Friday, November 22, 2019

There are numerous foundational skills for reading—and teaching them well is essential, says Nell Duke


Every two years, results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—also known as The Nation’s Report Card—are released. The report card is based on NAEP’s test of math and reading skills for students in grades 4, 8, and 12. This year’s results show that 4th–8th grade proficiency is declining, as only about a third of students in grades 4 and 8 were found to be reading at a proficient level.

SOE professor Nell Duke and colleagues Liana Loewus (Education Week), Emily Hanford (education correspondent for American Public Media), and Kelly Butler (Barksdale Reading Institute) were interviewed on National Public Radio’s On Point program to comment on these recently announced results.

NPR host Meghna Chakrabarti asked the experts about the possible reasons for low proficiency scores, and they acknowledged that NAEP’s results are similar to scores from other national reading tests, demonstrating that the country’s young students indeed struggle with literacy, just as some educators struggle with teaching it.

Learning to read, mentioned Chakrabarti, is not a process that people learn naturally—in the same way that we learn to talk. She said that most reading challenges stem from this and from the fact that reading comprehension requires both decoding (the ability to recognize words in print) and language comprehension (which is limited by the extent of one’s vocabulary). Young students who are new to school know the meaning of many words, but they are most challenged by the decoding aspect, or the reading of these words, added Emily Hanford. “There are pieces that need to be put together that lead to skilled reading.”

When asked what effective reading instruction ought to look like, Duke replied that foundational skills, including phonological awareness and phonics, do need to be a focus. She said that experts recommend spending 30 to 60 minutes of a school day on phonics. She maintained that teachers should also spend significant time developing students’ academic vocabulary and content knowledge in areas like science and social studies. “We know from scientific research that those also have a big impact on literacy levels and reading achievement,” she said.

“We also need to teach kids about texts,” she added. “There’s quite a bit of scientific research that if you teach children how text is structured, for example, that sometimes it compares and contrasts a topic, or sometimes it presents a problem and then a solution, [then] it raises reading comprehension achievement as well. So, I’m just giving you a sense of the many different things that need to happen over the course of a school day, in order to develop strong readers and writers.”

Reading education is most effective when teachers are working with research-backed content as well as utilizing scientifically-aligned professional development practices, Duke emphasized.

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