The National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) educational
research program, initiated in 1965, began to focus more on reading difficulties
as it became clear how extensive the reading problem was in the general
population. The 1985 Health Research Extension Act resulted in a new charge
to the NICHD to improve the quality of reading research by conducting long-term,
prospective, longitudinal, and multidisciplinary research. Reid Lyon led
the new charge by closely coordinating the work of over 100 researchers
in medicine, psychology, and education in approximately 14 different research
centers. (Numbers vary from year to year.)
A major problem with reading research in the past was that findings
often did not replicate. One researcher would get one result, another researcher
would get the opposite result. Lyon and colleagues identified that the
key problem in obtaining replicability was that researchers were studying
different samples of children. Lyon established detailed sampling requirements
for the research and increased scientific rigor in other areas. Consequently,
the NICHD research program has produced a growing body of highly replicable
findings in the area of early reading acquisition and reading disabilities
that have been reported in over 2,000 refereed journal articles since 1965.
How the NICHD Research Program is
To appreciate fully the significance of the NICHD findings it helps
to understand the level of scientific rigor used to guide the formation
of conclusions from the research. Reid Lyon coordinates the parallel investigation
of similar questions across several NICHD research centers. Under Lyon's
leadership, the researchers determine that the questions have been answered
only when the findings replicate across researchers and settings. Findings
with a high degree of replicability are finally considered incontrovertible
findings and then form the basis for additional research questions. Funding
is awarded the research centers through a competitive peer review process.
A panel of researchers who are not competing for the research funds award
the funds after evaluating competing proposals according to specific criteria.
Each research study within the NICHD network must follow the most rigorous
True scientific model. The NICHD studies do not embrace
any a priori theory, but test all theories against one another at different
points in time. In a true scientific paradigm, theories are tested by doing
everything to try to prove the theory incorrect. This contrasts with the
usual nature of research in education, where untested hypotheses are often
presented as proved theories before any testing has occurred.
Long-term duration.The average length of a study has
been 8 years, ranging in length from 3 years to 31 years. In these longitudinal
studies, the growth of children from preschool through adulthood has been
evaluated. Currently, several large-scale, 5-year longitudinal treatment
intervention studies are underway. This longer-term design allows evaluation
of the effects of different instructional variables on later reading performance.
Sampling procedures.The sampling procedures ensure that
all subgroups in the population (all ethnic groups, a full range of IQ
levels, and so on) are included in sufficient numbers to provide a window
to the population as a whole and provide information regarding the relationship
of reading disabilities to other variability in individuals such as IQ.
To evaluate the relationship between IQ and reading disabilities, for example,
the research subjects must proportionately sample different IQ bands. Most
studies involve around 200 subjects representing variation within specified
dimensions. Children who do not speak English have been excluded from the
NICHD research samples to this point. After basic reading instruction issues
have been resolved for teaching children with some knowledge of English,
including bilingual children, the research questions will turn to treatment
for children who do not know English and are beginning to learn it as a
Researcher bias.Researcher bias is reduced by the sheer
number of people involved in the NICHD program. For example, at only one
NICHD-funded research center, the one at Yale University, the following
researchers are involved: Jack Fletcher, David Francis, Rafael Kloorman,
John Gore, John Halahan, Robert Constable, Leonard Katz, Barbara Foorman,
Bonita Blachman, Dorothy Aram, Alvin Liberman, Ken Pugh, Michael Studdert-Kennedy,
Donald Shankweiler, Karla Stuebing, Keith Stanovich, Linda Siegel, and
Louisa Moats. In addition, researchers at the different NICHD centers communicate
frequently regarding their findings, checking each other's data and testing
alternative explanations with additional studies.
Contrast with other educational research.The NICHD research
program differs from much of the earlier research in its scientific rigor.
Table 1 helps illustrate the contrast by summarizing several studies that
reported conclusions that conflict with those of the NICHD. The studies
in Table 1 are laudable for attempting to evaluate competing theories and
were sometimes even two years in duration, quite long as educational studies
go. Yet the studies are still too short in duration to evaluate the effects
of the different treatments on the children's actual ability to read with
understanding. In nearly all of the studies in Table 1 the children never
progressed far enough in their reading to use a measure of independent
reading comprehension to evaluate their learning. The important question
of how different approaches to beginning reading instruction ultimately
impact authentic reading remains unanswered in these studies.
Many of the measures used to evaluate the children's learning had no
established validity as predictors of reading comprehension. For example,
children who used multiple cueing systems or who said they valued understanding
more than getting the words right, were given higher scores in many of
the studies in Table 1. Whether or not this performance would correlate
with later reading performance was not established at the time of the research.
With the NICHD research we now know that the values given the responses
on these measures should have been reversed. What was considered desirable
performance on miscue analyses actually indicates a poor comprehender,
rather than a good comprehender. Children who are poor readers make greater
use of two of the three cueing systems, syntax and semantics (context),
than good readers. Good readers make greater use of the graphophonic cueing
system, as indicated by the fact that they read fluently and accurately
without rereading. Readers who get words right are better comprehenders
than readers who guess using context to figure out words. Most likely the
children who scored highest on these measures would become the poorest
readers, based on NICHD studies of good and poor readers.
Even when the skills measured do predict better reading later, such
as knowing the names of the letters, teaching children these skills does
not necessarily guarantee that these children will be better readers later
on. Though many of the studies in Table 1 were over two years duration,
the time frame was still too short to see the nature of the impact of the
instruction on reading comprehension.
Table 1. Research supporting conclusions that conflict with
the NICHD research findings.
N in whole language group
N in skills-
Reading comprehension measure
2 K classes in parochial school
Kasten, Clark, & Nations
2 Preschool & 2 K classes
Stice & Bertrand
At-risk 1st & 2nd graders
in 10 classes
25 (5 from each class)
25 (5 from each class)
The SAT was administered, but
no significant difference found.
4 1st grade classes,
1st grade, varied
1 (also 1 in Reading Recovery)
McIntyre & Freppon
low SES groups
Dahl & Freppon
12 focal Ss
21 on some measures
7 focal Ss
12 on some measures
*N= number of subjects (Ss) in each treatment group.
In contrast, the NICHD longitudinal treatment studies now in progress
are five years in duration and have already used reading comprehension
measures to evalute instructional variables in the second year of the studies.
In addition, the sample sizes are much larger in the NICHD research studies.
For example, the kindergarten study by Foorman and her colleagues (in press)
involved 260 kindergarten children. Their first- and second-grade study
in eight Title I schools involved 375 subjects. Their special education
study of children in the lower 25% involved 113 children with reading disabilities.
The study of children in the lower 10% at the Florida Treatment Center
involved 180 children (Torgesen et al., in press). The larger samples in
the NICHD research included a full range of IQ levels, ethnic groups, and
included lower income children. As Table 1 shows, the largest study reporting
contradictory conclusions included only 100 subjects. Most of the studies
involved much smaller samples.
Developing a New Understanding of
Much of the recent NICHD research has focused on identifying the nature
of reading disabilities and the causes. Using modern neuroimaging technology,
medical researchers have identified a unique signature on the brain scans
of persons with reading problems. These unique brain scans seem to reflect
an inability to work with phonemes in the language. This lack of phonemic
awareness seems to be a major obstacle to reading acquisition. Children
who are not phonemically aware are not able to segment words and syllables
into phonemes. Consequently, they do not develop the ability to decode
single words accurately and fluently, an inability that is the distinguishing
characteristic of persons with reading disabilities.
About 40% of the population have reading problems severe enough to hinder
their enjoyment of reading. These problems are generally not developmental
and do not diminish over time, but persist into adulthood without appropriate
intervention. Because the percentage is so large, an arbitrary cutoff point
of 20% was selected for the purpose of labelling children as disabled in
basic reading skills. The difference between a child who has a learning
disability in reading and a child who is simply a poor reader is only a
difference in the severity of the problem.
The most reliable indicator of a reading disability is an inability
to decode single words. Lyon (1994, 1995a) suggests that the best way to
determine if this inability is "unexpected" is to compare the performance
of a child with that of other children his or her age and / or compare
reading ability to academic performance in other domains (e.g., listening
comprehension, verbal expression, mathematics, written expression). The
definition suggests that traditional methods for identifying a reading
disability, such as looking for an IQ-achievement discrepancy, are not
as reliable (Lyon, 1994; Lyon, 1995a).
Phonological processing is the primary ability area where children with
reading disabilities differ from other children. It does not seem to matter
whether the children have an IQ-achievement discrepancy in reading or not.
Phonological processing encompasses at least three different components.
Each component and a sample assessment are described in Table 2.
Table 2. Three important components of phonological processing and
E.g., say cat without the /t/ sound.
Phonological recoding in lexical access (Rapid naming)
Name objects, letters, colors quickly.
Phonological recoding in working memory
Repeat sentences, words, or digits accurately.
Of these three major phonological processing skills, phonological awareness
appears to be the most prevalent linguistic deficit in disabled readers.
Research on Treatment
for Reading Difficulties
What is Developmentally Appropriate? Treatment intervention research has shown that appropriate early direct
instruction seems to be the best medicine for reading problems. Reading
is not developmental or natural, but is learned. Reading disabilities reflect
a persistent deficit, rather than a developmental lag in linguistic (phonological)
skills and basic reading skills. Children who fall behind at an early age
(K and grade 1) fall further and further behind over time. Longitudinal
studies show that of the children who are diagnosed as reading disabled
in third grade, 74% remain disabled in ninth grade (Fletcher, et al., 1994;
Shaywitz, Escobar, Shaywitz, Fletcher, & Makuch, 1992; Stanovich, 1986;
Stanovich & Siegel, 1994). Adults with reading problems exhibit the
same characteristics that are exhibited by children with reading problems.
These findings contradict the prevalent notion that children will begin
to learn to read when they are "ready." The concept "developmentally
appropriate" should not suggest delaying intervention, but using appropriate
instructional strategies at an early age-especially in kindergarten.
Although we now have the ability to identify children who are at-risk for
reading failure, and we now understand some of the instructional conditions
that must be considered for teaching, the majority of reading disabilities
are not identified until the third grade.
Early Identification and Treatment The best predictor in K or 1st grade of a future reading disability
in grade 3 is a combination of performance on measures of phonemic awareness,
rapid naming of letters, numbers, and objects, and print awareness. Phonemic
awareness is the ability to segment words and syllables into constituent
sound units, or phonemes. Converging evidence from all the research centers
show that deficits in phonemic awareness reflect the core deficit in reading
disabilities. These deficits are characterized by difficulties in segmenting
syllables and words into constituent sound units called phonemes-in short,
there is a difficulty in turning spelling into sounds.
Lack of phonemic awareness seems to be a major obstacle for learning
to read (Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987a; Wagner & Torgeson, 1987).
This is true for any language, even Chinese. About 2 in 5 children have
some level of difficulty with phonemic awareness. For about 1 in 5 children
phonemic awareness does not develop or improve over time. These children
never catch up but fall further and further behind in reading and in all
academic subjects (Fletcher, et al., 1994; Shaywitz, Escobar, Shaywitz,
Fletcher, & Makuch, 1992; Stanovich, 1986; Stanovich & Siegel,
Instruction using the following types of phonemic awareness tasks has
had a positive effect on reading acquisition and spelling for nonreaders:
rhyming, auditorily discriminating sounds that are different, blending
spoken sounds into words, word-to-word matching, isolating sounds in words,
counting phonemes, segmenting spoken words into sounds, deleting sounds
from words (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1990;
Cunningham, 1990; Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, & Fletcher,
in press; Lie, 1991; Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Vellutino &
Scanlon, 1987b; Yopp, 1988).
Explicit instruction in how segmentation and blending are involved in
the reading process was superior to instruction that did not explicitly
teach the children to apply phonemic awareness to reading (Cunningham,
1990). Kindergarten children with explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
did better than a group of first graders who had no instruction, indicating
that this crucial preskill for reading can be taught at least by age 5
and is not developmental (Cunningham, 1990).
In a study by Ball and Blachman (1991), 7 weeks of explicit instruction
in phonemic awareness combined with explicit instruction in sound-spelling
correspondences for kindergarten children was more powerful than instruction
in sound-spelling correspondences alone and more powerful than language
activities in improving reading skills.
In a study by Foorman, Francis, Beerly, Winikates, & Fletcher (in
press), 260 children were randomly assigned to a revised kindergarten curriculum
(n=80) and a standard curriculum (n=160) consisting of developmentally
appropriate practices described by the state of Texas' essential elements
for kindergarten. The revised curriculum sought to prevent reading disabilities
by teaching phonemic awareness for 15 minutes a day using the Lundberg,
Frost, and Petersen (1988) curriculum from Sweden and Denmark. Children
in the revised curriculum made significant gains in phonemic awareness
over the year. Foorman et al. found that the greatest gains occurred when
the explicit instruction moved into teaching the sound-spelling relationships
concurrently with the instruction in phonemic awareness.
Explicit, Systematic Instruction in Sound-spelling Correspondences Phonemic awareness alone is not sufficient for many children. Explicit,
systematic instruction in common sound-spelling correspondences is also
necessary (Adams, 1988; Ball & Blachman, 1991; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley,
1990; Foorman et al., in press; Mann, 1993; Rack, Snowling, & Olson,
1992; Snowling, 1991; Spector, 1995; Stanovich, 1986; Torgesen et al.,
in press; Vellutino, 1991; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987a). Foorman, Francis,
Novy, & Liberman (1991) found that more intensive instruction in sound-spelling
relationships during reading (45 minutes per day) was more effective than
less daily instruction in sound-spelling relationships (sound-spelling
instruction occurring only during spelling and not during reading).
Instruction in specific sound-spelling relationships was more effective
than a strategy for using analogous word parts on transfer to new words
and on standardized reading measures (Lovett, Borden, DeLuca, Lacerenza,
Benson, & Brackstone, 1994). Torgesen et al. (in press) also found
that explicitly teaching the sound-spelling relationships was superior
to teaching explicitly using word families and word analogies and superior
to an implicit approach.
Foorman, Francis, Beerly, Winikates, and Fletcher (in press) found that
explicit, systematic instruction in sound-spelling relationships in the
classroom was more effective in reducing reading disabilities than a print-rich
environment characterized by interesting stories, even with children who
had benefited from phonemic awareness instruction in kindergarten.
"[Explicit, systematic instruction in sound-spelling relationships]
brought economically disadvantaged, low-achieving first and second graders
close to the national average in reading on the Woodcock-Johnson-R, whereas
whole language instruction placed these [Title] 1 students near the 25th
percentile. Children scoring below the 25th percentile are often identified
as reading disabled under traditional diagnostic criteria. These results
suggest that [explicit, systematic instruction] in sound-spelling patterns
in first and second grade classrooms can prevent reading difficulties in
a population of children at-risk of reading failure." (Foorman et al.,
Figure 1 graphically displays the effects on reading comprehension for
the three treatments Foorman et al. compared. The whole language treatment offered children a print-rich environment
with interesting stories. The embedded phonics treatment included a more
structured approach to phonics in a print-rich environment. The systematic,
explicit phonic approach included phonemic awareness instruction, explicit
instruction in sound-spelling relationships, and extensive practice in
decodable text. Details of the explicit, systematic approach are described
in the next section.
Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, and Fletcher,
Foorman et al. (in press) also found that changing instruction
from whole language to explicit, systematic phonics at the classroom level
was more effective in reducing the occurrence of reading problems than
any of three types of one-on-one tutorial programs that were evaluated.
Foorman and her colleagues concluded that in order to avoid reading failure,
the focus should be on prevention, not intervention.
"It was the classroom curriculum effect, not the tutorial
method effect that was significant. The tutorial effect was not particularly
strong, given the weak association between growth in word reading and number
of days in tutorial. But at least the tutorial may have kept children from
falling further behind in reading. These curriculum effects have important
implications for urban school districts with large numbers of students
at risk for reading failure. The morbidity of reading failure and subsequent
placement in special education can possibly be reduced with explicit, systematic
phonics in the alphabetic code during first grade." (p. 16)
Prediction From Context is not a Useful Strategy for Word Recognition Research quite clearly shows that overemphasizing prediction from context
for word recognition can be counterproductive, possibly delaying reading
acquisition. Stanovich and Stanovich (1995) recently summarized the research
findings regarding the predictability of authentic text:
"An emphasis on the role of contextual guessing actually
represents a classic case of mistaken analogy in science and has been recognized
as such for over a decade....It is often incorrectly assumed that predicting
upcoming words in sentences is a relatively easy and highly accurate activity.
Actually, many different empirical studies have indicated that naturalistic
text is not that predictable. Alford (1980) found that for a set of moderately
long expository passages of text, subjects needed an average of more than
four guesses to correctly anticipate upcoming words in the passage (the
method of scoring actually makes this a considerable underestimate). Across
a variety of subject populations and texts, a reader's probability of predicting
the next word in a passage is usually between .20 and .35 (Aborn, Rubenstein,
& Sterling, 1959; Gough, 1983; Miller & Coleman, 1967; Perfetti,
Goldman, & Hogaboam, 1979; Rubenstein & Aborn, 1958). Indeed, as
Gough (1983) has shown, the figure is highest for function words, and is
often quite low for the very words in the passage that carry the most information
content." (p. 90)
Stanovich and Stanovich (1995) also summarize the findings regarding the
role of context in reading acquisition. Of the three cueing systems frequently
mentioned in reading (semantic, syntactic, and graphophonemic cues), the
semantic and syntactic cueing systems seem to play a minor role. Recent
eye movement research indicates that good readers do not sample the text
and predict to recognize words efficiently, but rather see every single
letter on the page.
"The key error of the whole language movement is the assumption
that contextual dependency is always associated with good reading. In fact,
the word recognition skills of the good reader are so rapid, automatic,
and efficient that the skilled reader need not rely on contextual information.
In fact, it is poor readers who guess from context-out of necessity because
their decoding skillls are so weak." (p. 92)
In the NICHD intervention studies (Foorman et al., in press; Torgesen et
al., in press) teaching children to use context and prediction as strategies
for word recognition resulted in greater numbers of reading disabilities
than instruction that taught children to use their sound-spelling knowledge
as the primary strategy for word recognition.
Major Implications for Early
Below are the key principles of effective reading instruction identified
in the research along with concrete examples of what these principles mean.
These examples are taken directly from the research studies. The research
findings indicate that to prevent reading problems classroom teachers should
do the following:
1. Begin teaching phonemic awareness directly at an early age (kindergarten). Children who are able to recognize individual sounds in words are phonemically
aware. Phonemic awareness can be taught with listening and oral reproduction
tasks similar to those listed below. When concurrent instruction in sound-spelling
relationships occurs, growth in the development of phonemic awareness seems
to accelerate. Teachers should initiate instruction in phonemic awareness
before beginning instruction in sound-spelling relationships and continue
phonemic awareness activities while teaching the sound-spelling relationships.
Examples of phonemic awareness tasks
Phoneme deletion: What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away
Word to word matching: Do pen and pipe begin with the same
Blending: What word would we have if you put these sounds together: /s/,
Sound isolation: What is the first sound in rose?
Phoneme segmentation: What sounds do you hear in the word hot?
Phoneme counting: How many sounds do you hear in the word cake?
Deleting phonemes: What sound do you hear in meat that is missing in eat?
Odd word out: What word starts with a different sound: bag, nine, beach,
Sound to word matching: Is there a /k/ in bike?
There is little correlation between developmental stages and phonemic
awareness. Every school child is ready for some phonemic instruction. In
fact, if the children who fall behind do not begin receiving explicit teacher-initiated
they are very likely to continue falling further and further behind. Phonemic
awareness and other important reading skills are learned and do not develop
naturally. The earliest direct interventions have been initiated in kindergarten
with very positive results. How preschoolers respond to instruction is
a question currently under investigation.
2. Teach each sound-spelling correspondence explicitly. Not all phonic instructional methods are equally effective.
Telling the children explicitly what single sound a given letter or
letter combination makes is more effective in preventing reading problems
than encouraging the child to figure out the sounds for the letters by
Many children have difficulty figuring out the individual sound-spelling
correspondences if they hear them only in the context of words and word
parts. Phonemes must be separated from words for instruction.
Explicit instruction means that a phoneme is isolated for the children.
For example, the teacher shows the children the letter m and says, "This
letter says /mmm/." In this way a new phoneme is introduced. A new phoneme
and other phonemes the children have learned should be briefly practiced
each day, not in the context of words, but in isolation. These practice
sessions need only be about 5 minutes long. The rest of the lesson involves
using these same phonemes in the context of words and stories that are
composed of only the letter-phoneme relationships the children know at
3. Teach frequent, highly regular sound-spelling relationships
systematically. Only a few sound-spelling relationships are necessary to read. The
most effective instructional programs teach children to read successfully
with only 40 to 50 sound-spelling relationships. (Writing can require a
few more, about 70 sound-spelling relationships.) The chart below is not
taken from any particular program but represents the 48 most regular letter-phoneme
relationships. (The given sounds for each of the letters and letter groups
are either the most frequent sound or occur at least 75% of the time.)
The 48 most regular sound-letter relationships
as in fat
as in goat
as in use
as in sit
as in cat
"woo" as in well
as in cake
as in pipe
"yee" as in yuk
as in pole
as in chip
as in cloud
as in know
To teach systematically means to coordinate the introduction of the
sound-spellings with the material the children are asked to read. The words
and stories the children read are composed of only the sound-spelling relationships
the children have learned, so all the children must be taught using the
same sequence. The order of the introduction of sound-spelling relationships
should be planned to allow reading material composed of meaningful words
and stories as soon as possible. For example, if the first three sound-spelling
relationships the children learn are a, b, c, the only real word the children
could read would be cab. However, if the first three sound-spelling relationships
were m,a,s, the children could read am, Sam, mass, ma'am.
4. Show children exactly how to sound out words. After children have learned two or three sound-spelling correspondences,
begin teaching them how to blend the sounds into words. Show them how to
move sequentially from left to right through spellings as they "sound out,"
or say the sound for each spelling. Practice blending words composed of
only the sound-spelling relationships the children have learned every day.
5. Use connected, decodable text for children to practice the sound-spelling
relationships they learn. The findings of the NICHD research emphasize that children need extensive
practice applying their knowledge of sound-spelling relationships to the
task of reading as they are learning them. This integration of phonics
and reading can only occur with the use of decodable text. Decodable text
is composed of words that use the sound-spelling correspondences the children
have learned to that point and a limited number of sight words that have
been systematically taught. As the children learn more sound-spelling correspondences,
the texts become more sophisticated in meaning, but initially they are
very limited. Only decodable text provides children the opportunity to
practice their new knowledge of sound-letter relationships in the context
of connected reading.
Texts that are less decodable do not allow the integration of the phonological
knowledge the children gain with actual reading. For example, the first
sentence children read in a meaning-based program that added an unintegrated
phonic component was: "The dog is up." The sound-letter relationships the
children had learned up to this point were: d, m, s, r, and t. This is
how much of the sentence the children could read by applying what they
had learned in the phonic component: "--- d-- -- --. In this case, it is
impossible for the children to use their phonics knowledge to read.
Here is a different example: "Sam sees a big fist."
The sounds the children have learned to this point are: a, s, m, b,
t, ee, f, g, and i. This is how much of the sentence the children can read
using the sound-spelling relationships they have learned: "Sam sees a big
This sentence is 100% decodable.
Here the children can apply the sound-spelling relationships they have
learned to their reading of this sentence, so the phonics component is
integrated into the child's real reading.
Only decodable text provides children a context for using their new
knowledge of sound-spelling relationships in the context of real reading.
Text that is less decodable requires the children to use prediction
or context to figure out words. Much research has evaluated the effectiveness
of prediction as a strategy for word recognition. Though prediction is
valuable in comprehension for predicting the next event or predicting
an outcome, the research indicates that it is not useful in word
recognition. The following passage is a sample of authentic text (from
Jack London). The parts of the text that are omitted are the parts that
a child was unable to decode accurately. The child was able to decode approximately
80% of the text. If prediction is a useful strategy, a good reader should
be able to read this easily with understanding:
He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c___ f___t, and
his first ex_______ t_____t him an unf______able l____n. It is true, it
was a vi____ ex_______, else he would not have lived to pr_____it by it.
Curly was the v_______. They were camped near the log store, where she,
in her friend__ way, made ad______ to a husky dog the size of a full-______
wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w____ing, only a leap
in like a flash, a met____ clip of teeth, a leap out equal__ swift, and
Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.
It was the wolf manner of fight___, to st___ and leap away; but there
was more to it than this. Th__ or forty huskies ran _o the spot and not
com_____d that s_____t circle. But did not com_____d that s______t in_______,
not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed
her ant________, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush
with his chest, in a p_______ fash___ that tum__ed her off her feet. She
never re_____ed them. This was __at the on_______ing huskies had w______
The use of predictable text, rather than this authentic text, might allow
children to use prediction to figure out a passage. However, this strategy
would not transfer to real reading, as the above passage demonstrates.
Predictable text gives children false success. While this false success
may be motivating for many children, ultimately they will not be successful
readers if they rely on text predictability to read.
6. The use of interesting stories to develop language comprehension. The use of interesting authentic stories to develop language comprehension
is not ruled out by this research. Only the use of these stories as reading
material for nonreaders is ruled out. Any controlled connected text, whether
it is controlled for decodability or for vocabulary, will not be able to
provide entire coherent stories in the early stages of reading acquisition.
During this early stage of reading acquisition, the children can still
benefit from stories that the teacher reads to them. These teacher-read
stories can play an important role in building the children's oral language
comprehension, which ultimately affects their reading comprehension. These
story-based activities should be structured to build comprehension skills,
not decoding skills.
7. Balance, but don't mix.
The use of interesting authentic stories to develop language comprehension
is not ruled out by this research . . . using real stories to develop comprehension
should be balanced with decoding instruction . . . In other words, comprehension
and decoding instruction should be balanced.
The sixth feature, using real stories to develop comprehension, should
be balanced with the decoding instruction described in the first five features.
The comprehension instruction and the decoding instruction are separate
from each other while children are learning to decode, but both types of
instructional activities should occur. In other words, comprehension and
decoding instruction should be balanced. A common misconception regarding
the balance that is called for by the research is that the teacher should
teach sound-spelling relationships in the context of real stories. This
mixture of decoding and comprehension instruction in the same instructional
activity is clearly less effective, even when the decoding instruction
is fairly structured. The inferiority of instructional activities with
mixed goals (embedded phonics)had been demonstrated in several studies
(Foorman et al., in press; Foorman, Francis, Novy, & Liberman, 1991;
Torgesen et al., in press).
During the early stages of reading acquisition, children's oral language
comprehension level is much higher than their reading comprehension level.
The text material used to build children's comprehension should be geared
to their oral language comprehension level. The material used to build
their decoding should be geared to their decoding skills, with attention
to meaning. Though decodable text can be meaningful and engaging, it will
not build children's comprehension skills nor teach them new vocabulary
to the extent that might be needed. Comprehension strategies and new vocabulary
should be taught using orally presented stories and texts that are more
sophisticated than the early decodable text the children read. The teacher
should read this text to the children and discuss the meaning with them.
After the children become fluent decoders, they can apply these comprehension
strategies to their own reading.
Other Important Research Questions
The scope of the NICHD research program is much broader than identifying
effective methods for treating reading difficulties. Some of these research
questions and the findings are briefly described below.
Research Question: Are there medical reasons to explain why
20 to 40% of the population do not naturally develop phonemic awareness?
Finding: Yes, sophisticated modern brain research using neuroimaging
and other technologies show a unique brain signature for many, but not
all, children without phonemic awareness. This neuroimaging research is
being conducted at several NICHD sites, thus providing the opportunity
Research Question: Are reading disabilities inherited?
Finding: Twin studies have found strong evidence for genetic
etiology of reading disability, with deficits in phonemic awareness reflecting
the greatest degree of heritability. There is also behavioral genetic evidence
for degrees of heritability for letter processing.
Research Question: How does ADD relate to learning disabilities?
Finding: Disorders of attention and reading disabilities often
coexist, but the two disorders appear distinct and separable with respect
to the effects of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) on cognitive tasks.
For example, it has been found that ADD children perform poorly on rote
verbal learning and memory tasks, but relatively well on naming and phonemic
awareness tasks. The converse appears to be the case for children with
Research Question: Are more boys than girls reading disabled?
Finding: Despite the widely held belief that boys are more likely
to have reading disabilities than girls, research has shown that as many
girls as boys have difficulties learning to read. More boys are identified
by teachers in school because of their tendency to be more rowdy and active
The NICHD research program has made a great deal of progress in the
investigation of reading disabilities. These findings are potentially of
great benefit to most children. However, the work is not done and not all
the issues are resolved. There are still some children remaining with reading
problems in the most successful interventions described above. Future research
will investigate effective treatments for teaching children who have no
knowledge of English to read English. The on-going longitudinal intervention
studies sponsored by the NICHD will be bringing important new knowledge
to the field in the continuing effort to make every child a reader at an
The NICHD Research Sites
University of Colorado
University of Denver, University
of California, Irvine,
Bowman-Gray School of Medicine,
Bennett and Sally Shaywitz
Keith Stanovich's team at the
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Miami
Beth Israel Hospital / Harvard
University of Houston
University of Washington, Seattle
Harvard University / The Children's
Johns Hopkins University
Vellutino and Scanlon's team at
the State University of New York
Florida State University
University of Houston
Georgia State University
Maureen Lovett's team at the University
of Toronto; Maryanne Wolfe's at Tufts University in Boston
Within this context, scientists from NICHD and other scientists as well
as leaders from the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Orton
Dyslexia Society Research Committee collaborated to develop an improved
definition of disabilities in basic reading skills based on the most recent
research in the field. Characterizing the definition as a "working" definition
reflects the need to alter the definition in light of continuing advances
in research and clinical knowledge. The working definition is as follows:
Dyslexia is one of several distinct learning disabilities.
It is a specific language-based disorder of constitutional origin characterized
by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient
phonological processing. These difficulties in single word decoding are
often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities;
they are not the result of generalized developmental disability or sensory
impairment. Dyslexia is manifest by variable difficulty with different
forms of language, often including, in addition to problems with reading,
a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling
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