2004) has called a "devastating downward spiral."
This combination of factors helps explain the disappointing results of reading programs aimed at the upper elementary grades and beyond. A consistent body of research (Shaywitz et al., 1999; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998) has found that very few students who are poor readers at the end of 1st grade catch up by the end of elementary school. Even the best interventions are only able to help older students acquire reading basics (such as decoding phonemes and comprehending individual words), but not to bring their reading fluency or comprehension up to grade level (Torgesen, 2004).
For example, in one study of 60 3rd to 5th grade students with severe reading deficits, researchers found that an intensive, eight-week intervention brought students' phonemic decoding skills from the 2nd to the 39th percentile, yet their fluency skills only inched up from the 3rd to the 5th percentile and then slid back to the 4th percentile two years later. (Although the intervention students did increase their fluency, higher-achieving students made even more gains.) (Torgesen et al., 2001).

Early Detection and Intervention

The good news is that with early detection and intervention, we can get students back on track. A meta-analysis of 20 studies, for example, revealed two key predictors of kindergartners' future reading difficulties: their ability to identify letters and their knowledge of associated letter sounds (Scarborough, 1989). Subsequently, a meta-analysis of 52 studies found strong evidence that explicit instruction in phonemic awareness can improve students' later reading abilities (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Although phonemic awareness instruction alone does not make a complete reading program, research makes a strong case for testing all students' knowledge of letters and phonemes midway through kindergarten; identifying those students who fall below a certain point (say, the 30th percentile); and targeting them for intense, small-group or one-on-one tutoring to bring their decoding abilities up to par (Torgesen, 1998).
Years ago, Hartsfield Elementary School, a high-poverty school in Tallahassee, Florida, adopted a battery of assessments to identify struggling readers early so they could receive targeted small-group instruction. Over a four-year period, the reading performance of the school's 2nd graders rose from the 58th to the 82nd percentile, and the proportion of students below the 25th percentile dropped from 14.5 to 2.4 percent (King & Torgesen, 2006).
Research and the experience of schools like Hartsfield suggest that when it comes to reading problems, we currently have the information we need for early diagnosis and treatment. We have at our fingertips not only the telltale early markers of students who are falling behind in reading, but also the interventions that can, with a reasonable level of effort, help nearly all students avoid the downward spiral of reading failure and instead experience the exciting journey toward reading success.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (2001). What reading does for the mind. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1(2), 137–149.

King, R., & Torgesen, J. K. (2006). Improving the effectiveness of reading instruction in one elementary school: A description of the process. In P. Blaunstein & R. Lyon (Eds.), Why kids can't read: Challenging the status quo in education. (pp. 151–174). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Neuman, S. (2009). Changing the odds for children at risk: Seven essential principles of educational programs that break the cycle of poverty. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Scarborough, H. S. (1989). Prediction of reading disability from familial and individual differences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(1), 101–108.

Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, J. M., Schneider, A. E., Marchione, K. E., Stuebing, K. K., Francis, D. J., et al. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut longitudinal study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104(6), 1351–1359.

Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–406.

Torgesen, J. K. (1998). Catch them before they fall: Identification and assessment to prevent reading failure in young children. American Educator, 22(1&2) 32—39.

Torgesen, J. K. (2004). Avoiding the devastating downward spiral: The evidence that early intervention prevents reading failure. American Educator, 28(3), 6–19. Retrieved from www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/fall2004/torgesen.cfm

Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A. W., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Voeller, K., Conway, T., & Rose, E. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(1), 33–58.

Torgesen, J. K., & Burgess, S. R. (1998). Consistency of reading-related phonological processes throughout early childhood: Evidence from longitudinal, correlational, and instructional studies. In J. Metsala & L. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning reading (pp. 161–188). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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