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Reading The Right Way

New research looks at the way reading instruction is done in schools

Each school year there is new debate about how best to teach reading, and this year there are at least two new studies on the topic along with a detailed article about what the author says is mounting evidence suggesting that popular techniques are flawed.

Some of the research is about large print books. It comes from a study by Project Tomorrow that consistently shows that students who read from them change their mindsets about reading. Their teachers also felt they developed better reading habits and found struggling readers were more likely to succeed with large print books.

“Teachers attribute the use of the large print text to helping students develop stronger reading skills,” says Jennifer Shafer, MLS, a literacy expert at Thorndike Press, which sponsored the study with Project Tomorrow. She is also a former school librarian and literacy specialist.

“Seventy-five percent of teachers said that their students reading below grade level and at grade level demonstrated evidence of increased reading comprehension and better retention with the large print books,” Shafer says.

She notes that 67 percent of the teachers said large print text also reduced stress and anxiety in reading with all their students.

The report notes that the latest results from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing showed about two-thirds of 4th and 8th grade students are reading at a basic or below basic level and large print might be one solution.

“According to students and teachers, the use of large print books within classroom reading activities resulted in improved reading skills and behaviors and a new mindset around students’ self-efficacy for reading success,” the report notes. “These findings establish a solid foundation for understanding the emerging role of large print books in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.”

Another paper due out this month reports that English language arts and specifically reading are critical to a person’s happiness and involvement in their community.

“Productive citizenship and quality of life are both threatened when any student graduates from high school with low levels of literacy,” says Alice Wiggins, senior director for English Language Arts at UnboundEd and one of the authors of the study.

Higgins says that such instruction must be involve a “standards-aligned curriculum that facilitates rigorous, grade-level reading, thinking, and instruction and that includes supports that allow students to successfully persist in the work of the aligned-curriculum”.

“It should also include targeted intervention that is closely aligned with the core content so that intervention facilitates ever-increasing access to the grade-level content while attending to students’ previously unmet needs.”

The article that is critical of teaching methods for reading comes from American Public Media, and suggests that common techniques are perhaps harming more than helping.

“For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don't know there's anything wrong with it,” the detailed review of reading instruction methods says.

It notes that often reading is taught to encourage students to make “predictions” using cues about what the letters in the word suggest, the way they are used (is it a noun or a verb) and the context the word is in. The techniques are sometimes called “three cueing” or “MSV”, an acronym for “meaning”, “sentence” and “visual”. They also became known as “whole language” or reading recovery”.

“As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by – memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don't know – are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school,” the report says. “This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don't get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.”

But the article suggests that sounding out words and learning their meaning may be more effective.

“American education's own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it,” it concludes.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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