Research shows what's working

But results often fail to get into classrooms

May 16, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- "Read to your children."

Educators have been imploring parents to follow this advice for years. But ask some educators why the advice is important, and you may get a response no more profound than this: "Well because it's good for them."

Vaguely articulated benefits don't necessarily motivate parents to dart to the bookshelf. The fact that too many parents and teachers don't fully understand how such activities as reading aloud help encourage literacy is beginning to alarm some scholars.

At the National Summit on Research in Learning Disabilities in Washington this month, scholars and literacy advocates said that, for a long time, much of the research has been too convoluted or complex for the average person to digest. So even those teachers and parents who have heard about new studies often choose to ignore them, favoring archaic or unproven techniques.

"When a teacher shuts the door, they're going to do whatever the heck they want to do unless you have impacted them in some way," said Phyllis Hunter, reading manager in the Houston Independent School District. "We know how to teach kids to read. We have the research. We just have to do it. We just have to make sure it happens in the classroom."

Phonemic awareness, the researchers say, is a perfect example of a technique that is easy to teach and measure and critical to early reading skills. This is the idea that a word, like "cat," can be separated into three distinct sounds, "Ccc," "Aaa" and "Ttt." Presenters said that if teachers and parents understood the technique's vital role, more schools would stress its importance and more parents might read to their children at earlier ages.

Joseph K. Torgesen, distinguished research professor of psychology and education at Florida State University, worked to promote phonemic awareness and other skills in pupils at an elementary school in Tallahassee. From 1995 to 1998, he reported, the number of pupils with difficulty in word reading ability dropped from 32 percent to 5 percent.

Torgesen's study was spotlighted during the two-day summit as an example of how research-based techniques used traditionally with reading-disabled pupils can be just as effective in teaching reading skills to general education pupils.

The conference's purpose was twofold: to present recent findings in clear and synthesized fashion, and to launch an awareness campaign to capture the attention of school administrators and teachers. (Some of the scientists described occasions they visited school systems and were heckled by teachers who did not want any complicated education research to infiltrate their classrooms).

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reported that of children who are reading-disabled in the third grade, 74 percent remain disabled through the end of high school. Presenters stressed that early intervention -- as early as kindergarten and first grade -- is critical for pupils with reading problems, and that many school districts spend more on intervention programs in later grades than for those earliest years.

"You do not need elaborate diagnostic techniques to determine that a child is not learning to read in the first grade," said Thomas Hehir, the U.S. Department of Education's director of special education programs. Yet in many schools, he said, children "have to do real bad in school for two or three years before we do anything."

Many schools, it appears, also misdiagnose disabilities. NICHD research showed, for example, that four times as many boys as girls are identified by public schools as reading-disabled, even though gender is not a factor in reading difficulty.

Studies by the Department of Education found that reading comprehension and oral reading skills can be improved when pupils tutor their peers, even if the tutors are reading-disabled.

Also, children both with and without reading disabilities learn most effectively in small groups of three or four that are led by a teacher, even more effectively than in groups of five to seven. "We need to regard failure to learn to read in kindergarten and first grade as a serious event," Hehir said.

Information: National Center for Learning Disabilities, 888-575-7373, or

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