Teaching Johnny to read, the scientific way

November 03, 2003|by Timothy Shanahan

"Why can't Johnny read?" That question gained prominence in the past two decades, and it has become shorthand for questions about the deficiencies of reading instruction in America. Today, nearly 40 percent of children in fourth grade are unable to read at grade level. These children and their families deserve a straightforward answer to that question.

Maryland can receive almost $66 million over six years in Reading First funds - new, much needed funds in tight economic times - to institute scientifically based reading instruction, eliminating the use of untested approaches that have failed too many of our students.

Why are so many children struggling to read? Are today's children more resistant to learning than those of past generations? No. Are teachers less attentive or is less emphasis being placed on reading? No. If anything, more attention is being devoted to the subject than ever before. Can scientifically based reading instruction make a difference? Yes.


By and large, this is not a problem of why Johnny won't learn to read, but of how he can learn to read. We now have the evidence for how to teach virtually all children to read. By using approaches reflecting scientifically based reading research, we can teach nearly every child to read well by grade three.

The research is clear about what works. Children become readers when they are taught essential reading skills, and too many schools neglect some of these skills. Effective reading programs teach: Phonemic awareness - the ability to hear and work with the individual sounds or phonemes within spoken words; phonics - which allows readers to use the sounds of letters to recognize words; fluency - the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with good expression; vocabulary - word meanings and comprehension - how to understand what is read. Children need to be taught all of these things, and teachers need to know how to teach them effectively.

Scientifically based reading research also tells us that effective instruction is not a hit-or-miss proposition. It requires systematic teaching strategies linked to supportive instructional materials and delivered in a coordinated sequence that allows for ample practice. It is also important that early learning be monitored carefully so that appropriate adjustments can be made if a child isn't making adequate progress.

So now that we have this critical scientific knowledge about reading instruction, how do we apply it in all classrooms to provide all children the reading skills they need to succeed? How do we ensure the research is implemented properly and effectively? How do we move from rhetoric to results?

A valuable starting place is Reading First. It offers some much-needed funding to particular Maryland schools to encourage them to purchase materials based on the research, to provide needed professional education so that teachers know how to teach these skills and to provide support for the assessment and supplemental instruction that struggling readers need to succeed.

But Reading First money goes directly to only some schools. How can we ensure that all schools will provide what children need?

A thorough understanding of scientifically based reading research is a good place to start. The Partnership for Reading, a collaborative effort between the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education, makes scientifically based reading research available to anyone with an interest in - and a responsibility for - helping all children in Maryland and this nation learn to read well.

The partnership has available materials that explain scientifically based reading research and how to use it in our schools. The partnership's Put Reading First and A Child Becomes a Reader series are available through the Partnership's Web site ( or by contacting

Given that reading is the cornerstone of all learning, reading instruction must be elevated to a first-among-equals status on the to-do list of education improvement. We must ensure that new, scientifically based knowledge of reading is used by teachers in classrooms. Parents are more aware and looking more closely at the teaching process and investigating the "how" of their children's learning. Here, the partnership can lend a hand in helping them better understand the issues and ask the right questions.

Reading, learning and succeeding - as a student and as an adult - are all linked together. And it is a link that can and must be forged early. Research shows that students who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are likely to struggle in other subject areas, leaving them frustrated and often poorly educated and placed at a lifelong disadvantage. This needn't be the case. With research-based instruction, just about all of our children can be taught to read well, avoiding many of these long-term struggles.

The ability to read is the most fundamental component of learning. Acquiring reading skills does not happen by chance. Teaching reading is a science that requires careful application and measurement. In short, scientifically based reading instruction is how Johnny can learn to read.

Timothy Shanahan is chairman of the National Early Literacy Panel.

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